The idea of a labyrinth may evoke images of complicated mazes, maybe underground, filled with trolls and goblins and things that go bump in the night. Anyone familiar with Greek mythology will recall the deadly Minotaur was trapped in a labyrinth. In medicine, the term refers to a complex structure in the inner ear consisting of bony cavities filled with fluid and lined by soft membranes. You would be forgiven if you didn’t find the concept of a labyrinth particularly soothing.
It turns out, however, that labyrinths are meant for wandering, but unlike a maze, which has multiple entries and exits, each labyrinth follows a single path in and out. And, labyrinths aren’t three-dimensional mazes built of walls and hedges, but are often a pattern etched into the ground. A labyrinth’s path allows for meditation and spirituality, a way to root yourself in mindfulness, nature and community.
Pacifica hosts a labyrinth of its own in the garden of St. Edmund’s Episcopal Church. The church offers services on Sunday and encourages other groups and faiths to use its facilities as well. That includes individuals who are welcome to meditate, think and walk the labyrinth in the church garden.
Although St. Edmund’s was established in 1956, the labyrinth is a relative newcomer, partly because many Episcopal churches of the time moved around quite a bit. St. Edmund’s started in a private house, moved into the bowling alley, and eventually found its current home in the 1960s. Still, that home happens to be in a residential neighborhood, meaning it doesn’t stand out. Over the years, many groups have found the space and used it for Buddhist meditation, Jewish High Holy Days, and even private children’s parties.
The labyrinth was added to the church garden in 2003 and is painted in green on a concrete foundation in the center of the garden. The design features nine concentric circles that form eight channels, or circuits, that lead to the center. Benches sit among native plants, trees and flowers in the garden and offer further chances for meditation.
Labyrinths can be found in most of the world’s popular religions and belief practices and date at least as back to 4,000 years ago. They are typically identified by type, handedness, and number of circuits. The Classical labyrinth hailing from 2,000 BC features seven circuits and has a slightly uneven look somewhat resembling the shape of a brain. Classical labyrinths from that time period were mostly right-handed, meaning walkers set off to the right. Although handedness doesn’t change the nature of the labyrinth, it is interesting to note that modern labyrinths are mostly left-handed, which indicates something as changed in our perceptions since those ancient times.
In the second century BC, the Romans introduced a square labyrinth that became popular in Europe, Northern Africa and anywhere else the Roman Empire flourished. By the ninth century, circular labyrinths were back in vogue, not in the Classical style but rather made using a series of concentric circles, like the one at St. Edmund’s, featuring a flower-shaped pattern at the center. These Medieval style labyrinths remain the most popular variety today.
No matter what style the labyrinth was built in, the purpose for each remains the same: Walk the path at your own pace and let your mind meander as your steps follow the purposeful pattern.
On a recent autumn evening in St. Edmund’s garden, the wind offered a welcome relief from the heat of a sunny day. Birds trilled and insects flitted between orange, red and pink blossoms. A soft wind ruffled through the trees, wafting the scent of jasmine. The labyrinth was a perfect place to be within the mind but at peace with the outside world. For a few moments, at least, all the problems trapping us from within diffuse out and we’re left with only the simple process of walking in and walking out, one path taken one step at a time.
St. Edmund’s Episcopal Church is located at 1500 Perez Drive. The labyrinth is open from 7 a.m. to dusk and is free to the public.
For more information, please call (650) 359-3364 or saint-edmunds.org/html/labyrinth.html.