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Rivah Visitor's Guide

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Labyrinths: Journey for the Soul


by Audrey Thomasson

One Sunday afternoon in July 2008, Anne Hanchey took her two daughters and four grandchildren to walk the labyrinth at St. Mary’s Whitechapel Episcopal Church near Lively in Lancaster County.

She explained to her three grandsons and one granddaughter, who ranged in age from 7 to 13, that the labyrinth was not something to be raced through, but should be walked thoughtfully and silently.

They set off slowly, one behind the other, leaving a comfortable space between them. As each person reached the center of the labyrinth, they waited for the others to join them. Once they were all gathered in the center, they recited the Lord’s Prayer.

The Rev. Torrence Harman describes how to use the labyrinth at St. Mary’s Whitechapel. The Episcopal church uses the labyrinth for worship gatherings such as Easter Sunrise Service and evening bonfire services.

Labyrinths in religion
Labyrinths can be traced to the earliest antiquity—painted on ancient pottery, in woven products, or carved into wood. In the Middle Ages, they became a central feature in many European Roman Catholic churches with many still existing today. The most famous of the remaining labyrinths is at Chartres Cathedral near Paris, France, built around 1200.

When walked as a pilgrimage, it represented a journey to become closer to God. When used for repentance, pilgrims would walk on their knees. Its eleven-circuit labyrinth design also served as a substitute for an actual pilgrimage to Jerusalem. At the center of the labyrinth pattern is a cross that was used as a guide in the construction.

Even today, churches with labyrinths encourage people to walk the labyrinth during Lent and Advent. It is used as a tool for the Holy Spirit to work on the inner being. A labyrinth is a way to give attention to the voice of God.

In the same manner they left the center, one-by-one, leaving a comfortable space between each one. As they retraced the spiral path, passing each other on the journey out, they instinctively touched hands.

Three generations of the Hanchey family had rediscovered a tradition of early Christians.

Some think labyrinths were first used by Egyptians as early as 4500 BCE (Before the Common Era). Others believe the origin is Greece, where a doodle on an ancient clay tablet was found dating to 1200 BCE. Whatever their origin, labyrinths have been used throughout history in many cultures around the world, all with their own metaphorical meanings.

The resurgence of labyrinth paths in the 20th century can be linked to the spiritual beliefs of the earliest Christians who took a vow to visit the Holy City of Jerusalem at some point in their lives. By the middle ages, this pledge became increasingly difficult to fulfill as Christianity spread across Western Europe and the journey became increasingly long, costly and dangerous. Labyrinths emerged as a practical way to enable Christians to honor their sacred commitment.

By the 13th century many labyrinths were inlaid on the floors of European cathedrals for Christians to walk as a substitute for traveling to Jerusalem.

The path of peace
People walk the labyrinth for a variety of reasons. Some do it to release their thoughts and relax, some for meditation and some just for fun. According to research by the Labyrinth Society, some walkers report feeling a perceived “labyrinth effect” that can be psychological and physiological.

The Rappahannock Westminster-Canterbury labyrinth in Irvington. (Photo by Lisa Valdrighi)

Find a local labyrinth
  • Bay Center for Spiritual Development: 31 Noblett Lane, Kilmarnock. In the front yard overlooking Irvington Road.
  • Rappahannock Westminster-Canterbury: 132 Lancaster Drive near Irvington. Behind the main community building.
  • St. Mary’s Whitechapel Episcopal Church: 5940 White Chapel Road, Lancaster. Above the graveyard, a path leads visitors up to a clearing among the trees.
  • Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Rappahannock: 366 James Wharf Road, near White Stone. Nestled among the shade of tall trees.
  • Bethany United Methodist Church: 454 Main Street, Reedville, offers sitting meditation at a miniature labyrinth path.

Walking a labyrinth is “highly effective for reducing anxiety and producing what’s called the relaxation response,” claims Harvard professor of medicine Dr. Herbert Benson. “It can lower blood pressure and breathing rates and decrease chronic pain. Labyrinth walking can also help with conflict resolution, grief, and depression.”

The idea is to stroll slowly through the labyrinth’s geometric design, letting it take you close to the middle then out to the edges again before bringing you into the center, explained Rev. Torrence Harman of St. Mary’s Whitechapel.

Before entering the labyrinth, it is suggested one pause to pray, meditate or clear the mind. Consider what you seek from the journey. Then step across the threshold and let the pathway guide your feet. On the walk notice your thoughts and feelings. At the center, the most sacred space of the labyrinth, pause and process what you have experienced so far. When ready, retrace the path out. You may notice a different tone.

If meeting others on the path, step aside to let them pass before resuming the journey.

Some people close by circling the perimeter while others draw or write in journals, reflecting on new insights. Still others find a bench and gaze across the space or meditate.

Reflecting on their journey
Ann Hanchey noted the perceptions her young grandchildren had about the experience.

“When we reflected on our journey through the labyrinth,” recalled Ann Hanchey, “they described the labyrinth as a womb and that you exit in heaven. It was amazing. Then we took turns sharing the things that made us feel good—family, friends and being together was high on the list.”

Hanchey’s grandsons, Wyatt Henke, now 16, and Brooks Henke, 14, said they have walked several labyrinths including Shrine Mont, an Episcopal summer camp for children near Harrisonburg.

Wyatt described his thoughts on the walk.

“I think about life in general. I reflect on recent events, like grades, tests, friends and family.”

Brooks, agreed, saying the experience clears his mind as he travels through the maze.

“You don’t have to think about where you’re going,” said their mother, Stephanie Henke. “Thoughts evaporate and you start thinking of things in the back of your mind. We took turns . . . and we took our time.”

Retracing their steps out of the labyrinth became another kind of shared experience when they brushed hands as they passed.

“We reflected that touching hands made us think that when we are on a journey and we don’t know where the path will take us, family and friends are there to touch our lives and help us along the way,” said Anne.

Locate a labyrinth
Today, one will most likely find labyrinths set into the ground outside churches, spiritual centers and other places that welcome visitors to rest and cleanse their spirits.

The Labyrinth Society reports over 4,000 labyrinths around the world with over 2,000 in the U.S. that are open to the public. Not all labyrinths are registered with the society, but it’s a good place to start if you’re looking for one near you.

posted 06.28.2012

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