Down a tree-crowded road, through green fields and across from a quiet cemetery lies an intriguing circular path. It zigzags within a 47-foot diameter circle of grass, cutting back, but never crossing itself, until it has wound a third of mile, ending directly in the circle's center.
It is a labyrinth.
"We are rediscovering a long forgotten mystical tradition," said Sister Therese Pavilonis of the Sisters of Humility of Mary, Villa Maria, Pa. She stood at the foot of the labyrinth, which sits in a large open field.
About 40 people, including my friends and family, sat on redwood benches, half-circled around the labyrinth. We waited beneath a clouded sky for a summer solstice celebration sponsored by Sister Barbara O'Donnell and Villa Maria's EverGreen ministry.
Traditions: Labyrinths are found in religious traditions from Judeo-Christian to Hopi Indian and represent a spiritual journey. Villa Maria's is patterned after one at Chartres, France, and was built in June 1997 to allow walkers time for spiritual reflection.
"This labyrinth has only one path," Sister Therese read, "so there are no tricks to it and no dead ends. The path winds throughout and becomes a mirror for where we are in our lives; it touches our sorrows and releases our joys. So walk with an open mind and an open heart."
The sister instructed us to take a deep breath before beginning our journey, to leave a space between ourselves and the person who entered the labyrinth before us. She suggested the narrow strips of grass would cause us to do a "gentle dance" with other walkers.
"Sometimes, in our life, people need to get out of our way and they know it. And sometimes, it's you that need to get out of the way," she said. "The labyrinth is a lesson in life."
People began to enter the labyrinth, some barefooted on the neatly mowed grass. Thunder rolled in the distance. A drop of rain fell on my arm.
Sweet sounds: Sister Therese had pointed out a large bell, about the size of a long bee hive, donated to Villa Maria by Marianne Whitehouse, a labyrinth walker.
"Ring it loudly or softly as you feel led," the Sister had said. I swung the clapper and the rich tone sounded. I took up a small bell also placed near the entrance, planning, as Sister Therese had instructed, to ring it as I felt inspired.
I walked along the narrow strips of grass, eyes turned down, dodging shoulders as necessary. And then, I saw my daughter's face. I rang my small bell. We passed, then walked along beside each other until the labyrinth sent us in different directions. Like life, I thought, recalling the sister's words.
It was an interesting experience, walking along quietly, free to think or not, alone, but shoulder to shoulder with strangers, sometimes even crowded within the small circle, occasionally passing my friends, or husband or daughter. After a time, I wished to be through, and then I wished it wouldn't end. Like life, I thought again.
Journey's end: At the center, I found my daughter once more. And then we exited, back along the path that had brought us, now walking against the current of people who hadn't yet finished the entry walk. As I glanced back at the circle, I saw a beautiful Indian woman with her legs folded into a half lotus, hands gently resting on her knees, meditating. Orange fabric flowed over her shoulder beneath her raven hair. More thunder sounded, bells rang -- the small, tinny ones, and the rich large one -- and the birds sang incessantly.
At the end, a woman leaned over to me and said, "It's an entirely different experience when you walk it alone."
Anyone is welcome to walk the labyrinth, and another group walk is planned for fall. For information, call Sister O'Donnell, (724) 964-8920, ext. 3350.