Walking a labyrinth changes people. It has a transforming effect. People can and do have very powerful experiences and encounters with God. Having done labyrinths for a few years now, the comments that have been written in the visitors' books suggest stories of people meeting Christ for the first time, being healed, discovering something important about themselves, slowing down, letting go of hurt, being forgiven, gaining some perspective on life, discovering that God loves and accepts them. It is a mystery why the labyrinth is such a powerful tool for transformation, but it does work. It always takes us by surprise just how profound the experience can be for people. (Of course there are also those for whom it makes no impression or change whatsoever).
Most alternative worship services incorporate some sort of ritual or symbolic act. Often, having explored a particular theme, it is a ritual that really seals what has taken place and draws a service together. God seems to meet us in a special way in ritual. It opens up a window in the soul and the community through which the breeze of the Spirit can blow. It moves worship from the head to the heart. A lot of youth worship has discovered the same thing. In the culture generally there is a resurgence of interest in ritual, even a hunger for it. Walking a labyrinth is a ritual that directly appeals to this hunger.
In the centuries since the Reformation, especially in the Protestant tradition, we have developed an intellectualised form of religion which crams the brain while leaving the body slumped in the pew. But ritual challenges the pew potato in all of us, and demands that we get involved. It reminds us that we have bodies created by God, and that we need to put the whole of ourselves into worship. Worship goes from being something done for us to being something we do for ourselves - and in doing it for ourselves, we are changed.
It is hard to explain what exactly happens or how people are changed, but good ritual is definitely more than just a symbol of something. In communion for example we don't just symbolise feeding on Christ - in eating the bread and drinking the wine we do feed on him. In the labyrinth, for example, the simple act of dropping a stone in water to let go of pressures and concerns at the 'letting go' station does not merely communicate the need to let go. It produces a person freed from pressure in and through the act itself. Or the act of walking slowly round the labyrinth with God, rather than the usual rushing alone in urban life, doesn't merely communicate the need to slow down, it is generative of a slowed down person aware of God's presence in life. It is in this sense that people are transformed.
Another powerful effect of the labyrinth is that people carry the schemes used in the labyrinth with them back into their lives. This is why the use of popular culture and everyday things is so helpful. For example, in the 'self' station the walker stops to hear some verses affirming their uniqueness from Psalm 139 as they look in a mirror. The next time they look in a mirror, they may well see themselves in a new way. An image as simple as the soundline on the televisions at the 'noise' station, may well linger in the mind and be a way of interpreting what happens back in the real world. People may listen to the CD and meditations back at home to further this experience. While recognising the power of ritual itself, the transforming effects are more than just a constructed experience. The transformation is also affected by the Spirit of God whose presence is real and who comes to us, as always, cloaked in cultural forms. The labyrinth will enable people to open up to God's presence. For this reason it is clearly important to offer the labyrinth to God in prayer and invite God to come and be present, and to pray for those who will be walking the labyrinth. The powerful transforming effect of walking the labyrinth then does no less than produce new persons, enabled to see the world and act in it in a new way.
The accusation could be made (and has been made) that the labyrinth is manipulative. However, for this to be so it assumes that the walkers are easily duped. This is far from the case. The labyrinth actually involves a mix of consent (at least enough consent to walk the labyrinth in the first place) and resistance from participants. There are many ways in which participants can and have resisted aspects of the labyrinth, whether skipping parts, disagreeing with them (and then writing what they don't like in the visitors book), or repeating parts several times. Because of the many ways of interpreting the symbols they are also able to create various levels of meaning relating to their own situations and lives. Ritual doesn't function as an instrument of heavy-handed social control. Ritual symbols and meanings are too indeterminate to lend themselves to any simple process of instilling fixed ideas.
One last aspect of transformation that is worth considering is that as well as transforming individuals, ritual is an effective means of changing the Church itself. The labyrinth is an ancient spiritual practice within the Christian tradition which this version changes in ways that connect with contemporary culture. It is an example of struggling with and reforming tradition to carry it forward faithfully. This may help the Church realise that faith can connect with and needs to connect with contemporary culture. Sometimes there is a tendency in church to treat contemporary culture as an enemy but here it becomes a place where God is happy to dwell.