Popularity of prayer labyrinths surging

Posted: Friday, August 03, 2001

MARBLEHEAD, Mass. -- Her steps are slow and deliberate, but Pat Chase has no fear of getting lost on the twisting path in front of her.

The outdoor labyrinth that Chase walks at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church has no dead ends or wrong turns. Inside it, Chase says, she feels free to retreat to thoughts and prayers.

Chase continues on a path to the labyrinth's center, then raises both hands upward, holding them high for several moments before folding them together in prayer. Then she exits swiftly -- energized, she says, and with her concerns behind her.

''It's a place I feel safe,'' says Chase, 50. ''It's a place where I feel renewed.''

Others have similar feelings. The labyrinth is an ancient meditative tool, but today's spiritual seekers are fueling a nationwide revival in its use.

While labyrinths wind twisting and complex paths, they aren't meant to be puzzles. They are generally circular, with a single concentric path that winds toward the center.

The configurations are numerous, from classic designs, to individual plans. They can be indoors or outdoors, portable or permanent, painted on canvas or laid out flat in stone and brick. They rarely have walls or bushes marking the paths because high boundaries could leave a walker feeling isolated.

More than 650 permanent and portable labyrinths in 49 states are found on a nationwide labyrinth list at the Web site for the Episcopalians' Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.

''Labyrinths throughout history have gone in and out of appreciation. They are reappearing now,'' said Robert Ferre of the St. Louis Labyrinth Project. He's built almost 500 labyrinths since the start of the revival six years ago, he said.

Although often found at Episcopal or Catholic parishes, the labyrinth predates Christianity, and its users stress that it's not necessarily religious.

''It's not a dogmatic tool,'' said the Rev. Lauren Artress of Grace Cathedral, author of ''Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool,'' a sort of reference guide for labyrinth users.

''You don't have to believe in God,'' Artress said. ''You don't have to believe in anything.''

The origins of the labyrinth are murky, with little known about why it was developed and what it was used for. The symbol has been found among ancient North American peoples such as the Hopi, and discovered in diverse locations from Finland to India to Spain.

In Greek mythology, Theseus enters the labyrinth in Crete to kill the minotaur.

Twenty-two of 80 cathedrals built during the Middle Ages had a labyrinth, Artress said. Christians who could not make the dangerous pilgrimage to Jerusalem during the Crusades substituted a trip through the labyrinth, with the center representing the holy city.

In many labyrinth designs, the path quickly heads for the center, then veers off to the outer edges of the circle before ending in the middle.

That has powerful symbolism to Christians because the path to God's truth is often as circuitous, said the Rev. Larry Titus of the Congregational Church of West Medford, which has a labyrinth.

Artress said the winding path forces people to stay focused on a physical level, but since there's nothing to figure out, the mind is free to meditate.

''All you do is trust the path,'' she said. ''It allows you to relinquish control.''

Once that happens, a person can think with uncommon clarity, she said.

''It's like teaching a fish to swim,'' she said. ''It's a place of spaciousness inside where we can see the world clear-eyed and not always be reacting to it.''

Sarah Lincoln-Harrison regularly uses and tends the labyrinth at St. Andrew's Church in Marblehead, near Boston. She focuses on feeling the earth with every footfall, and always smells the surrounding lavender and hyssop. The result is a clear head, she said.

''It's a place where I'm very grounded,'' said Lincoln-Harrison, 62. ''It's available as a tool, a tool to be more centered.''

The labyrinth is not magic, Ferre said, adding that he doubts people carrying cell phones through them get much out of it.

But Ferre said labyrinths have resonance today because people are obsessed with themselves and their achievements, and the labyrinth can help them explore bigger things.

''They've lost touch with something greater than themselves,'' he said. ''They now realize that they're missing a big part of themselves, and there must be something more than money, money, money.''

Hospitals in at least three states have labyrinths, and Artress hopes they become common in prisons, airport terminals and other places where people are stressed, or have time on their hands.

The spiritual pliability of the labyrinth concerns Todd Wetzel, executive director of the Dallas-based Episcopalians United, a theologically conservative group.

The labyrinth has valid Christian uses, but if used to symbolize ways to God outside Christian teachings, that's inappropriate at Christian churches, he said.

Wetzel believes the labyrinth revival likely will be short-lived. ''It's a fad,'' he said.

But Artress said the centuries-old symbol won't disappear because it addresses eternal human needs.

''Suffering is not a fad,'' Artress said. ''Searching for meaning is not a fad.''


On the Net:

Labyrinth list: http://www.gracecathedral.org/labyrinth/index.shtml

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