Walking the Labyrinth

December 13th, 2013 by Nathaniel Reade

A look into the potential restorative powers of a simple walk through a labyrinth.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

Contrary to what you may think, a labyrinth is not a maze. Unlike a maze, it has no false turns or dead ends: You simply follow the path in and then back out again. And unlike a maze, it has a tendency to tell you things. The first time Sister Lorry walked a labyrinth, it told her that she needed to build one close to her home. The first time I walked one, it told me how lucky I was to have met Sister Lorry.

Lorry Villemaire, a 79-year-old Sister of Saint Joseph, lives in a convent in Holyoke, MA. Short and smiling, with stylish black clothes and a white cloud of hair, Sister Lorry took her vows when she was 20 and has taught and developed curriculum for various people in need ever since. About 13 years ago she went to a retreat in Connecticut where somebody said, “Let’s have a labyrinth walk.”

That was her first experience, and it left her both mystified and hooked. Labyrinths, Sister Lorry now explains in the workbooks she’s written and the classes she leads, have probably been around for over four thousand years. The word, she says, stems from ancient Greek for “path.” Labyrinth patterns, with lines folding in and around themselves like symmetrical lobes of the brain, have been found on ancient artifacts in Sardinia, Egypt, Syria and China. They exist in many religions. The oldest surviving labyrinth was built in the Chartres cathedral in France in 1201, as a kind of metaphorical pilgrimage. Sister Lorry says that a labyrinth is a “path for transformation.”

While labyrinths come in differing sizes and circuits, or number of turns, they’re typically round, and the paths loop back and forth on themselves. They lead the walker toward the center via numerous digressions, and then back out again the same way. The path can be defined by shrubbery, rocks, patterns in a floor or a sheet of canvas carried around from workshop to workshop, which Sister Lorry does. Today there’s a national and global labyrinth movement, with books, facilitators and websites that provide links to a labyrinth near you.

Walking a labyrinth has been compared to walking meditation or mindfulness. Unlike a hike in the woods or a stroll down a sidewalk, it can be confounding, but in a good way. Because it loops back and forth on itself, the way forward is often unclear. The path takes you close to and then away from the destination in the center, while other paths wind past you. Because it’s confusing, you have to surrender to it – stop thinking and just take steps. 

This is probably where a labyrinth derives its power: Because you can’t think about your route, you don’t have to. The legs and the labyrinth do the work, freeing one’s mind to receive thoughts that might otherwise get ignored. As Lauren Artress, an Episcopal priest, therapist and leading advocate for labyrinths, says in her book “Walking a Sacred Path,” a labyrinth is a device for helping you to reach “your inner space, where you discover who you really are.”

It’s also a metaphor, Sister Lorry says, for life’s journey. In the labyrinth, as in life, “We’re constantly walking towards where we want to go, or where we think we should go,” but it’s often a rambling and circuitous path. Sometimes we have to go far from something to get closer to it. Sometimes the only way out is to go in. “Sometimes,” she says, “you have to lose your way to find your way.”

Today there is a modest, brick-lined labyrinth at Sister Lorry’s convent. She also lugs a portable canvas labyrinth to school groups, church groups, spiritual retreats and anyone else who invites her. One day a few years ago, she was asked if she’d facilitate a labyrinth walk for the prisoners at a local county jail. “How do you say no?” she asks. “I went to the jail.”

After Hampshire County Sheriff Robert Garvey, himself a former teacher, walked the labyrinth with a group of inmates, he agreed that Sister Lorry should teach what is now a 12-week course at the jail. She designed the curriculum and wrote the workbooks they now use. Enthusiasm was so high among the inmates that the Sheriff later approved the construction of an in-ground, outdoor labyrinth at the jail, using donated money and labor. 

When Sister Lorry leads each new class of inmates to the circle of stone steps that wind between beds of low shrubs and perennials by a fence topped with razor wire, she tells them that there’s no right or wrong way to walk the labyrinth. “This is your time,” she says. “There’s no agenda.” 

She has, however, developed each week’s curriculum around life skills that she and the jail’s staff think the inmates might need, such as how to relax, forgive and develop positive-thinking skills. She teaches them about the history of labyrinths, but also about decision-making, moral development and even how to differentiate between mean-spirited sarcasm and more genuine humor.

The inmates, Sister Lorry says, often start out hesitant, but after three weeks they “just go,” and by 12 weeks they often become “very meditative.” Various studies have shown that this type of walking meditation lowers stress and improves health, but it also seems to improve a person’s willingness to learn about themselves, to consider their goals in life, to think before reacting, to become aware of their thoughts and feelings, and to forgive.

When the course is over, inmates typically tell Sister Lorry, “I don’t feel like I’m in jail when I walk the labyrinth.” For some of them, it is their first feeling of inner peace. She tells them to hold on to that feeling and draw strength from it – to “revisit that calm” when they’re in agitating situations. 

Sheriff Bob Garvey says that the labyrinth gives inmates a quiet time in the fresh air to think about their lives, how they ended up in jail and “their intentions in terms of transformation. It puts the burden on them to really address their situation.” The inmates who have been through the course, he says, “seem more serious about their recovery, more relaxed and more able to reflect upon some of the life skills we’re trying to teach them so they can be productive citizens when they leave.”

Sister Lorry would like to see a labyrinth program in every jail in the country. “We need moments of peace,” she says. “We need time to catch up with ourselves. The labyrinth creates the time for people to do that, Sister Lorry says. “Peace begins with the individual.”

It certainly brings Sister Lorry peace.

“I see people walking the labyrinth,” she says with a head-tilt and smile, “and I feel small. They inspire me. Most people are so spiritually profound, and they don’t even know it.”

Nathaniel Reade has been an editor and writer for scores of magazines, including GQ, Spirit and SKI, on subjects ranging from West Nile Virus to snowshoeing in Labrador. The comic young-adult novel he recently wrote with his 12-year-old son, The Pencil Bandits, has been described as “Oliver Twist meets The Marx Brothers meets The Boxcar Children.”