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February 18, 2002

Labyrinth Walk acts as meditative path for many

By Stephanie Sonnenfeld


On Fridays, Cannon Chapel is a study in religious contrast.

On the first floor, a gospel choir rehearses. Modern lyrics about Jesus roll in and out of crescendos, and hand clapping peppers the verses. In between songs, casual conversation surfaces and laughter arises.

The singing flows upstairs, to a monastic scene where a circular Labyrinth mat on the floor is surrounded by delicate votive candles and trod upon by a group of five sock-clad women.

The scene is essentially the same every Friday at noon, when Cannon Chapel hosts its weekly Labyrinth Walk.

By definition, a labyrinth is a system of intricate passageways and blind alleys—a confusing maze, but spiritually the Labyrinth Walk has become an increasingly popular religious addition to standard prayer or traditional worship.

The Labyrinth Walk is not a maze, but a circular path with no blind alleys or surprise turns. There is no wrong or right way to walk a Labyrinth, and there is just one way in and one way out.

Participants walk a path that leads to a center circle, and once they reach that circle, they retrace their steps back out of the maze. While walking the path, they can meditate, pray or think about anything they want.

The women walking the Labyrinth at Cannon Chapel don’t talk to each other; they walk along the green lines, carefully meandering about. Some walk with their arms hanging by their sides, their palms outstretched and facing the khaki mat. Others are not even aware of their postures and concentrate only on their feet, the path and their journey on the mat.

They eventually all arrive in the center of the circle, kneeling, standing or sitting cross-legged. The five are in the small space together, but deep within their own thoughts. The only noises in the room are a few sniffles, an occasional deep breath and the muted rehearsal of the choir.

Emory has had its own Labyrinth for two years, purchased through funding from three Candler Offices (Women and Theology and Ministry, Church Ministry Continuing Education, and the Chapel) as well as Emory University’s Office of the Dean of the Chapel and Religious Life. The idea for the Labyrinth came from Beth Cook, an ordained Methodist preacher and director of church ministry. She first had heard about the practice from a friend, who had met Lauren Artress, a San Francisco-based Episcopal minister responsible for promoting the modern-day Labyrinth practice. At the time, Cook was working at a church helping people find their own prayer paths—as well as looking for her own.

The need for personal prayer and meditation became much stronger for Cook when she later battled cancer and she saw the two as key elements in her healing process. “I was sustained more by the prayers of others than by my own prayer [during that time], and the Labyrinth represented that I just had to do the praying,” Cook said. “Its metaphorical meaning at that point became so significant.”

Emory’s Labyrinth is a onepiece, hand-painted mat, spanning 36 feet in diameter. Theology student Theresa Ladrigan sets up the Labyrinth each week and said even its preparation is meaningful. “As I unfold the Labyrinth I contemplate the many journeys of prayer which the Labyrinth has given birth to, and I offer my own prayers to those who will walk the Labyrinth this day,” she said.

Ladrigan said the number of Labyrinth participants varies from week to week. Sometimes, there will be one person walking, while other weeks sometimes as many as 20 men and women will walk the path.

One of the most interesting things about the Labyrinth is that each walk is different for each person, she added.

Fellow theology student Kristen Terrell-Wilkes said the Labryinth is a way for her to slow down and get back in touch with herself and her relationship with God. Biology department employees Tonya Davis and Larraine Forrestor said their weekly walks are an extension of their already strong religious faiths. Candler student Juanita Bergacker said the walks have become a way for her to examine issues in her life and reach solutions to problems.

The Labyrinth is different from traditional Christian religious practices in that there are no prescribed prayers to follow or actions to take. Confession isn’t involved, baptism isn’t required and the absolution of sin isn’t necessary; it’s simply an avenue for self-guided reflection.

These differences are what drive its popularity. Signs advertising Labyrinths of all kinds are seen in front of area churches of various religions. During Lent, Cook said she will meet with seven congregations to discuss the use of Labyrinths in Christian prayer life.

Younger churchgoers demand options like the Labyrinth, Terrell-Wilkes said. They want more from religion than just the Sunday service, and a Labyrinth is an easy, accessible religious outlet.

But do older generations see the Labyrinth as a new worship option, or is it something they don’t want in their parishes? “There are older generations who are wideopen to this,” Cook said. “They’ve been hungry for it all their lives but the church hasn’t been a place where they can live that out.,” she said.

“[The Labyrinth] is a whole person experience—it’s body and soul, and it doesn’t separate the two as we are tended to do in Western religion,” Cook continued. “Each day we understand more and more about the connection between body, mind and soul, and the Labyrinth becomes a place where the whole person prays.”

The Labyrinth Walk is held in Cannon Chapel every Friday from noon to 2 p.m. It is free and open to participants of all religious backgrounds. For more information, call 404-727-6225.