Church labyrinth 'crosses religious and cultural boundaries'

When the midday sun shines through the stained glass windows in the back of Memorial Church, the vinyl labyrinth unfurled on the chancel floor each Wednesday is bathed in shafts of ruby-colored light. The church's gilded surroundings elevate the painted plastic square to something more akin to its famous predecessor, the 12th-century stone labyrinth installed in the floor of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Chartres, France.

The fact that the labyrinth, recently acquired by the Office for Religious Life, easily can be rolled up and transported beyond the walls of the church—to be used outdoors, for instance, or in campus meeting rooms—is one of its chief virtues, said Joanne Sanders, associate dean for religious life. The 18-foot-square labyrinth is "practical and light. We wanted it to be portable."

The labyrinth is available for public use at the church every Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., but campus groups can use it at other times. Although often associated with Christianity, the use of labyrinths "crosses religious and cultural boundaries," Sanders said. The circuitous patterns found in labyrinths have surfaced in many cultures, dating back thousands of years, and have a centuries-old history as a spiritual tool.

Unlike mazes, which they resemble, the concentric circles of labyrinths contain no dead ends. Those walking the church's labyrinth travel along a looping, spiraling path to a rosette at the center, pause there for as long as they wish, and then make their way out again. In medieval times, individuals walked—or crawled—along the path of a labyrinth to symbolize a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Modern labyrinths often are used as aids to meditation, contemplation or prayer.

When Stanford's labyrinth was dedicated at Memorial Church last month, approximately 50 people gathered and walked deliberately and silently around its five circuits, including Rabbi Mychal Copeland, senior Jewish educator at Hillel at Stanford. Last year, Copeland constructed a labyrinth-like path in the Quad during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur based on a diagram created by the 16th-century rabbi and Kabbalah theologian Moses Cordovero.

She said she had been surprised to learn of a connection between Judaism and labyrinths, which, while expressed differently, are based on similar concepts. "It's a very universal medium. It's not specific to any religious tradition, but a motif that is used throughout history," she said. While making the Cordovero-inspired labyrinth, which combines sacred Hebrew letters in a circular, non-continuous path, "I felt like I was creating a map of the universe," she said in a sermon she delivered last year.

A 'turning peace'

Sanders' office acquired the medieval-style labyrinth in hopes of providing people with an alternative way to access their soul and spirit, she said. "There's a ferocious pace at which we all move. We wanted to try to have something that would provide a sense of peace." Although walkers are unlikely ever to be accompanied by dozens of others, as those who attended the labyrinth's dedication were, it is likely that users sometimes will encounter others, Sanders said. "It can remind us of our connectedness to others."

Upon entering the labyrinth, Sanders said, "for some people there may be something specific they are praying about or are troubled about—a burden." Many people find that the act of walking the labyrinth results in a sense of release and calm and allows them to leave with a sense of resolution or direction, she said.

Comments written in a notebook placed near the labyrinth underscore Sanders' words. "This is the first time I've ever walked a labyrinth. … I was skeptical," one person wrote. "But now I feel calm and rejuvenated." "A good dance, a turning peace"; "I felt my mind empty and then fill again," others added.

The new labyrinth is beautiful, agreed Elizabeth Lasensky, an administrative associate. A few years ago, Lasensky was introduced to a portable labyrinth much like the one now at Memorial Church during a Continuing Studies course. Ever since, she and a group of other enthusiasts have worked to find a way to construct a permanent labyrinth built of stone or other organic material on the campus grounds. Such a labyrinth, especially if built in a location close to the hospital, would augment the portable one acquired by the church, she said.

Finding space on campus and funds for the project has stymied their efforts thus far—but she hasn't given up hope, Lasensky said. "We want a destination where people can go at any time, for moments of joy or meditation or healing, to celebrate, to contemplate. The labyrinth is for all of these things."