Chronicle: Walking the Labyrinth – Living, Paganism, Perspectives, Witchcraft

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I don’t remember much the first time I walked through a maze. I know I was in seventh grade because that was when the nuns who led Saint Mary of the Assumption (Govans) brought enthusiastic potential novitiates into the lush gardens of what was then called College Notre-Dame on North Charles Street in Baltimore. Once or twice a week in the spring, about twenty exuberant seventh-graders in crisp checkered skirts and white blouses could try to “find God” in the grass, although some of my classmates preferred to use their time to check out the latest gossip instead. It was probably a ploy to attract future nuns; I’m sure recruiting was a concern for someone in order.

One of these days I took my favorite path through the gardens – a long winding path made up of worn, uneven cobblestones. The stones were slippery from the early morning rain so I took off my blue and white saddle shoes and my soft sea socks. (We weren’t allowed to wear tennis shoes, or anything that felt comfortable.) As most of my classmates went inside for activities with the nuns, I walked around barefoot to find the deepest patch of grass: a place where I could chat with the Christian god.

Looking back, I’m shocked no one picked me up more often. Sometimes a nun would come down the hill and find me at my favorite place; I remember putting my hands together as if in prayer, perhaps pretending to speak aloud. My goal in the beginning was just not to go back to class, but what started out as a ruse became reality over time.

In my place, there was a bench next to a statue of the Virgin Mary. That day, I remember asking the Christian god why my math teacher, Sister Collette, hated that I use a pen instead of a pencil, and why Ms. English didn’t like my friends. When I was older, I understood that adults think the rules are important to follow, and when enough people agree on the rules and no one disputes them, they become almost sacred, like religious principles. In the maze, the god and I resolved my teenage angst and came to understand what was going on in the world around me.

I have sought refuge many times from the stones of the labyrinth, in the sun and in the rain, barefoot, with tufts of grass and hardened pebbles enlarging the soles of my feet. Looking back, I can see how these stones hardened me, like life does for the human spirit. The labyrinth gave me a respite from the difficult world traversed by young people; for a while, it allowed me to hide from my problems. I didn’t believe in the traditional Trinitarian doctrines of the church, even when I was nine years old, but I did believe in one-on-one communication with the divine, and this was where I was going to have that communication. It started out as a place to pretend, to avoid going back to school, but it has become a real religious outlet. It is now accepted that as a practitioner of an earthly religion, I find something sacred about spending time in nature. To speak with, and more importantly, to listen to the gods, is to do exactly as I did in the gardens of Notre Dame.

We still visited the gardens while I attended the Lycée des Sœurs de l’Ecole de Notre Dame, but it was rarer at the time – maybe once a year. Instead, the high school girls got press of the joys and fulfillment of religious life, with its promise of a community of like-minded explorers who chose to serve the Christian god together through teaching. , service and prayer. Take away the monotheism, and it looks remarkably like a coven, lodge, kinship, or any of the other names that pagans used to describe our communities, at least to a teenager. It’s funny to think that part of my attachment to my current religious home could come from these outings to Catholic school.

I never left the labyrinth after graduating. On occasion, I would meet another and remind myself of the joys of being there, moving deep within with each inward step and coming together with each outward step. In France, I had the chance to walk through the famous labyrinths of cathedrals like Chartres. But while the largest labyrinths were in Catholic fortresses, the simpler stone ones found in the middle of a field were just as fun to walk through.

Visitors walk through the labyrinth inscribed in the floor of Chartres Cathedral [Daderot, Wikimedia Commons, CC 3.0

The labyrinth came roaring back into my life in 2004, at my first Pagan Pride festival. The Reclaiming Tradition had built one in front of the large eight-pillared entrance to Coffman Union at the University of Minnesota. A lovely man with a bushy beard and an afro told me the rules: Take your shoes off. Leave your bags with me – nobody will touch them. Go in with an open mind.I removed my shoes and eagerly stepped into their labyrinth, laid out in the grass near one of the largest pinwheels I had ever seen. Their labyrinth had figurines along the path that honored deities, brought back happy memories, or even commemorated dead figures outside of Pagan mythologies. I saw a tiny black statue of Elvis Presley that shook and played one of his hits – possibly Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” – and it me laugh and want to dance. The spirit of this labyrinth combined joy, grief, longing, happiness, and communion with the gods simultaneously for me, and I loved it.

Now I wonder sometimes if I became Pagan just to come back to Pagan Pride every year to walk the Reclaiming labyrinth. Each year, the labyrinth adds something new, such as, in 2016, a tribute to the life and death of Prince that had me both crying and dancing. When the location moved to an indoor dance studio, they used straw and tiny holiday lights to set the perfect mood. If I never did anything else at Pagan Pride, I always walked the labyrinth. As a grounding tool, it was a way to release what was not needed from the previous year and to walk out with a fresh start for the year to come. As this particular Pagan Pride was always in early September, I viewed it as an early second harvest festival. While I never got into anything else that Reclaiming had to offer, I was truly grateful for the community service they provided with each labyrinth.

The most interesting labyrinth walk I have had lately was on February 18, 2020, when my employer decided to hold a “wellness day,” filled with workshops. One of the participants, a local Christian chaplain, offered an indoor cloth labyrinth as the focus of workshop entitled “Walking for Wellness and Wisdom.” It was modeled on the labyrinth in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, which has been on my wish list of labyrinths to visit someday.

Indigo markings traced the pattern of the labyrinth against a white backdrop on a concrete floor; in the center there was space for six people to stand in contemplation. We were advised that the cloth was fragile, and so again I found myself walking the path barefoot. While many of my co-workers carefully read documents explaining the history of labyrinths, where they were often found, and how walking the labyrinth can be found in many religious traditions around the world, I just wanted to start walking. It had been months since I felt grounded by walking through the Reclaiming labyrinth.

There were 25 participants in the workshop, so we all had to walk at a steady pace to avoid a pileup. To my surprise, many of the other walkers were members of upper management, and this let me see a different side of many whom I had only known as faces at the annual company meeting. I watched their tentative first steps along the path, their delight at reaching the center, and the reluctance to leave, and I relived all of my own early experiences in the gardens on North Charles Street.

This was my first time walking a cloth labyrinth, and I was surprised by how mellow the concrete floor felt under my feet. Occasionally the cloth covered a grate or wire unexpectedly, so I had to keep my attention on maintaining balance. I did not call to anyone in particular, but Hecate chose to speak with me about my creative life and the responsibilities that come with walking that path. This was a new experience for me, and one that helped me focus – and eventually, helped me cope with what was to come.

I did not think of that last walk as being particularly more meaningful than others, but I did think it would be an opportunity to be more public as a Pagan. Unfortunately, I never had the chance for those conversations. Less than a month later, the same people who gathered so eagerly for the wellness day were scattered by the pandemic, and we remained so for nearly 18 months. The unity we felt in walking the labyrinth together would have to sustain itself for a long time. I look back on that labyrinth now, especially after the Reclaiming labyrinth was canceled in 2020, and consider what matters about the practice.

A small garden labyrinth in the Twin Cities region [C. Ajana]

For some reason, the maze is a key part of my religious practice; it is a way to rebalance and find happiness in a short time. I recently found a maze near my home. When I walk, I find that each inward step reminds me to let go of what is not necessary, and that the pause in the center reminds me to focus on the fullness of being, and that each step towards the outdoors provides a new sense of healing and focus. You don’t always have to be barefoot to navigate a maze, but I find that I can speak and listen to the gods better when I can feel the ground beneath my feet.


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