From the window near her office at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Houston, Donna Adair watches people as they walk: children as young as 3, schoolchildren, and elderly folks; church members, spiritual seekers, and passersby.
And they are all walking in circles—pacing and praying their way through the intricate path of the permanent labyrinth on the church’s front lawn, built by a premier labyrinth builder and consecrated on March 17.
The labyrinth is circular walkway designed for meditation and prayer. It’s part of a centuries-old Christian tradition, with links to ancient, pre-Christian history. At St. Paul’s, the labyrinth has become a space for spiritual nourishment and outreach to the community at large.
But, ultimately, church leaders say, the labyrinth is a place for a journey of depth and mystery.
“You suspend your rational thinking, and you just walk, and mystery takes over,” said the Rev. Gail Williford, St. Paul’s minister for spiritual formation and discipleship.
Into the labyrinth
Ms. Williford had dreamed of a labyrinth for St. Paul’s since the 1990s, when she attended a workshop led by the Rev. Lauren Artress, then canon of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. (Ms. Artress, author of Walking a Sacred Path, is creator of the Labyrinth Project and a key figure in the resurgence in interest in labyrinths in the U.S. in recent years.)
The first time she walked the outdoor labyrinth at Grace, Ms. Williford says, she had a profound experience. Despite the noise and traffic nearby, she felt a sense of peace—and then, a pain in her knee—representing, she believed, the grief she had felt at the bedside of a friend who was dying.
“I was totally dumbstruck,” she said. “Here I was, in the middle of a summer day on Nob Hill, and I was processing grief.”
Ms. Williford returned from the workshop determined to bring a labyrinth to St. Paul’s, a Gothic-style church located in a museum district in Houston. In 2000, the church acquired a canvas labyrinth, but she still hoped for a permanent, paved installation.
“I never thought it would happen in my lifetime,” she said.
Then an anonymous donor stepped forward with a large gift. Soon the church had enough special donations to cover the $90,000 to commission one of the nation’s top labyrinth builders, Marty Kermeen of Yorkville, Ill.-based Labyrinths in Stone.
“He really is an artist . . . an amazing craftsman in stone,” said Ms. Williford.
Mr. Kermeen has built more than 60 labyrinths in the past 11 years, at hospitals, museums, schools, retreat centers, parks and churches, including one at St. Luke’s United Methodist in Shreveport, La., built in 2000.
Construction on St. Paul’s labyrinth began late last May and was completed in July. Builders began by laying some 160 tons of base material to create a solid foundation.
Thanks to the unrelenting heat, the labyrinth at St. Paul’s was among the most difficult Mr. Kermeen has constructed. Ms. Adair watched in awe as the team worked 12-hour days, seven days a week, as temperatures climbed as high as 114 degrees.
What inspires him, Mr. Kermeen says, is a sense of calling.
“I’m planting seeds and nourishing the spiritual community,” he said.
He likes the description of a woman who walked the labyrinth he built in Shreveport, who described its center as her “phone booth to God.”
“A labyrinth is a place for people to nurture their relationship to God or their connection to the spirit,” he said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with me. I’m just creating a space for that to happen.”
The website for Labyrinths in Stone features dozens of testimonials of people who were deeply touched by their encounters with labyrinths Mr. Kermeen has built: an autistic boy who emerged from his shell while walking a labyrinth with classmates; a father who found peace while walking the labyrinth at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., as his son, gravely injured in Afghanistan, convalesced at the military hospital; a teacher who watched a group of severely-burned children as they grew stronger and more confident through monthly walks of the labyrinth at a hospital in Galveston.
Center of peace
In April, Ms. Williford led St. Paul’s sixth-grade confirmation class in a walk through the labyrinth. Following the typical practice, the young people walked in silence until reaching the center. Then, unprompted, they all sat down and stayed there, in silence, for about 15 minutes.
“I didn’t tell them to do that,” she said. “There was this remarkable oneness with them.” After the pause, the young people “unlocked” the labyrinth, retracing their steps to exit.
Henry Philpott, 13, a member of the confirmation class, said he used the time on the labyrinth to pray for “people in Africa who were suffering and for anyone in the world who was afraid.”
Asked whether he enjoyed the experience, Henry said: “I was beyond liking it. It was amazing.”
As a trained labyrinth facilitator, church member Hattie McKinley recently led a group of elementary-aged children from St. Paul’s afterschool program in a walk on the labyrinth.
At the center of the labyrinth, the children began to pray spontaneously—for each other, for their families and their friends.
“There’s an energy from the labyrinth that these children pick up on,” she said. “It’s a very loving energy. I think it’s the love of God.”
Ms. McKinley said that the labyrinth has helped her, too, as she’s dealing with issues relating to getting older.
“The labyrinth changed my life as soon as I started walking it,” she said. “I’m learning to trust my pathway as I’m aging. It’s bringing me courage and optimism in my journey.”
Ms. Williford says it’s not unusual for people to encounter something unexpected while walking the labyrinth.
“I never fail to be surprised and grateful,” said Ms. Williford. “It’s just mystery on mystery.”
The pathway in a labyrinth takes many winding, unpredictable twists and turns, but always leads the “pilgrim” directly to its center. Then, by retracing steps, the pilgrim walks back out of the labyrinth.
In contrast to a maze—which offers choices of path and direction—a labyrinth typically has only a single, unambiguous route to the center and back. While a person walking a labyrinth may find it difficult to gauge his or her progress, the labyrinth itself is not difficult to navigate.
Labyrinths seem to appeal to some deep instinct in humans, according to Ms. McKinley, who says that labyrinth-like shapes have appeared in drawings on the walls of caves dating back thousands of years.
“The labyrinth has represented a pilgrimage for people of all faiths for over 4,000 years,” she said.
Labyrinths began to appear on church walls and floors around 1000 C.E. In the 12th through the 14th centuries, grand pavement labyrinths were built in gothic cathedrals, notably Chartres, Reims and Amiens in northern France. The famous labyrinth at Chartres, built around 1201 C.E., served as the inspiration for the installation at St. Paul’s.
While the original purpose of these medieval church labyrinths is not clear, some historians believe that meditative walks through the labyrinths served as alternatives to pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
St. Paul’s deliberately chose to place the labyrinth on its side lawn, in an open space that’s clearly visible from the street and facing the Museum of Fine Arts and Museum of Contemporary Arts.
“We wanted to make it a gift to the community,” Ms. Williford said.
The two museums next door draw an estimated 1.5 million visitors each year, so even if only a small portion of those wander over to the labyrinth, Ms. Williford says, the outreach is significant.
Ms. Adair notes that folks from the Presbyterian church next door have inquired and walk the labyrinth occasionally. She’s also seen people pace the path while smoking cigarettes, or using the labyrinth as a space for sunbathing. And that’s okay, too.
Like Grace Cathedral’s labyrinth in San Francisco, St. Paul’s is near a busy street.
“It’s an appropriate metaphor,” said Ms. McKinley. “There’s all this traffic going by, and cars honking, yet while you’re walking, you stay focused on your footsteps and your own path. The distractions fall away.”
In December, the labyrinth was lit with electric votive candles, creating a hauntingly beautiful setting for the church’s Taizé services.
“We’ve just had so many little magical moments, because the labyrinth is there,” Ms. Adair said.