Labyrinths Find Their Way onto Hospital Grounds as Paths to Healing
Fall 2008 - Volume 12 Number 4
Once found exclusively in sacred spaces from moors to cathedrals, labyrinths have been undergoing a renaissance of late. After falling from favor for more than two centuries, labyrinths are once again being installed by congregations in their churches. Increasingly, they are also appearing in secular places, including two that opened at Kaiser Permanente (KP) hospitals just last year.
To Reverend Jurgen Schwing, Spiritual Care Manager in KP’s Diablo Area, interest in labyrinths in health care settings is not surprising. “In humanity’s early years, the priest and doctor were one,” says the German-born Rev Schwing. “Then, with the discovery of scientific research, the professions split. Physicians were taught to objectify the body. But now we’re discovering the mind has a lot to do with the body.”
From Crete to California
The word labyrinth conjures up images from the ancient Greek myth of the Athenian hero Theseus. In this myth, Theseus slays the half-human, half-bull Minotaur that lived inside a labyrinth in Crete with so many twisting passages that all who entered became hopelessly lost.1
As the Roman writer Ovid described it in his Metamorphoses2:
He tricks the eye with many twisting paths that double back—one’s left without a point of reference... just so did Daedalus within his maze along the endless ways disseminate uncertainty; in fact the artifex himself could scarcely trace the proper path back to the gate—it was that intricate.
After killing the Minotaur, Theseus is able to escape from the labyrinth only with the help of the Cretan king’s daughter, Ariadne. Smitten by his beauty, she secretly gives him a spool of thread to unwind so he can retrace his steps.1
The word labyrinth itself recalls the Minotaur. The ancient Greek meaning is “house of the double-edged ax.” This ax—labrys—was a sacred symbol of the Minoans who lived on Crete. They worshipped a sun god whom they often depicted as a bull.
Remembering the Minotaur myth, we can be forgiven for thinking labyrinths are the same thing as mazes. But the two are not the same. Mazes employ dead ends and misleading corridors to baffle and confuse those who enter.
Walking labyrinths, on the other hand, are intended to let those who enter find their way along a single, clear path. However long and intricate a labyrinth’s pattern, anyone can trace the turnings and be assured of reaching the center and back out again.
From India to Arizona, labyrinths can be found in numerous premodern cultures. They enjoyed great popularity in Medieval Europe, where Christians often substituted walking a labyrinth for the more arduous pilgrimage to the Holy Land (hence one of the labyrinth’s names in French—le chemin de Jerusalem). Later, during the Reformation and Enlightenment, many labyrinths were destroyed. Among the few to survive those upheavals was the labyrinth in the floor of Chartres Cathedral, on which the two KP labyrinths are modeled.
Rediscovering a Spiritual Connection to Healing
The first labyrinths completed at KP hospitals became available to walkers in the summer of 2007 at the new Antioch Medical Center in Northern California and at Sunnyside Medical Center in Clackamas, OR. Subsequently, a labyrinth has opened at the Santa Rosa Medical Center in Northern California.
Antioch Medical Center
According to Rev Schwing, the idea for the Antioch labyrinth came from Jane Wirth. The Rev Schwing met Wirth shortly after he came to work as a chaplain at KP’s Walnut Creek Medical Center in May 2000. Wirth, who has since retired, was then a Director of Health Education for KP.
“She had long been interested in labyrinths and wanted one at KP,” Rev Schwing recalls. Her first attempt to get funding for a labyrinth, at the existing Martinez Medical Office, failed. When she met Rev Schwing, he was already familiar with labyrinths from one at the California Pacific Medical Center where he completed his clinical internship. Wirth brought up the idea of collaborating with Rev Schwing to obtain an innovations grant from KP for “finger labyrinths”—boards with the paths grooved into the wood so people could trace them with their fingers.
“In the beginning there was a bit of hesitancy in bringing spirituality into a secular health care setting,” remembers Rev Schwing. “But KP leaders were really interested in learning about spiritual care as a professional discipline that includes religion but is much larger than that and includes the quest for existential meaning.”
Wirth and Rev Schwing got the grant. They encouraged people visiting a KP hospital meditation room to try the chessboard-sized finger labyrinths. Surveys of users’ stress levels before and after tracing the paths revealed that most felt more relaxed afterward.
Rev Schwing suspected that walking labyrinths might be even more effective than the boards. “Sometimes when people are stressed they are not ready to sit down to become calm. A labyrinth can have a healing effect because as we walk its path it stills our mind. It’s a great example of how something developed in a religious context could be adapted to something in health care involving stress reduction.”
On the basis of the success of the finger labyrinths, funding was approved for a full-sized outdoor labyrinth at Antioch. The designers planned for the whole atmosphere to be conducive to healing.
Wirth attended Antioch’s dedication last November and became the first to officially walk the hospital’s new labyrinth. Today, Rev Schwing walks the Antioch labyrinth regularly. Staff and visitors of many different faiths ask him about the labyrinth and he often overhears children peppering their parents with questions. “I’ve seen a real interest and curiosity,” he says.
But belief in a religion is not necessary to benefit from the labyrinth, according to Rev Schwing. “It can be a very practical tool to help people in relaxing, stilling the mind, transitioning after treatment, or just as a way to reduce stress on breaks or at lunch.
Volunteers Fund Oregon Labyrinth
Sunnyside’s labyrinth stems from a trip the hospital’s future Director of Volunteer Services, Bonnie Morgan, made to San Francisco in June 2000. While there, Morgan visited Grace Cathedral and walked its outdoor labyrinth.
“I had a lot of stuff in my life at that time that was troublesome. I found walking the labyrinth very soothing and peaceful, helping me let go of some things,” Morgan says of that first experience.
A few years later, she had the opportunity to fund a labyrinth when plans were announced to turn a parking lot on the Sunnyside campus into a 200,000-square-foot patient care wing. Construction of the five-story addition created a courtyard. The hospital’s volunteers donated $200,000 from their gift shop sales to beautify the space with a garden, stone benches, a fountain and—at Morgan’s suggestion—a walking labyrinth.
At 24-feet across, Sunnyside’s labyrinth is roughly half the size of its original French counterpart but features the same tightly coiled path in tan cobblestones outlined in bluestone. Few of the people drawn to the courtyard for fresh air and respite from the busy hospital units on either side know the long history behind this centerpiece. But on any given day, some can be found stepping onto its stones, invariably silent, heads bent intently toward the earth.
That intense focus on what labyrinths have to teach us is shared by one of Sunnyside’s part-time chaplains—the Rev Susan Freisinger. She first walked a labyrinth eight years ago at an Episcopal church in Portland. No one was happier to see a labyrinth appear at Sunnyside. “I love it that the labyrinth involves physical movement. Bringing the body into a meditation experience is important. I am reminded of what is important to me, and the daily irritations and frustrations fall away, letting me return to a sense of wholeness.”
Rev Freisinger explains that the labyrinth is a spiritual tool without belonging to any particular religion. “I can suggest to patients who are facing a difficult diagnosis that they walk the labyrinth to help them connect with their own sources of strength. Staff can use the labyrinth to get centered before and after working with patients. Families who are struggling with end-of-life care decisions for their loved ones can take time to walk the labyrinth and see things in a clearer light.”
The labyrinth at Sunnyside is wheelchair accessible, making it possible for people with disabilities to also navigate its paths. Nurses can sometimes be seen wheeling patients along the coiling paths and explaining the labyrinth as they go. “It is a little tight—sometimes I get dizzy,” says Rev Freisinger, who uses a wheelchair herself. But she believes the spiritual benefits are the same on foot or on wheels. “I see people remember their inner strength and their connection to faith. I see people stop struggling and relax.”
When asked if walking a replica of a nearly 800-year-old spiritual path holds much relevance for those walking and relevance for those working and receiving care at a busy, modern specialty hospital, Rev Freisinger is quick to reply that, “We are just as much in need of tools for reconnecting with ourselves as ever. Labyrinths are about healing, about coming into wholeness. The labyrinth meets us where we are—there is nothing we need to know to do it right. Sometimes the labyrinth experience is full of insights or good feelings, and sometimes nothing seems to happen for us. It doesn’t matter. We just walk the path and listen to our experience.”
The author(s) have no conflicts of interest to disclose.
1. McCaughrean G (editor). Theseus (Heroes). Chicago: Cricket Books; 2003.