A mystical path
by Karen Derr • Photo by Chris Newlin/Eclectic Productions
In mid-March, St. Paul’s United Methodist Church celebrated the installation of an outdoor labyrinth that is 30 feet in diameter at the corner of Main Street and Binz, across from the Museum of Fine Arts. Labyrinths, which date back to pre-Christian times, are today often associated with churches and other places of meditation. The word itself refers to the maze in which the half-bull, half-man Minotaur was held, according to Greek mythology. But while mazes are designed to be confusing, with numerous false doors and dead ends, a labyrinth offers a clear, circular path to a central goal. It is widely believed to symbolize a pilgrimage, or even the journey of life.
As a tool for meditation, walking the labyrinth calms and focuses the mind. Completing the walk usually takes longer than one might think when first viewing the winding path. However, since the final goal is assured, the mind of the walker is freed to enjoy and contemplate the journey without fear of wrong turns or losing one’s way.
The labyrinth at St. Paul’s was built by nationally known artists Marty and Debi Kermeen of Labyrinths in Stone located in Yorkville, Illinois. The Kermeens have been involved in three Houston-area labyrinths—at St. Paul’s, on the Domincan Sisters Almeda Road campus, and at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. Their most recently completed labyrinth is at the Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
The St. Paul’s labyrinth is constructed of brick and pavers and has no fence or gates, so it is always available to the public. It is a replica of the famous labyrinth located in the cathedral of Chartres, France. The Chartres labyrinth, built in 1201, is the basis of many recent U.S. labyrinth designs.
While the Chartres design is popular today, many ancient cultures used symbols that are in essence labyrinths. From the Hopi Indians to the Druids, images of spiraling paths were held sacred. Marty Kermeen explains it this way: “In 600 BCE—just a random point in time—there existed labyrinths in 27 countries, from Java, Indonesia, to Arctic Russia. There are images of labyrinths on Cretan coins that are 3,000 years old.” He believes that the mathematics of the labyrinth is a way the ancients were able to communicate across time and language barriers. “‘A quarter’ or ‘a third’ of something has the same meaning [regardless of the] system of measurement.” In life, as in mathematics, percentages or ratios are universal.
Besides public spaces, labyrinths are also being installed in private homes. A modest home
in the Heights has a simple labyrinth formed out of gravel and metal, about 15 feet in diameter. The small labyrinth provides a tranquil backyard that doesn’t require a lot of watering or maintenance.
Besides professionals like the Kermeens, there are also labyrinths built by volunteers and novices such as a group of neighbors in Shepherd Park Plaza on Houston’s near-north side. They built a labyrinth in memory of a longtime garden club enthusiast. Alice Bongers, who worked on that labyrinth near the playground in Shepherd Park, says, “I believe there are more labyrinths [being built now] because we live in such a rush-rush world and it is a way of slowing down and getting centered. I know working on the labyrinth did that for me. I still think that walking, or even sitting, in that space is so relaxing and calming.” That labyrinth was built totally by volunteers over the course of one month, after the design was approved and permitted by the city. The mathematics of a do-it-yourself labyrinth may not be as exact as at Chartres, but they add beauty and tranquility to almost any setting.
Walking a labyrinth affects every walker differently. Marty Kermeen suggests you come with an open mind because he believes the experience will give you what you need at any given time. Better focus and a sense of release, celebration, insight, or prayerfulness can be realized by walking the path. He relays one story that was sent to him after an installment in Shreveport, Louisiana. A father had pressed his busy daughter to visit the new labyrinth at his church, but she insisted she didn’t have time as she was very stressed with work and family responsibilities waiting for her in Denver, where she lived. Anxious to get on the road, she grudgingly agreed to walk the labyrinth. As she walked, she began to see she could speed up her walk by cutting corners. Since the path was easy to see as it twisted and turned in front of her, she just skipped over the lines to the next ring, saving 3 feet, then 6 feet, until she had quickly reached the center. But then it suddenly dawned on her that this was how she had lived her life: always too busy, never giving any part of her life’s journey her complete attention. She had been doing too much to do any one thing completely. At that moment, she vowed she would no longer cut corners and rush through life. She committed herself to stop skipping over parts of her journey to rush on to the next thing.
The Kermeens insist that labyrinths are not some new-age phenomenon. They’ve received hundreds of letters and stories about the labyrinth changing lives. The very definition of a labyrinth assures people that the intricate path will always lead them to the center. There can be no wrong choices or wrong turns. This ancient symbol brings to mind that timely question: What would you do if you knew you could not fail? If you want to contemplate that while walking a labyrinth, there are 15 in and around Houston open to the public. A placard at the new St. Paul’s labyrinth assures visitors that “All Are Welcome.”
Karen Derr is a Houston-area Realtor and founder of Boulevard Realty. She also writes and speaks about home and small-business topics.