San José Mercury News January 9, 1999

Turn, turn, turn

Visitors discover peaceful ways, ancient beauty of new labyrinth at First Unitarian

Mercury News Religion and Ethics Writer

A LITTLE before 11 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, Steve Stein walked to the center of the recently installed labyrinth in the sanctuary of First Unitarian Church in downtown San Jose. This was a slow, meditative walk, accented by the candles that lined the perimeter of the maze.

An hour later, Stein walked the labyrinth again, faster this time. It was a “happier walk,” he says, along the labyrinth’s meandering, circuitous pathways. At the stroke of midnight, Stein and his partner, Gary McCumber, arrived at the center and sat down to talk about the past year: the death of Steve’s mother, Gary’s change of profession. They spoke for 15 minutes about “the year’s journey,” says Stein, a Menlo Park interior designer, before retracing their steps through the seven concentric rings, arriving back at the entrance of the maze — a metaphoric “journey back to the outside world.”

At a time when millions of Americans are rejecting religious dogma and revising their sense of faith, the labyrinth — as old as myth — has emerged as a popular tool for many on the spiritual quest. There are hundreds of labyrinths in the United States, woven into carpets — as at First Unitarian — or painted on portable canvases, mowed in grassy fields, even constructed from Legos or as mosaics.

“When I first saw a labyrinth, I thought it was just decorative,” says Patrick Smiley, a space-orbit analyst for Lockheed Martin Missiles & Space who co-designed the First Unitarian labyrinth. “But it has a curious and unexpected affect on many people. For me, it’s a walking meditation — I’m not much good at sitting. It’s a way of settling down and rebalancing, I’ve found. And I hadn’t expected anything from it.”

Labyrinths are created in churches, primarily, but also in retreat centers, parks, health spas and prisons. At the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, cancer and hypertension patients, as well as their families, walk a labyrinth near the waiting room, looking for a moment’s solace. For these people, the labyrinth is rife with meaning. It’s been called a Western mandala, a primordial pattern — or “divine imprint” — that induces contemplation.

Path to inner peace

Labyrinth leads participants along a meditative journey

Entering the labyrinth, the mind quiets, the breath slows, time stretches out. As the walker follows the twisting, looping pathways, the center appears close one moment, far away the next. Someone who takes a slow pace at First Unitarian can spend a good 45 minutes traversing the loops that lead to the six-petaled rose pattern at the labyrinth’s center, passing the same people over and over along the way: “Some times you’re facing them, even bumping into them, and then you’re far apart, in a matter of seconds, even. It’s like your relationships with people in life,” says Marilynn Carstens, a music teacher, who is married to Smiley and belongs to the church’s “Labyrinth Guild.” On Jan. 1, the group began to supervise weekday, lunch hour walks that are open to the public.

One recent afternoon, Carstens walked the labyrinth with her hands folded behind her, eyes closed much of the time, intuitively leaning this way or that to avoid bumping into passers-by. In the silent, domed sanctuary, which suffered a devastating fire three years ago and reopened in October, a sort of slow-motion choreography evolved among those following the path, which has no forks in it, no blind alleys or tricks. The classical labyrinth is an encouraging place: a single path simply stretches out before you, and if you stick to it, you eventually reach the center. According to religious historians, pilgrims to the medieval cathedrals that housed labyrinths — the one in Chartres, France, is most famous — believed the maze’s center to be a spiritual center of the world, a Jerusalem of the heart.

First Unitarian owes its labyrinth to a trip that Smiley and Carstens made to Chartres in 1996 with the Rev. Lauren Artress of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. Artress, a psychotherapist and author, is largely responsible for the labyrinth movement of the ’90s. She established a non-profit organization at the cathedral to “pepper the world with labyrinths,” she says.

During the visit to Chartres, Smiley and Carstens joined Artress for an evening candlelight procession that moved through the crypt beneath the cathedral, up flights of stairs to the nave of the church where the labyrinth is inlaid in the stone floor. The Chartres labyrinth is 42 feet wide and contains 11 circuits that wind and turn toward its center. Looking up, the pilgrims saw many of the great events of the lives of Jesus and the saints, illustrated in the famous stained-glass windows. Impressed by the setting, and by the perfect proportions of the cathedral — it’s so-called “sacred geometry” — Smiley and Carstens returned to San Jose, borrowed a portable, canvas labyrinth from a church in Berkeley and invited congregants to walk it. Over a hundred showed up one Saturday morning, many standing in line for hours.

First Unitarian’s building committee soon incorporated a labyrinth into its plans for renovating the fire-wrecked sanctuary. There was one problem: there was room only for a labyrinth with a 22-foot diameter. The committee, wanting to model its labyrinth on the one at Chartres, was left with a mathematical puzzle: how to shrink the Chartres model from 11 circuits to seven.

Smiley, who helped plot the interplanetary journeys of space probes Galileo and Magellan, got stuck with this design nightmare: “I was dreaming labyrinths for weeks, and not in a pleasant way,” he says. “I was dreaming patterns, twisting shapes in my head, and had almost convinced myself that this was a mathematical impossibility. The whole ordeal gave me a lot of respect for the medieval artisans who designed the originals.”

After five weeks, Smiley came up with a pattern that worked. Members of the Labyrinth Guild have discovered that his design functions best when uncluttered — seven or fewer walkers at any one time is optimum. They have also learned that every person finds his or her own pace. Children typically run or dance or crawl through the labyrinth. Teenagers can’t help lying down inside the center, talking and staring up at the top of the dome, transfixed.

The labyrinth has pulled pilgrims toward its center for thousands of years. Labyrinth designs have been found on pottery from ancient Crete, where the most famous labyrinth myth arose. In that story, the warrior Theseus traversed King Minos’ labyrinth to its center and there killed the fabled Minotaur, a beast that was half human and half bull. Theseus negotiated his return by following a spool of thread unwound from the labyrinth’s entrance.

His journey has been interpreted to have a host of meanings — a descent into the underworld, an initiation rite of death and rebirth. The most enduring meaning might be that the twistings and turnings of the thread — given to Theseus by the princess Ariadne, his true love — represent the twistings and turnings of a human lifetime.

In more recent centuries, the labyrinth fell into disuse. The one at Chartres has barely been used in 250 years; even now, tourists find it covered by rows of portable chairs. Artress theorizes that labyrinths fell out of favor as the Western world “became frightened of these deep intuitive tools. The invisible world was shoved to the side. . . . Then Freud came forward and called the inner world a `Pandora’s Box.’ There’s the feeling that it’s sometimes terribly dangerous. And perhaps that’s why we have such a spiritual hunger.”

In recent visits to Chartres, Artress has been given permission to remove the chairs. She and Grace Cathedral’s dean, Alan Jones, will lead labyrinth walks and programs at Chartre during the month of May. In June, Chartre’s rector, Franois Legaux, will visit San Francisco to be made an honorary canon at Grace Cathedral. The “peppering” of the world continues: Artress says her ministry at the cathedral, known as Veriditas, has sold 2,000 “seed kits” that teach their owners to design labyrinths. Hundreds of “facilitators,” who teach the tradition of the labyrinth, have taken lengthy, $500 training courses at Grace.

Mission with a mower

Computer analyst discovers calling creating labyrinths

Among them is a computer analyst in Blaine, Minn., named Stu Bartholomaus. He is a modern-day Daedalus, the mythical builder of Minos’ labyrinth. With his wife, Mary, Bartholomaus has constructed labyrinths beside a beach in Texas and in fields all over Minnesota and Wisconsin.
He has made them in backyards and pastures, for a theater-arts group and for a community of Benedictine nuns. Last summer, he built eight labyrinths, one in Knoxville, Ky. His largest labyrinth is 200 feet across, mowed through a field with a 54-inch riding lawn mower. But most are 77 feet across, he says, with 20-inch paths cleared by his “Sears, $140 special mower.” When Bartholomaus trims a labyrinth with his lawn mower, friends say he’s “giving it a haircut.

“I cut a baseball diamond in my dad’s field when I was 12 or 13, and I maintained it, so it comes almost second nature,” he says. “I’m 55, so I suppose it’s a middle-age process. I get a lot of peace out of it. It’s my spiritual pastime. We’ve had a lot of things happen to us in recent years. . . . My in-laws got sick and reached an age where they had to go into a nursing home. A niece died in an accident. My son went to Germany and went AWOL for 30 days and I couldn’t find him. I had somewhere at least to relax and meditate and walk off some frustration.”

After services at First Unitarian a few weeks ago, a church member named Frank Farris bumped into an old friend who now lives in Colorado. There wasn’t adequate time to talk and catch up, so they walked the labyrinth, hugging as their paths crossed. “It was a really nice way to be with her without being chatty,” says Farris, an associate professor of mathematics at Santa Clara University. “We spend so much time reading and writing and thinking, and it’s wonderful to have an activity that allows us to worship by doing. I like the meandering nature of it. And I look forward to developing this practice over the long run. I just expect to walk the labyrinth once a week, maybe for a long, long time, and see what difference that makes in my life.”

One evening in October, Marilynn Carstens sat at the labyrinth’s center, listening to the conversations of congregants in the sanctuary. It was an emotional moment for her, when she made a connection between the labyrinth walk and the journey the church has been on the last three years, struggling to rebuild after the fire. She felt that the labyrinth was well-suited to its downtown home.

“I’ve lived here since 1966 and seen this valley grow from a very peaceable place to a frantic fast-paced one where everyone is so stressed,” she says. “And it seemed to me, `Here we are downtown, in the heart of it. And we can have a place for people to come and quiet themselves — how wonderful.’ . . . You go into the labyrinth and you wait, slow down, breathe. I go into it with antagonism and it just melts away and I come out of it with love.”

The labyrinth at First Unitarian Church, 160 N. Third St., is open to the public from 11:30 am to 1 pm every Wednesday and from 11:30 am – 12:30 pm on the first Friday of each month. For information call (408) 292-3858.

For information on the Veriditas ministry at Grace Cathedral, call (415) 749-6358 or visit

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