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July 15, 2005     536 Words

Labyrinths: Exploring Their History and Mystery

CINCINNATI—With work stresses, family demands, money issues and the occasional faith crisis, life can be an exhausting exercise. A strange and mysterious remedy to those pressures is to take a walk—in a great big circle. The practice of walking outside or indoor labyrinths is an ancient tradition that, for many, has been the key to recharging their batteries, reigniting their faith and realigning their pathways to God.

Labyrinths—their history and their mystery—are featured in St. Anthony Messenger’s August cover story, “Labyrinths: The Inward Journey.” Author and labyrinth enthusiast Gerilyn Wartonick Herold writes of these spiral patterns and how they have aided the faith journeys of many Christians over the centuries. After July 20, the article will be found at: AmericanCatholic.org.

Labyrinths are not a new phenomenon. Archaeologists believe they date back 4,500 years, though no physical evidence survives. Different versions of the spiral pattern have been discovered in Egypt, India, Russia and Peru. 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.

Labyrinths can vary greatly in design. The shapes range from circular to square, spade or octagonal. 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.

This journey inward appeals to many people. Julie McAfee, a nondenominational Christian, has grown quite fond of walking labyrinths. “The labyrinth really gives me a sense of God,” she says. “The message for me 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,” she says.

The labyrinth at La Providencia Spiritual Renewal Center in Alpine, California, is a favorite among many Christians in that area. Sister Patricia Hanson, C.S.J.O., one of the Center’s directors, advises people to explore the similarities between the labyrinth and their own lives. “I tell people the path can be thought of as a pattern of our lives or as a journey to God,” she says. “Traveling to the center for some may represent rebirth, initiation or healing. The walk is a metaphor for centering.”

Some who walk labyrinths move quickly, while others move at a more prayerful pace. Some bring rosaries and Bibles while others simply bring their troubles. Regardless of one’s motives, labyrinths provide a mind- and soul-enriching experience for those who open themselves up to them.

Labyrinth-devotee McAfee believes the ancient practice can ease the spirit and settle the mind. “It brings you to your bare spirit, to who you really are inside,” she says. “The labyrinth speaks to you without speaking. 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.”

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