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Families: Relaxing In A Labyrinth

3 minute read
Harriet Barovick/New Canaan

A little before sunset on a Friday evening, the sound of Brahms fills the cavernous First Presbyterian Church in New Canaan, Conn. Doron and Hilary Ben-Ami, with their two children Juliet, 12, and Jake, 9, are among several families walking–slowly, shoeless and single file–through an elaborate, 40-ft.-wide labyrinth, painted in purple and white on canvas. Doron is the first to the center, where he is joined by his wife and kids. They sit together for several long minutes in meditation, then get up and walk the pathway out. “It’s really relaxing, and I also love the metaphor–it’s like a walk of life,” says Hilary. “We’re going to be near and far from each other but always together.”

The Ben-Amis, who are Jewish, drove an hour from Brookfield, Conn., for the Family Labyrinth Walk–held twice a year by the nondenominational New Canaan-based Labyrinth Project of Connecticut–to expose their kids to an ancient form of meditation and spirituality. In the Middle Ages, when Christians could not make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, they would walk a labyrinth to symbolize the journey. Today, adults and kids of all faiths are walking them to pray, meditate or simply relax.

Ten years ago, there were only a handful of labyrinths in the U.S., but seekers can now walk more than 1,500– including about 400 built in the past year. Unlike mazes, which are designed to confuse, labyrinths have only one continuous path to the center. They can be carved out of cornfields or gardens, or made of wood, stone, painted brick or canvas. They are showing up in hospitals, parks, prisons and schools. Some couples are getting married within ceremonial labyrinths. A new outdoor labyrinth at New York City’s Trinity Church, at the frenetic intersection of Wall Street and Broadway, is popular with traders from the nearby stock exchanges. A Washington artist had a labyrinth installed on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol for part of the past Lenten season.

Lauren Artress, an Episcopal priest at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, founded the modern U.S. labyrinth movement after discovering this quiet pleasure during a retreat in New Jersey in 1991. “We have a vast spiritual hunger in the West,” she says, “and labyrinths are a tool for centering.”

Devotees say labyrinths offer peace, comfort from grief–and sometimes better health. “We know now that nurturing a person’s emotional and spiritual side is a key part of the healing process,” says Greg Schaffer, president of Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, Md., who last summer helped install a now popular garden labyrinth on campus.

Educators are finding that labyrinths have benefits for children too. “Kids, like adults, are leading very frantic lives,” says Marge McCarthy, 71, a retired school psychologist who has consulted on the building of labyrinths in seven schools in Santa Fe, N.M., in the past two years. She recalls an eight-year-old writing that when he walked, he felt “relaxed, small, kind of in and not out.” Another liked having a “big circle around me” while he was in that place kids love to be–the center.

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