Most every church has at least a few people who linger for extra prayers after Sunday Mass. Count Mary O’Leary among that group — except that you won’t find her in the church building during these moments.
Every Sunday, following 8 a.m. Mass at Elmira’s Our Lady of Lourdes Church, O’Leary spends 15 minutes walking the newly opened labyrinth on parish grounds. Traversing the circular stone path helps O’Leary approach her spirituality in a fresh way, she said.
“When I’m in the labyrinth, in the quiet of a Sunday morning, I think about the future — what will be happening next week that I can prepare for, in my family, my church, my work, my community — how can I share love, witness, cooperation, spirit,” O’Leary said.
Located just to the left of Our Lady of Lourdes as it faces West Church Street, the labyrinth is available to both parishioners and the general public.
“It’s an opportunity for people to come and spend time in quiet prayer and meditation. It’s for everybody, not just for Our Lady of Lourdes. People can come park their car and just spend some time in prayer,” said Father Jeremiah Moynihan, the parish’s pastor. “We’ve had people of other faiths come. It’s open to whomever.”
The labyrinth was begun in the fall of 2003 and completed this spring, with the parish picking up the $1,000 cost for supplies. Lisa Rustici, the parish’s sacramental-preparation administrator, surfaced the idea for it and performed much of the construction as well, laying all the 1,500 or so stones. Also assisting in this effort were Rustici’s family members as well as Joe Prunier, the parish’s buildings-and-grounds supervisor, and several parishioners who have offered plants and flowers to adorn the labyrinth.
Rustici said the labyrinth was already being utilized late last fall while nearing completion, and that a winter solstice celebration in December included some Presbyterian neighbors. The labyrinth has appealed to young as well as old — Rustici has guided her first Eucharist and religious-education classes through it.
“Kids are running the path and I think that’s so neat. They may not even know why they’re doing it, but they’re just enjoying it and that’s a great place to start,” Rustici said.
The labyrinth’s intricate circular layout lends itself to good reflection, O’Leary said. “For me it is similar to walking life’s path. I have to watch where I’m going or I’ll lose the way,” she explained.
“In society we’re so busy, inundated with outside forces. It’s so hard to meditate — just pray, just think. This allows it to happen just a little bit easier,” Rustici added. “For me, and the people I’ve known, it’s a journey to the center of yourself. There’s something about walking that frees the mind. A lot of times when I’m struggling with a problem, I will just walk the labyrinth.”
Rustici noted that labyrinths have a long history as meditation and prayer tools: “They are ancient, thousands of years old.” She patterned the Our Lady of Lourdes design, which contains 11 circuits and four quadrants, after a famous labyrinth at the Chartres Cathedral in France that was built around 1200.
Rustici acknowledged that the word “labyrinth” is generally associated with a maze. But she explained that prayer labyrinths are different “because a maze has wrong ways. This has one way in and out,” she said. She noted that Our Lady of Lourdes’ labyrinth path ends in the center where a small stone has the word “peace” inscribed. “I envisioned that at the center because that’s what I wanted people to find — peace,” Rustici said.
O’Leary, for one, has arrived at that peace by the time her labyrinth walk is completed: “As I leave, I feel I have spent quality time in a quality place for a quality purpose,” she said.
Because this is the first labyrinth at a Catholic parish in the Southern Tier, Rustici said that “there has been some skittishness involved; we’re trying more and more to encourage groups to use it. They just need that little shove.”
Part of this hesitation may be over whether labyrinths are accepted rituals in the eyes of the Catholic Church; only a handful of parishes in the Rochester Diocese offer them. Yet Rustici said this shouldn’t be a major sticking point. “My feeling has always been, anything that brings people closer to God is OK,” she stated.
Father Robert McNamara, diocesan historian, said labyrinths were employed in the early days of Christianity by worshipers who could not travel to Jerusalem. “It’s more or less like the Stations of the Cross,” Father McNamara said in an April 2004 Courier story. “It’s an imitation pilgrimage of the last hours of our Lord.” Rustici added that a common practice at the Chartres Cathedral labyrinth was for worshipers to walk on their knees.
Labyrinths are also popular among New Age movements, and Catholic critics have expressed concern that a labyrinth experience runs the risk of shifting the focus away from God and onto one’s personal experiences.
“With New Age, it sounds like you don’t need God — that you’re just doing it for yourself,” Rustici said. But the perspective for Catholics, she emphasized, should be that “we’re channeling God’s power through us.”