Labyrinths in Iowa, June 08 | Spiraling Pathways of Reflection

Kids immediately take to the intriguing pathways of a labyrinth, like this one in Waterloo, Iowa.

In an almost-empty room on the third floor of an Art Deco office building in Davenport, Patricia McLaughlin stands waiting for her life to change. Holding a stone, she steps onto a white canvas and walks, head bowed down, around a snaking pathway on the floor. She shuffles, moving the stone from hand to hand as she makes the turns. When she gets to the middle of the labyrinth, she pauses, closes her eyes, and retreats into her mind.

“People used to walk labyrinths to purge themselves of sin,” says McLaughlin, executive director of the Quad City Labyrinth project, a non-profit dedicated to educating the public about labyrinth practice. “What they used to call sin we now call stress.”

Happening upon a labyrinth in nature is a little like seeing a crop circle from a plane, or stumbling upon a moldering ruin. An irresistible urge compels people to explore it and fantasize about its uses and meaning.

Increasingly, wanderers in Iowa aren’t just finding labyrinths, they are building them. In the past decade, Iowans have built over two dozen labyrinths—in the backyards of churches, near hospitals and retreat centers. Homeowners have carved makeshift labyrinths in the grass, others have installed permanent labyrinths made of sand, stone, and brick.

These aren’t the menacing mazes we know from film and myth. These labyrinths have one looping pathway in, one looping pathway out—and in the middle, a moment for thoughtful reflection. Instead of confusion, the labyrinth provides clarity. Instead of a way to get lost, labyrinth practitioners say, it represents a way to get found.

In post-9/11 America, people are using these labyrinths to promote peace, aid spirituality, and reduce stress. But those who walk the labyrinth engage in an ancient ritual that reaches as far back as 5,000 years—a practice that spans continents and cultures. Native Americans had the medicine wheel, and Romans used labyrinth doormats to ward off evil spirits that followed them home. The labyrinth has long held powers to help people deal with their implacable ills. 

McLaughlin became interested in the labyrinth movement after retiring from her position as a rhetoric professor at Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon. A labyrinth facilitator certified by the San Francisco-based Veriditas labyrinth center, McLaughlin holds workshops and events throughout the Quad Cities. “I have always been attracted to rational processes,” McLaughlin says. “I do this precisely because I can’t explain it.”

She employs a simple, classical labyrinth pattern consisting of a seven-circuit loop in her workshops, but the most popular labyrinth design is the Chartres Cathedral labyrinth, characterized by four distinct quadrants and a complex pathway with several 180-degree turns. For centuries, Christian pilgrims walked the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France, built circa 1200 A.D., in lieu of making the long, dangerous trek to the Holy Land. The pathway symbolized the individual’s spiritual journey, culminating in the center of the design, which some called Jerusalem.

The Chartres pattern is said to work profoundly in aiding mental processes and helping people work through problems, especially creative blocks.
“It works like a washing machine, like an agitator,” she says about walking a Chartres design. “It is an anxious process that requires a lot of trust since it pushes you out of your comfort zone.”

In Iowa City, the labyrinth has become a regular part of spiritual practice at Soul Friends, an ecumenical ministry in Iowa City, thanks to director Dorothy Whiston. She sees the labyrinth as having vast ecumenical appeal and uses it a way to introduce physical aspects of prayer into her faith ministry.

“Labyrinths are these incredible bridges across cultures,” Whiston says. “Christians haven’t really had a physical movement to incorporate into prayer, and labyrinths allow that.”

For years, Whiston owned the only labyrinth in Iowa, a canvas design that she made herself and laid out on the wooden floor of the sanctuary of Old Brick. People would drive from Illinois and Missouri to walk the labyrinth there. She says some practitioners have profound emotional experiences walking the labyrinth—some reach a point of clarity, some feel nothing.

But labyrinths have never offered a panacea to the world’s ills; rather, they provide a means to work through them individually. Whiston cautions walkers not to enter the labyrinth with specific requests. “Sometimes I feel a sense of God’s presence, sometimes I feel like I’m walking in circles,” she says of her own practice.

Retired farmers Stan McCadam and Manley Orum wanted to offer this experience to visitors at the Cedar Falls Arboretum and Botanical Garden, where they mowed a labyrinth into the grass in summer 2007. Now they wait to hear whether the arboretum’s board of directors will approve a permanent installation.

“We both retired and moved into the city,” McCadam says. “This was a way for us to get back on the land.”

Families pushing strollers up the hill at a garden festival look left and see the labyrinth, not really knowing what it is, but curious nonetheless.
Children need no introduction to its use. They race in the entrance and around the pathway, leaping over the raised borders of the design. When they tire, they collapse in a pile in the design’s center, exactly at the point where most labyrinth practitioners report finding a sense of peace at the end of their walk.

As with many people who become attracted to labyrinths, McCadam first experienced labyrinths at an event held at a church, in this case the First United Methodist Church of Waterloo. Something about the beauty of the looping pathway and the rich history of the form inspired him to download a design from the Internet and build this one at the Botanical Garden to share with others.

If the board greenlights the project, he hopes to place a bench in the middle for walkers to rest. “This cost nothing but our time,” McCadam says, laughing. “But at our age, that’s invaluable.

Visit the index for more articles on travel in Iowa and beyond.