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Posted: December 17, 2004

Spiritual Caregiving

Understanding Labyrinths

(Editor?s Note: Why are many churches, community centers, and even hospitals installing labyrinths? The ancient practice of walking the labyrinth is said to resurface periodically when cultures are in a time of transition. The labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France, for example, had fallen into disuse for centuries until recent times. These two articles point to the deeper significance of the contemporary resurgence of interest.)


Ancient Path to High-Tech Healing:

Labyrinth Helps Patients Traverse the Medical Maze

Since the dawn of time, humans have tried many different approaches to healing those in pain. Medical progress is not always as linear as one might assume. Treatment techniques come in and go out of vogue. Archaeologists have recovered Neolithic human remains showing signs of surgery, one of the core components of contemporary medicine. Modern, scientifically trained medical practitioners have come to recognize once again the value of one of the most ancient of healing techniques, one that addresses the needs of both the mind and the body on several levels: the labyrinth.

This mystic path ? not to be confused with a maze, whose goal is to confound ? leads a walker through a pattern that symbolizes the journey from the outer world to the inner, and, after a pause at the center, back to the outer world again.

California Pacific Medical Center is the largest not-for-profit medical institution in California. Inside its main hospital, it seems little different from many other modern medical facilities. Physicians and nurses handle life-and-death matters in an increasingly high-tech setting, helping patients and their families deal with the stress of illness and injury. Outside the main entrance of this modern facility stands one of their resources: a labyrinth, a modern rendition of a time-tested tool for restoring spiritual and physical health.

This labyrinth is a spiral path marked on the ground. It is set apart by a low wall and planters, but not hidden away, an indication of the Center?s open acceptance of the value of spiritual healing. The entrance is indicated by large rocks, and the space at the center of the labyrinth has been left empty, creating a place where those who walk the path may center themselves. The labyrinth, designed by Victoria Stone, is administered by the Center?s Institute for Health and Healing.

According to Dr. William B. Stewart, the medical director of the Institute for Health and Healing, patients, members of their families, visitors, and the Center?s staff all use the labyrinth. Some patients and family members find it on their own, others have it pointed out to them by staff members. For some walkers it is a relaxing stroll. For others it represents a deeper spiritual journey.

While Dr. Stewart declines to talk about any particular cases, citing confidentiality, he points out that the benefit each walker derives depends on his or her own ways of knowing and being and experiencing healing. For Dr. Stewart, the very fact the labyrinth exists at the Center is representative of the Center?s acceptance of complementary (what some call alternative) medicine used in conjunction with more standard practices.

Dr. Stewart feels we have forgotten the importance of the site in which healing takes place. Just as the prehistoric shamans performed healing rituals in caves, the ancient Greeks had temples dedicated to healing, and the Navajo healer creates a sacred place with sand paintings, we, too, need special places where healing can occur. He likens the healing process to a journey ? much the same way the spiritual life is often compared to a journey. ?Walking from outside to inside along a labyrinth symbolizes the journey from external to internal. The same core word forms health, healing, and whole [the Anglo-Saxon hal]. The goal in healing ? as in the spiritual life ? is to make the ill whole, physically, mentally, and spiritually on that journey.?

For more information, contact: Institute for Health and Healing, California Pacific Medical Center, P.O. Box 7999, San Francisco 94120.

-- Mary Elizabeth Allen


The Sand Labyrinth: Meditation at Your Fingertips

By Lauren Artress
Journey Editions 03/01 Paperback $44.95

Lauren Artress is an Episcopal priest at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and the founder of Veriditas, the Worldwide Labyrinth Project.
This boxed kit contains an 88-page paperback, a bag of sand, two labyrinth patterns, and a wooden box. The sand labyrinth can be used in the home or office, especially in times of stress or periods of decision-making. The act of tracing the labyrinth with your finger through a fine layer of sand helps you tap into your intuition and draw you into a calm, meditative state.

Artress, the author of Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool, encourages users to experiment with the two labyrinth patterns for different needs. The classical seven-circuit one, with its broad sweeping turns, tends to create a relaxed, extroverted state of mind. The eleven-circuit medieval labyrinth takes you through many more turns, in both directions, before you reach the center. It tends to leave people in a more introverted and reflective state.

Artress suggests that it may be helpful for practitioners to think of the labyrinth experience as having three phases ? releasing, receiving, and returning. The author, who also teaches an annual month-long program at the labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral in France, presents five spiritually rich sections on specific uses of this ritual. They are: allowing healing into your life, creativity as a spiritual practice, discovering your soul assignment, awakening self-knowledge, and experiences on the path.

Each section includes a fine selection of quotations for reflection.

Artress concludes: "Whether walked or traced in sand, the labyrinth pattern is a powerful tool for reflection, meditation, realignment, and a deeper knowledge of self."

--Book Review by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat

This article originally appeared in Spirituality & Health magazine, For subscriptions call 1-800-876-8202 or see Editor Stephen Kiesling and his staff contribute weekly columns, features and articles published every Friday as "Spiritual Caregiving" at Contact staff directly via email at

© 2004 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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