Pathways to Peace
Early one morning, as fog hovered over the coastal community of Aptos, California, a group of twelve women and one man met behind a massive set of Balinese temple doors, removed their shoes and socks and, one by one, entered the labyrinth in Linda Powel’s garden. Stone statues of gods and goddesses stood watch as we—for I was among the group—walked in silence, back and forth, in and out. Along the way we brushed against towering sunflowers and hollyhocks, and the feel of our feet sinking into the thick carpet of chamomile was almost as delicious as the herb’s apple fragrance wafting through the air.
In joining the group that chilly morning, I was participating in an ancient ritual. The labyrinth has been a gateway to the spirit for thousands of years. Historians speculate that centuries ago fishermen in Sweden walked labyrinths to help them decide when to go to sea, and that pre-Christian agrarian societies used them in fertility rites. During the Middle Ages, circling the labyrinth inside Chartres Cathedral was symbolic of making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Once again labyrinths are emerging as a symbol of spiritual power. A revival that began several years ago in the nation’s churches has spread to parks and prison yards, to the grounds of hospitals, clinics, and spas. Most recently labyrinths have moved into the private garden, transforming backyards into lush, hushed spaces where walkers go round and round in circles, and exit clearheaded. The labyrinth has been called a Western mandala, a primordial pattern that induces contemplation; the mind quiets, the breath slows, time stretches out.
Unlike a maze, whose intent is to confound with multiple routes, the labyrinth offers a single winding path leading to one central point. There are no forks in the road. The lesson is simple: As long as you persist, you will reach your destination. But as Powel warns visitors to her garden, you must be prepared for surprises. A path that seems to be going toward the exit may abruptly send you back toward the center.
Labyrinths tend to follow a few basic designs. A pattern developed during the Middle Ages has eleven concentric rings, or circuits. But most labyrinths are seven-circuit affairs, based on a design that goes back at least 3,200 years and is usually referred to as classical, or Cretan. The name comes from 2,500-year-old coins discovered by archaeologists off the island of Crete at the beginning of this century and imprinted with a seven-circuit labyrinth.
Hundreds of classical labyrinths have been found throughout the world in Europe, Egypt, India, Peru, Iceland, and North America. One of the earliest known Christian examples, on a wall of the cathedral in Lucca, Italy, was carved into the stone in the 9th century—apparently meant for communicants to trace with their fingers before entering the sacred space, to quiet their minds.
So many people today are searching for symbols that give meaning to their lives,” says the Reverend Lauren Artress, a priest at Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco. “The labyrinth is a deeply intuitive tool, especially helpful for people who have trouble quieting their minds. It gives you a container with clear boundaries, a place to reflect. While you’re walking the path, making the turns, you hear your mind clicking away. Then it quiets, usually by the time you reach the center.”
Artress’s book, Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool (Riverhead Books, $ 11), tells the historical background behind labyrinths and how to use them. Artress also leads workshops. Six years ago Linda Powel of Aptos, an artist and psychotherapist, took one and soon found herself dreaming about labyrinths. A few months later, when she began looking for a house to buy, it dawned on her that she was paying more attention to the yards than to the houses themselves. Before she went to contract she determined that her new backyard was big enough for a labyrinth. Immediately after moving in, she began marking circuits, bringing in soil to fill the paths, planting them with chamomile and thyme. A stand of Australian tea trees separates the garden from the house, and a hedge of pittisporum makes a thick wall between Powel’s house and her neighbor’s.
With flowers and shrubs, paths planted with herbs, and a rose-twined gazebo at its center, Powel’s labyrinth is as much garden as circuit. It differs from the traditional examples built just a few years ago with patterns laid out simply with stones, painted on floors, or mown in fields and grassy parks.
Powel’s labyrinth was misty at sunrise, and an atmosphere of reverence seemed to surround our journey through the circuits, even as the sound of rush hour traffic filtered up from a nearby street. To me the twists and turns resembled the Milky Way, or possibly, the swirls of my own fingertip, but Powel told us that hers was modeled after the 13th-century rosette-patterned labyrinth in the cathedral at Chartres.
When she said Chartres, I was surprised. I had visited the cathedral once many years ago, and remembered how awestruck I was by the Gothic arches and the beauty of the stained-glass windows. But a labyrinth? I must have missed it.
Most people do. Though the Chartres labyrinth, made of tan quarry stone with black stones marking the path, fills the entire width of the nave, 42 feet across, it is almost completely hidden by portable chairs. Now, however, after centuries of disuse, the labyrinth’s fame has been revived, thanks largely to the efforts of the Reverend Artress, who traveled to Chartres in 1991 intending to walk it. When she found 256 chairs covering the stone pattern she pushed them aside and measured the dimensions so that she could duplicate the circuits back in San Francisco at her cathedral. Chairs still hide the stones, except for daily periods during May, when Artress holds workshops there, and annually at the summer solstice, when thousands of pilgrims pour in from around the world.
Understandably, Artress is a proponent of the eleven-circuit pattern, but Marty Cain, an environmental sculptor and one of the best-known labyrinth designers in North America, prefers the older form with seven circuits. “There’s something about seeing the classical pattern,” says Cain, who has designed and built eighty permanent labyrinths in locations ranging from small suburban gardens in Pennsylvania and New York to large estates in Vermont, western Canada, and Scotland. “It evokes some form of ancient memory.”
Patricia Kirtley Henderson, a psychotherapist, called Cain when she decided to build a labyrinth on the one-and-a-half-acre property of her Wellness Center in Forest, Virginia, near Lynchburg. Henderson’s labyrinth is unusually large—at 62 feet in diameter, its pathways are wide enough for couples to stroll side by side—and lush. Wisteria climbs an arbor at the entrance; lavender plants and butterfly bushes make a dramatic backdrop around the outside. The seven circuits are planted with dwarf spruces and bonsai trees.
Henderson is part of a growing, informal network who welcome enthusiasts traveling the country and even the world to walk labyrinths. These modern pilgrims are aided in their search by Artress’s organization, Veriditas, The World-Wide Labyrinth Project, which lists nearly three hundred labyrinths on its Web site (www.gracecathedral.org).
Another Cain client, Catheryn Garfield, has created an idyllic retreat for herself and a few special friends in a suburb of Philadelphia. Her labyrinth, set in the midst of a grove, has seven circuits delineated by hundreds of liriope plants. “Last summer I weeded the entire labyrinth,” says Garfield. “It took me two weeks and it was a labor of love. But now the liriope has grown so dense it doesnt allow many weeds to survive. I really don’t have to worry about it anymore.” The liriope have tiny lavender flowers in late summer and purple berries in autumn, but Garfield’s labyrinth is at its most spectacular in March, when 3,000 daffodils burst into sunny bloom. They are followed in April by another show—purple streams of hyacinth.
Although Garfield’s labyrinth is open only to her close friends, Linda Powel’s is registered with Artress’s organization, and she has been receiving calls and visits from tourists passing through California. She encourages them all to make the journey through her garden barefoot because, she says, “People really need to get their feet on Mother Earth.” As my toes tingled in the wet, cool chamomile, I understood why. Each of us walked at her own pace, in her own style. Some of us skipped through the paths, but many plodded, placing one foot slowly, methodically, thoughtfully in front of the other. The labyrinth had grounded us.
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