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Walking a Labyrinth
By Donald E. Skinner

Generally our culture discourages us from walking in circles. If we want to get anywhere in life, we're told, we should follow a straight line, from Point A to Point B. If instead we meander, we're viewed as inattentive and warned that we will never reach our goals.

The Rev. Joan Gelbein, of the UU Church of Arlington, VA, hopes to change all that. She's helping bring back the labyrinth, a centuries-old tool for walking meditation. The labyrinth consists of a single meandering path about a third of a mile long superimposed on a circular floor pattern. The path leads from the circle's edge to its center and back out again. A labyrinth is different from a maze, which is not a single path but a network of many confusing paths that tax the walker's analytical powers. Labyrinth walkers are encouraged to turn off their analytical powers and focus on the act of walking the path.

Labyrinths were commonplace in medieval cathedrals, which provided them for religious pilgrims who couldn't make the long and dangerous journey to Jerusalem. Instead, the pilgrims walked the labyrinth, which symbolized the longer journey.

Many cultures have used labyrinths. The cabalistic tree of life, from the Jewish tradition, resembles a labyrinth, as does the Hopi medicine wheel, says Gelbein. The earliest labyrinths are depicted in 4,000-year-old rock carvings found around the Mediterranean. But in the 600 years since the Middle Ages, labyrinths almost disappeared.

Gelbein discovered labyrinths in 1994, when she read an article by the Rev. Lauren Artress, an Episcopal priest who had just installed a labyrinth at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral. After visiting Artress's labyrinth and the 13th-century labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France, Gelbein helped her congregation create its own on a 42-foot square of canvas.

Gelbein says the Arlington labyrinth is available for walks at regularly scheduled times, and the church rents it out to other congregations, bringing in thousands of dollars a year. It has also been to General Assembly twice, in 1996 and last year, at Nashville, where about 90 people attended a labyrinth workshop and several hundred walked the path.

Those who walked the labyrinth at GA took many different approaches, Gelbein says. A young woman took ballerina-like steps. One walker wore a silk scarf draped over her head. An older woman, with white hair and a cane, slowly, methodically made her way around the paths.

Austin Zeigler, 16, of Orlando, FL, had his first experience with a labyrinth at GA. He made flying motions with his arms as he walked. On completion, and overcome with the experience, he hugged Gelbein. "I felt I reached a connection with some form of deity," Zeigler says now. "I saw the world without any boundaries."

It's not uncommon, says Jane McKeel, chair of the Arlington church's labyrinth committee, for first-time labyrinth walkers to have transforming experiences. "I remember a woman who walked the labyrinth a month after her husband had died suddenly of a heart attack," McKeel says. "She wept, and when she got to the center, she sat there a long time. Other people using the paths would touch her as and move on. Afterward she said, 'For the first time in a month I felt joy and support.'"

McKeel adds, "If there's one word that describes the labyrinth, it's healing. And it's a metaphor for life's journey. You're on a path, and there are other people on the path with you."

Before using a labyrinth, a walker should do some preparatory work, says Gelbein, including thinking about important life issues or important people in their lives. During the walk they should focus on the walking, but insights often come about life issues, she says.

In addition to Gelbein's church, more than a dozen UU congregations now have labyrinths. Members of the First Unitarian Church of Orlando, FL, are constructing an outdoor labyrinth that will be open to the public at all hours. The paths will be brick, covered with a rubber mulch. Estimated cost, including extensive landscaping, is $6,000.

When Orlando minister the Rev. Marni Politte Harmony became interested in labyrinths several years ago, the church borrowed a portable labyrinth and invited friends and members to use it. "The more we learned about it, the more we liked the idea of doing this," Harmony says. "We're also talking about it as a community service. We're in downtown Orlando, and we'd like to offer this to the neighborhood."

Donald Naff, of the Anchorage UU Fellowship, in Alaska, who attended the labyrinth presentation at GA, says he vividly remembers his first labyrinth experience, on the evening of his father's funeral several years ago in Idaho. The people he was staying with had a backyard labyrinth, lined with stones. "I took an oil lamp and placed it in the center," he recalls. "There was just enough light to see the path. It was a very powerful experience. I felt an overwhelming connection with the universe."

Last summer, he and other Anchorage church members made a canvas labyrinth for the church. "It's hard to describe what it does in words," Naff says. "It cuts across every possible view of the world and universe. The day we presented it to the congregation, no one wanted to leave."

Until recently labyrinths were rare in the US and Canada. Now there are an estimated 500 permanent labyrinths and 1,500 portable canvas labyrinths. Most are in churches, but others are in hospitals, conference centers, prisons, nursing homes, and private residences.

Artress, who has done extensive research on labyrinths, says she thinks her labyrinth at Grace Cathedral is one of the first to have been built in the western world in 600 years. Labyrinths almost disappeared, she says, when science took center stage after the Middle Ages. "Most [medieval labyrinths] were destroyed because the western world swung dramatically into an empirical, 'if you can't see it, it doesn't exist' mentality. There were 22 cathedrals in Europe that had labyrinths. Now there are just two, at Chartres and Amiens."

Art historians kept the designs alive, she says, and groups that work with earth energy have always known about them. These days, labyrinths are being constructed by "Presbyterians, Luth-erans, Unity, Unitarian Universalists, and even American Baptists," she says. "This is very much an interfaith tool."

"Churches see [labyrinths] as a way to help people who may not feel grounded in prayer," she adds. "When a person is moving on the labyrinth, the body can be grounded more easily. A labyrinth walk is a body prayer."




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