Here is what I have learned about prayer labyrinths, during my decades on the religion beat.
Progressive Episcopalians love them, big time.
Evangelical Episcopalians hate them or, at the very least, worry about how they can be abused.
Progressive Catholics love them, big time.
Conservative Catholics hate them or, at the very least, worry about how they can be abused.
You may have noticed a pattern.
The arguments about labyrinths center on church history, theology, ancient myths and trends in modern “spirituality,” especially the many innovations that came to be labeled “New Age.” When writing about this topic, I have learned that it helps to focus on the doctrinal contents, and the origins, of the prayers that people are taught to recite while walking inside a labyrinth.
It’s hard to do a basic online search on this topic without hitting waves of information by those who embrace the use of labyrinths (examples here and then here) and those who reject them (examples here and then here).
This brings me to a long recent USA Today Network-Tennessee feature that ran with this headline: “Set in stone or brick, East Tennessee labyrinths are meditative walks for prayer.” This article, literally, could be used in a public-relations release about this particular labyrinth, since it contains ZERO information from critics. Here is the overture (this is long, but essential):
It's dusk on a September Tuesday as two dozen people step, silently and deliberately, around a twisting brick courtyard path at St. John's Episcopal Cathedral.
A few walk barefoot. Some carry candles or glow sticks. Most bow their heads in silent meditation or prayer as they follow the turns of St. John's brick and mortar labyrinth.
Candles and spotlights set among the garden surrounding the labyrinth cast shadows. A fire smokes in the fire pit in the labyrinth's center circle. Soothing recorded music, the splash of the garden waterfall and the occasional sound of a passing vehicle are the only sounds.
The guided meditation and labyrinth walk is an occasional service led by the Rev. Thom Rasnick, St. John's associate pastor. … Created by an Illinois company in terracotta and pale gray paving stones, the 39-foot diameter intricate design replicates a 13th-century labyrinth in France's Chartres Cathedral.
Eleven concentric circles create a winding, back-and-forth pattern that leads to and from a center 12th circle. Yet the pattern is so subtle people unfamiliar with the labyrinth might stroll on its bricks without noticing they were stepping through a tool of prayer and pilgrimage.
Ancient in design and meditative in practice, labyrinths are incorporated into some East Tennessee sacred and secular spaces.
Truth be told, I have no idea what the phrase “meditative in practice” means, in terms of spiritual traditions in Christian history.
Then again, it could be that some or all of these labyrinths have been built for use by members of different spiritual traditions, both in Christianity and other world religions. Here in the Bible Belt, I think that some readers — liberal and conservative — would have appreciated the inclusion of some information on those issues.
Like I said, there are critics who oppose labyrinths — period. There are others who focus on the details of the prayers used inside them. To be blunt about it, it’s hard to mess up Rosary prayers or the ancient Jesus Prayer of the East.
So what does this Gannett feature tell us, in terms of the prayers used in this Episcopal labyrinth? Again, this is long, but essential:
St. John's September evening labyrinth walk followed a short, nondenominational service of meditation and prayer. Participants sat in camp chairs they brought and closed their eyes as Rasnick encouraged them to be still and present. He advised them to turn off their cellphones and take deep breaths in and out.
"Close your eyes, and any thought in your head, just let it go," Rasnick said. "You are not your thoughts. Any feeling — let it pass — don't attack it."
"All of the things you've done today, they're done. So let them be. All the things you wish you'd done, you didn't do. Go let them be," Rasnick instructed. "All the things you think you have to do once we leave here, they're not here yet. So let them go."
He led the group in a recitation that began with "Be still and know that I am love" and ended simply with the words "be love." After a few minutes of quiet prayer, walkers silently formed a line to walk the labyrinth.
At some points, the walkers appeared to turn near the labyrinth's center only to be led far from it. Eventually everyone ended at the middle. There, they stopped to form a circle and hold hands. After a few minutes, walkers retraced the path's twists to the labyrinth start.
"We live within the love," Rasnick said as an ending invocation. "Go in peace."
Yes, that is certainly an interesting “nondenominational” take on Psalm 46 and one of the most ancient of all Judeo-Christian prayers: “Be still, and know that I am God.” Were there any editors involved in this feature that recognized that variation? I also noted that the story does not contain these terms — “Jesus” and “Christ.”
That could be a perfectly accurate representation of the prayer techniques taught at this Episcopal sanctuary in the Bible Belt. Then again, the USA Today team may have avoided those divisive words.
Either way, its interesting information — if the goal is to cover the ongoing debates about labyrinths and the modern believers who build them.
What was the goal here?