Not a maze, but a journey
The first time Julie Dieterle walked a labyrinth, she followed the same winding stone path set into the floor of the 12th-century Chartres Cathedral in France that people had been walking on for more than 1,000 years.
At Chartres, the 42-foot diameter labyrinth was used by many medieval pilgrims unable to travel to the Holy Land as their own version of a spiritual quest. Today the circular paths of labyrinths remain a form of meditation for many.
Back home, Dieterle began spotting labyrinths wherever she went: at a Universalist church and the University Hospital in Madison, at a retreat center in Minneapolis.
She learned more about them and eventually designed a brick and crushed stone labyrinth for Earthsong Books & Gifts in Janesville.
Dieterle said a temporary labyrinth using stakes and ropes had been at the front of the store, but it often had to be taken down when events were held on the site, so owner Linda Caldean decided on a permanent fixture on the back lawn.
“Kids love it, whether they skip or run or play with it,” Dieterle said. “Your body feels that equal number of left and right turns. Most people find it centering, calming, and that's certainly true of me. If I have a question about a decision, I'll hold it in my heart and mind, walk it, and when I sit or stand in the center, it gives me inspiration.”
Dieterle looked at various labyrinth patterns before choosing a classic design called seventh ring. The labyrinth is about 50 feet across with 33-inch wide walking paths and a six-pointed star at its entryway.
“You can go on the internet and find all kinds of designs,” she said. “I drew it out on graph paper with one of the co-owners. We could have made it much more complicated, put in a lot more turnaround, but we decided that the simple walk, without twists and turns other than the symmetry of the circle would do.”
“Some people favor traditional (designs), that have been walked for thousands of years, thereby becoming part of an old tradition,” said Robert Ferre, a noted professional labyrinth designer, in an email from his Texas home. “Others, however, want to make their mark and have something new and unique, so they design contemporary labyrinths. It isn't as easy as it may seem, to create a new design.”
Ferre, the author of “The Labyrinth Revival,” said labyrinths can be made for little or no cost by simply mowing paths in a backyard lawn or laying down stones to form lines. More durable permanent labyrinths made with pavers, bricks or other materials can “cost from $30,000 to well into six figures and require professional and experienced installers,” he said.
A locator link on the website of Veriditas, a California-based organization that trains and supports labyrinth facilitators, shows 118 permanent and portable labyrinths at sites across Wisconsin. Those sites include churches, public parks, private properties, inns, colleges, hospitals, libraries, camps, art and yoga studios and farms.
“Walking the labyrinth is a practice that fits the Western mind,” said Lauren Artress, author and founder of Veriditas. “By finding your natural pace, it allows the walker to fall into the body's basic rhythm. It is a mindfulness meditation because it calls one into the present moment.”
Kathryn Brown and her husband have walked labyrinths they've come across in their frequent travels, both locally and abroad.
“It's a sentimental thing to me to think I'm walking on the same path that others have walked,” Brown said.
“Walking a labyrinth gives me a focused time for contemplation, prayer time and reflection in a busy life,” she said. “It takes some minutes to walk it, so it becomes a way to sustain focus instead of being attached to something else.”
In 2003, Brown designed a Celtic-style labyrinth at her Beloit-area farm. The mowed grass path, just short of a half mile long, is shaded by trees.
Although it's on her private property, she does allow people to walk it. Visitors need to contact her by email to arrange a day and time.
“This is not a commercial enterprise, but a private place for people to come and be reverent. People come out not just for retreats, but to spend a day in the woods,” Brown said. “We have little gatherings. Sometimes it's a group of Sunday school teachers. Sometimes it's a Native American group.”
Brown estimates she gets about 75 people a year at the labyrinth, which is open year-round.
“A lot of people think it's a pagan thing, but it's not,” she said.
A labyrinth also is not a maze. There are no dead ends in a labyrinth, only one path that leads from the entrance to its center and back again.
“In a maze, you're thinking about how to get out of a complicated pattern. In a labyrinth, you can always get yourself out -- you won't be trapped,” said Suzanne Popke.
Popke has four different labyrinths -- in settings ranging from prairie to wood and complete with sculptures -- on the Whitewater-area farm and retreat center where she and her family live. Visitors need to contact her for an appointment.
A Whitewater psychologist, Popke finds labyrinths reduce stress.
“The brain seems to relax with repetitive movements. That's why people like things like swings, rocking chairs and chewing gum. Walking the labyrinth is a repetitive action,” she said.
“Additionally, walking is done a lot of times outside, and that connection to nature is helpful in getting the brain to relax and reset. Even if it's just a decorative labyrinth, like walking through an arboretum or a park, the brain and the body enjoy the aesthetic part of the walk.”
For those addicted to their cell phones, social media and Netflix, a walk through a labyrinth may just reset the overloaded brain, Popke said.
“What we find when we do studies of the brain is when we're having so much digital input, the brain has to filter out a lot to attend to the digital information coming through,” she said. “The brain is decreasing input from other parts of the environment.
“Going through a labyrinth, more parts of the brain are functioning -- you're looking around, perhaps smelling nearby flowers or the air, using your senses.”
At the George & Nancy Parker Pergola and Circle Labyrinth Garden on the grounds of Edgerton Hospital, a variety of perennial plants in soothing shades of blue, silver and gray are designed to create a spot that's both scenic and relaxing.
“Having plants in the labyrinth softens it and makes it more calming,” said Bonnie Robinson, foundation director of the hospital's capital foundation.
The labyrinth is part of the hospital's Healing Garden, open to patients, visitors, hospital employees and community members.
At the St. Vincent Pallotti Retreat Center near Elkhorn, retreat attendees and visitors can walk a simple mown grass labyrinth on the wooded grounds.
“Walking a labyrinth is spiritual renewal. It takes you away from the city and everyday life and gives you a path for prayer,” said Marybeth Clowney, an administrator at the center. “It's more of a personal pilgrimage, I would say, for healing and peace. A lot of our groups go out there to pray the rosary.”
“You can even think of the labyrinth as a metaphor for life,” Popke said. “You might be walking along a labyrinth and get tired of that part of the path. What's stopping you from walking to the other side? That might be something to think about. Does that happen for me in life? Am I bored? Do I jump to a different path, relationship, job -- whatever it might be?”
At Brown's labyrinth, walkers find a pile of rocks outside the entrance.
“People will pick up a plain old dirty rock, thinking of their burdens or sorrows in life, and when they get to the middle of the labyrinth, they'll lay that rock down,” she said. “Then they'll pick up a shiny rock, which we have there, symbolizing their wishes or hope, and they'll walk back out of the labyrinth taking that with them.”
But maybe the best part of the labyrinth is its silence, Brown believes.
“We live in a noisy world. The phones are ringing, the cars are speeding by,” she said. “It's hard to find a place of quiet.”