Labyrinths offer spiritual journeys, meditative walks

At Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, the path is laid in stones. At Willard Middle School in Berkeley, the path is yellow paint on blacktop. At Mercy Center in Burlingame, it’s made of stones and golden sand. At St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in San Bruno, it’s bark mulch and gravel.

Regardless whether a labyrinth is made of inlaid brick or wool carpeting, the process of following one is the same. There is one entrance, which is the same as the exit. Unlike a maze, there are no wrong turns or dead ends. One simply walks from the entrance to the center, then back out again.

Leilani Nelson, a deacon and the youth minister at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, helped spearhead the effort to build the church’s labyrinth.

Their labyrinth was created last summer by the students and parents who participated in their vacation Bible school.

“Labyrinths or something like labyrinths have been around as long as there have been humans, in a variety of faiths and spiritual traditions,” she says. “There is something about the process of a labyrinth that touches something very deep in the human experience.”

While labyrinths are in many of the great medieval cathedrals of Europe — such as the one in Chartres, France — labyrinths aren’t an exclusively Christian tradition. Examples of labyrinths can be found in ancient Celtic drawings, in Native American medicine wheels, and in the mystical Jewish tradition of the Kabbalah.

In Berkeley, the East Bay Labyrinth Project, which completed the Willard Peace Labyrinth last fall, is intentionally nonreligious.

“It’s a community-building peace activity,” says Nina Ham, one of the group’s founders.

“We very much wanted to avoid any affiliation or association that would leave anyone on the outside,” she says. “We wanted it to be accessible. Because that, to me, is the power of the labyrinth. It calls to anyone who’s listening. “

Like many labyrinth proponents, part of Ham’s inspiration for the labyrinth came from her visits to Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Grace priest Lauren Artress has been the most ardent advocate for the power of labyrinths. She’s the author of the book, “Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Sacred Tool” (Riverside Books, $13), and the founder of Veriditas, an organization dedicated to spreading the healing power of labyrinths.

The members of the East Bay Labyrinth Project hope that the City of Berkeley will allow them to create a permanent labyrinth on public land.

“The community is just amazing, and not just the community of people who are involved in building it,” Ham says. “There’s definitely a strong sense of community in doing this ancient ritual together, in focused solemnity.”

Nelson says walking the labyrinth is a meditative experience for her.

“I start walking and find the rhythm of walking and focus on the breathing,” she says. “I find that no matter how tense or hurried I am, there’s something efficacious about attentiveness to breath. And that’s also part of virtually every meditative practice. By the time I reach the center, I’m feeling relaxed. I find the places where I hold tension in my body have changed. I tend to scrunch my shoulders, and they’re relaxed. Sometimes I walk it with the intention to pray for someone. But most of the time, it’s the experience of spending time with God.”

She says she used to take groups of children to the outdoor labyrinth at Grace Cathedral.

“I had this great, wonderful, pretentious stance of give them this great experience of” — she takes on a mock serious tone, lowering her voice — “prayer.”

“And instead of doing all the breathing, all of the students took it at a dead run,” she says. “I found there was something very profound about all these little bodies moving around in this ancient pattern. It’s not about doing it in any particular way. There is a profound significance no matter who’s doing it in what way or with what reverence. It’s just a good thing that has significance no matter what you bring to it.”

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