||Labyrinth gardens have been used for at least 4,000 years as a path for a spiritual Journey. This garden in Dothan at the Episcopal Church, The Church of the Nativity, is a beautiful example.
As part of the further development of the S.T.A.R. (Saving Towns Thru Asset Revitalization) project of Urban Extension, it is my goal to learn (and then tell others) about all kinds of faith gardens that can help communities to revitalize and individuals to rejuvenate.
That’s my path. And that path has led me to try and discover why labyrinth gardens are deemed so beneficial, and to also try to understand why they are popping up all over the country. Won’t you join me on this journey?
I haven’t completed (by any means) this quest to learn about labyrinths; but here’s what I’ve gleaned so far. Labyrinths aren’t new. In fact, they’ve been around for at least 4,000 years or so. And they are found in very many of the religious traditions of the world. They’re an integral part of several cultures (such as Celtic, Greek, Mayan, American Indian, etc.)
Even though some might consider the ancient labyrinths as "new age," Rev. Wilfredo Benitez of Canterbury Episcopal Church (Garden Grove, CA) writes that labyrinths are instead very "old age." "They are as ancient as Greek myths," he writes, "yet are experiencing resurgence in popularity today.
"Throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, labyrinths were built in churches and cathedrals as part of the sacred space used by worshippers. It was a common spiritual practice for Christians to walk church or cathedral labyrinths in lieu of making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem."
Likely the first recorded labyrinth in history was in Egypt in the 5th century B.C. The building was huge and was located just above Lake Moeris (opposite the city of the crocodiles - Crocodiloplis). It was described as surpassing the great pyramids. An enormous labyrinth, but now gone with the sands of time.
Regardless of where the first was built, the labyrinth is yet an ancient symbol that relates to wholeness … a combination of a purposeful path and the image of a circle on a journey into our own center (and back out again). Sound complicated? In some ways it is; but I’ve read that there is no "wrong" way to use or interpret a labyrinth. And, unlike a maze, there is no wrong path. You can’t get lost in one. A maze is meant to be a puzzle; but a labyrinth is meant to be a path for a spiritual journey.
Besides the use of these geomantic symbols as a background for aesthetic gardens (which help people AND attract tourists), labyrinths can also be used to solve personal problems and help people to "center" (re-focus) again. Like other types of faith gardens, labyrinths can serve as a vehicle for introspection, similar to taking a thoughtful walk or going on a sacred journey.
There are many different ways to walk a labyrinth, but some specific examples include: walking with one prayer in mind, asking one question repeatedly or preparing just to listen. Many advise the use of the inward movements of the pathway for unwinding or letting go (possibly getting rid of), while using the center as a place to receive (or to be open). The path back out is sometimes used to gain new direction, new energy or comfort. Some travelers stop at several points along the way to pray, while other users simply concentrate on their breathing. Regardless, it should be done at your own pace and in your own way.
Some say a contemplative walk on a labyrinth usually takes about 20 minutes to complete, but there are no time lines or regulations. This single path is all about enhancing intuition, reception and creativity. Labyrinths can be a feature in a garden (constructed of pavers, stone, mulched pathways, etc.) or can simply be a garden unto themselves. A labyrinth can be constructed from mowed turf circles in a lawn (with gravel or mulched paths) or it can be planted with shrubs, vines, flowers, etc. However since the space between paths is usually not very wide, shrubs are often difficult to use. Most often lower growing plants are used (if any). The most common labyrinths use turf or ornamental grasses.
The center of the labyrinth can be a really rewarding place. It is sometimes supplied with a bench (for rest, prayer or meditation) and can also have other ornamental plantings. Just remember that its function is for receiving.
There is much more to learn about labyrinth gardens; but we have just taken our first steps together. Perhaps we can learn more together in the days ahead and maybe I can also post further info on our Urban Extension website for faith gardens at www.faithgardens.org
Jerry A. Chenault is an Urban Regional Extension Agent.