UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds

Spirit Story

Message in a labyrinth

By Alison Brooks-Starks

When God closed a door, God opened a window. Then my glasses were knocked out that same window and smashed by a passing car.

I had placed them on the sill so I could massage my temples during a frustrating conversation with my travel agent. My trip to Zimbabwe had fallen through. My sister suggested I remain in England for a music festival. Dad said I could always book an earlier flight home to Canada. I didn’t tell them I was praying about my travel plans — I rarely discussed my spirituality. As it turned out, my prayers led me to a labyrinth in France.

Walking labyrinths is a spiritual practice I use to centre myself. I have had life-changing experiences while praying in labyrinths. Surely this walking meditation at the famous Notre-Dame de Chartres cathedral would be more meaningful than all my other walks.
Chartres has the only surviving medieval labyrinth — it is the pilgrimage for labyrinth fans.

Being a modern-day pilgrim, I went online to find accommodation on the website www.couchsurfing.org. Hosts provide a bed for travellers and get to know their guests. My fingers paused over the keys as I thought about what to say in my requests to potential hosts. I felt hesitant about revealing I was a labyrinth enthusiast. But I couldn’t very well say, “I love the bar scene,” like other 25-year-olds might, and then arrive and hang out at the cathedral all day. Plus, why should I worry? My hosts didn’t hold back their true selves in their profiles. This was confirmed on my very first stop with Edward, a shirtless fitness instructor whose daughter was taking ninja lessons. I also stayed with Silke, an atheist cathedral guide, and with a couple who were totally Christian and totally gay.

Once in Chartres, about 80 kilometres southwest of Paris, I stayed with Jasmine, a language teacher and practising Buddhist. Standing on the cobblestone outside the 760-year-old cathedral, I looked up at the mismatched spires with awe and excitement. Inside, I stashed my notebook and shoes under a chair and stepped up to the entrance of the labyrinth. The stone was worn smooth from the river of thousands of feet walking before me.

Or was it the thousands of people in front of me? As I began my walk to the centre of the labyrinth, all the other tourists were cramping my style. I had somehow imagined having the cathedral to myself. Just me, God and, of course, my coming profound revelation — where was that revelation? As I walked, I began to feel the calm sense of gratitude I often experience in labyrinths. This was nice, but I sort of expected more from my Chartres meditation.

As I walked, it came to me: the tourists weren’t a distraction — they were my message. The kid sprinting the labyrinth; the young woman giggling every time the path made an abrupt turn; others walking with solemn sincerity or with smiles. A theme rose up in my mind: authenticity. Perhaps this message surfaced because couch hopping showed me the freedom that comes from honesty. My hosts’ openness made me feel comfortable expressing my interest in labyrinths and my spiritual life. I left the labyrinth determined to be as open at home as I was in France.

An article about the Chartres cathedral suggests that the labyrinth “symbolizes the inner pilgrimage we make to the centre of our Being . . . the kingdom of God within us.” The times when I’ve been most honest and vulnerable with those around me have also been the moments when I’ve felt most connected to God. I saw God in all of my hosts because they were being true to themselves. God in Edward had pet snakes. God in Jasmine loved her neighbourhood bookshop. God in Silke fed stray cats in her backyard. And God in all of them welcomed the stranger home.

Alison Brooks-Starks is a teacher and youth care worker in Edmonton. 

Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!
Promotional Image


David Wilson%


by David Wilson

If statues could talk

Promotional Image


ObserverDocs: Stolen Mother

by Observer Staff

The daughter and adoptive mother of one of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women share their story

Promotional Image


July 2017

From far and wide

by Various Writers

Meet 11 immigrants who are putting down new roots


June 2017

A suitcase for Cuba

by Christopher Levan

You’ll find more than giveaway toiletries and hand-me-downs in the writer's luggage. Each carefully chosen gift offers a glimpse into the lives of Cubans today.


June 2017


by Kristy Woudstra

Up to half a million people are living in Canada without official status. The ‘sanctuary city’ movement is growing, but the fear of deportation persists.


June 2017

Resisting genocide

by Sally Armstrong

In August 2014, ISIS attacked Iraq’s Yazidis, slaughtering thousands and forcing women and girls into sexual slavery. Today, the survivors are fighting for their ancient way of life.


April 2017

Dear Grandkids

by Various Writers

Six acclaimed Canadian authors write letters from the heart


March 2017

Called to resist

by Paul Wilson

Liberal Christians in the United States test their faith against a demagogue

Promotional Image