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Background on our Labyrinth

by Jeanette Stokes

The first time I walked the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in 1996, I fell in love with this form of walking meditation.

The labyrinth is a 40-foot-wide circle containing a winding path that leads from the outer edge to the center of the pattern. The design is taken from Chartres Cathedral in France where it was laid into the floor in the 13th century.

The labyrinth has no dead ends or tricks. By following the path, walkers are assured of reaching the center. The path is complicated enough, however, to prevent walkers from knowing how far they have to go. People usually give up trying to figure out where they are and become involved in the walking itself.

Walking the labyrinth is different for each person, but there are some general guidelines. Walking in towards the center can be a time of letting go, quieting the mind, and releasing the details and worries of one's life. As people reach the center, they often sit or stand for a while--resting, meditating, or praying. Walking out from the center can be a time for integration, for absorbing the experience.

When I first walked the Grace Cathedral labyrinth, I felt like I was walking into the middle of myself. When I reached the center, I sat down to meditate. I felt received and blessed as though by the warm love of a mother's arms. I did not want to leave. I did not want to leave myself. I felt certain that I could return to that place.

A year later, I bought enough heavy canvas to make a 40 by 40-foot floor cloth. The 6-foot tall bolt of fabric weighed more than I did. It took a group of us 180 person-hours to cut, sew, draw, and paint a replica of the Chartres labyrinth onto the canvas. Our labyrinth made its first public appearance at Duke Divinity School in September 1997. Since then it has been laid out for religious and community groups from Raleigh, North Carolina to Berkeley, California.

Walking the labyrinth can be a way of centering oneself. The serpentine path provides a metaphor for life's journey. Walking can be an opportunity to open the heart, to experience the presence of the holy, and to attend to life's questions.