For several years now the RCWMS labyrinth has been installed at Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill for the community to walk during Holy Week. Ensuring our safety through physical distancing measures means we don’t have the opportunity to be together in that way this year. Interestingly, the labyrinth itself was designed for those who couldn’t make the trip. Flo Johnston from the Raleigh News and Observer notes “the labyrinth was originally designed in the medieval church as a way for persons to make a pilgrimage of the heart, if they could not make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It was renewed as a spiritual practice in the 1990s and now there are labyrinths available for prayer walks globally.”
RCWMS Executive Director Jeanette Stokes reflects on her own initial labyrinth experience, and the impetus to create one for the Resource Center:
“When I first walked the Grace Cathedral labyrinth in San Francisco, 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.
The labyrinth turned out to be a path that actually took me places. It took me to a medieval understanding of God as the center of everything. It taught me about a time in Europe before the Reformation and the Enlightenment when the cycles of life and the seasons of the year were central metaphors. It introduced me to aspects of the feminine divine.
[Several months later,] I decided I wanted a labyrinth of my own. Since portable canvas labyrinths were then selling for about $3,500, I decided to make one. I had one degree in mathematics and one in theology and felt sure I could figure out how to do it. How hard could it be? I sought advice from labyrinth makers at Grace Cathedral, and figured out how to order enough heavy, unfinished, cotton canvas to make a forty by forty-foot floor cloth. The bolt of fabric that arrived at my office in Durham in early June 1997 was bigger than I was, and when I knocked it over our whole wooden office building shook.
It took a group of us 180 hours to cut, sew, draw, and paint a replica of the Chartres labyrinth onto the canvas. I know, because I kept track of the time. About half of the hours were mine.”
In the years since its creation the labyrinth has become a central part of RCWMS programming. For the uninitiated, the labyrinth forms a patterned circle containing a winding path that leads from the outer edge to the center of the pattern. There are no dead ends or tricks. If they follow the path, walkers are assured of reaching the center. The path is complicated enough, however, to prevent walkers from knowing when they will change direction and how far they have to go. This leads people to give up trying to figure out where they are and become absorbed by the walking itself.
Walking the labyrinth can be a way of centering. The serpentine path provides a metaphor for life’s journey. Though it is often hard to see where we are going, if we keep going, we wind up where we need to be. Walking the winding path of the labyrinth can be an opportunity to open the heart, experience the presence of the holy, and attend to life’s questions.
We can’t walk the canvas labyrinth in physical proximity this year, but we can still journey together on the path. St. Mother Theodore Guerin has a wealth of virtual resources about the labyrinth, and a terrific four-minute meditative labyrinth video with hauntingly beautiful chanting as accompaniment.
In 2019 the News and Observer created a short video featuring Jeanette and her reflections on the RCWMS labyrinth. Visit here for more resources, including labyrinth programming opportunities through RCWMS, and to view the video.