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Centering in a labyrinth

March 24, 2013
By GLYNIS VALENTI - Staff Writer ( , Times Leader

Thoughts of a labyrinth might bring to mind twisting paths, confusion, one who is lost trying desperately to find the way out or sorting through any messy or lengthy situation. These visions apply in one sense but are not exactly descriptive of a true labyrinth.

Even dictionary definitions describe a labyrinth as "a maze of paths" or "full of intricate passageways and blind alleys" synonymous with a maze. Technically, however, they are two different things. The dictionaries really describe a maze, which has many paths, some leading to dead ends, others to exits and which is constructed mainly for entertainment purposes.

A labyrinth is unicursal, meaning there is one path and only one way in and one way out. Generally, the path is built with turns and twists in variations, and the path leads to the center. The walker retraces his steps back to the entrance/exit. The other difference between a labyrinth and maze is the intent. While the maze is a game, the labyrinth can be symbolic, ceremonial or contemplative.

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The Trinity Labyrinth at Trinity United Presbyterian Church in Zanesville is a classical 7-circuit labyrinth. The labyrinth is approximately 49 feet by 35 feet in size. Normally, a labyrinth is circular in shape but incorporating the pin oak tree is the reason why the Trinity Labyrinth is not circular. Gaps in the brick lines near the tree were intentional in order not to damage major tree roots. It has only one pathway (30-inches in width) with a length of 450 feet from the entrance to the center.

The labyrinth is estimated to be at least 4,000 years old. The word translates from pre-Greek to mean "place of the double-edged axe," the axe being a symbol of power in royalty and mythology. At this time, they are believed to have been ceremonial, used in rituals. In the Greek myth of the Minotaur, King Minos employed Daedalus to construct a labyrinth to contain the Minotaur, which was the half-man, half-beast son of Minos' wife and a bull. Later Theseus killed the Minotaur when his wife, Ariadne, gave him a ball of string used to lead him back out of the labyrinth.

The first Greek patterns are termed "meandering" and later developed into the "classic" styles, both rounded and square. This pattern is found on Greek coins around 430 BC. The Romans appreciated the design element and incorporated it into mosaics and floors. Labyrinths were generally unicursal until the Renaissance when the multi-cursal maze was developed for gardens. Many later styles and examples of labyrinths can be found throughout Europe and Scandinavia.

Two-thousand years before the Greeks were utilizing labyrinths in ceremonies and decorative arts, the same classical pattern was used in India, possibly illustrating floor plans for palaces and forts. The symbols were found in petroglyphs and cave paintings there.

On the other side of the world, at the same time the Greeks were stamping coins (around 400 BC), Native Americans were using a similar symbol, called the "Man in the Maze." The Hopi Indians used a classic style labyrinth symbol nearly identical to the Greeks' to represent Mother Earth and birth and rebirth. Labyrinths represent wholeness.

How is it that such different ancient cultures so far from each other come up with nearly identical drawings? Some researchers explain it as sacred geometry, a combination of geometric and numeric components that the subconscious recognizes as archetypes. Five universal shapes appear in every culture's art: circle, square, triangle, cross and spiral. The shapes echo those found in nature. In addition, these shapes represent similar universal concepts. The spiral has traditionally been a symbol of transformation, and the classic pattern begins with a cross that spirals back and forth toward the center.

Sister Mary Clark of the St. Joseph Retreat Center in Wheeling says their seven-ring Cretan-style labyrinth "has traditionally symbolized feminine spirituality and the universality of all religions."

"We built it because I have been interested in labyrinths for many years and felt that people of all faiths coming to our retreat center might find it to be a helpful way to prayer," said Sr. Mary. "Sacred space is by definition the place where two worlds flow into each other, the visible and the invisible. The finite world touches the infinite."

After the Middle Ages, labyrinth designs became more elaborate and their usage shifted from decorative to the symbolic to which Sr. Mary alluded. One of the most famous labyrinths was in the French cathedral, Notre Dame de Chartres, near Paris. Religious pilgrimages were popular, but most people were not able to afford the travel. Labyrinths represented that path to the holy, the journey of life with its twists and turns, leading to God at the center, finally emerging back into the world a more pious human being. Some pilgrims "walked" the labyrinths on their knees to increase the difficulty and sacrifice of the journey.

Today, labyrinths are tools for meditation and prayer, and walkers take the journey within. The walk is a metaphor for one's life-twists, following a path, seeking the center, becoming enlightened. Each person's walk will be different, according to his intent and meditation. Some walk it to relax, aid concentration, find balance or to heal.

The benefits of labyrinth walking have been proven in studies by Harvard Medical School's Mind/Body Institute. Dr. Herbert Benson found that it creates a "relaxation response" in the body, reducing anxiety and eventually lowering blood pressure, lowering breathing rates, reducing insomnia, decreasing chronic pain and gaining a sense of control of one's life. Churches, hospitals and health care facilities have been constructing labyrinths over the past decade having seen these effects.

Making one's own labyrinth does not have to be difficult, but it does take some planning and space. It can be as simple as painting a canvas for a portable floor labyrinth or as intricate as a mosaic-laid path. There are several websites with layouts, kits and instructions available, or landscape designers can come up with some ideas to fit the space.

Bill Miska says he visited a flagstone labyrinth in Lewes, Delaware and was "smitten." His church, Trinity United Presbyterian in Zanesville (, approved his proposal for one on church grounds after he spent time researching. He and five volunteers took six weeks (approximately 200 man hours) to build the 49 ft. by 35 ft. classical, seven-tiered labyrinth. Miska says they removed about two tons of soil and laid more than two tons of brick, which he and his wife donated. The path incorporates a pin oak tree and runs 450 feet to the center. The church held a fundraiser in 2011 and purchased a bench for the labyrinth, installed in 2012. Miska adds that the labyrinth, located at 830 Military Road, is open to the public during daylight hours.

The labyrinth at St. Joseph's Retreat Center ( was created during a summer volunteer program eight years ago. Sr. Mary said the stones come from all around the United States and Ireland. They hold an annual labyrinth walk - this year on Saturday, May 4 at 10 a.m. - and incorporate walks during retreats and "quiet days." It, too, is open to the public, but the Sisters ask for a call first to let them know when you'll be on the grounds.

Architect John Koch explains the power of architecture and sacred geometry, which also applies to the labyrinth: "The power within the symbols is vibrational, and the way they are used should optimally be compatible with the inhabitants Only when thought is coupled with intent arising from the heart, does manifestation occur."



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