A labyrinth is not so much a puzzle to be solved as a mystery to be revealed.
Once inside, there is a physical destination, but the journey is meant to be spiritual.
The Rev. John Anderson of St. James Lutheran Church in Brunswick believes the labyrinth lends itself to the prayerful reflection Christians seek during the Easter holiday. The church at 2229 Starling St. will have a labyrinth set up inside its parish hall on Holy Saturday, April 20. It will be open to visitors from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. that day and all are welcome to participate.
Labyrinths have been around since time immemorial, with roots ranging from ancient Greece to Egypt, as well as certain cultural traditions in the Americas. The spiraling pattern of shifting paths that leads to a central destination has early ties to Christianity, with labyrinths being incorporated into church walls and floors as early as 1000 C.E. The one offered at St. James Lutheran will be patterned after the famous labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France, which dates back to the early 13th Century.
Anderson equates navigating a labyrinth to “meditation in motion,” a physical task that can still the participant’s mind. It also has been referred to as a “prayer walk.”
“In today’s world I don’t think a lot of people have that quiet space to reflect and just let themselves be open to what happens,” said Anderson, a retired Lutheran pastor from Savannah who presently serves in an interim capacity at St. James. “A labyrinth offers the opportunity to do that while you’re in motion. I think a lot of people have a difficult time sitting down in a quiet space. But if you can walk in quietness, I think that speaks to a lot of people.”
Over the years, Anderson has seen the labyrinth’s transformative powers in action. He set up a labyrinth at a hospital in Savannah shortly after 9-11. Patients, hospital staff, paramedics and EMS workers — some 500 folks in all — found moments of tranquility inside the labyrinth there at the hospital. He has seen people mourning the loss of a loved one enter a labyrinth weighted with grief, only to step back out of it lightly and with a sense of closure and renewed love.
“Those are the kinds of things that can occur inside a labyrinth,” Anderson said. “They can have very powerful experiences.”
He recalled years ago watching a group of high schoolers enter a labyrinth with typical teenage rambunctiousness. The transformation that came over the youngsters as they reached the labyrinth’s center was palpable, he recalled.
“They were rushing through it, and all of a sudden, they just started to slow down,” said Anderson, 74. “I noticed how they got serious. The labyrinth gave them a new and unexpected understanding of themselves.”
Anderson was first introduced to the labyrinth as a spiritual tool more than 20 years ago, during theological training in Atlanta. His initial attitude was cynical, at best.
Upon entering the labyrinth, he viewed a painting of Christ being crucified; upon exiting, the same painting depicted Jesus’ resurrection. Moved by the experience, Anderson discovered that the painting had depicted Christ’s resurrection all along.
“I saw the crucifixion going in and the resurrection going out,” Anderson recounted. “The painting I saw had not moved, but my perception of it had. It was never done as a crucifixion; it was the risen Christ, ascending. The experience was powerful enough to actually change my perception.”
He has since made visits to the two labyrinths at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, one inside and another outdoors, and to the venerable indoor labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France.
The labyrinth’s influence transcends to multiple spiritual traditions and faiths, he said.
“At the labyrinth outside the cathedral in San Francisco, buddhists come and walk it, muslims walk it, hindus walk it. All kinds of people are drawn to it,” he said.
There is no wrong way to walk a labyrinth, Anderson said. Participants are asked to inhale a few calming breaths as they stand before the entrance. Prayerful meditation about the spiritual journey ahead is advised just prior stepping into it. Anderson urges participants to avoid preconceived notions about what may transpire during the time spent navigating the labyrinth.
“It’s a powerful thing, even if you don’t expect it to be,” Anderson said. “The labyrinth always gives you something. It’s up to you to experience what is real for you.”
For more information, call St. James Lutheran at 912-265-6814.