I Could Walk Circles Around That


With all the ways to find spiritual fulfillment in Southern California--oxygen bars, flotation chambers, Neiman’s Last Call--the idea of merely walking in a circle is a peculiar proposition.

The fourth Sunday evening of every month, a small cadre of acolytes gathers at the nondenominational Unity Church in Tustin, their earnest faces lit by flickering candlelight, to begin a silent walk. The one-third-mile route takes about 20 minutes. But according to those who walk this sacred path, it is the inward journey, not the outward one, that matters.

The journey is called the labyrinth walk, a meditation that dates to ancient Greeks and is experiencing a rebirth, thanks to Lauren Artress, canon of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral Church. Artress’ goal, to proselytize the practice around the world as a means of healing and spiritual renewal, has now reached several Southern California churches.


Unity’s labyrinth in Tustin, which opened on Palm Sunday in 1997, is based on one created by Benedictine monks 800 years ago at Chartres Cathedral in France to symbolize a Christian’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem. A Unity crew hauled thousands of river rocks and spent hours to lay out the 11 rings that make up the path beneath an ancient pepper tree.

Prompted more by journalistic curiosity than a quest for self-knowledge, I recently took my first labyrinth walk. Standing at the entrance, I watched a gray-haired man with stooped shoulders navigate the sharp turns, silently mouthing his mantra. A young woman with braids watched her feet closely as if she might lose her balance. Midway through my own journey, my focus shifted from the end result to the path underneath my feet. Too hyper to sit still for long, I’ve always found meditation a challenge. But the rhythmic action of putting one foot in front of the other allowed me to be in the moment.

Unlike a maze, a labyrinth has no dead ends. There is one well-defined path that leads to the center and back out again. At the walk’s core, some pray. Others read the Bible. A few immediately begin the walk out. As I bent to read the inscription on the large rock--”Healing”--I was unexpectedly moved and stayed to pray.

Young and old, male and female, religious and secular come to Unity’s labyrinth from dawn to dusk in search of a clearer conscience. You might see a man in a business suit on lunch break, or a soccer mom in between car pools, in the throes of a labyrinth’s three stages: “Purgation,” where the details of everyday life are shed and the mind is open; “Illumination,” the time spent in the center of the labyrinth, quietly praying and receiving wisdom; and “Union,” the actualization or new sense of self that occurs as the path is rewalked.

“Sometimes people don’t want to be in a church setting but need a place for prayer and meditation,” says Karen McKee, who heads Unity’s labyrinth ministry. “Many people who never come to church come and walk. It’s an opportunity for people to be in movement and in prayer.”

As Artress puts it, “We are not human beings on a spiritual path, but spiritual beings on a human path.”


To find your nearest labyrinth walk, go to