Walking in Circles

Retreat planners may find that using a prayer labyrinth strengthens group members’ connection with God

By definition, a retreat is a going-away time, a taking a little time for yourself time. It’s a time to renew and refresh your mind, body and spirit. More specifically, though, a retreat is designed to model God’s concept of Sabbath. God created the world and included time to rest, but the busyness in our lives has pushed us far away from that divine gift of R&R. We have become so over-scheduled, over-committed, overtired, overworked, over-worried, overemotional, over budget…over and over and over again. A retreat helps break that pattern. It inserts a time-out, a Sabbath rest, in the middle of our fast-paced, sensory-overloaded lives.

Washington Outdoor Labyrinth

Washington Outdoor Labyrinth

Yet a prayer labyrinth is a wonderful retreat tool for deepening spiritual connection with God that actually engages the mind and spirit through bodily movement. Visitors to a labyrinth will spend time silently walking and talking with God and giving God time and space to speak into their lives. For retreat planners, some of the many benefits of incorporating the walking of a prayer labyrinth include:

  • Helping participants’ minds to focus on creating a connection with God by occupying their bodies with a familiar, repetitive physical task (walking) done within a safe, structured environment (labyrinth path).
  • Offering a spiritual growth tool which is accessible to people of various ages and stages of faith.
  • Making extended quiet time more productive by adding a simple physical component, lessening the “strangeness” of group silent meditation and reflection.
  • Creating a common group activity that is experienced individually, providing for a wealth of follow-up conversations post-walk.

BUT ISN’T THAT A NEW-AGEY THING?

Actually, labyrinth symbols have been discovered on archeological remnants dating back almost 4,000 years in pre-historic cultures. However, use of the labyrinth in Christian art and architecture dates back to Roman Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity and his hosting of the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Founded in 324 AD, the Basilica of St. Reparatus outside of Algiers in North Africa is the first documented example of a Christian church with a labyrinth. Following the Roman-style mosaic tile floor layout, the center contains the words “Santa Eclesia” or “Holy Church” repeated over and over again as a type of prayer.

St. John's Church in Glastonbur

St. John’s Church in Glastonbur

While the terms labyrinth and maze often get used interchangeably, they are very different things. Both are pathways, often big enough to be walked. A labyrinth, though, is not designed to deceive. It has no dead ends or confusing twists and turns like a maze so that a walker can never get lost. The oldest form, called a Classical labyrinth, is rounded and contains a single path that loops back and forth on itself toward a center point which requires the walker to turn around and go back out the way she came.

During medieval times when labyrinths grew in popularity as a Christian symbol of following one path to God, another design emerged, based on a symmetrical, quadrant geometry, with the most famous one still on the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France. Again, its purpose was to allow the walker to move intentionally toward the center (toward God), pause for a time of extended prayer or worship and then follow the path back out of the labyrinth (toward the world), hopefully leaving with a deeper sense of God’s presence in her life. (For detailed descriptions and illustrations of labyrinth types, visit www.labyrinthos.net/typology.html).

“For me, personally, I think we need more symbolism in Christianity,” says Debbie Warnock, a Virginian artist, gardener and pastor’s wife who created a backyard labyrinth that is now open to visitors. “Sometimes it seems like we forget about the whole thought process with symbolism. It’s a tool that God gave us. It’s like art. Symbols give us a visual that can help ground us in our feelings.” And, according to labyrinth users and researchers, a revival has been underway since the 1980s, reintroducing this spiritual-physical prayer practice to modern Christianity.

More specifically, though, Warnock sees the labyrinth as her faith forefathers did…as a metaphor for a life spent walking with God. Visitors to Warnock’s labyrinth receive a bookmark that explains that upon crossing the threshold, walkers are encouraged to let go of their worries, clear their minds of worldly things and invite God to be present with them. Upon reaching the center, walkers can pause to reflect on areas of their lives that need spiritual work, that need God’s healing, that need God’s guidance, that need celebration and thanksgiving of God’s blessings. This rest can be a time of prayer, of enjoying God’s creation, of reading Scripture, or of heart-to-heart conversations with God. When the walkers are ready to move out of the labyrinth, they are encouraged to actively listen for the still, small voice of God speaking into their lives.

“I think of when God was walking with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (before the Fall) and how the whole experience was so intimate, just the two of them and God, walking and talking,” Warnock said. Which is exactly the purpose of a retreat…to get people walking and talking with God in a deeper, more purposeful way and encouraging them to carry that close, personal connection back into their daily lives.

LEARNING ABOUT THE LABYRINTH

bigstock-Section-of-outdoor-prayer-laby-36975604 (Retreats)

However, before incorporating a labyrinth into your retreat plan, be aware that some people might feel that this activity is too far outside their faith tradition for it to be meaningful. Or, it may be a completely unfamiliar approach to the planning team, so it’s best to keep these pre-walk guidelines in mind:

  • Do background reading on labyrinths and be prepared to answer questions from the group as to the purpose and practice of walking a labyrinth. Testimonies from Christians who use a labyrinth as part of their prayer life might be useful to share. Check out prayer labyrinth expert Dr. Jill Geoffrion’s website for a wealth of background information at jillgeoffrion.com.
  • Be sensitive to your group’s/church’s theological comfort zone and determine if this approach is acceptable. Remember that a gentle nudge to encourage risk taking for spiritual growth can be helpful…a shove over the edge, not so much.
  • Give some structure to your group’s labyrinth time, especially if participants are new to the experience (see ideas below).
  • Explain labyrinth etiquette in advance. New walkers need to know that it’s okay to step aside or move off the path to let someone go around you. If your group is the only group using the labyrinth, decide if you will be silent or if talking quietly with one another is okay. It’s also normal for some to walk slowly and others more quickly. Each labyrinth walk is individually paced.
  • Depending on the size of your group and the size of the labyrinth, you may want to walk it in shifts or stagger the entry times. Having additional devotional materials or prayer options available can help keep the group focused even if they don’t all start and finish together

LEARNING FROM THE LABYRINTH

A prayer labyrinth returns believers to an ancient Christian practice designed for intentionally exploring and growing one’s faith. Used in the retreat setting, the labyrinth can not only strengthen individual connections to God but also to others sharing the retreat experience. Help your group members maximize their spiritual growth by…

  • Incorporating Scripture into your walk. Have either a verse or verses printed on a slip of paper for people to stop and read along the way. Or, have a reader stand outside the labyrinth and share a verse every few minutes. Labyrinth creator Warnock says her favorite is Psalm 16:11 from the Message translation: “Now you’ve got my feet on the life path, all radiant from the shining of your face. Ever since you took my hand, I’m on the right way.” You can also look up words like path, way, feet, guide, direct or seek in a concordance and choose a handful of passages or select denominational devotional/prayer materials for reflection. Make copies to give to the walkers.
  • Assigning prayer partners who will pray for one another during the walk.
  • Setting aside time after walking to talk with participants about their experience…Was it helpful? Was it comfortable? Did walkers gain any insights? Could they hear God’s voice? Would they do it again?
  • Inviting group members to bring a journal into the labyrinth and/or spend time journaling after walking.

READY TO HIT THE ROAD?

If you’ve decided that incorporating a labyrinth into your retreat is exactly what your group needs, find a labyrinth near you by visiting www.labyrinthlocator.com. Just type in your city, state or zip code and see what your options are. These days, public labyrinths grace the grounds of retreat centers, churches, parks and private homes, and this website gives you all the specifics you’ll need regarding location, type, hours of availability, etc. In addition, the website includes labyrinths from around the world, many located in the historic churches of Europe. (Note: For those reading this issue’s articles on English cathedrals and Germany’s LutherCountry, there are 128 labyrinths in England and 37 in Germany if you’re inspired to combine a European retreat with a prayer labyrinth walk.)

“The main thing for me,” adds Debbie Warnock, “is that the labyrinth is simply a place to be and to enjoy God’s presence, and any means that we can use to bring us closer to God, that’s healthy and wholesome, is a good thing.”

By Rachel Gilmore – author of The Complete Leader’s Guide to Christian Retreats (Judson Press, 2008, judsonpress.com). She is happy to answer planning questions via email (rachel@thegilmoregirl.com) and is available to work as a consultant with your planning team or serve as a retreat speaker.

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