People have gathered stones and used them to bring structure to their lives since the beginning of time, says the Rev. John Herman, pastor of Desert Palm United Church of Christ in Tempe.
Now in his church’s back yard is an eye-catching maze of river rocks — a seven-circuit medieval-style labyrinth — intended to take pedestrians on a meditative adventure to their spiritual centers.
"It is up to each individual as to how they are going to walk it," Herman said. "It is like a life’s journey. It has a lot of 180degree turns in it, lots of unexpected turns and lot of places where the shortest distance is impossible to take."
The labyrinth has come to symbolize a kind of "Christian’s progress" through life, a substitute for making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (as are the "stations of the cross," which are especially established inside or outside Catholic churches).
Some cathedrals incorporated a labyrinth into their designs, and in recent times, churches have added outdoor labyrinths or have used ones plotted on giant canvases that can be folded up and easily moved to gymnasiums or parking lots. The pilgrim on the labyrinth path may pray silently, stop often, walk alone or with others, behold the sky, take stock of the crunching gravel underfoot and the birds singing, remember the past, ponder the future, quote Scripture aloud or work out a problem.
At Desert Palm, the labyrinth is described as a "break from surfing the surface of culture to contemplate deeper things of life." It is intended to rekindle the ancient symbol of wholeness, combining the images of the circle and the spiral into a "meandering but purposeful path."
The church’s intricate layout of circles of rocks was the Eagle Scout project of 17-year-old Neal Wright, a junior at Corona del Sol High School in Tempe and a member of the Desert Palm congregation. "I knew the church had been wanting to do this for a long time," said Wright, a member of Scout Troop 697, sponsored by Hacienda de Los Angeles, a program that serves people with disabilities and nerve injuries.
Wright researched labyrinths and laid out a design in the middle of a water retention area on the north side of the campus.
Starting with 50-gallon barrels of beautiful and distinct finds of a rockhound in the congregation, Wright obtained more stones at a rock-bottom price from a landscaping materials company. With more than 10 tons of rock to work with, he developed a labyrinth 50 feet in diameter by using a rope on a pole to create the series of circles. Stakes marked where rocks would be laid for the serpentine paths with abrupt cutbacks. He had the help of fellow Scouts and a few adults, and they demarcated the pathways. A cross was incorporated into it, as well as a bench in the center.
Last Thanksgiving weekend, Wright led fellow Scouts and several adults in the backbending, tedious job of putting down the stones. With 15 helpers each day, the project was completed over two days and took a total of eight hours.
The experience has three stages. The inward walk calls for letting go of things that hinder wholeness and to gain an inner approach to God. Once in the center, the traveler meditates in that space, offers prayers and seeks peace. The journey out of the labyrinth is intended to focus on relationships, with oneself, others, the planet and God.
At the end of candlelight services on Christmas, Herman led a procession from the church to the labyrinth. Holding candles, congregants negotiated the course and put candles in the middle next to a creche of Mary, Joseph and Jesus.
What made it special, Herman said, is that each participant was preoccupied with trying to wend through the labyrinth and never saw the creche until he or she arrived at the center. Moreover, as they carried their candles through the curves and bends, "it was like the string of cars going into the ‘Field of Dreams’ at the end of the movie," he said.
"As you walk the labyrinth, you kind of discard the things of the world that are troubling you — until you get into the center and kind of figure out what you should be doing in life," Herman said. "But the other half of the labyrinth is walking back out and ‘picking up’ all that stuff." The experience can leave the person "with a new spirit and renewed energy so you can go back and face the world with whatever you have grabbed along the way."
Since the labyrinth was completed, visitors have moved some of the rocks. Some even try to move rocks and change the path.
"When people would change the path, they would change it so they could get out fast," Herman said, adding that humans tend to want to take a shortcut to the exit. "I bet more people walk into the labyrinth than walk out of it."
The labyrinth can be wa lked, without asking permission, but users are requested to not move rocks. The maze can be found on the north side of the parking lot of Desert Palm. For more information, call the church, (480) 831-0065.