Round and round and round they go. And where they stop will be on the East Lawn of the U.S. Capitol.
Starting March 13, a group of artists will merge politics with peace by constructing several labyrinths on the grassy confines of the Capitol lawn. For the next two weeks, bystanders, residents, politicians and lobbyists alike can purportedly experience inner peace by walking one labyrinth made out of surveyor flags and tape or another on a flat canvas containing a map of the world.
No one knows if the likes of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott or House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt will be strolling the labyrinth but the hope is that the circular paths will inspire onlookers to think tranquil thoughts.
The displays, which have been two years in the planning, are being set up through the offices of Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat. Any constituent can arrange through his or her member of Congress to show art in the Capitol, House or Senate buildings.
Labyrinths, however, fell into that gray area between art show and something else.
“We wanted one on the Rotunda floor, but activities that would block the public space aren’t allowed there,” says Sandra Wasko-Flood of Alexandria, the special project director. It was moved outdoors and reclassified as a “demonstration for inner peace” on the East Lawn.
Thus, an outdoor labyrinth, weather permitting, will be set up, then taken down on the East Lawn each day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 13-25, a time when many Christians will be observing Lent and in which the vernal equinox falls. Organizers are searching for musicians, particularly flutists or others with reed instruments that carry sound well outdoors, to accompany the walkers.
“We just want to show people this tool for meditation and centering,” Ms. Wasko-Flood says. “If people become peaceful within themselves, the world will be a better place.
“It’s not political for a particular cause but in a broader, more philosophical sense so that individuals find their own center. People have even used labyrinths for decision making. You’ll understand what it does when you walk it.”
A program to kick off the exhibit is slated for with speeches by officials in the Labyrinth Society, which is based in New Canaan, Conn., at 7 p.m. March 16 in the Rayburn House Office Building foyer. A photo exhibit of labyrinths around the country will open the same day in the Cannon House Office Building rotunda.
One of the speakers at the Rayburn reception will be Pamela Ramadei, who is organizing a “peace labyrinth” for students, faculty and families connected with Columbine High School. The site, to be built at Columbine Unitarian Universalist Church of Littleton, Colo., will be three miles from the high school.
Labyrinths may have originated between 2000 and 1400 B.C. on the island of Crete, where there is a labyrinth at Knossos. According to Greek mythology, the Minotaur was imprisoned there and the mythical hero Theseus journeyed through a labyrinth to slay the monster, which had the body of a man and the head of a bull. The name comes from the double-headed ax “labrys” that Theseus wielded.
Labyrinths have cropped up since then in various civilizations, including the Hopi Indians in Arizona and among such Nordic countries as Estonia and Sweden. The most famous was laid out in 1220 on the floor of Chartres Cathedral south of Paris as a spiritualized pilgrimage for people unable to travel to popular sites such as Rome or Jerusalem.
Whereas ancient labyrinths had seven circuits, or turns, the Chartres display has 11 circuits. Credited with giving participants everything from serenity and enlightenment to oneness with God, it became a late-20th-century “whole body prayer” trend among New Agers and mainline Protestants.
Labyrinths differ from mazes in that the former has one direct path leading to the middle. All the walker need do is place one foot in front of the other while remaining in a meditative state. Mazes, which are fraught with wrong turns and false paths, obligate the walker to make choices, to pit one’s energies against the creator.
They are also known as “walking meditations” or, at the least, a counterpoint to the over-technologized 21st century. Their mystical qualities and concentric circles provide the perfect backdrop for any self-defined spiritual experience or awakening.
The Episcopal Church of the Epiphany at 13th and G Streets NW sets up a 22-foot canvas labyrinth each Wednesday in its sanctuary in the place normally occupied by the altar. A staff member estimates about three dozen people slip in on Wednesdays to quietly walk its paths.
“We’ve noticed a steady increase in the people who use it,” he says.
In the past five years, labyrinths have become the rage in a variety of public spaces, hospitals and churches. The photo exhibit in Cannon will showcase all kinds of designs nationwide, such as the 40-foot-diameter labyrinth in Corpus Christi, Texas, made of maple with inlaid black walnut wood.
Another, designed by artist Marty Kermeen in Naperville, Ill, is all orange, red and brown-hued cobblestone. It was built in 1998 along the city’s downtown Riverwalk to welcome the new millennium.
Others include a raised earth mound labyrinth in Albiquiu, N.M., a highly polished granite labyrinth in New Harmony, Ind., a phosphorescent paint labyrinth lit by black lights and with musical accompaniment in New York, and a three-circuit labyrinth in Connecticut that’s used for weddings.
“The vestibular is the first nerve to develop in the fetus,” says Marilyn Larson of Northfield, Minn., who is also organizing the upcoming show on the east lawn. “It has to do with orientation, a sense of balance and knowing where you are. That nerve is stimulated by the turns you make in the labyrinth.”
Undoubtedly, something elemental is released upon walking through the labyrinth’s many circuits, as testified by exhibit photos that show people praying, bowing and kneeling during their walks. Most advocates say they experience feelings of peace and completeness after the walk. One theory is that each of its four quadrants connects the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual parts of the personality.
Ms. Wasko-Flood, who will be exhibiting some of her own labyrinths on March 19 at the 57 N. Fine Art Gallery downtown, has constructed one made of glass. The moment a viewer walks on it, the paths light up with the help of a computer.
“Christians have the idea of labyrinths relating to God, others think of it as entrapping spirits,” she says. “In most cultures, it’s a ritual of life, death and rebirth.”