From the floor of the cathedral in Chartres, France, comes an ancient mystical exercise that is nourishing a growing number of modern spiritual seekers.
More and more people are walking labyrinths, in search of inner peace, healing or deeper spiritual awareness. Not to be confused with a maze, which is intended to confuse and amuse those who enter, a labyrinth is an intricate geometric pattern laid out on the floor or ground that provides an elaborate but unbroken path for contemplation. There is one way in and one way out.
In the Baltimore area, two labyrinths have opened in time for this Lenten season of spiritual preparation -- one at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church and the other outdoors, on the grounds of the Bon Secours Spiritual Center in Marriottsville -- bringing the total in this region to at least a half-dozen.
"It may sound New Age, but it really isn't," said the Rev. Jarrett T. Wicklein, pastor of Mount Vernon Place, where the 37-foot-diameter labyrinth sits in an unused chapel dominated by a large rose stained-glass window. "The way we're using it finds its roots in the Christian tradition: sacred journey, sacred pilgrimage."
"Our desire is to create an atmosphere where people can get in touch with the mystery of God's presence in their life by using this ancient pattern for walking in prayer," hesaid. "It's a way to walk in meditation, to release what is troubling you and to find peace and understanding. It is a way to find spiritual awakening."
At the Bon Secours Spiritual Center, retreat participants had requested a labyrinth for years. The labyrinth, 55 feet in diameter and constructed of paving bricks, was completed late last month, in conjunction with the Sisters of Bon Secours' 175th anniversary.
"We haven't told anybody about it, but people have been showing up," said Sister Connie Gilder, the center's director of marketing. "On the very morning it was finished, one hour later, there was this man out there walking the labyrinth. We don't know who he was or where he came from."
For Steven M. Eutsler, a foreman for Town Creek Landscaping in Ellicott City, supervising the construction of the Bon Secours labyrinth started out as just another job. Then, near its completion, he was laying out the center stones, a six-sided cloverleaf, and he had what he described as a spiritual experience.
"There was like an echo in my ear, and I was in awe, because I had never heard anything like it," he said. "I feel God touched me and said, `Steve, something's not right or something's not happening.' "
He's come back to walk the labyrinth and brought his wife. "It's like a settling feeling. You walk through and you say, `Hey, this is my life,' and you walk through it slow," he said. "I'm going to go back and try and try and get in touch with God again."
The labyrinths in Baltimore join a network of about 300 worldwide, according to the San Francisco-based Veridatas, the World-Wide Labyrinth Project. It was founded by the Rev. Lauren Artress, an Episcopal priest who is credited as the catalyst for reviving the ancient custom.
Artress first encountered the labyrinth in a 1991 religious seminar, where it was taped on a floor. That led to a visit to Chartres Cathedral, where a labyrinth was installed sometime between 1194 and 1220.
Its design -- 11 concentric circles with a six-petaled rosette in the middle -- is the model for many labyrinths being laid out, but over the years the practice of walking it trailed off.
In fact, in order to walk the Chartres labyrinth, Artress had to move 256 chairs covering it.
Artress later supervised the building of two labyrinths at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral, one inside and one outside, and officials estimate that more than 200,000 people have walked them.
In the tradition
Walking the labyrinth is a practice that lies solidly within the Christian spiritual tradition.
"The first thing I would think of are the cloisters in medieval monasteries, which were sometimes very elaborate architectural spaces designed for meditative walks by the monks or nuns, usually in the center of the monastery, where they could be assured of quiet," said Joseph T. Kelley, a professor of religious studies at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass.
"St. Thomas Aquinas talks about how in his study and prayer, it was much more fruitful for him if he were walking while he prayed and thought," Kelley said.
But its appeal is not limited to Christians. "It's really an archetypal symbol," he said. "It crosses many religions and has many different religious cultural expressions. I think there's something liberating about it."
That universality appealed to Union Bridge artist Jo Israelson, who designed outdoor labyrinths at the Lillian Holt Center for the Arts in Overlea and the Historic Oella Mill near Ellicott City.