Chapter 1

The Story That Wouldn’t Die


How’s this for spirituality? We’re in a cathedral, and it’s Easter. Everyone gathers around the labyrinth (yes, the cathedral has one as part of its floor, Figure 1). The bishop follows the altar server to the center of the labyrinth. The server puts the ball in the bishop’s hands. This is the signal: the organ sounds, the choir sings out, and the bishop throws the ball in the air. The dean catches it, takes a step to the rhythm of the music, then passes it on, till all the clergy are dancing around the labyrinth and passing the ball.

A “what if”? A New Agey flight of fancy? A recommendation for clergy stress relief? This is what actually happened at Easter in cathedrals up and down France until the mid-fifteenth century. The cathedral chronicles and rituals laid down how the Easter dance was to be done. Some bishops tried (unsuccessfully) to wriggle out of it. This was not just some medieval eccentricity or a hangover from paganism. It represented some very ancient Christian teachings about the cosmos. These same teachings were embedded in the architecture of the cathedrals themselves, the labyrinths on the floors, the frescoes and stained-glass windows. They structured the music, the seasons and feasts, and much else. Then the teachings got progressively forgotten and lost.