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My newest article at Patheos on Mandalas (Part 1 of 2):

(photo of rose window at Notre Dame © Kayce Hughlett)

Mandala is the Sanskrit word for circle and the great psychologist Carl Jung called it an “archetype of wholeness.” Archetypes are those basic patterns and symbols which repeat across cultures and traditions, emerging from a collective unconscious or shared well of images.  Jung saw mandalas as expressions of the deep self’s longing for integration and a visual map toward our own spiritual centers.  He would spend time each morning creating mandalas in response to his dreams and advised his patients to do the same.

The circle is a universal symbol appearing in nature – think of the shape of the planets, moon, and sun.  It is also found across religions – think of the ancient stone circles found across Ireland or the intricate sand mandalas Tibetan Buddhist monks create.   We find it in the Catholic tradition as well.  Consider the communion wafers we partake of each week or the wedding bands which symbolize the eternal nature of that sacramental commitment as elemental expressions of the mandala form.

In churches we often find one of the more stunning displays of mandalas: the rose window.  The first rose window was created about the year 1200 originating in France and then spreading throughout European churches.  Considered part of French Gothic architecture, they are fairly characteristic of medieval churches.

The rose window functions on several different levels at once. Think about a time when you were inside a church and sunlight spilled through a stained glass window casting colored beams across the sacred space.  This interaction between light, glass, and color sparks something transcendent within us. Our hearts feel lifted in their longings for the holy. 

In rose windows, typically Christ or the Virgin Mary appears in the central rosette as the center point as an expression of our desire for and movement toward holiness.  In the petals surrounding the center may be images from the liturgical cycles and seasons of the year, the Saints and Apostles, the virtues, or sometimes the Zodiac.  These petals act as paths guiding our eyes always back to the center. It is meant to be a symbol of our own spiritual journey and how to return back to that which is most important to us.

Domed ceilings in churches are another architectural expression of this sacred form, usually having a window up to the sky in the center, allowing the light to radiate out.  Monasteries were often built around central cloisters.  These were usually square in shape because of the building wall structure, but at the center was often found a lush garden or sometimes a fountain as an expression God’s abundance and dwelling place at the center of monastic life. 

Labyrinths are sacred circle forms being rediscovered today with the most famous one at Chartres Cathedral in France. They contain a circuitous path which eventually leads to the center and are symbolic of the soul’s journey to the divine center within.  In the middle ages, labyrinths were used as metaphorical pilgrimages for those who could not journey to the holy city of Jerusalem.  Walking a labyrinth is a profoundly meditative experience, in part because the circular journey helps to integrate both sides of the brain in prayer and so frees the mind from a strictly linear way of approaching God.

Rosaries are also examples of the sacred circle as a form to support prayer. The word “rosary” comes from the Latin for “garland of roses.”  In Catholicism the rose symbolizes the Virgin Mary and the layers of petals draw our awareness toward the center.  Praying the rosary is a kinesthetic experience of holding each of the round beads between our fingers and repeating our prayers as our hands also move around the circle, offering us an experience of wholeness through both word and body.

Mandalas or sacred circles offer us a template for the interior journey to the heart of ourselves where we encounter the heart of God present as well.

Suggestions for Prayer:

Find an image of a rose window and spend some time in meditation with it. Take some time to connect with your breathing and then gaze upon the image as a tool for centering.

Pray the rosary holding the sacred circle in your awareness as you move through the beads.

Find a labyrinth near you (use the Worldwide Labyrinth Locator) and take a meditative walk to its center and back out again.  Notice how you feel as you enter and as you depart its sacred space.

© Christine Valters Paintner at Abbey of the Arts:
Transformative Living through Contemplative & Expressive Arts

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3 Responses

  1. This is a great article. I look forward to Part II. The picture is lovely as well:) I like Jung’s idea regarding the Mandala depicting one’s dreams…..this week I awakened or near awakened in the night and was coming up with idea after idea of poetry, thinking where’s that notebook when I need it!! Those dreamy words were lost to the night but the “recalling” I’ve been doing for myself lately may just bring them back again. I’m attending my favorite Episcopal Church Camp in the month of August, just for a weekend, but I’ll be walking the little weedy, brick, stone labryinth there – I always look forward to walking it and also to kind of “repairing” it for others who make walk after I do.

  2. I remember a lecture in an art history class, where the professor took a piece of chalk, drew a vague rectangle at the bottom and then an arc above it. And he said, WHAT IS IT? Someone said a DOME! No, he said, what else could it be? When no one answered, he replied, it’s you in a crib (the rectangle) with your mothering bending over you (the arc above). It’s in your subconscious, he said, from infancy! I absolutely did not doubt it.

  3. loved this article. I am fascinated about mandalas and the symbolism of the circle and I’m currently studying it more in order to put together some workshops. the things I’ve been discovering have also helped me in my own artwork. simply fascinating.