By Barbara Sherf
St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church parishioner Sarah Elliott is now known as the “Labyrinth Lady” to many in the Whitemarsh Township congregation and beyond. On World Labyrinth Day, May 7, she and other labyrinth walkers joined The Labyrinth Society’s (TLS) “Walk as One at 1” event “in an attempt to create a wave of peaceful energy moving around the planet.” The public is invited to this event from 1 to 2pm. There will be a potluck picnic at noon, weather permitting. The church is located at Bethlehem Pike and Camp Hill Road, with the main entrance off of Camp Hill Road. The labyrinth is at the end of the long driveway leading to the church grounds.
According to TLS, while the origin of the labyrinth is unknown, labyrinths have been found all over the world dating from earliest antiquity. Once popular in the Middle Ages, labyrinths (places constructed with concentric circles or intricate passages and blind alleys, as in a garden formed by paths surrounded by high hedges) have been experiencing a surge in popularity. There is even a World Wide Labyrinth Locator at www.labyrinthlocator.com that lists over 3650 labyrinths in 70 or more countries.
Locally, the Sisters of St. Joseph installed a labyrinth next to the Mother House on the campus of Chestnut Hill College. The brick and stone labyrinth is near the intersection of Northwestern and Germantown Avenues and is open to the public.
Sister Mary Ann Mulzet, now living and serving in Baltimore, spoke by phone about the timing and concept behind the installation.
“We wanted to do something special at the turn of the century as we participated in a 72-hour United Peace Vigil. We dedicated the labyrinth at 12:01 a.m. on December 31, 1999, and held a variety of activities over the next 72 hours,” said Sister Mulzet. “To me, walking a labyrinth gives me a sense of inner peace. It’s funny because as you get closer to the middle, you are then taken down a path farther from the center. It’s all about finding your way and acceptance and being centered.”
Elliott puts a message out every Monday urging people to walk the labyrinth during the week. This is from a recent post: “Happy Easter! This is your Monday email from St. Thomas’ Weekly Labyrinth Walkers group, encouraging you to carve out some sacred space in your week for a labyrinth walk.
“This week’s practice suggestion: Reflect on new life. Before you begin your walk this week, sit quietly on the bench and observe the signs of new life around you. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? Then as you begin your walk, quiet your mind and turn your focus inward, observing signs of new life within you. What do you notice? What feels different to you?’
Elliott, who first walked a temporary canvas labyrinth in 2002 that was set up inside of St. Thomas’ parish house auditorium, was hooked on the idea of taking a mindful walk and meditating on an issue or praying. She and her husband, Steve, purchased a kit where they can make a labyrinth out of colored rope for their Blue Bell yard or anywhere they’d like.
In 2006, she approached the rector of St. Thomas’, Rev. Marek Zabriskie, and suggested that a permanent labyrinth be installed.
“I said, ‘We have 40 acres; why not put one on the grounds?” and so a committee was formed to research the many varieties of labyrinths and materials that could be used to construct one. There is a labyrinth made of out grass and wood chips in Phoenixville, a privet hedge labyrinth in Souderton, and one made of cobblestones at The Wellness Center at Doylestown Hospital.
“We felt very strongly that we wanted it to be handicapped accessible, so ours is made of concrete with a sturdy granite resin finish,” she said, noting that she and her committee raised $50,000 for the project.
Elliott, 49, walks the labyrinth at least once a week. “I just love it. It’s the most meaningful way for me to pray. Sometimes in church I get fidgety, but out here I am moving. It gives the body something to do,” she said.
In addition to a bench placed at each corner of the concrete, there is an information box that contains a binder of information on labyrinths and instructions on its use. “There is no right way or wrong way to walk a labyrinth,” Elliott said. “Whatever feels comfortable for you. It is not a maze; there are no tricks and no dead ends.”
The St Thomas’ labyrinth is an 11-circuit (or concentric circles) medieval pattern that was first used in Chartres Cathedral in France around 1201. The labyrinth consists of a single path that leads in a circuitous way into the center. Ginger Goodrich, also a St. Thomas’ parishioner, is a regular labyrinth walker.
“When I walk it, I feel I am in a very sacred place. The rhythms of the turns and broad sweeps are calming, and I have found that the labyrinth path can help me untangle difficult problems,” she said emphasizing that they installed the labyrinth outside “as we intended it be a gift to the community.”
The congregation plans to eventually install outdoor lighting so that the labyrinth can be walked safely at night.
Brenda Sullivan is also on the St. Thomas’ Labyrinth Committee. “The labyrinth has been surprisingly useful and helpful to my many endeavors at St. Thomas’ Church,” she said. “I’ve used it as an integral part of our summer outreach camp, where we use horticultural therapy and gardening as well as nutrition to empower at-risk youth. We use it with our Sunday school kids, as well as grieving adults, or those who just need to take a break from a hectic life.”