Labyrinth Walks in Lemon Bay
During a recent stay in Englewood, Florida, I treated myself to daily walks in Lemon Bay Park, 210 acres of pine flatwoods, freshwater marshes, and mangrove-lined shores. A block’s stroll from my hosts’ winter home, the setting offered much-needed exercise and a bounty of natural beauty.
I’d come to know the park on earlier visits, wrestling as I rounded curves with decisions about care for my aging parents, seeking clarity about career moves, and writing nature poems, including "Birding in Lemon Bay." Having just turned seventy, I was now “aging” and grateful to return to a place that felt like an old friend.
Mid-week I realized wandering the park was as contemplative as moving along carefully designed paths I’d tread since my first encounter with a labyrinth in the
1990s. Barreling down a hall at a Winston-Salem conference to learn about grants, I glimpsed an ancient design stenciled on white canvas spread across a banquet room floor. Curiosity, or perhaps something much more, pulled me into the room. There Reverend Jeannette Stokes, Director of the Resource Center for Women & Ministry in the South, explained that, unlike a maze, a labyrinth leads one from the entrance to the center and back out again with no false turns, no dead ends. I was intrigued.
Skipping the session I was headed to, I removed my shoes, offered a prayer, and stepped inside. During that impromptu walk, I heard the words: Your work is finished where you are. I knew it was time to “move on,” something I’d been reluctant to undertake.
The labyrinth I entered that day was a replica of the eleven-circuit design found in Chartres Cathedral, one medieval Christians traversed in lieu of going on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In the years which followed, I explored labyrinths of all sorts – ones etched in concrete, stone-strewn paths, backyard grass mowed in spiral patterns, Cretan designs which resembled brains, and some outlined in sand that lasted until the tide came in. I found them at retreat centers, in fellowship halls, on college campuses and at public parks as people rediscovered one of the oldest known contemplative practices found in spiritual traditions and cultures throughout the world.
One of the most interesting labyrinths I’ve ever walked, a friend had doused, locating the center, then the entrance, and following her wand as it wound through a stand of trees. Cherokee teachers taught her that indigenous people sense energy under their feet and can walk a holy path without a surface guide.
Although there is no labyrinth design in Lemon Bay Park, I felt like I entered a safe and holy container each time I slipped past the fence to amble the shelled paths, foot trails, and fire breaks. Many detours wound in circles, intersecting and leading me back to the main trail, so I never got lost even though, at times, I was totally unaware of where my steps were taking me. I abandoned myself to the rhythm of putting one foot before the other as I scanned for gopher tortoises and paused to watch wind billow Spanish moss and rustle live oak leaves. At times, palmettos as tall as my five-foot frame surrounded me, but I could always see sky above and hear water lapping in the bay. I navigated by observing the ecosystem as it changed from mangroves to pines depending upon how far from the bay’s shore the path diverged.
According to The Reverend Dr. Lauren Artress, a labyrinth provides “sacred space where the inner and outer worlds can commune, where the thinking mind and the imaginative heart can flow together.” I believe such places appear in our lives, whether marked by ancient designs or embedded in natural landscapes, places that sustain us, renew us, and offer guidance. Places where we empty ourselves, listen to Holy, give thanks, surrender, move about aimlessly, and are sometimes gifted with insights or instructions.
For me, Lemon Bay Park is such a place. The messages I received this time were not about where I was headed, but where I now stand … look here, remember this, never forget the wonder of it all.
Questions for Reflection
What, if any, has been your experience of walking labyrinths? If you have not walked a labyrinth, are there other places that offer you a similar sacred connection?
What other contemplative practices enable you to attune to Holy, Divine, a Higher Power?