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Labyrinths and walking meditation

by Thomas W. Goodhue
Walking Meditation
Christianity has a long tradition of praying while moving. For example, we find labyrinths on the floors of medieval cathedrals.

Many people think of meditation and contemplation as happening only while seated, immobile for a considerable length of time. In both Theravada and in Mahayana Buddhism, though it is common to periodically walk briskly while meditating. Christianity, too, has a long tradition of praying while moving.

Labyrinths are patterns for moving slowly toward the center of a circle, through many twists and turns, and then moving back out by the same path. It is not a maze: There are no wrong turns or dead ends. If you begin at the opening and follow the path, you will eventually reach the center.

 Their use among people of many nations, cultures, and faiths goes back as much as 4,000 years. I tend to think of them as Christian myself, because they were commonly laid on the floors of medieval cathedrals as an aid to prayer, but similar, ancient patterns have been found in Greece, Ireland, North America, and elsewhere. I have walked a number of labyrinths over the years: in the chancel at the Riverside Church in Manhattan, outdoors at Little Portion Friary in Mt. Sinai, and both indoors and outside at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Stony Brook. I must confess that I was surprised to learn that UUs had a labyrinth, let alone two of them, but I shouldn’t have been: this is a spiritual practice that is decidedly non-sectarian, and UUs are a faith community that embraces people of many faiths and draws from diverse traditions.

At Stony Brook, the outdoor labyrinth is available during all daylight hours, but they also offer guided group walks of their 32-foot indoor labyrinth. There were two facilitators when I did the indoor walk, who added depth to my peregrinations. Linda Mikell prepared us for our walk and debriefed us after it. She asked us before we began what intentions we brought with us. The question puzzled me at first, just as I am often unclear what Catholics mean when they say they are praying “for intentions.” I quickly decided, though, that what I needed and wanted to offer that afternoon was gratitude. Others may have sought remembrance, relaxation, soul-searching, or the solution to some problem they faced.

We moved to the sound of gentle recorded music that was created especially for labyrinth walking. As I walked, following our facilitators encouragement to pause at each turn in the path, I found new reasons to be grateful: for my wife, for the luxury of a summer sabbatical, for the good earth God has given us, for food and shelter, for the chance to do ecumenical and interreligious work I love.

I am cautious myself about multifaith worship: it is easy to moosh together disparate traditions in a way that misappropriates them and misrepresents them. This walk, though, was done with care and integrity, a fine example of how it is possible to learn from another tradition without abandoning your own. Our other guide, the Rev. Carol Wolff was both our gracious host and a fellow walker, welcoming us and inviting us back without any need to turn all of us into UUs. For me as a Christian, it was humbling to experience something that is a part of my own spiritual tradition in the sanctuary of another faith community—but this may be exactly the sort of humility that God longs for us to learn.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Harlem has had a labyrinth for May 7, which is International Labyrinth Day. The Riverside Church has a huge one permanently embedded in the floor of their sanctuary, which groups use regularly. Perhaps you might like to walk one yourself?

Here’s something I found striking: The pastor was present but entrusted us to the leadership of others, something many Christian clergy are loathe to do. UUs could teach those of us who are leaders in other faith communities to let others take the lead a little more often.

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Linda Mikell August 23, 2023 - 10:05 pm

Thank you for your observatioins of deep trust and respect in leadership. I am humbled and delighted by your article. Stop by again at UUFSB. We are still walking every THursday at1 p.m. and second Tuesdays at 8 p.m.

Susan Peters August 18, 2023 - 11:48 pm

Glad you were able to experience the labyrinth in a UU congregation