Members of Little River UCC in Annandale, Va., walk the church's outdoor labyrinth during the dedication service in November 2001. Richard Davidson photo.
If you answered "a labyrinth," the folks at Little River UCC in Annandale, Va., would smile with delight.
Every time Kathy Spaar, a member of Little River's board of Christian education, drives the quarter-mile, tree-lined road from the hectic Little River Turnpike to the church, she glances into the woods to see whether anyone is walking the church's outdoor labyrinth.
Often the answer is yes. She has seen persons walking it alone, occasional couples, and once a mother with two children. "That's great," she says. "We want to nurture spiritual growth among our members, but also reach people in the community. This is a more contemplative form of prayer and worship than what people find in church."
Little River's labyrinth came about as a fusing of two concerns: Spaar's long-time interest in spiritual formation and the desire of the senior pastor, the Rev. Verne Arens, for the church to be a better steward of its 13 woodland-filled acres less than one mile outside the eight-lane "beltway" than encircles Washington, D.C.
"First-time visitors often say to us, 'Wow! What a special piece of property you have here,'" says Arens. "'It's like an oasis, back here in the woods.' After so many visitors said that, we began to think of ways for making more use of it."
Three projects emerged: Pilgrim Walk, a meandering 100-yard-long path that leads to Memorial Grove, where ashes of many church members have been scattered, and a classical, seven-circuit labyrinth. With guidance from Spaar and local landscape designer Marty Hays, volunteers recruited through local Eagle Scouts cleared brush, laid mulch, planted azaleas, built two benches and laid hundreds of stones to complete the labyrinth.
"Here in this place new light is streaming, Now is the darkness vanished away," sang the choir during the dedication last November. "See in this space our fears and our dreamings, Brought here to you in the light of this day."
The advantages of an outdoor labyrinth are especially appealing to Spaar. "There's that powerful connection with nature," she says, "the beauty, the songbirds, the light shining through the canopy overhead, the rain dripping through, the autumn leaves as they fall."
The Rev. Ginna Manasian Dalton, pastor for Christian education, youth and evangelism, sometimes walks the labyrinth with members during pastoral counseling.
"We chat a bit, then walk to the labyrinth and sit on the bench," she says. "Then we pray together before [we] walk into the labyrinth. I usually wait, then follow several yards behind."
How does a labyrinth work? Little River member Ann Rourke has walked it alone and with her Bible class. "The experience is different each time," she says. "I guess it's like reading or praying or anything, that whatever is going on in your life at the time affects it."
Paradoxically, it's the structure of the labyrinth that gives it power, says Dalton. "For people in crisis and feeling powerless, the labyrinth gives them some control. While they are enmeshed in pain, they don't have to think about where to go. They just let themselves go and move through it."
"It's introduced me to another level of spirituality," says long-time member Tom Hill, "a deeper level in a lot of ways. It's a new dimension, as far as I'm concerned."
A labyrinth also can help take scripture deeper, says Spaar. "You can take a scripture, say, a line from a psalm, and walk with it and go deeper with it as you walk." A labyrinth is "a faith walk," she says. "It's very intuitive, a right brain activity."
She notes that many people, once they've walked a labyrinth, will look for another labyrinth to walk. "I hope they'll come and walk ours," she says.
Go to www.labyrinthsociety.com. Read "Walking a Sacred path," a book by Lauren Artress.