Issue 11.2: April / May 2008

Walking in Circles

story by Catharine Lo

Last winter, I visited a faraway corner of Maui where a green bluff rises a few hundred feet out of the deep blue sea. It’s one of those places where civilization disappears, where the horizon is uninterrupted and an abundance of natural energy can refresh a weary soul. As I made my way toward the water, a peculiar configuration of white coral rocks sprawled out on the ground before me, occupying an area of about half a basketball court. Placed in eight concentric circles, the white rocks traced a spiral path on the well-trodden grass. A weathered cairn of lava rocks stood in the center. It looked like some kind of marble game for giants. Where did it come from? Who built it? What does it mean? A break in the outer ring suggested an entrance, an invitation.

What I’d happened upon was a man-made labyrinth. Not to be confused with mazes, which are puzzles with multiple forks and dead ends (like the massive one at Dole Plantation), a labyrinth has only one path, and it always leads to the center. Its spiral design, modeled on sacred geometry found in nature, has roots in ancient Greece. The oldest known labyrinth, found on a rock carving in Sardinia, dates from 2,500–2,000 BCE. The symbol was important enough to the Greeks that they minted it on coins. Millennia later, labyrinths were installed in the floors of medieval churches in Europe, establishing a link to Christianity. The oldest church labyrinth was found in a fourth-century basilica in Algeria. Modern-day labyrinths tend to be modeled after either the eleven-circuit design found on the floor of France’s Chartres Cathedral or the seven-circuit Classical, or Cretan, design.

The labyrinth, while ancient, is relatively new to Hawai‘i. Of the fifteen or so around the state, the majority have been built within the last ten years, part of a broader revival of interest that seems to recur around the turns of the century. (There was a similar labyrinth renaissance beginning in the 1890s.) While several of the first labyrinths built here were associated with churches, you now find them also in parking lots, in backyards, in open fields, in unexpected places, in places heavy with mana. Many of the people who build them believe that labyrinths are magnets of cosmic energy.

“As a trained scientist, I have a hard time with mystic arts,” says Dr. Neal Pinckney, founder of Hawai‘i’s Healing Heart Foundation, an organization dedicated to preventing and reversing heart disease. Dr. Pinckney didn’t expect to build one of Hawai‘i’s early labyrinths. But his first experience at Grace Cathedral’s terrazzo stone labyrinth convinced the former psychotherapist that they may help open the door to non-ordinary experiences.

“It was 7:30 in the morning, a typical San Francisco day, chilly, and I was bundled up. This group of Chinese ladies who had been doing tai chi chattered away like crows, and I was annoyed because they were really loud. Just when I got to the center, this sunbeam came through the clouds and surrounded me with warmth. I’m not religious, but it was like God shining a light on me,” he says. “The Chinese ladies noticed it, and they instantly became quiet. They just all stared at me as I walked out of the labyrinth.”

Dr. Pinckney went on to create his own labyrinth out of concrete in his backyard by the ocean at Makaha in 1998. People from all over the world came to visit the 1,100-square-foot design that took him three months to paint by hand. He has since moved to a condo in Honolulu, and his creation is gone, but his memory of celebrating New Year’s Eve with fifty friends in a candlelit labyrinth remains.

Christie Wolf first learned about labyrinths from a book she bought at a garage sale. Wolf, a graphic artist-turned-plant specialist, remembers being intrigued by the purported power of this archetypal design. Years later, when she was considering how to landscape her undeveloped lot near Kea‘au on the Big Island, she kept envisioning some kind of circular arrangement. So she and her husband embarked on a four-month project to install a Chartres-style, eleven-circuit labyrinth.

Wolf began by drawing the design on graph paper, then marking it out with spray paint. She lined the path with wood chips, and laid out blocks of black cinder cut with precise “lunations,” cog-like serrations along the outermost circle that function as a calendar. When she completed the impressive 90-foot-diameter pattern, her husband joked, “Aren’t you afraid you’ve made a landing pad for spacecrafts?”

She lined the path with plants, adding a beautifying third dimension. Delicate orchids bow over the walkway, and around some turns, the spicy fragrance of snow-on-the-mountain poinsettias fills the walking space. Ti plants stand tall as you approach the center, which is encircled by Manila palms. In the labyrinth’s center is a small, round pond filled with water lettuce, floating ferns and lilies. Underneath swim little white fish known, appropriately, as labyrinth fish.

In the past eight years, hundreds of labyrinth-walkers, some seeking solace, have walked Wolf’s labyrinth. Asked if she still walks the ever-changing botanical path frequently, Christie laughs and replies, “Behind a lawnmower.” But she also continues to walk it for personal reasons. “Keep walking,” she advises. “Every time you do, it is different.”

Sister Beatrice Tom of Our Lady of Kea‘au uses the labyrinth as a form of walking prayer. Members of St. Andrew’s Cathedral helped construct a thirteen-circuit medieval labyrinth out of painted rocks in a grassy clearing at the Wai‘anae ministry on O‘ahu, the newest subsidiary of St. Francis Healthcare System (which dates back to 1883 when the St. Francis nuns came to Kalaupapa to care for the Hansen’s disease patients). The ministry’s mission is to provide outreach to the homeless, including the hundreds who live in the bushes and on the beach across the street. A ring of monkeypod trees huddles around the labyrinth and park benches invite people to stay a while. The looming cliffs of Makaha guard the peaceful space.

“I always encourage prayer. Prayer is always hopeful,” says Sister Bea, who would chant the rosary to bring herself into a meditative state when she first started walking the labyrinth in 2006. She had heard about labyrinths while attending a Catholic Health Association assembly in the ’90s but had never walked one. Even though modern labyrinths aren’t as directly linked to Christianity as those found in medieval European cathedrals, some feel that they still open a door to a higher power, a comfort to many who are healing or grieving. “When things come to your mind that you’re concerned about, you place those things in God’s hands. Perhaps as you walk, you gain more faith,” Sister Bea theorizes. “We have a saying, ‘He who sings prays twice.’ So you could say, ‘He who walks the labyrinth prays twice.’”

“Labyrinths aren’t magical. They’re tools to help us experience the power that is all around us and the wisdom that is always within us.” So says one veteran Hawai‘i labyrinth builder, whose first projects were ephemeral spirals in the sand. One day, he came across a patch of land on a craggy wing of lava by the sea. Something intangible there spoke to him, and he felt the immense energy emanating from the area. He went back to visit it several times, feeling it out. It always felt inviting, and he decided it would be an ideal place for a permanent labyrinth.

A year and a half and 400 5-gallon buckets of coral rock later, a 66-foot-wide, eleven-circuit Chartres-style labyrinth was born. “It’s the land that has the juice,” he says, explaining that he always asks permission from the land where he builds. His philosophy adheres to the Hawaiian concept of mana. The location is a point of land from which Hawaiian legend says spirits jump to the next world. Clifford Nae‘ole, one of the land’s Hawaiian guardians, explains what he believes is the labyrinth’s purpose: “It is built on sacred ground. It stands as a monument to those in search of solitude, spirituality and personal mana. You will know when you find it, or it finds you. Take the time to walk it. Meditation will come naturally. The most important thing about the labyrinth is you.”

As I walk the circuitous coral-lined path on that isolated bluff, my mind tries to decipher the pattern of alternating lefts and rights, obsessed with figuring out an estimated arrival time. After fifteen minutes, I’m not any closer to the center—which is a mere 22 feet away from the entrance, as the crow flies. Am I getting anything from this exercise? Is something miraculous going to occur? Or am I literally just walking in circles? My brain chatter finally stops when I reach the center and … nothing happens. No shaft of light, no angelic choir. But something changes, subtly. On the way back out, I think less and feel more. I feel the wind pressing my shirt to my back and parting the hair from my face. I feel the heat of the sun as it pokes through the clouds overhead. I inhale the energy released by the waves colliding with the lava rocks below. Suddenly, the labyrinth feels like a safe place that guards me from the uncontrollable forces beyond its boundaries, and I feel peace. HH