Walking a labyrinth: one Providence Associate’s experience
In Fall 2021, I spent several days on retreat at the hermitages at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. During that time, I made three labyrinth walks. Each walk was helpful in my time of retreat. I had a sense that writing about the experience would help me more clearly understand what draws me to the labyrinth experience. Perhaps others will find it helpful.
What draws me to walking a labyrinth?
I am drawn to the circle as an open space. The circular construction of a labyrinth keeps me in awareness that this work, and this walking, will not ever cease. It will move in and out and around throughout my life. Circles are hopeful signs for me.
I love the pathway as both a way in and a way out. I need to find a way to get deep inside of myself so that I can hear the silence and the messages there for me. The pathway walking in to the center of the labyrinth provides this for me. I also need a pathway out of myself. The walk out is a way of releasing my ego self and of integrating the inner soul space with the daily world where I live.
How long does it take to walk a labyrinth?
The labyrinth at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods is a comfortable size for an experience that is about an hour in duration. I have never actually timed it! It seems that when I set out to have this experience, I set aside at least that much time – one hour.
The hour is the physical duration of my time spent in and on the labyrinth path. However, I come to a walk of this type after being nudged or called to it by some experience that has surfaced in my life. Sometimes the part involving being drawn to the labyrinth can be several days, weeks or months. I resist the experience at times. I do this because I know how real the experience is and how it impacts my life.
The labyrinth experience can have a very long life. The flow that accompanies me as I conclude a labyrinth experience does not end when I conclude a walk. The steps I have taken carry me along on the larger walks that I call my daily life.
Do you do the labyrinth walk alone?
Yes, I prefer to walk alone. I have lead others in a prayerful experience that included the labyrinth. It was impactful for me at that time. Hopefully it was also meaningful to those who accompanied me.
Never have I felt alone while doing a labyrinth walk. I once did a walk before sunrise at The Woods. I was joined by a deer that morning. That day I had some feelings of being fearful. So, I did the walk in the darkness because I wanted to practice physically facing some fear I was experiencing. I found it very helpful to face my fears in this way. I share this example as a way to help others understand that walking a labyrinth is a fluid experience. Each walk is different for me. I bring with me what I have at the time of the walk. God works with that.
How did you learn to walk the labyrinth?
I am still learning to do this. If there are instructions on this experience, I am not aware of them. I will acknowledge that I have not sought them out! My sense is that one learns about labyrinth work and what it can be about, by doing it. I have some routine postures that I use. They are from my own imagination. One practice that I began recently involves being intentional about the placement of my feet across the threshold that spans the starting point of the labyrinth. Once I place my feet firmly, I stand for a brief period and remind myself that I am holding space at the threshold of something new. I find this helpful.
Is walking the labyrinth a prayer?
This is a great question. I think walking a labyrinth can be a prayer experience in the same way that anything we do with quiet reverence and intention is prayer. I find sitting in prayer very challenging. The helpful part of labyrinth as a prayer practice is that it is an embodied experience. The path allows me to bring my whole self. The physical movement of my arms, legs, feet, hips, hands, head, neck and shoulders activates my heart and mind in a unique way. As I walk on the path in, the movement process allows me to slough off weighty feelings or thoughts I have been experiencing. This same walking action allows some opening and welcoming space on the path out. What I describe might be like someone very committed to the benefits of breathing practices in yoga, explaining the impact of breath in the overall experience.
Do you ever find yourself surprised when you are walking on the labyrinth?
There is an embedded spiritual “surprise” in the labyrinth at The Woods. On the way in, I usually become aware that I must be nearing the center. There is a longer curve that gives the impression that I am in “the home stretch”. As I come around to what I expect to be the final path to the center, one last curve appears up ahead. The path is longer than I expected. It is longer than I wanted it to be. Isn’t that just like life? I find myself learning this lesson every time I walk the labyrinth.
When you arrive at the center, what happens?
I normally allow an awareness of north, south, east and west to come. I face each direction for a short time. Sometimes I do a little stretching and I take several deep breaths. There are two curved sets of benches at the center of the labyrinth at The Woods. One set faces the cemetery and the other, Providence Hall. I sit first facing the cemetery and bring to mind all sister ancestors and their legacy. After a short time, I move to the bench that faces Providence Hall and think about the living ministry of the Sisters today. I find this time helps to deepen my connection with the Congregation.
Do you have a favorite season for walking the labyrinth?
I have a preference for the fall months because of the natural beauty of the trees as their colors change. I also believe the visual dying of natural things brings a clear sense of supporting my own letting go and letting come. Another person might prefer spring as the natural time for growth and rebirth. Just as the act of walking supports a deep and embodied experience, the seasons layer on meaning and nuance which will touch each person in a particular way. My encouragement is that if the dead of winter is a favored time, pull warm clothes on and give it a try.
Here are some great resources to learn more about labyrinths: