The view is tranquil. The quiet is calming.
A step on the path is meant as the start of a journey toward inner peace.
Meet the brick labyrinth on the Middleton farm known as Hillsong Ridge. It is only the latest of nearly 20 labyrinths to spring up in and around the Madison area over the past decade, part of a growing movement to counter modern-day stresses with an ancient and mysterious tool.
“You’re supposed to clear your mind and think about your intention before you start walking,” said Jamie Spahn, whose in-laws, Leo and Kathy Spahn, own Hillsong Ridge Farm.
“Think about why you are here, whether it is personal or to send out good vibes to someone.”
A labyrinth is not a maze, but rather a flat, circular path that curves back upon itself, leading to a central point and then back again to the entry. The labyrinth at Hillsong Ridge Farm is modeled after a pattern built into the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France dating back to 1201. Walkers follow a compact series of switchbacks to a center signifying love, surrounded by a rosette pattern with six petals symbolizing faith, surrender, service, abundance, forgiveness and overcoming.
“I think the design of the path is what really keeps your mind free,” said Spahn, a practicing massage therapist and mother of three young girls.
“If you’re on a straight path, you’re on a straight path somewhere. (A labyrinth) is going to take you in and out, so you’re not going to let your mind focus on one specific thing. It makes sure you’re letting everything else go, so when you’re in the middle, it’s just you.”
Labyrinth patterns can be made of stone, brick, carpet, canvas or any other walkable material. Of the several in Madison, some are located in places of worship, on private property or in gardens, such as the outdoor labyrinth at St. Mary’s Hospital. With approval of Madison Parks and the volunteer help of a landscaping company, neighbors of Carpenter-Ridgeway Neighborhood Park created a labyrinth there near a stretch of peaceful prairie.
“I will tell you, I am amazed by the number of people that use it,” said Randy Glyph, former president of the neighborhood association. “People will take their shoes off, and a lot of people will congregate in the middle,” where a Tree of Life design is engraved into the labyrinth’s granite center.
Labyrinths date back to the Middle Ages, and even earlier. The concept vanished for centuries but had a brief renaissance during the Gothic Revival of the mid-1800s.
Not until the early 1990s did labyrinths become a widespread phenomenon in the U.S., said the Rev. Lauren Artress, an expert on labyrinths whose organization Veriditas trains people from around the world in how to build and use them.
When “The AIDS crisis came along, we needed some kind of way, some kind of tool to help people reflect, grieve, find solace, find hope,” said Artress, a senior Episcopal priest at Grace Cathedral in
She went to Chartres Cathedral in the early 1990s to study its labyrinth — today covered with chairs for visiting tourists, she said.
Now Grace has two labyrinths, one indoors and one outdoors. Artress, the author of three books on labyrinths, has seen a boon in their use, including in prisons and schools where they serve as an alternative to “time outs” to calm children down.
Hundreds of labyrinths around the globe are listed on the World-Wide Labyrinth Locator at labyrinthlocator.com.
“Research on walking meditation has shown that if you’re walking in a spiral pattern toward a stabilized center, the mind quiets,” Artress said. “We are in such a loud, chaotic, grab-your-attention-at-every-second (society) that really it’s almost a counter-culture resurgence to claim back how we use our attention.”
Leo Spahn built the labyrinth at Hillsong Ridge Farm with the help of his son bit by bit over several months. Nineteen feet in diameter, the labyrinth’s cut brickwork is designed in three colors: red to signify fire, blue to signify water and brown/green to signify Mother Earth.
A former dairy farm, Hillsong Ridge Farm produces chemical-free produce and fresh eggs for its CSA members and farmstand.
The idea for the labyrinth came from Eileen Timmins, sister of Leo’s wife. Born in the Bronx, she moved with her family to Waunakee when she was 7. Today Timmins and her husband — former Badger and pro football player Bill Schick — live in Chicago’s West Loop.
“We have a rooftop deck on our condo, but my real sanctuary is my sister’s farm,” she said.
In 2010 Timmins was diagnosed with breast cancer. During treatment at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, she discovered a labyrinth in the courtyard of nearby St. James Cathedral.
Walking it “had a huge impact on my healing,” she said. Construction at the site took away the labyrinth for a time and Timmins lobbied both Northwestern and the Chicago Park District to build another.
“I told them, ‘We’ve been financially blessed. I’d like to pay for this,’” she said. “I kept getting (the response) ‘No, no, no.’”
Then she thought of her sister’s Wisconsin farm.
“From all my no’s came the right answer,” said Timmins. Work began on the the labyrinth last fall.
“On Christmas night, Leo shoveled it off. There was a full moon and we all went out and walked it,” she said.
“You’re supposed to walk the path nice and slow,” her niece, Jamie Spahn, explained.
“I like to breathe and let my thoughts go. Your thoughts will be there when you’re done. The path is designed to take you in and out and kind of make you lose balance a little with where you’re at, so when you get to the middle there’s nothing else inside of you except for peace.”