Many of the great medieval cathedrals of Europe were once graced with labyrinths, symbolic meandering paths etched into the floor. In recent years, labyrinth designs have become incorporated into the lives of many modern churches some are even painted on cloth and travel from church to church. VOA's Adam Phillips went to San Francisco to find out why.
Just inside the grand portals of San Francisco's Grace Cathedral, a carpet with a special design lies on the stone floor. It displays an intricate medieval pattern, about 11 meters in diameter, called a labyrinth. The Reverend Doctor Lauren Artress, who initiated and runs the project, explains what a labyrinth is on a simple level.
"A labyrinth is a pattern found on the floor of many cathedrals during the Middle Ages. It's a large circle with one path that begins at the entryway and weaves its way through in a very circuitous path to the center. And then the person walking it will follow the path in, spend time in the center, and then follow the same path out again."
Adam Phillips: "What is the draw?"
Lauren Artress: "I think the draw is it's a very easy and accessible way to quiet the mind. Quieting the mind is very important because if we can't quiet the mind, then we can't focus our attention. By moving the body, by walking the labyrinth, following this very compact, circuitous path, it focuses the attention and helps people get to that quiet place inside."
Anna Yang is a nurse and a labyrinth facilitator who helps others to get the most of the labyrinth experience. She appreciates the serenity it inspires. "It gives you opportunity to listen to yourself, go inward, or you can focus a question that has been bothering you, or you can be prayerful when you walk or you can think of someone," she explains, "let's say someone has died recently and you want to walk with them in mind. Let's say you are grieving for that person. That's another good time to be walking. So the walk is all about you and where you are in your life."
The yearning for spiritual purpose and healing prompted Connie Peelon and her husband to walk the labyrinth's near-kilometer length. "I think it's a combination of faith, history and transition in life right now," she said. "Pain from all losses, losses of a child, and losses of parents and trying to find the sense of 'God is there. I am within God and maybe God is within me' and hopefully that's getting me through whatever life holds ahead. Another thing is walking into it was me, it was about me. Walking back out was more about a sense of my connection with the world."
Visiting the labyrinth has been a highlight of Jim Brown's business trips to San Francisco for almost three years. "It slows you down. It gives you a few minutes of peace. Allows you to gather your thoughts for a prayer more effectively than 'out there,'" he said. "What I was doing today was asking 'what is God's direction for my life in the future?' Just presenting my life to God. And of course having to take all those twists and turns is sort of like a metaphor for life which has a lot of twists and turns, but you get to the center eventually!"
The labyrinth has been a spiritual symbol for centuries. The design for this particular labyrinth was taken from Chartres, a medieval Gothic cathedral in France. Believers used it to make a symbolic pilgrimage to Jerusalem when an actual one would be too dangerous, expensive or impractical. Lauren Artress says the labyrinth's symbolic power endures today.
"The labyrinth is a metaphor for the spiritual journey. And we are all on a pilgrimage whether we know it or not. We are born on this planet. A lot of us are at the beginning phase, some of us are on the middle phase, and may of us are on the end phase of the pilgrimage called 'life'" says Ms. Artress. "So the beauty of the labyrinth is that it ignites the imagination for the person, the walker for the person to receive the symbolism that they need. If you are on a turn in your life, those turns can become really significant. And sometimes people falter at first or take them slowly or lose their balance or whatever happens happens. That is part of the teaching in the labyrinth. Use everything as a metaphor. There is not a right way or wrong way to use a labyrinth. Use it as your tool. It's important to realize that a labyrinth is not a maze. A maze is designed with cul de sacs, dead ends, extra entrances and all to have you lose your way. A labyrinth is designed for you to find your way. The pattern comes from nature. The pattern comes from a complex spiral or double spiral. And that speaks to us like the DNA of our cells. There is a lot of this pattern that is reflected and resonating within us. So when we see something like the labyrinth, we are drawn to it like a hummingbird to a flower."
But Anna Yang adds that the theme of one's journey along the labyrinth need not be heavy or hard - or even particularly profound. "There are some times, where I feel very full of life, of spirit. There are some times when I feel very joyous after walking the labyrinth," she says. "And when I come out of the center I feel like skipping and dancing the labyrinth. Sometimes I come to Grace Cathedral when it's quiet - especially in the morning - and I walk the labyrinth and I lay down in the center of the labyrinth and then the boys' school choir will be here and they will be having mass up front and they'll be singing and it's gorgeous!"
Benjamin Privitt works at the Cathedral and also facilitates labyrinth workshops. He says that it is precisely the labyrinth's ability to absorb and reflect the lives of those who walk it that accounts for its power. "It's this charged sacred space that doesn't have any doctrine around it. It's a free space for people to have their own firsthand experience of the divine. The labyrinth is a crucible for change," he says. "One of the most valuable lessons of the labyrinth is that no matter how stuck we are in a particular place in our lives that is not what defines our lives. What defines our life is the journey."