You’ve probably seen them in your travels. Perhaps you’ve mistaken them for an alien ship’s landing pad and you ran for the hills or you’ve simply wondered about the curious, almost familiar, design. They could be found in backyards, in gardens, randomly placed in wide open places or hidden in the woods.
These winding arrangements, called labyrinths, are not intended to merely arouse curiosity. Their purpose is to provide a place for peace and contemplation.
Walking across a creek on a wooden bridge then winding down to a clearing on the property of Jane Sloan and John Hancock’s West Plains home, one is instantly calmed. It is quiet. There is a path defined by rocks curving into its center. Step in and begin.
Sloan and Hancock’s labyrinth, called Gaea, is fashioned after the 10-circuit Chartres, a 13th century design inlaid into the floor of the Chartres Cathedral in France. It is believed to have been a representation of the pilgrimage to Jerusalem so others could walk in the footsteps of Christ. Today, modern pilgrims use the labyrinth to pray, contemplate, meditate and grow spiritually.
While walking the Gaea labyrinth, one is led toward the center and then back toward the outside of the design. You curve, stop, turn, curve, stop and turn again. You go at your own pace and think your own thoughts; what you contemplate on or leave at each stop is up to the walker. Once you reach the center, you repeat the motions until you step out from where you entered. “It is a transformative tool for people,” said Eloiwa DeFreitas, a certified labyrinth facilitator, “It unwinds us and brings us into the present, filling us with peace and well-being.”
As opposed to a maze, which has dead ends, high walls and many options, a labyrinth has only one path and is meant to bring clarity, not confusion. Each turn can be a representation of life and the choices we make, and though our ways of walking may differ, the roads and destinations are quite similar. “The human parts of us are all the same; the differences are on the surface,” Hancock said, “It takes effort, tolerance, generosity and the discovery of common threads to connect us.”
Though there are dozens of labyrinth designs from many different cultures going back more than 5,000 years, the gist is the same; a spiritual journey that, like any journey, begins with a single step.
Just off the Palouse Highway in south Spokane is a place called the Clare Center, where below the main building is a flattened clearing and a labyrinth. Bill Stanaway, the facilities coordinator of the Clare House, said, “We provide a sanctuary for people that are quite busy; a place of relaxation and rest. The labyrinth gives you a different perspective. At each stopping point, you can reflect on what needs to change in your life and then you go in a different direction.”
Inside St. John’s Cathedral just off Grand Boulevard, a portable labyrinth painted onto canvas lays on the floor described as a “mystical tradition that insists on being reborn.” It is put out periodically in order for visitors to “walk the sacred path.”
Off the beaten path, on the grounds of the Cathedral is another labyrinth that looks like it’s been there a while; large rocks form a definite pattern among weeds, tall grass, and even trees. It is fun to trip along the rustic path like a mountain goat and make light of the serious things life throws at you; sure you might stumble, but the path is still there.
On the north side of town, another labyrinth sits on the grounds of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane. It is a Celtic Triple Spiral. “It is moving meditation that includes releasing, opening up, and letting go,” said church member and labyrinth enthusiast Elaine Stevens.
Other area labyrinths include one on the grounds of Spokane Community College done in bricks, and one pressed into a cement pad at an elementary school in the Hillyard area. More probably exist, consciously or not, incorporated into landscape designs or floor plans.
Labyrinths have been used in prisons, hospitals and schools, and the designs are universal and eerily similar to crop circles (some have in fact been mowed into wheat fields and grassy parks), all to benefit others and help them find their way, whatever way that may be.
“It’s a place where you can go to quiet your mind,” said Sloan, “Or have really serious conversations, with yourself or whoever.”
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