The labyrinth is an ancient idea made new. The spiral design has been around since before recorded history, though no one is sure where the pattern originated or why. In Neolithic times, labyrinths were scratched into rocks. In Cretan tradition, a labyrinth imprisoned the mythical Minotaur. For medieval Christians, walking a labyrinth at a cathedral such as the one in Chartres, France, substituted for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Over the past few decades, labyrinths have been repurposed to aid in meditation, healing and inspiration, and have been established at churches, schools, parks, museums and hospitals. They’ve also been making their way into private yards for homeowners seeking a spiritual retreat, a striking landscape element or both.Lauren Artress is founder of Veriditas, which describes itself as an organization “inspiring transformation through the labyrinth experience.” The long-term canon pastor at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, Artress turned to labyrinths during the AIDS epidemic.
“Intuitively, some part of me knew we needed some kind of pastoral tools,” she said. The looping pathways provided a spiritual outlet for the grieving and the frightened; people could walk together or alone, they could pray aloud or in silence, they could seek calm religiously, spiritually or meditatively.
“The beauty of a labyrinth is that it can do so many things, like a string bass that can fit into a jazz band, a string quartet and then a symphony,” she said.
As Artress began introducing other communities to the concept, labyrinths began springing up across the country, perhaps because Americans were becoming more open to alternative kinds of spirituality, perhaps because walking meditation is easier for our restless society to adopt than sitting meditation.
David Tolzmann has been creating public and private labyrinths for 21 years. He estimates that his Connecticut-based business, the Labyrinth Company, builds 300 to 400 yearly; it also offers templates from $550 to $2,000, as well as kits for $4,000 to $28,000. While there’s been a “steady growth” in private labyrinths for 15 years, Tolzmann said, “the explosive growth is in public parks; it’s amazing.”
Labyrinths provide paved areas that can be a “self-serve meditation space” for adults and “something cool” for children to run around on, he said.
Artress thinks the interest in labyrinths will only increase as technology continues to interrupt our thoughts, invade our consciousness and make it difficult to quiet our minds. “There’s a hunger for it,” she said, “and a need for it.”
After Vickie Baily left the “fanatical” Christian denomination she grew up in, “I wanted to remain a spiritual person, but I couldn’t find anything I believed in.” Then she walked a labyrinth at the Retreat and Conference Center at Bon Secoursin central Maryland. “It felt spiritual to me, and it didn’t have the parts of belief I couldn’t continue.”
At first Baily, a 62-year-old photographer and writer, would build labyrinths made of branches in Rock Creek Park, near her home in Chevy Chase, Md. (She thought she saw evidence that someone else was walking the labyrinths but didn’t know who it was.)
After all the children in their blended family grew up, she and her husband, Martin, bought a refurbished Victorian in the historic town of Garrett Park, Md., and decided to put a labyrinth in their yard as part of a re-grading project. It took six months and a lot of trial and error for Vickie Baily and landscaper Jonathan Graham to bring the idea to fruition in 2009.
After considering the space and how long it would take various kinds of grass to fill in the design, the two settled on a 30-foot Cretan-style, flat, seven-circuit labyrinth with “walls” of sod and paths of river gravel, which crunches lightly and pleasantly beneath visitors’ pacing feet.
The design, an eye-soothing swirl of green and gray, was created with paver edging. The labyrinth required two dump trucks of topsoil, 2,240 square feet of sod (some of which went on the outside of the labyrinth), 2 tons of stone dust and 1.5 tons of river gravel, and cost $13,000, Baily estimates.
The Baily labyrinth is the only one in this article not listed on the World-Wide Labyrinth Locator. “We just did it for ourselves and whoever found it,” Baily said. It has drawn neighbors, passersby and people who learned of it through word of mouth. Children gather on it during Halloween. At Christmas, the Bailys line it with lights.
Though Baily doesn’t use it regularly, she does walk the labyrinth when she knows a friend is facing a problem. “It’s a way to promise them I’m really going to think about them,” she said.
She says she has been surprised by the amount of maintenance. She mows twice a week, weeds frequently, clips the edges two or three times a year and blows off leaves in the fall.
“It’s hard work, but it’s also a gift I can give my community,” she said, adding that she finds tending the labyrinth meditative.
The labyrinth has produced another surprise. When Baily’s stepson came to visit after the labyrinth was completed, she recalled: “He kind of looked at me in a funny way” and asked her if she had been the one building labyrinths in Rock Creek Park.
The Bailys’ labyrinth, along with several public labyrinths in the Washington region, will be featured in a documentary, “Labyrinth Journeys,” which will be screened on May 31 at Washington National Cathedral. Visit labyrinthjourneysfilm.com for more information.
Lori Kidder first walked a labyrinth on a Michigan berry farm in 2009 and enjoyed how “you’re purposefully kind of thinking — or not thinking.”
“I want to put in a labyrinth,” the Reston, Va., homeowner told her landscaper, “and want to kind of take back the garden.” She said the landscaper responded, “Good idea. ... What’s a labyrinth?”
Kidder, 58, thought the labyrinth should go on the side of her yard but chose to consult a dowser, someone who read the earth’s energy through wooden rods. The rods didn’t agree — and Kidder wound up with a seven-circuit, Cretan-style rock-lined labyrinth measuring 30 by 60 feet in the middle of her 2,000-plant garden. It was completed in 2011. With the scrub clearing and dowsing consultation, it cost $800 to $1,000.
All of the rocks, hundreds, came from the yard. Kidder had spent weeks digging them out of the dirt — “I was like the rock whisperer” — when she realized she’d have to have them hauled away. Instead, she decided to design the labyrinth with them. She placed each rock herself, starting with the largest on the outside and moving to the smallest on the inside. In the center are rocks with meaning — they’re from special places or represent people or memories. On either side of the opening are the rocks placed by the dowser, along with a box of handouts written by Kidder that explain: “There isn’t a right way or a wrong way to walk a labyrinth.”
John and Anne Burrows came at their two labyrinths as landscaping elements. Anne saw an article in a gardening magazine about Cretan labyrinths and wrote to the author requesting instructions. She and John found out later that the author, Robert Ferre, was an expert on the spiritual aspects of labyrinths. But in responding to the Burrowses, “The loveliest thing about it was that he behaved like a gardener, and he replied with all the instructions, no charge,” she said.
John and Anne built a Cretan labyrinth in 2000 on a treeless part of their large property in North Potomac, Md., onetime pastureland they had purchased after years overseas with the World Bank (John is a former economist who now works with therapy dogs; Anne is a therapist). In the decades since, trees have grown, and it has become cathedral-like with an overarching canopy. The walls are grass and the pathways are loose gravel, which Anne refreshes every once in a while by wheelbarrow. The graves of therapy dogs Charlie and Sophie are nearby.
After a visit to Chartres Cathedral, the couple, now both 83, were inspired to create a second labyrinth in 2006. They contacted Ferre again. The question was how to mark the pathways on the lawn where they had decided to place the Chartres-style labyrinth. John came up with the idea of burning the pattern into the grass with a propane torch, which he calls “a little flamethrower.” According to John, the labyrinths didn’t cost much more than pebbles and “sweat equity.”
The Chartres labyrinth is more formal; the Cretan is “our rustic one,” John said.
“I call the Chartres labyrinth John’s and the other one mine, so it’s sort of yin and yang,” Anne said.
How often do they use the labyrinths? “Besides maintaining them, if we’re really honest, not a lot,” Anne said. Though once, Anne said, “instead of a Christmas party — ” John: “We had a winter solstice party. And then everyone came out and walked the labyrinth. ... ” Anne: “I think everyone had a candle and a glass of wine at the solstice.”
“Some see it as a religious thing, some see it as a meditation thing, some see it as a fun thing,” John said. “I just see it as a landscaping thing.”
Liz Tuckermanty and her husband, Dale Manty, bought an old farmhouse, parts of which date to the 18th and 19th centuries, on two acres in Cheverly, Md., in 1983. When a fellow participant at a meditation conference mused that she wished there were a labyrinth near her house, “All of a sudden, it dawned on me that I had a huge space to do something,” Liz said.
Tuckermanty found instructions on the Labyrinth Society site. “I decided I liked the idea of being able to meditate in the center, so I made that six feet, and then that sort of dictated how far out it had to go.”
The center of the 60-foot, Chartres-style labyrinth has three benches and a trellis that supports hops vines, in honor of a son-in-law who likes beer. She lined the pathways with liriope, planting one every two feet; they took two years to grow in (because the couple had plenty of liriope in their yard, the cost of their labyrinth, too, can be measured mostly in terms of their labor). Mowing with a 13-inch mower keeps them the right height.
A retired community food program specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Tuckermanty, 69, teaches at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Washington. “We create opportunities for people to think of different ways of experiencing the wisdom within themselves,” she said. Friends, neighbors, church groups, Shalem students and the occasional visitor who finds her in the Labyrinth Locator come to walk the pathway.
A labyrinth “kind of meets you where you are,” Tuckermanty said. “Sometimes you come with a question and you feel like you get an answer, and sometimes you’re just relaxed and enjoy it.”
Elizabeth Chang is an articles editor for the Magazine.
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