Going in circles: Labyrinth walking

An overhead view of the labyrinth in the sanctuary at First Congregational Church in Montclair, NJ.

An overhead view of the labyrinth in the sanctuary at First Congregational Church in Montclair, NJ.

One of my favorite authors is the late Marsha Mehran, author of the Babylon Café novels set in northwest Ireland in the 1980s.

There is a scene in the second novel, “Rosewater and Soda Bread,” where the Italian widow Estelle Delmonico leads a mysterious mute girl – who is recovering from serious physical and psychic wounds – on a walk around her garden overlooking Clew Bay.

Estelle has a circular stone path winding through the garden, a gift to her from her late husband Luigi:

“Estelle stopped in the middle of the flagstone path, turning to face the girl in the wheelchair. ‘This is the center of everything. Here I find peace. That is what Luigi had built for me. A circle garden I can come to when I have problems, yes? I walk this when I can’t walk too far because of the weather or my feet, and I walk this circle when I have too many pains in my thoughts, too.’”

The path is not described as such, but it sounds as if the path in Estelle’s garden is a form of labyrinth.

Most of us who hike on a regular basis probably can attest that a long (or not-so-long) walk is good for the mind and the spirit as well as the body; one term I sometimes use when I’m out hiking is “recharging the batteries.” (Sometimes I think that if more people could get out and go for a hike or just a walk in the woods, we wouldn’t need gym memberships or therapists.)

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Many religions and belief systems around the world have rites and traditions in which walking plays an important part: pilgrimages, retreats, meditations and so forth. There is a book by Robert and Martha Manning, called “Walking Distance: Extraordinary Hikes for Ordinary People,” which talks to some extent about spiritual walking and pilgrimage routes, like the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain.

A labyrinth is, basically, another form of hiking trail, compressed into a circle of loops; I’ve noticed a few times that the loops look a little bit like the switchbacks on a trail map.

Most of us have heard of the labyrinth in the cathedral at Chartres. Today, a number of houses of worship have either a canvas labyrinth – a design painted on a giant canvas mat – or a permanent labyrinth embedded in the floor of the sanctuary. And labyrinth walks are especially popular during the Lenten season.

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At First Congregational Church in Montclair, not too far from where I live, the church installed a labyrinth in the sanctuary about four years ago, and on most Wednesday evenings during the year, they invite people to come in and walk. I’ve done it a few times, when I’m having a moment where I can’t get my brain to quiet down (an all-too-frequent occurrence these days); sometimes I’ll drop in if I’m out for a walk into town in the evening.

It’s always very quiet, except for the pad-pad of people’s feet as they make their way around the loops, and the lights are dimmed except for some battery candles around the edge.

If you’re walking through one loop and someone is coming back in the opposite direction, one person just steps aside, and both continue walking. It’s the same with trail etiquette.

One day earlier in the fall, I reached out to the pastor, Rev. Ann Ralosky. I introduced myself and told her that I was working on a blog posting about labyrinths. And she was kind enough to invite me to come by the church one morning so we could chat, and so I could take a photo of the labyrinth.

During her days as a chaplain for university students, she would have a canvas labyrinth, borrowed from another church, set up for the students to walk on at certain times of the year: “Many of the students would complete it and burst into tears.”

There are many possible reasons why a labyrinth has such an intense pull for people, she told me. Part of it is the symbolic nature of death and rebirth, the life cycle and the spiritual journey.

On the physical side, she said, it is thought that the loops of the labyrinth are an echo of the crevices in the brain and the bowels. Additionally, the action of walking itself is an activity that uses both sides of the brain.

“Everything’s a metaphor for me on the labyrinth,” she said, adding, “Our lives are not linear. They are cyclical.”

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