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November 26, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, November 26, 2004

Going in circles Going in circles (November 26, 2004)

Two new labyrinths encourage reflection and meditation

by Robyn Israel

When Stanford students want to unwind or reflect on life, chances are they will head to the gym, or perhaps CoHo (the Coffee House), or maybe just crash at their dorm.

Most probably don't think to head over to Memorial Church, where as of Nov. 17 a new attraction attempts to help students and other members of the Stanford community relax.

The new addition is a portable labyrinth, situated in the church's sanctuary. Measuring 18 feet in diameter, it is made of vinyl and will be open to the public every Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

It is one of two new local labyrinths, with a second slated for unveiling Dec. 5 at All Saints Episcopal Church in downtown Palo Alto. Both are modeled after a 12th-century labyrinth in Chartres, France, considered the "mother" of all labyrinths.

The labyrinths' use as a spiritual tool has been growing in popularity over the past 10 years. Initiated by the Rev. Dr. Lauren Artress of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, labyrinths have been popping up all over the world, in churches, parks, hospitals, schools, prisons and community spaces.

Described as paths of prayer, mirrors of the soul and crucibles of change, labyrinths are not mazes -- there are no walls, no tricky twists and turns, no complicated routes, no dead ends. They have only one path to the center and back out, allowing walkers to release stress, to be quiet and to focus internally. The process is a lesson in slowing down, in being mentally still enough to hear more than the jostling and jarring noises of daily life.

That lesson is especially needed on Stanford's campus, according to the Rev. Joanne Sanders, associate dean for religious life.

"It's so stressful, with the expectations and pressures they live with in this culture. They're very busy. They're focused on their studies," Sanders said.

But equally important, Sanders said, is allowing time to reflect on the meaning and purpose of one's life. By walking in circles, by being very still and quiet, people are paradoxically able to put direction back into their lives. Judging by several comments in the church's sign-in book, the labyrinth has already proved successful.

"A beautiful experience. I felt my mind empty, then fill again with the beauty of being in a close spiritual walk with so many others," wrote Laura.

Tom wrote that he felt "liberated from the moment-to-moment minutia that clutters and taints. I can breathe and feel my heart."

"Thank you! I am so glad that the entire Stanford community and its neighbors and visitors will have access to this peace-bringing experience," an anonymous visitor wrote.

Labyrinths date back thousands of years, appearing on pottery, tablets and tiles used in many cultures around the world. Both Stanford and All Saints' 11-circuit labyrinths are patterned after a medieval style that appeared in France, Italy and southern and western Europe. The labyrinth at All Saints is painted on the patio floor.

Stanford's labyrinth has been in the works for the past few years, according to Sanders. University staff had expressed an interest in bringing one to campus, and the office of religious life felt this would be a wonderful incentive to draw people into Memorial Church.

"I'm always wondering how we can bring people into this space, aside from services," Sanders said. "How can it be used in a spiritual, sacred way?"

The goal is to have the labyrinth used by people of all faiths and cultures. It is thought that each time people enter the labyrinth, they open themselves to the possibility of increased empowerment to discover and act upon the work their souls are searching for.

"I think people are drawn to it -- it crosses a lot of religious and cultural barriers," Sanders said.

At the Nov. 10 unveiling, people -- primarily faculty and staff -- silently navigated the labyrinth's pattern. It was unusually crowded, and visitors had to temporarily step off their path to make room for people coming in the opposite direction.

"That movement mirrored life, the way we lead and follow," said Marilyn Campbell, who, with her husband/organist, Albert, has been involved in a year-long effort to install a permanent labyrinth at All Saints (the church had been using a portable rug). "We sometimes have to step off the path to let someone else get on."

Walking through a labyrinth, according to Campbell, is very much a right-brain experience that helps us focus internally.

"The idea is to go inward, to focus on your life journey," Campbell said. "The most important thing is the quiet, the stillness, so you can hear the small voice that dwells inside you."

The office of religious life hopes to eventually have the labyrinth used outdoors, as well.

"The sense of the sacred and the spiritual is not always contained within the walls of the church -- that's the beauty of the labyrinth," Sanders said.

What: Local labyrinths

Where: Stanford University's Memorial Church, located on the campus' Main Quad; All Saints Episcopal Church, 555 Waverley St. (corner of Hamilton Avenue) in Palo Alto.

When: Stanford's labyrinth is open to the public on Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; All Saints' labyrinth will be dedicated Dec. 5 and will thereafter be open to the public at all times.

Cost: Admission is free.

Info: Call Stanford's office of religious life at (650) 723-1762 or visit Contact All Saints Church at (650) 322-4528 or visit

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