Following the path

Mar. 05, 2013 @ 07:31 PM

Right after she put her shoes back on and began leaving Duke Chapel, Pierette Simpson’s eyes began to flutter and she almost started to cry.

Tuesday was, she recalled, the first anniversary of her mother’s death, and walking the chapel labyrinth, methodically, slowly following the intricate paths, had “evoked so many memories of her.”

And then, as she continued walking, “I remembered my father and my grandfather and my grandmother and it was wonderful to surround myself with those memories, to remember all those lovely moments.”

The labyrinth, Simpson said, had brought her some peace. “I don’t know how to explain it, but it did.”

Laid out on the chapel floor in front of the imposing altar, the simple, intricate labyrinth is designed to offer that kind of relief. It’s supposed to inspire reflection and contemplation, helping those who walk its circuitous pathways find a calmness that may elude them in their daily lives.

Placed in the chapel once a year by the Resource Center for Women & Ministry in the South, the Duke labyrinth is a replica of the medieval labyrinth in the French cathedral of Chartres. It’s a mirror for where we are in our lives, said Jeannette Stokes of the resource center, and “touches our sorrows and releases our joy.” 

Students and families, the religious and the non-believers, walked the paths Monday during the lunch hour. Some walked with their hands clasped in front of them, their heads down. Others paused on their journey when they reached the center of the labyrinth, sat down with their legs crossed or on their knees, and stayed to meditate.

Some made the sign of the cross as they finished walking.

The labyrinth is a religious symbol, found in many traditions around the world, but belief is not essential for succumbing to its allure.  

Jonathan Lee, who works at Duke, “grew up a Christian,” he said, but now considers himself an agnostic. He hadn’t planned on walking the labyrinth, but decided to try it and found the walk “very centering.”

“It let’s you focus just on the path and you can toss out all other thoughts,” Lee said. “It very much frees the mind from distracting, random thoughts. You have a chance to mull over that freedom.”

Bill Olsen, his wife Jenna and their 12-year-old son Brandt, were visiting from Atlanta, doing a basketball tour of Tobacco Road. They had come just to see the chapel, and then all of them decided to walk the labyrinth.

“You walk into a place great place like this and you don’t generally feel connected,” Olsen said. “But this gives you a purpose, helps you feel connected. It’s really calming.”

For 30 or so minutes, the family walked. It was like walking the path of life, Olsen said.

“It helps you think of where you’ve been and where you’re going,” he explained.

Simpson, visiting family from Michigan, “kind of hesitated” before walking the labyrinth. “I’m not very religious,” she explained.

But then she decided to do it “and the memories came rushing back.”