My Labyrinth Journey

August 7th, 2013

Whenever I teach about labyrinths at some point someone asks the question, “John, how did you become involved with labyrinths?” I always respond, “It’s my wife’s fault.” This always gets a round of chuckles, but it is true, for which I thank her profusely. We were sitting in our den on a Sunday afternoon back in 1998 reading the Atlanta Journal/Constitution when she handed me the Faith and Values section of the paper, the front page of which described a labyrinth that Holy Trinity Episcopal Church had painted on canvas—probably the first in the Atlanta area. Since I have always had an interest in contemplative spirituality, naturally she thought I would be interested. And I was. Several weeks later I was stuck in five-o’clock traffic on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, when I looked up. A large purple banner outside the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Philip invited, “Walk our labyrinth: Fridays 3–8 p.m.” That had to be more fun than sitting in traffic, so I pulled into the parking lot, went inside, and had my first labyrinth walk on their 38’ canvas labyrinth.

The labyrinth hooked me at once! Immediately following my walk, I went to the Cathedral Bookstore and purchased the then-recent book by the Rev. Dr. Lauren Artress, Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool. I absorbed the book, walked the labyrinth several more times, and took time to let all of it “sink in.” I definitely wanted to know more, so in 2001, I spent time with Dr. Artress at Grace Cathedral being trained as a labyrinth facilitator. When I returned to my home church, Harmony Grove United Methodist, I met with our senior minister, Rev. Bob Willis, and told him about my experiences and my training. His response was, “Do you want to do it here?” Of course I did! For the first labyrinth walk at Harmony Grove, we borrowed the canvas labyrinth from the Cathedral of St. Philip—Bob and I went to get it in his pickup truck. Following our church’s first labyrinth event, associate minister, Rev. Lisa Dempsey, commented, “This has been a significant spiritual experience for our church.” Soon after we raised money to purchase our own canvas labyrinth and began our own labyrinth ministr; in 2009, Barbara Smith, a church member and labyrinth enthusiast, spear-headed an effort to construct an outdoor labyrinth. Currently Harmony Grove is one of only a few United Methodist churches in the North Georgia Conference that has both an indoor and an outdoor labyrinth to support its labyrinth ministry.

Since 2001 I have been leading labyrinth classes, workshops, events, and retreats at Harmony Grove and in other parts of the country. In 2006 I was invited to take the labyrinth to the World Methodist Conference in Seoul, Korea. Also in 2001 I became a member of the Labyrinth Society. The Labyrinth Society is an international organization whose mission is “to support all those who create, maintain and use labyrinths, and to serve the global community by providing education, networking and opportunities to experience transformation.” In 2006 I was elected to the Board of Directors and chair of the Research Committee of that organization. In 2012 I had the honor of being elected President, an office which I still hold. The Labyrinth Society (affectionately called “TLS”) sponsors an annual international conference, or “Gathering.” In September, labyrinth enthusiasts from around the world will gather on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada, to attend the 15th Gathering of the Labyrinth Society.

A labyrinth is different from a maze. The labyrinth is a pattern: usually a large circle, with a single winding, circuitous path that one walks to the center, and then walks the same path back out. It is an effective tool for prayer, reflection, contemplation, meditation, worship, celebration, and personal spiritual growth. Often it is seen as a metaphor, or a symbol, for the journey of life.

Although the labyrinth itself predates Christianity by at least 2,000 years, it has been used within the Christian church for approximately 1,700 years, since the 4th century. Following the publication of the Rev. Dr. Artresses’ book in 1995, what can only be described as a “labyrinth revival” has occurred worldwide. Labyrinths are being constructed and used at churches, hospitals, prisons, schools, retreat centers, public spaces, and, with increasing frequency, at private homes. The World-Wide Labyrinth Locator  currently contains approximately 4,500 listings in its database. The World-Wide Labyrinth Locator is jointly sponsored by the Labyrinth Society and Veriditas (Dr. Artresses’ organization). Approximately 1,500 of the Labyrinth Locator’s listings are for churches.

More information about the current status of the labyrinth in the Christian church will be shared in a future article along with occasional articles about its current use within the Christian church. Suggestions for deciding whether a labyrinth is appropriate for your church and community, and if so, how to select, purchase, or construct a labyrinth, as well as how to begin and sustain a labyrinth ministry will be given. Planning labyrinth walks and events will be discussed, as well as books and other materials to support your labyrinth interest or your church’s labyrinth ministry.

Visit the Labyrinths bin for more information. I look forward to continuing this series and reading your comments and suggestions.

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