A Tale of Sacred Ground in Disrepair

It wasn’t steamy yet as I took a cleansing breath and entered the Harmonist Labyrinth in New Harmony, Indiana. (I’ve spent enough summers in the midwest to know that any early morning coolness is short-lived.) I anticipated much from this historic labyrinth I encountered on my trans-continental pilgrimage of spiritual renewal. Originally constructed by utopians about 1820, I hoped this meditative walk between its hedges would elicit insight or hints.

Entering the labyrinth alone, I was soon joined by children who saw it as more of a place to run than contemplate. The children’s adults calmed the energetic ones, but their distraction was not the only challenge to my meditative walk. Labyrinths are not mazes, there is one way in and out, but this one had some mazelike aspects. I soon realized that the hedges no longer created a clear circular path to the center. Hedges were in disrepair. There was a straight path to the structure in the center. Decisions about which way to go diverted my thoughts.

Undaunted, I ignored the expressway to the center and began the longer path around and back and forth and around again toward the middle. By now, the heat from the midwestern sun was bearing down on me as I persisted on my journey. Others joined the running children and their adults. Though they saw the labyrinth differently than I, the adults and children would slow and quiet when we encountered one another between the green hedges.

I appreciated the respect.

Nonetheless, my journey within this old labyrinth became an exercise in trying to keep focus amid nearby voices. But it was more than avoiding external distractions. I worked hard at centering myself, only to be tripped up by internal confusion about where to turn due to the disrepair of the hedges. I wanted to be told. Instead, I was presented with choices. I wanted a deep continuous walking meditative focus. Instead, I had choices to make and numerous reboots of my circular expedition.

In a recent post (What Makes a Place Sacred?), I suggested that a place can be intrinsically sacred – a thin place between – and unless we enter into a relationship with it, we may not experience it mystically. By definition, labyrinths are sacred ground (1). On that hot day, with all the distractions, I worked at being in a relationship with the Harmonist labyrinth!

And it didn’t work. Or so I thought.

At the time, I blamed the others and the dilapidated hedges for what I thought was a failed spiritual experience. I had tried to be in a relationship with the holy ground, but it was imperfect! I had tried to meditate and contemplate, but the noisy children, their adults, and the hot sun wouldn’t let me! Maybe, however, I had it all wrong.

My cross-continental pilgrimage of resetting my physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being was only thirteen days old when I encountered the Harmonist labyrinth. I wanted to reach the center of the winding path of healing immediately. These imperfect hedges showed me that rushing to the end (or pretending to go through the motions of the winding path) without releasing the distractions that had led me to a state of burnout would not provide healing.

When we enter into relationship with the Sacred Earth, neither we nor the divine ground fully controls the other. We are influenced by the sacred, and the sacred is influenced by us. That is the nature of a relationship. And so, when I encountered the hallowed Harmonist, my desires and the desires of the divine interacted. The divine’s healing, loving, and pedantic inclinations met my impatient wants. Though I did not realize it at the time, my needs were advanced by the lesson taught by a sacred labyrinth in disrepair.


(1) Labyrinths refer to “any maze-like structure with a single path through it which differentiates it from an actual maze which may have multiple paths intricately linked.” They date back at least to 3500 BCE and “may have served to help one find their spiritual path by purposefully removing one from the common understanding of linear time.” (Labyrinth, World History Encyclopedia).

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