Circles of faith

In walking the patterns of local labyrinths, residents find a place of peace
Sunday, October 17, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:35 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Dorreen Rardin is deliberately walking in circles. Hands in pockets, she strolls along the winding passages of the labyrinth at Williams and Walnut streets as drivers take an extra moment at the stop sign to observe her path.

The labyrinth constructed at Boone Hospital Center last month looks like a maze engraved into the ground, but it has only one possible route to the center and back. It is 41 feet in diameter and takes about 20 minutes to walk.

Rardin is relaxed and unwavering in her step, and when she reaches the center, she stands frozen for minutes. Then, in one fluid motion, she follows the curves to the exit, where, eyes raised, she takes a deep breath and steps out into the world.

“When I got to the end, I felt blessed,” she said. “I gave thanks that, for a short time, I was able to feel that.”

Rardin, coordinator of palliative care at the hospital, is a recent convert to walking meditation.

“It brings me peace and calm,” she said. “And that’s a lot of what we’ve lost.”

Rardin is now part of a 4,000-year-old tradition of seeking spiritual comfort in labyrinths. Different designs of these circular patterns have existed all over the world.

Stone-lined labyrinths emerged in Scandinavia during the Iron Age, and more recent Roman patterns were pieced together from mosaic tiles for decoration. American Indians also used them as symbols in their beliefs about the origins of the earth.

Labyrinths have a rich history in Jewish mysticism, Christian worship and non-denominational spiritual pursuit of balance and oneness.

They can be made out of grass, carved into stone or drawn onto a portable canvas. Some people use a fist-sized labyrinth to make journey with their finger, although this practice is not as popular as the pedestrian journey.

Most importantly, Nancy Mertzlufft said, walking a labyrinth offers time to look within. Mertzlufft has been the force behind the Boone Hospital labyrinth ever since the night she dreamed of an unfamiliar pattern of circles and vowed later to turn that dream into a local reality.

“I didn’t know what it was at first,” Mertzlufft said of her vision. “But I heard: ‘Labyrinth, build one.’”

And she obeyed the voice. In 2000, Mertzlufft founded the not-for-profit Labyrinth Association and began gathering funds to bring her new passion to Columbia.

Last month, her fund-raising efforts and Boone Hospital’s contribution of landscaping and concrete brought to life a replica of a labyrinth found on the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France.

“I like to say that walking a labyrinth is a walk with your soul,” Mertzlufft said. She describes it as a tool for unity among faiths and cultures. “I just knew that labyrinth energy was calling me, and I knew that I should bring one to Columbia.”

So, she called St. Louis-based labyrinth aficionado Robert Ferré, owner of a labyrinth design, construction and training firm.

In its 10 years of business, Ferré’s company, Labyrinth Enterprises, has built almost 900 labyrinths, ranging from cozy backyard fixtures costing several hundred dollars to $250,000 granite designs.

The Boone Hospital labyrinth pictures a famous Gothic pattern developed during the Middle Ages and laid into the floor of Chartres Cathedral in 1201. It was first imported into the United States by Lauren Artress, a Episcopal priest at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, who is credited with the birth of the American labyrinth revival.

The Chartres design comprises 12 concentric circles, believed to represent the months of the year. At the perimeter of the labyrinth, 28 semi-circles called lunations symbolize the moon’s orbit around the earth.

Ferré said that understanding the symbolism is the first requirement in building a labyrinth.

“There are a number of ancient patterns, which are widely used, but they’re widely used for good reasons,” he said. “They have exquisite designs; they include principles of sacred geometry and a certain amount of symmetry.”

Kim Ryan, associate minister at Broadway Christian Church, encourages walkers to employ the three R’s of the labyrinth: release, receive, renew.

“Walking into the labyrinth is an opportunity to shed, to become open in mind, heart and spirit.” Ryan said. “In the center is a place to be quiet, a place to pray and receive and then to walk out and integrate what you received into the world.”

Ryan has been asked to lead extensive training sessions with Boone Hospital employees on how to incorporate the labyrinth into patient and family care.

She considers the hospital a logical home for a device of meditation and, for some, prayer.

“It doesn’t take anything away from the science of medicine,” Ryan said. “And we’re seeing a growing trend that healing health is more than the body.”

Boone Hospital President Mike Shirk agrees that hospitals should address all of its patients’ needs, whether physical, emotional or spiritual. An advocate of patient-centered care, Shirksaid he thinks the labyrinth will allow people to be more hands-on in maintaining wellness.

“There is a certain strength that you can get by being aware of your own feelings,” Shirk said. And that’s just the kind of empowerment people need to be more in control of their own health, he said.

Shirk said the new labyrinth is an extension of the hospital’s integrative therapy movement, a philosophy of care that is more inclusive of the patient’s overall state of existence.

“This fits nicely into our commitment to the mind, body and spirit,” he said. “It doesn’t take the place of medicine — it helps it.”

Hospitals are a popular place for labyrinths, said Virginia LoneSky, a woman from Michigan who is regional representative of The Labyrinth Society, an international volunteer organization for labyrinth enthusiasts.

But the labyrinths’ revival in the United States has been carried largely through Christian churches, she said.

“Christians have begun to reclaim it in the past 20 years or so,” said Maureen Dickmann, pastor at Rock Bridge Christian Church. “Sometimes it just helps people to walk the labyrinth when they pray.”

Dickmann had been toying with the idea of a church labyrinth for a few years, and when some money was donated to commemorate the death of church patron Kermit Young, she saw it as a perfect fit.

“The labyrinth helps us see our lives in terms of pilgrimages,” Dickmann said at a labyrinth dedication this month.

“It urges action, and that’s where it connects with Kermit,” she added, referring to Young’s lifelong commitment to community service.


Amy Dona, graduate student at the MU, walks along Boone Hospital's labyrinth, a replica of the one at Chartres Cathedral in France. Construction was completed last month after years of lobbyng by Columbia labyrinth enthusiast Nancy Mertzlufft.

The seven-circuit labyrinth at Rock Bridge was created during Miracle Day on Sept. 11, a day of volunteer work. Originating on the Greek island of Crete, the design is believed to picture the orbit of the planet Mercury as seen from the Earth.

Dickmann chose the pattern because of its simplicity.

Rich Frieden carved the curves into the grass at the back of the church with a path wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair. With almost two tons of crushed rocks and more than 30 volunteers, the labyrinth was finished within a day.

“There’s no wrong way to walk it, except to build up expectations,” Dickmann said. “Some people have a very dramatic first experience, but I didn’t.”

Neither did Frieden, but he’s glad he helped bring this tool to his fellow parishioners.

“I’m always so satisfied that it helps other people,” he said, smiling as he watched a Sunday congregation walking the labyrinth’s curves.

In Columbia, public institutions are not the only hosts for labyrinth enthusiasts. Barbara and Osmund Overby also enjoy watching people walking the labyrinth they built in their front yard three years ago.

Sometimes watch is all they do, glimpsing at the identities of their visitors only through grateful entries in their labyrinth guestbook.

“We invite anybody who shows interest,” said Barbara Overby, a Columbia fiber artist. “The idea is that it’s here, they can walk and they don’t have to knock on the door. We won’t bother them.”

Sometimes the mystery adds elegance to the journey.

“It’s fun to be sitting in the house and see two or three people walking,” said Osmund Overby. “It’s like watching a ballet — beautiful.”

Osmund Overby, a retired professor of art history at MU, learned about labyrinths through his study of architecture, but the structures have taken on a more personal meaning for the couple in the past 10 years.

”We would always say that we have the perfect place; why don’t we build a labyrinth,” Barbara Overby said. “But we never got around to it.”

Until the day Osmund Overby called for more than three tons of rocks to be delivered to their front yard more than a year ago. The Overbys got 2,375 rocks to line the contours of the Chartres pattern on grass, and, amazingly, the structure required every stone.

”There are always miracles associated with these things, and that was the first one,” Osmund Overby said.

Fragrant herbs pepper the air in the Overby labyrinth from bushes planted along its paths. They think of the experience as an organic way to connect with one’s thoughts. Sometimes, they say, it’s just a way to slow down.

“My favorite time to do it is in the summer, late at night, when there is just enough light in the sky to illuminate the rocks,” Osmund Overby said. “It’s a nice way to draw the day to a close.”

When it comes to labyrinths, the motto is to each his own.

Robbie Ketcham contributed to this story

Sources used for this story include:

“The Labyrinth Revival” by Robert Ferré, published in 1996 by One Way Press, St. Louis., Ferré’s Web site

“Sole to Soul” by Berkley Hudson, a journalism professor at MU, an article published in The Los Angeles Times. Aug. 7, 1995., a labyrinth construction resource., an international organization for labyrinth enthusiasts.

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