A writer finds some of life's answers along a winding path of gravel and concrete. 

Reaching the Center

Upon reaching the center of the labyrinth, I discern a scrap of paper, half buried in the gravel. On the paper is the word "Amelia."

I ask myself, Who or what is Amelia? A lover? A mother? The state of mind found somewhere south of the James River?

Such are the types of mysteries one is exposed to walking the labyrinth found in the park at the corner of Westwood Avenue and Loxley Road.

As we grow older and have the last vestiges of our youthful idealism sandblasted off, the spiritual world can grow more intriguing to even the most ardent secular humanist among us. Can some creator's signature be revealed through walking a labyrinth, attending yoga classes or simply attending church every Sunday? That question grows weightier as I begin to feel the cold, dark, awkward waters of middle age begin to splash against the seashore of my mind.

But I've found a place to seek answers.

The labyrinth I walk is maintained by the Chrysalis Group, a Richmond-based spiritual-studies organization. The labyrinth is found on the campus of Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education. It's modeled after one located at Chartres Cathedral outside of Paris. Occasionally referred to as a "pavement maze," the Chartres labyrinth was built about 1200 and is engraved on the cathedral's floor. Although labyrinths are Roman Catholic in origin, numerous Protestant denominations now use them.

One experiences three stages while using the labyrinth, according to the literature I've read. The first is purgation, during which the labyrinth walker lets go of material-world problems as he or she approaches the journey's center. Upon reaching the center, the pilgrim attains illumination. It is at this point that one can meditate on the day's problems, looking for insight. As one leaves the labyrinth, the individual achieves the union stage, which is the preparation for the return to the material world.

Labyrinths provoke various interpretations. They can represent life as it "struts and frets his hour upon the stage," to quote the Bard. Its twists and turns can also symbolize the quest for repentance. At one point in the past, apparently, the Chartres labyrinth could be used in place of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

When I was first introduced to the healing powers of the labyrinth, I dismissed it as so much New Age mumbo jumbo. But on a lark one day during a dark period in my life, I drove down to the park that is the labyrinth's home. I walked past the fading pink flamingos that stand randomly nearby and began the journey of the labyrinth. Over the last few months, I've repeatedly heard and heeded the labyrinth's call. Each time, I have left it feeling as though a portion of life's edge is abated. The Chrysalis Group labyrinth is now my constant companion as I proceed along life's trek.

The labyrinth appeals to me because, in this busy, multitasking existence of ours, its simple existence allows its use whenever the opportunity arises. It provides a moment of transcendental solace from the hectic modern world.

My respect for the labyrinth has grown to the point that I view its patch of gravel and concrete as every bit as holy as the local church or chapel. That respect led me to become annoyed at the behavior of those unaware of its significance. Children would run across the labyrinth to fetch a Frisbee, oblivious to the path beneath them. Or they would tear through it, eager to reach the center of something that they did not understand.

Children are not alone in their ignorance of the labyrinth. I have seen adults, too, who gaze upon it, unable to understand its importance.

While such behavior is still wince-inducing, it has occurred to me that it is simply a reflection of everyday life: children and young people, protected from real-world problems by the luck of fools, run through life's labyrinth, ignorant of what's really important. It is not until the golden glow of youth subsides that children have the chance to understand the power of places like a labyrinth.

Yet some of us, even upon attaining adulthood, never appreciate the lessons that life provides us the opportunity to learn. So we walk through the labyrinth without understanding that our goal is directly before us.

If you feel so obliged, come join me at the labyrinth at the corner of Westwood Avenue and Loxley Road. Maybe you'll join me in the journey I've had the opportunity to begin. But if you begin the journey toward understanding it, you will not regret.

The labyrinth, like life, is really what you make it. S


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