The name itself makes them seem old. Ancient, really. Like something pre-Christian, something that might be unearthed among long-lost ruins.
But labyrinths – wandering pathways like the one Greek myths say Daedalus devised to imprison the monstrous Minotaur – are in the midst of a modern renewal.
For the last couple of decades, labyrinths based on a medieval model have cropped up at churches, retreats, private homes, even health-care institutions across the country and across Georgia and north metro Atlanta. They’re catching on with the faithful as a way to momentarily escape the distractions of modern life.
Mary Caroline Cravens of Buckhead, president of St. Monica’s Guild at the Cathedral of St. Philip, said she’s found an “amazing release” walking labyrinths. “You feel refreshed. Rejuvenated. Lighter. Calmer,” she said. “I think it’s because you’re leaving whatever burden it was [you brought in with you] in God’s hands.”
Labyrinths are made to be walked. They are patterns laid out on the floor or the ground. One of the first things labyrinth fans say is that the winding pathways are not mazes. Mazes are puzzles meant to be solved. They sometimes offer several solutions. A person in a maze is trying to escape. A labyrinth offers only a single path. A person in a labyrinth follows that path to the center, then back out again.
“In a maze, you’re looking for a way out,” said The Rev. Beth Knowlton, canon for liturgy and prayer at the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta. “[A labyrinth] is about a loss of control. If I’m having a crazy day, it’s a good way to calm down.”
The journey, labyrinth fans say, is what matters.
“It is a form of meditation,” Cravens said. “Whether you’re reading a poem or just thinking, I think it’s a form of meditation.”
Recent renewal of interest in labyrinths grew from the rediscovery of one set into the floor at Chartres Cathedral in France, Knowlton and others said, and many modern labyrinths are based on the Chartres design. There is some thought labyrinths might have been used in the Middle Ages to symbolically mimic pilgrimages to Jerusalem or other holy sites at a time when such religious trips were considered important signs of faithfulness.
Recent interest in walking labyrinths has a different intent. It’s about focus.
“I think it gives people a way to quiet themselves,” Knowlton said. “I think we live in an increasingly busy age, when people are frenetic. People are longing for silence. The labyrinth …. You just walk it.”
Knowlton sees the labyrinth as a meditation aid. “It’s about finding your own peace,” she said. “It’s really good for centering people.”
The Rev. Alison Schultz, associate rector at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal Church in Sandy Springs, agrees a labyrinth serves as a tool for meditation. Her church recently installed a grass-and-brick labyrinth in a memorial garden outside the main church building. “If we can relax, we might all feel better,” she said.
Whatever the reason people find for using labyrinths, the winding paths are catching on. The international Labyrinth Society’s webpage [labyrinthsociety.org] counts 75 in Georgia, including eight in Atlanta, and 25 others in metro communities scattered from Chamblee to Morrow. The website lists Georgia labyrinths at Episcopal, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches.
St. Philip’s Cathedral actually has two labyrinths. One, painted on canvas, can be spread out inside a church hall. The other, made with stone pavers, was installed this year in a garden just across a parking lot from the main building on Peachtree Road. The outdoor setting allows the stone labyrinth to be used at any time of day.
Knowlton said some walk the cathedral’s labyrinths regularly. “It becomes an important part of some people’s spiritual experience,” she said.
She regularly walks the labyrinth herself. “I feel less distracted after I do it,” Knowlton said. “It makes me slow down.”
Schultz says something about walking a labyrinth, something in the repetition of the walkway and in the walking itself, calms a user. She thinks that’s why labyrinths have cropped up in various cultures over thousands of years. “Something about our participation in that does something with the neurons in our brains,” she said. “I don’t know the physiology of it, but I know the impact of it.”
Schultz said she’s seen people react in various ways while walking labyrinths. Some match their breathing to their steps. Some walk slowly, others more quickly. Some repeat psalms or prayers.
“I do it with no intentions, to see what feelings come,” she said. “You’ll find a lot of people crying about halfway through. You can feel very vulnerable, because you’ve made yourself open to it.”
Yielding control of her walk to the labyrinth can allow her to focus her thoughts. “I can’t get lost in a labyrinth,” she said. “I don’t have to think about where I’m going. I can just be there.”