Winding Through a Labyrinth

Was a labyrinth a medieval path or a New Agey maze? With labyrinths mysterious but surprisingly common, I had to find out.

“Rock Labyrinth” image by Cassandra Rae licensed under Creative Commons “Attribution 2.0”
“Rock Labyrinth” image by Cassandra Rae licensed under Creative Commons “Attribution 2.0”
The sign was so coy; I’d walked past dozens of times without once registering it. “Labyrinth,” it whispered next to a small arrow along a busy sidewalk between a church and a bank.

This was on my own neighborhood’s commercial street of stores and restaurants. I walked this strip at least three times a week. Not only did I never notice the labyrinth sign, I also didn’t know quite what the word meant. It sounded mysterious and somehow both medieval and New Agey at once.

Then my husband pointed out that there was something as exotic as a labyrinth just a few blocks from us — and I wanted to learn what it was all about. Immediately, I hit a wall: Our local labyrinth beside the Unitarian Universalist Church was blanketed with snow.

While I waited for upstate New York’s snow to melt and reveal this labyrinth, I did a little research to try to understand what it was I was waiting for. Were labyrinths mazes? Nope, I learned, they’re not puzzles or mazes. No dead ends.

Were they in fact New Agey? The Labyrinth Society said no — they’re actually ancient. They are some kind of special winding paths to walk, and their patterns have turned up all over the world from hundreds, maybe even thousands, of years past. The history was a bit vague, but certainly intriguing. Since time immemorial, apparently, people had found walking labyrinths to be spiritually enriching.

Welcome sign at the labyrinth Lynn visited.
Welcome sign at the labyrinth Lynn visited.
One damp April day, I realized the last patches of snow were gone. And since I had my galoshes on, even the mud was no reason not to finally walk the labyrinth.

Bricks had been laid in the ground to create boundaries on the path. I would still be visible from the street, but no one would be able to see the path I was walking. I felt silly.

But I walked in and started circling around. Quickly, an obstacle emerged — a big tree branch had fallen into the labyrinth, surely during the gusts of a spring thunderstorm the day before. Should I move it? Or was walking over it symbolic now that I was in here, part of the prescribed path?

I tried to walk over it a few times, but with smaller branches poking from it, that got dicey. Soon I picked it up and tossed it out of the labyrinth. It felt good — and symbolic. The dead branch was keeping me from walking my path.

With a clear route ahead, I didn’t have to think. Unlike in a maze, I didn’t have to fear confusion, or dead ends, or getting lost. I trusted I would get to the middle. And my mind was lulled into autopilot. All I had to do was walk the path there for me.

The labyrinth at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo.
The labyrinth at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo.
Spiritually, I hadn’t expected too much — a labyrinth was outside my traditional church experience. But I somehow felt soothed. This could definitely be a metaphor for how to approach life, with less anxiety and more comfort.

After I’d gone through one, this simple Wikipedia definition of a labyrinth became clearer to me: “An ancient symbol that relates to wholeness. It combines the imagery of the circle and the spiral into a meandering but purposeful path. It represents a journey to our own center and back again out into the world.”

Ten minutes after I’d entered my labyrinth, I did go back into the world. Whether I’d journeyed into my own center or just carved some reflective time into a busy day, I went out recharged.

Interested in experiencing a labyrinth for yourself? Type your zip code into the Labyrinth Society’s Labyrinth Locator here.