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Labyrinths: Solace for the Soul

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David-Anthony Curtis of Phippsburg likes to think of the labyrinth as a metaphor for life’s journey.


However, when the twists and turns of fate led him to Maine from Miami, in June 2001, he had no idea that his journey would also lead him to help institute a renaissance of labyrinths in the mid-coast Maine area. In the last four years, he has helped design and build four labyrinths in this area, with more on the drawing board for the future.


It wasn’t until after the events of Sept.11, 2001, that he seriously considered the possibility that his land in Phippsburg was large enough for a labyrinth.


A walking labyrinth usually measures from thirty to fifty feet in diameter and consists of a series of single concentric lines—usually circles, but sometimes squares—that always lead to the center and then back out again. Unlike a maze, it has no dead ends or false pathways.


“At that time, I was overwhelmed and reeling with the grief of the 9/11 tragedy,” said Curtis, now thirty-two.


While working in the woods, he noticed how the wind seemed to whisper in the pines and the way sunlight peeked through branches and gave the ground a golden glow. “The land is very beautiful here,” he said, “and it almost seemed that this land was waiting for something special like a labyrinth.”


After measuring carefully, Curtis decided that the land was the right size for the space needed. His decision to build a labyrinth was, in part, linked to watching scenes on television of people in New York City on September 11th. “As ashes were falling from the sky,” he said, “people were clearing them to walk the outdoor labyrinth at Trinity Episcopal Church.”


Walking a labyrinth has long been considered a source of solace, but its origins remain a mystery. Although prehistoric labyrinth petroglyphs, or etchings on rock, have been found along the coastline of northwestern Spain and northern Italy, it remains hard to pinpoint their date or purpose.


The earliest known example of an authentically dated labyrinth is on an inscribed clay tablet which was preserved by fire, from1200 B.C., in a palace in southern Greece, according to Jeff Saward, labyrinth scholar and author of Labyrinths & Mazes: A Complete Guide to Magical Paths of the World.


Early evidences of the labyrinth, often in art, pottery, and stone etchings as well as large areas of the ground, have been found in practically all religious traditions, cultures, and places—including Peru, Iceland, Egypt, India, northern Mexico, Brazil, Europe, northern Africa and the United States, especially in Arizona and New Mexico.


According to Sig Lonegren, a European geomancer—one who studies energy lines of the earth – interest in labyrinths is cyclic: “It comes and goes in cycles throughout history.”


“It was the geomancers,” Lonegren said, “who built the ancient sacred sites from the Great Pyramids and Stonehenge to the gothic cathedrals in France and England where a number of labyrinths can be found.”


Legend has it that the labyrinth can be linked to the ancient circles supposedly used by the KnightsTemplar—and supposedly transported to France.


Perhaps, said Lonegren, more old labyrinths can be found in Scandinavia than in any other place. “The Vikings built them at inland sites along the coast, thinking that by walking them, they would ensure good wind and good catches.”


At the beginning of the 20th century, he said, people stopped walking these labyrinths when motorized ships became the mode of water transportation and the need for good winds decreased.


The resurgence of interest started in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Europe and continued in the 1980s in the United States.


“Initially,” said Jeff Saward, “it was fostered by various individuals and special interest groups including artists, researchers and dowsers.”


Lonegren was one of those dowsers. “As far as I know,” he said, “I built the oldest labyrinth of that resurgence in the United States in 1986 at my home in Greensboro, Vt.”


But, according to both Lonegren and Saward, it was the Rev. Dr. Lauren Artress of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, who helped labyrinths go mainstream when she established the well-known outdoor labyrinth at Grace Cathedral which is modeled on the design of the 13th century labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral, France.


Artress’ 1995 book, Walking a Sacred Path, and her worldwide labyrinth workshops also helped popularize them—so much so that they are now being built in medical centers, rehab centers, day camps, retreat centers, churches, schools and parks.


The rediscovery of the labyrinth by both Christian and other spiritual groups has had a dramatic influence since that time, said Saward. “More labyrinths are now being created worldwide,” he said, “than at any previous point in their approximately 4,000 year history.”


Some authorities think labyrinths date back only 3,500 years; others venture a guess that they may have been here 5,000 years ago.


Why this resurgence?


“People are waking up,” Curtis said. They want answers to universal, complex, complicated questions like the meaning of suffering and war, and to more personal ones like: What is the next turn to take in my life’s path?


“To find out,” said Curtis, “they can plug themselves into the labyrinth almost like it is a spiritual electric circuit.”


By way of example, Curtis tells of the first time he walked a labyrinth in Lantana, Fla., soon after his father committed suicide. “At first,” he said, “I thought walking it was kind of silly and I almost quit. It wasn’t until I was on the way out, that something clicked. I started seeing that the twists and turns were related to my own path.”


“The burden of my father’s death was lifted,” he said. “I felt acceptance, reconciliation, peace, and forgiveness. It was very powerful.”


What Curtis experienced was what many labyrinth scholars might call “a listening prayer.”


“Walking the labyrinth today can provide a way of raising human consciousness,” said the Rev. Artress. “There is something sacred about it that heals and helps people realize their deepest longings.”

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