Walking in circles

The spiritual practice of walking a labyrinth can heal your soul.

Aerial view of the labyrinth in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres in France, the inspiration for many modern prayer circles in the U.S.  Sylvain Sonnet | Corbis

It was winter of 2014 when I hopped on a plane to Arizona to visit one of my oldest and dearest friends, Sheri. The trip was celebratory—we were both reaching milestone birthdays—but it was also a chance to flee the frigid Chicago winter and recuperate after a crazy and exhausting year. In the previous 12 months, I had published a book and spent all of my free time trying to market it. I had also become a mother to a daughter of two and a half, who my husband and I were adopting through foster care. And I had done all of this while working a full-time job. I longed for warm, sunny weather and time with a dear friend.

Sheri and I spent a few nights at a fancy hotel, and then the next day she had to work so she dropped me off at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale, where I could spend the day reading, writing, and praying.

I stopped at the front desk and looked at a map of the property. I noticed there was a labyrinth behind the main buildings, and so I headed there to find a quiet place to sit. From there, I could see the mountains. I sat on a bench and soaked in the sun and watched Gambel’s quail hopping along the brown earth and in and out of the desert scrub.

After an hour or so of feeling the sun on my face and listening to the silence, I decided to walk the labyrinth.

An ancient practice

No one really knows who created the first labyrinth, or why. The earliest labyrinth symbols are found in southern Europe and date to about 4,000 years ago. They were painted on fragments of pottery and carvings on rock surfaces.

One theory is that prehistoric labyrinths served as traps for malevolent spirits or as defined paths for ritual dances. But at some point, the meaning of the labyrinth changed to symbolize a path to God.

In the Middle Ages, walking a cathedral labyrinth was a substitute for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Not everyone could make the long and arduous journey to the Holy Land, so walking a labyrinth in a church was a devotional activity. Labyrinths were incorporated into the architecture of many churches—including the famous Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres, a medieval Catholic cathedral in Chartres, France, constructed between 1194 and 1250. These days, labyrinths can be found all over the world in churches, parks, or even in the middle of cities.

You can’t get lost

That day in Arizona, I read the sign at the entrance of the rock-lined path to learn how to walk the labyrinth. It explained what I was to do: I could run or walk or dance. There was no one way to do the labyrinth; I could pray, think, or just listen.

I felt a bit silly. I checked a few times to see if there was anyone that might see me walking around in a circle being contemplative. But all I saw were desert jackrabbits hopping around, their tall ears perked for sounds of danger.

On the sign, it said several times: You cannot get lost. That was comforting, because I’m the kind of person who always wonders if I’m doing everything right, if I’m making the right decisions and following the right path. Knowing that I couldn’t get lost allowed me to focus on praying and meditating—and not on making a decision about what path to take.

So, I took the first step on the desert sand, feeling the warm sun on my head. I slowly walked the circular path, putting one foot in front of the other, and I noticed the smooth stones that marked my progress.

Labyrinths are sometimes referred to as “body prayers” or walking meditation. The entrance can be a place where you stop and reflect and pray for insight. As you move toward the center, you can let go of any worries and distractions, and then when you get to the “rosette,” or center, you can be open to God’s guidance.

It’s not a direct route

As I walked, I assumed that the labyrinth was a constant circular path that moves toward the center. But I noticed that the path moves in, toward the center, and then it takes you back out toward the outer rim of the circle, and back in again.

I found this interesting, because it seems to reflect my spiritual life: I feel close to God—like I’m on the right path—but then I feel so far away again. In those outer circles, I start doubting my faith and feel that God is silent. Sometimes the circumstances of my life lead me to believe that maybe God has abandoned me. Or that maybe I’ve taken the wrong turn, or made the wrong choices, and that’s why my life feels like it’s falling apart.

But as I’ve matured in my faith, I now realize that those times of feeling far away from God are just a part of the journey. They don’t last forever, and soon I will look back at those times and realize that he was there all along; I just didn’t see him.

Always leading you home

I continued walking, and as I arrived at the center of the labyrinth I discovered someone had made a cross with small stones. I stood there for several minutes, feeling the sand beneath my feet, a warm breeze on my face. The stress of the past year was melting away, and I prayed for guidance as I began a new chapter of my life. Then I slowly walked out of the labyrinth, following the same path that had led me in.

Since that trip to Arizona, I’ve tried to find labyrinths wherever I go. In Chicago, I discovered one at a convent about a half mile from my house. I even stumbled upon a labyrinth in the middle of the city—I often go there during my lunch hour to find spiritual reprieve from the often brutal world of work and it helps me find my spiritual center. On a trip to Sante Fe, my friend and I walked a labyrinth outside of the historic Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi.

Every time I walk a labyrinth it’s a little different, but it always reminds me that my path might not be straight. There are times I might feel far from God, but I just need to put one foot in front of the other, listen for God’s voice, and eventually the path will lead me home.

Walk a labyrinth near you

With approximately 3,800 labyrinths in the United States, chances are you can probably find one close to where you live. Many labyrinths are in parks, on church properties, on college grounds, in monasteries, hospitals, or retreat centers and are free and open to the public. Here are a few to check out. You can also go to the Labyrinth Locator to find more in your town and state.

Dragon’s Teeth Labyrinth

Dragon’s Teeth Point, Lower Honoapiilani Rd., Kapalua, Hawaii

Dragons teeth point Hawaii

Dragon’s Teeth Point, Lower Honoapiilani Rd., Kapalua, Hawaii. Photo by The River Wanderer

Built on a black lava plain on the shore just north of Lahaina at Kapalua, this beautiful labyrinth is sometimes closed because the winds and ocean sprays can be too ferocious. But if conditions are right, this is a perfect place to meditate and pray with a view of the powerful ocean.

Colorado College Labyrinth

Colorado College, 14 East Cache La Poudre St., Colorado Springs, CO

With a view of the Colorado Rockies and surrounded by pine trees, this beautiful stone labyrinth is on the grounds of Colorado College, near the Shove Chapel. Individuals can walk the labyrinth at anytime, and organized group walks are available as well.

St. James Cathedral Labyrinth

St. James Cathedral, 65 E. Huron, Chicago, IL

St James Cathedral Labyrinth Chicago

St. James Cathedral, 65 E. Huron, Chicago, IL. Photo by Kevin Nance

This 30 foot labyrinth is in the heart of the city, just 1 ½ blocks from bustling Michigan Avenue. It’s a small but beautiful labyrinth located on the upper level of a plaza between the cathedral building and East Huron Ave. It’s a peaceful place for reflection and prayer in the middle of the loud, bustling city. Open 24 hours to the public.

Lands End Labyrinth

Land’s End National Park, 680 Point Lobos Ave, San Francisco, CA

Land’s End labyrinth san francisco

Land’s End National Park, San Francisco, California. Jen | Flickr

Created by San Francisco artist Eduardo Aguilera, this labyrinth is constructed of stone and follows the classic design of the Chartres Cathedral labyrinth in Chartres, France. It is located on a dramatic outcropping at the Land’s End National Park in San Francisco, and overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge. Park trails lead to the labyrinth. It has been damaged or destroyed by vandals several times—but the artist and other lovers of the labyrinth have rebuilt it each time.

Freedman’s Town Labyrinth

1407 Valentine St., Houston, TX

Located in Freedman’s Town, Houston’s oldest black community which was settled by freed slaves immediately after the Civil War, this labyrinth was created by a diverse group of dedicated high school students, as well as Rice University’s Boniuk Institute for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance, with the help of artist Reginald Adams. The labyrinth sits on the site of the historic Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist Church, which had to be demolished in 2008 due to structural insecurities.

Cathedral of St. Philip Labyrinth

Cathedral of St. Philip, 2744 Peachtree Road NW, Atlanta, GA

Labyrinth in the cathedral of St Philip Atlanta

Cathedral of St. Philip, Atlanta, Georgia. Photo by Dan Murphy

You can find this labyrinth on the grounds of the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta. Like many labyrinths, it’s designed after the Chartres labyrinth, and is surrounded by a professionally landscaped area with shrubs, benches, and lighting. The labyrinth is handicapped accessible and open daily to the public.

Redsun Labyrinth

1802 Pleasant View Drive, Victor, Montana

This labyrinth is on private property, but it’s almost always open to the public unless a special event is scheduled. Surrounded by a serene grassland meadow with views of the Bitterroot Mountain Range, it is 108 foot in diameter, which makes it one of the largest in the United States.

Commemorative Labyrinth

Boston College, 140 Commonwealth Ave., Chestnut Hill, MA

Commemorative labyrinth at Boston College

A labyrinth at Boston College. Photo by Lee Pellegrini

The Memorial Labyrinth at Boston College was built to commemorate the 22 Boston College alumni who were lost on September 11, 2001 in the attacks on the World Trade Center. The labyrinth is open to the public and is located on the campus near the Burns Library.

Karen Beattie
Karen Beattie
Karen Beattie is the author of Rock-Bottom Blessings: Discovering God’s Abundance When All Seems Lost. Her magazine articles and essays have appeared in America, Christianity Today and Power of Moms. She lives on the north side of Chicago with her husband, 5-year-old daughter, and geriatric cat.

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