Guardian of the Labyrinth

The octagonal basement room at the Hennepin Avenue United Methodist is large, cool, and dim. Soft music comes from somewhere, and flickering candles reflect off frescoes of Biblical landscapes on the walls. An expanse of white and purple canvas covers the floor. It delineates a labyrinth.


The labyrinth and its presence in Hennepin Avenue United Methodist is both intriguing and mysterious. The church is modeled after a cathedral in England and is one of the architectural jewels of Minnesota. I first encountered the labyrinth here last Christmas, not in the basement, but upstairs in the art gallery, spread amongst dark medieval Christian paintings. Oddly, this symbol of New Age spirituality seemed to fit right into the surroundings.

Sally Johnson, a pastor at the church and caretaker of the labyrinth, took the time recently to answer a few of my questions.

MP: What is a labyrinth?

SJ: Unlike a maze, a labyrinth is a path that has one entrance and one exit. The path leads to the center and away from the center. It is found in cultures all over the world and throughout time, often in churches around the medieval period, where it was used by Christians to mirror the journey of the Crusaders. It's now used as a meditation tool in which people walk the path praying or with a particular thought in mind, as a metaphor of going toward the center, toward God, and then coming away from that experience enriched.

MP: What is your experience with children and the labyrinth?

SJ: I love to watch children and just be in the room when they are doing the labyrinth. They bring something different to prayer than we adults, who want to make it a heavy intellectual experience. They bring that whole-body playfulness of God that I think is embodied in the labyrinth. A few churches this summer called up and asked if they could bring children. While I've experienced children coming with parents, to have a whole group of children was different. There was a lot of running, giggling, turning, twisting, and dancing. And yet, for the most part, when they came to the center of the labyrinth, there was a calming. At one point there were three girls sitting in one of the pedals of the center just holding hands.

MP: Who else comes here?

SJ: Women are attracted to the labyrinth. My sense is that there is a desire on all of our parts, but particularly women's, to be prayerful with our whole selves. Women in our culture have permission to do that in a way that men don't. Prayer and meditation aren't always about sitting still; they're about being in movement with God. Movement is how we communicate with God. Often I see people who I'm sure don't think of themselves as dancers moving in ways that are very dance-like.

We've had groups that have come from all different kinds of pathways. The Center in South Minneapolis has brought people here who are dealing with long-term illness. We have a group from Ramsey County Social Services that uses the labyrinth for healing and wholeness in their work with families on the edge, dealing with issues of abuse. Spiritual direction groups use our labyrinth and psychologists working with groups. Friends will come on somebody's birthday or if they have just been through a traumatic experience. It's a way of coming and praying together in a way that's not as threatening as if you were to call folks together and say, "This has happened, I need people to pray."

MP: How did you get the labyrinth? Why?

SJ: A couple of people here on our staff read Lauren Artress's book, Labyrinth. Two people went to one of her weekend workshops. They were inspired and said "Hennepin Methodist needs to have one." So they just signed on the dotted line, though we didn't really have a budget for it, and ordered a labyrinth. One of the artists at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco painted it for us.

We got the labyrinth when we were in the midst of planning our first alternative Easter worship experience at the Guthrie. We realized that we were really talking about journey and a cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth that happens not only in the life of Christ but in the lives of humans, the life of the earth, and the life cycle of all of the Cosmos. It seemed perfect to use the labyrinth as a way of embodying that journey. We collaborated with Heart of the Beast Puppet Theater for this particular service. We used a twenty-foot-tall resurrection puppet that rose up out of a cocoon.

A little girl with all her Easter finery on came down after the service. Her dad said, "Is it okay if she walks here?" And I said, "Sure." Without being told, she sat down and ritually took off her shoes and set them aside and began to walk the labyrinth, and pretty soon she was just dancing. We all stood back in hushed amazement.

MP: Where does this particular labyrinth pattern come from?

SJ: We get asked if this is some kind of New Age thing, so it is good to be able to show how it really did have a place in the history of Christianity--and pre-Christian religions as well.

This pattern was taken from the Chartes Cathedral in France. This is an eleven-circuit labyrinth that was placed in that cathedral when it was built in the twelfth or thirteenth century. During the Reformation, when the Church became more nervous about the mystics and people's experience of faith, they covered the labyrinth with chairs. To this day it is still covered with chairs.

MP: Can you explain your interest in the labyrinth?

SJ: As we approach the millennium, there is all sorts of fervor about spiritual issues. People are searching for ways to express the mystery in their lives in ways different from what they've experienced in traditional churches. I remember the first time I walked the labyrinth I had the feeling of riding on a wave of water. Often with traditional prayer in a traditional worship service somebody else is doing the work for us. This is a way of us doing something [for ourselves].

In December we take the labyrinth over to St. Catherine's. During one of the Fridays it's in the side theater, and we have live musicians who play throughout the day. I was able to walk and then sit in the theater space and watch the movement of people accompanied by music. This made me aware that in all of our walkings, with all the paths that we take, downtown or wherever, we are passing people whose lives are connected to ours in ways that we are not even aware of. We are all engaged in this journey together.

One of the members here was diagnosed with kidney cancer and a lot of his friends came right before his surgery and walked the labyrinth in prayer. He wasn't able to walk, but we took a finger labyrinth to him during his recovery. He talked about what a comforting thing it was to be able to move his finger through the labyrinth and to pray knowing that his friends also had been doing this while walking.

David Griffin, a frequent contributor to Minnesota Parent, wrote a short selection about the labyrinth at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church in our Secret Family Favorites issue last July. We were intrigued enough to send him back to find out more.

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