Two summers ago, I found myself struggling with irritability. Though I decreased my caffeine intake and prayed more, I still found myself snapping. I griped at my husband and kids for everything from a lost back brace to dust on the television set. Frustration in my family mounted, and I wished I could have crawled away from my own body.
I uncovered the answer to my problem when my cousin Barbara made a strange suggestion. “Go walk a labyrinth,” she said. “It will help.”
Help? How could it do that? I wondered. Despite my skepticism, I drove to La Providencia Spiritual Renewal Center in Alpine, California. Barbara told me there was an outdoor labyrinth on the property.
I placed a call to Sister Patricia Hanson, one of the center’s directors, the evening before. Sister Pat sensed my hesitancy. “Many come to walk our labyrinth,” she said warmly. “Enjoy it.”
Birds sang as I stepped from my car. Suddenly I was standing in front of an odd thing: a large circular maze with outlined paths made of small river stones. It looked like an ancient structure to beckon gods. It frightened me. It called to me. I opened my heart with a prayer and began.
As I started the walk, narrow, looping paths at first disoriented me. Soon, the dirt began to crunch under my feet in a soothing rhythm. With each step, I was listening, settling and drifting into a pleasant place of peace.
My mind started to ponder an interesting idea, one that surprised me: a desire to write. As I continued the journey, I felt the Lord encouraging me to honor the dream. With that nudge, I received an answer. My irritability problem resolved months later.
Labyrinths: Their History and Mystery
Archaeologists believe labyrinths date back 4,500 years, though no physical evidence survives. The “Earth Labyrinth”—built to honor the Earth Goddess—appeared in Crete around 1200 B.C. and is the oldest on record. Similar versions of this simple spiral pattern have been discovered in Egypt, India, Russia and Peru.
Though great geographic distances separate these cultures, it is believed their designs evolved from universal patterns found in nature. Perhaps that is why they are so pleasing even to the present day.
The first Christian labyrinth, discovered in the fourth-century Basilica of Reparatus in Orleansville, Algeria, contains the words “Sancta Eclesia” inscribed in the middle, indicating its use for religious purposes. This and other labyrinths, like those that predated them, were constructed with a path that led easily to the center.
Medieval labyrinths, which began to appear around the 13th century, demonstrated a new design. Their paths wove back and forth between quadrants, creating mystery within the walk. The most famous of these labyrinths, installed at the Chartres Cathedral in France around 1200 A.D., switches walkers among sections—sometimes brushing close to the center, sometimes traveling on the outer perimeter—before entering the middle.
The Chartres labyrinth and others from the Middle Ages were often referred to as a Chemin de Jerusalem or “Road to Jerusalem.” When the Crusades and poverty prevented Christians of the Middle Ages from making pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Church officials commissioned the building of labyrinths in seven of the great European cathedrals. Christians could then make a symbolic, spiritual journey by walking a labyrinth.
The labyrinth idea strongly resurfaced in the 1990s when the Rev. Dr. Lauren Artress—then canon for special ministries at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco—became one of the leaders in reintroducing them to the world. Many built now are patterned after those constructed in Europe hundreds of years ago.
There and Back Again
Labyrinths vary greatly in design. The shapes range from circle to square, spade or octagon. They may be simple or complex and span from 13 to 44 feet. All are designed with a single meandering path that leads to the center. The path is traveled in reverse for the outbound journey.
In current times, people are drawn to the labyrinth “for reasons as varied as the walkers themselves,” says Sister Patricia Hanson, C.S.J.O., codirector of La Providencia Spiritual Retreat Center. “They’re seeking peace or they’re seeking answers. They may just want to pray or meditate.”
Julie McAfee, a nondenominational Christian, has walked the outdoor labyrinth at La Providencia twice. “The labyrinth really gives me a sense of God,” she says. “The message for me personally is that God is present.”
The Rev. Canon Allisyn Thomas walks an indoor labyrinth at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in San Diego where she is canon for spiritual formation.
“I really enjoy walking the labyrinth. Sometimes it’s deeply moving; sometimes it’s just pleasant. Sometimes it’s a way of helping me stay on the path. It’s like taking my temperature. It helps me find out where I’m at,” she says.
Aside from stimulating inward reflection, labyrinths bridge all denominations. “We love the labyrinth because it’s ecumenical,” Sister Pat says. “It ministers to all people, including those who claim no belief in God.”
Why does it work? Sister Pat explains: “The right brain is intuitive. The labyrinth allows the right brain to arise with answers from what is inside you. The left brain solves. Walking and navigating keep your left brain occupied. The right brain is then free to intuit problems. A lot of solutions surface.”
“I am amazed at how by design, the labyrinth brings you to meditation,” says Alison Courson, a nondenominational Christian. “It makes you slow down and reach down. It keeps bringing you to your inner self.”
In her book, Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool (Riverhead Books), Dr. Artress says labyrinths are powerful because they invite “our pattern-seeking minds.” She further explains that the labyrinth uses metaphor to direct each of us to the intuitive world within.
Labyrinths also assist walkers to find answers because of symmetry. Dr. Artress explains in her book that a pleasing system of geometry allows the mind to find rest and harmony.
‘A Journey to God’
The first labyrinth constructed by Sister Pat and Sister Millie was portable and drawn on canvas. It mirrored the design of the original at Chartres Cathedral. “That portable labyrinth traveled to many churches and conferences over the next three years,” says Sister Millie. “It was invited mostly by Episcopal and Methodist folks. Catholics weren’t much interested.”
Sister Pat and Sister Millie found the powers of the labyrinth to be so healing and restorative that they installed a permanent one outdoors at their retreat center. Again patterned after the Chartres labyrinth, their new model measured 44 feet and used river stones to define the looping paths.
Before walking a labyrinth for the first time, it’s helpful to understand how to view the experience. “I usually tell people the path can be thought of as a pattern of our lives or as a journey to God,” says Sister Pat. “Traveling to the center for some may represent rebirth, initiation or healing. The walk is really a metaphor for centering oneself on an inward journey.”
A meditative state of mind helps in accessing the powers of the labyrinth. “The labyrinth really should not be rushed,” says Barbara Deguzis, a Catholic. “If you come to one and just start walking it, not as much will happen as when you settle yourself ahead of time and begin in a prayerful frame of mind.”
Being open to the experience also assists in tapping the powers of the labyrinth. “The first time I walked the La Providencia labyrinth was with the Rite of Christian Initiation [RCIA] group from my parish. I didn’t get anything out of it. I was told I should walk it, so I did,” says Tony Martinez, a Catholic.
“The second and third time I walked the labyrinth I went on my own because I wanted to feel closer to God. Those were both healing experiences.”
Aside from being open, a period of prayer, meditation or reflection should precede the walk. The journey is begun when the person feels ready. “Just put one foot in front of the other,” says Sister Millie. “If someone is walking faster than you, just step aside and note your place on the path.”
The path toward the center may be walked in prayer, in expectation of answers or just simply walked. “I like praying the Rosary on the path in,” says Deguzis. “It helps me to leave my brain at the office and get in a meditative state.”
Irene Rose Rael, a Catholic, agrees. “I often pray the Rosary as I walk the inbound path. For me it has a calming effect.”
Reaching the Center
Proceeding in a pace that is comfortable, however fast or slow, helps walkers experience the labyrinth in their own way. “At All Saints Episcopal Church in Corpus Christi, Texas, where I live, I hosted a walk for 50 nuns from a nearby convent,” Deguzis says. “Each nun moved at her own pace around the labyrinth. Often one would stop and bow her head. Watching them proceed, so willing to yield to meditation and prayer, was a blessing. Not one of them had walked a labyrinth before.”
Arrival at the center of the labyrinth brings the journey into a new phase. “The innermost circle can be viewed as God or Jesus; some view it as heaven,” says Sister Millie. “The center shape for our labyrinth is a rosette. Because the Blessed Mother is the rose of all roses, many of our guests think of coming to Mary when they reach the middle.”
“The center can also represent our deepest self or our efforts to arrive at true self-knowledge,” adds Sister Pat. “There is no wrong or right way to view the labyrinth.”
Barbara Deguzis agrees. “At All Saints, since the labyrinth is indoors, they have pillows in the middle that you can lie on. If you look up to the ceiling, there’s a stained-glass picture of Jesus with outstretched arms.”
“For the journey out,” says Sister Pat, “remember that it’s the same length as the way in. Many people walk the outbound path with praise and gratitude. But walkers can continue to pray or experience the peace and healing of the labyrinth.”
“A period of reflection is a good idea after walking the labyrinth,” advises Sister Millie. “If we have a group, we usually ask them to share what they have experienced. That’s where a lot of the benefit seems to come.”
Sister Pat recounts a particular story. “One time we hosted a family who had been grieving over the loss of their father,” she says. “We told them to go around the labyrinth with their memories and walk their grief. When they came back, we asked them to share their stories. There were tears and laughs. It was a very healing experience for all.”
“I only walked the La Providencia labyrinth once, but I came back to it many times in my mind afterward,” says Alison Courson. “Sisters Pat and Millie gave us a black-and-white copy of the labyrinth to keep. Looking at it helped recall the experience. The many answers and healing I received that day helped me make a very difficult decision: to leave my job.”
Centering oneself by walking a labyrinth and coming to God has brought walkers to healing or has led them to answers they were seeking. “The second time I walked the labyrinth, I went because my fiancée had broken up with me,” says Tony Martinez.
“As I was walking, I felt God telling me to just let it go, don’t keep asking questions. Instead of losing myself through other things I could have done, I figured it out. It felt really good.”
The Healing Walk
At La Providencia, Sister Pat and Sister Millie sometimes use the labyrinth for group healing. “I was part of a group who was invited to come together for reflection after a huge wildfire devastated much of my hometown of Alpine, California,” Courson says.
“It was four months after the fire and many of us had not had time to process it,” she says. “Before we started, we shared stories of what happened on the day of the fire. For me, and most of the group, the walk was very cleansing. I dealt with issues I had not had a chance to think about.”
“I like to walk with others,” Deguzis says. “The labyrinth is a giant metaphor for life. Sometimes others are going as you are coming. Sometimes others are near or far. With my good friends, we may brush fingertips as we pass or rush to catch up so we can hug. But we are always respectful of others who are praying or wish to have a private experience.”
Other choices to be made in selecting a labyrinth are location, time of day or season. “Two years ago I walked the La Providencia labyrinth on New Year’s Eve in the moonlight,” says Deguzis. “The theme for our group that evening surrounded endings and beginnings. I was about to relocate from California to Texas and that walk sent confirmation that I was on the right path.”
Some Catholics center their walks around sacraments. “Sacraments are meant to bring you close to the heart of God,” says Rael. “How powerful I think it would be to walk a labyrinth in conjunction with receiving Reconciliation or baptizing a child.”
And it’s anything but monotonous. “You can do the same meditation every day and get a new answer,” Deguzis says. “You can walk it every day with a new question in your mind. The experience is never the same.”
McAfee believes a labyrinth brings you back to who you are. “It brings you to your bare spirit, to who you really are inside,” she says. “The labyrinth speaks to you without speaking. It answers questions. It reminds you of the power of God, not man. A tool that can do all that is amazing. It’s definitely worth a try.”
Questions for Reflection When Walking a Labyrinth
- What am I experiencing?
- Are there any surprises?
- Do I feel lost?
- How do I parallel this with my own life story?
- Where am I on my journey at this moment in time? Am I at the beginning or far from the center?
- Have I found the center? The treasure? How does it feel?
Gerilyn Wartonick Herold is a nursing instructor at San Diego State University as well as a freelance writer. She is also the chairperson for the health ministry at her church, Queen of Angels in Alpine, California. She and her husband have two children. This article appeared in the August 2005 issue of St. Anthony Messenger.