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Thursday, June 2, 2005 09:57 am

Walk this way

Sister Sharon Zayac walks the labyrinth at Jubilee Farms

The most satisfying journey you take this summer could be an inward one, courtesy of the labyrinth at Jubilee Farm.

A center for ecology and spirituality operated by Benincasa Ministries, the farm can be found just west of Springfield on Old Jacksonville Road. There, in a picturesque setting among gently rolling hills, the prairie grass yields to a twisting path — the labyrinth.

A labyrinth is a single winding path laid out in concentric circles, or “circuits.” In contrast to a maze, which seeks to confuse, only one path will take you to the center of a labyrinth and back. Rest assured, the only way to lose yourself in a labyrinth is in the figurative sense.

The labyrinth at Jubilee Farm offers a one-mile journey that is less about walking and more about going within. Stepping onto its path, you follow in the footsteps of countless others throughout history who have been drawn to this ancient ritual.

So what is the lure of the labyrinth?

“It is a source of prayer,” says Sister Sharon Zayac of Jubilee Farm. “It’s about listening to yourself and everything around you.”

Labyrinth walkers are encouraged to move at a leisurely pace, in silence, and focus on the moment rather than on the destination. In fact, each moment is the destination in the labyrinth.

On arriving at the center, some choose to linger and mentally release their troubles before beginning the journey back out. Others focus on receiving whatever the experience would offer.

Though sometimes associated with Christianity, the labyrinth’s origins go much deeper in history and in mystery. Archaeologists have found stone carvings of labyrinths dating back to at least 2500 B.C. The symbol has been found in ancient cultures ranging from Peru to Iceland, Egypt to Arizona.

According to Zayac, early Christians adopted the labyrinth from pagan cultures and made it their own. Though its earliest uses remain a mystery, in medieval times Christians walked the labyrinth as a symbolic (and safe) pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Today’s sacred traveler is more likely seeking prayer, insight, relaxation, or communion with God or nature. Rich in symbolism, the labyrinth’s circular design whispers of unity, Mother Earth, or the journey of life — ending back where we began. Yet, like a spiritual Rorschach test, the meaning found in the labyrinth is as varied as those who walk its paths.

“People who walk the labyrinth regularly say it’s a different experience every time,” Zayac says.

Those new to the practice should consider this helpful piece of advice: Leave your expectations behind. Zayac says it’s not uncommon for walkers to hope that the ancient ritual will magically make their problems disappear. The realities of the experience tend to be much more subtle.

“A lot of people who enter the labyrinth burdened are still carrying their burdens when they leave,” says Zayac, “but they often have a new perspective on their troubles.” The labyrinth’s outdoor location helps in this regard. Nature has a way of nudging us toward a loftier vantage point.

Life lessons from the labyrinth are not limited to adults. Children have had “some pretty deep experiences” there, says Zayac. One youngster, after journeying to the center, decided to skip over several circuits to quicken her exit. Instead, she found herself on a path taking her farther from her goal. Reflecting on her experience, she said: “I learned if you take a short cut, you get lost.” Not bad for an eighth-grader.

As a catalyst for contemplation, the labyrinth goes beyond age and denomination. “The beauty of the labyrinth is that it touches you wherever you are in your faith,” says Zayac. “This is not a Catholic thing; this is a God thing.”

The labyrinth is open to the public year-round, with group walks scheduled each month. It is one way Jubilee Farm fulfills its mission to “offer opportunities to connect with the land,” says Zayac.

Whether you’re seeking spiritual renewal, relief from stress, or simply to satisfy a curiosity, Jubilee Farm invites you to experience the labyrinth. Who knows? A walk down its path may help you walk away a little lighter.

“You never know where life is going to lead you,” says Zayac, “and that’s true of the labyrinth as well.”

Summer labyrinth walks at Jubilee Farm are scheduled for 1 p.m. June 18, 6 p.m. July 21, and 7 p.m. Aug. 12. Call the farm, 217-787-6927, for more information. To learn more about labyrinths or find one near you, visit www.veriditas.net or www.labyrinthsociety.org.

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