By Kathy Berken
One gorgeous day recently, I decided to explore the campus of the Sisters of St. Joseph, next to St. Catherine University here in Saint Paul. I spotted the familiar labyrinth near the rain garden and was surprised to see a new one a little farther away under some shade trees. Lined with stones and rocks, the path was mulch, the center was flat rocks and the outside ring was a little hill with plants. I walked up to the entrance and stood in silence for a minute.
There is something unusual and yet familiar about this particular prayer form. I’m praying outside in a public place walking along what looks like a maze in the grass. It’s not a maze but a single path winding this way and that towards the center, a place to rest and reflect. After a while, you retrace your steps and spend a little more time in prayer.
It all seems so simple, doesn’t it? You’re just walking a circuitous path in silence. Other than a few suggestions to pause awhile before and after the walk to reflect, and to walk the path with intention, you’re on your own. Some suggest paying attention to feelings and thoughts that arise while walking, and what else you notice about yourself and the environment.
Lisa Moriarty, a friend and former director of the International Labyrinth Society, has designed and led the installation of dozens of labyrinths in the Twin-Cities area. (See her site, pathsofpeace.com.)
“Like the prayer beads and shawls,” Lisa explained, “the labyrinth is yet another prayer practice that is available to Christians today, where quiet reflection can draw our heart closer to God, and silent steps along the peaceful paths can deepen the prayer experience.” She noted that labyrinths have been used in the Christian church since the fourth century. “In the middle ages,” she said, “several Catholic cathedrals in northern Europe installed labyrinths as a permanent and prominent feature in the floor of the naves, often as the first pattern one encounters as they step into the cathedral.” The most famous may be the one in Chartres Cathedral in Paris. Today, thousands of replicas of these ancient cathedral labyrinths are being made and used in churches all over the world. In Iowa, Our Lady of the Prairie near Wheatland, Sacred Heart Parish in Maquoketa and Prairiewoods Spirituality Center in Hiawatha are among the myriad sacred places that have installed labyrinths. (To find more, see labyrinthlocator.com.)
I’ve prayed with labyrinths all over the Midwest, indoors and out, including the one at Our Lady of the Prairie Retreat. Each experience is different. Sometimes I share the path with others, giving me a sense of being on the journey together. When I’m alone on the path, I often sense a deeper unity with God.
Lisa recently led the installation of a labyrinth at the Franciscan Retreat Center in Prior Lake, Minn., where I work. We encourage retreatants to go outside and include the labyrinth in their prayer. I tell them that their experience is unique, with no right or wrong way to do it.
This day, as I stand at the entrance of the labyrinth, I stare at the entire layout, noting the rocks, mulch, flat rocks and plants. I also wonder how long this journey will take. I step onto the path and walk with no expectation, eliminating any distracting thoughts. When I get to the center, I stay only a minute, and then I walk the path back where I feel more peaceful and aware that this simple exercise might later have a more profound effect.
Did I find meaning in my labyrinth prayer this day? Yes, I did. Prayer is so simple. It is so easy to be with God. It does not necessarily require special words, fancy clothing, rehearsed lines or memorized songs. I’m on this path right now, heading to the Interior, and that is sufficient.
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton 1999-2009 and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)