Story by Laura Lehman Amstutz
The dream of building a prayer labyrinth on the campus of Eastern Mennonite University began 15 years ago with professor of spiritual formation Wendy Miller.
On Oct. 13, that dream came true as Miller and others dedicated the prayer labyrinth on the hill northwest of the seminary building.
“Building the labyrinth was a bit like a labyrinth itself,” Miller said at the dedication ceremony. “There were all kinds of twists and turns. Even though we knew we were moving forward, it wasn’t always obvious that we were moving toward the center.”
From the dream, spawned by Miller and a number of seminary students, others began to get excited about the idea. Brian Martin Burkholder, campus pastor at EMU, had been thinking about how the university might best use some grant money to facilitate spiritual formation in an ongoing way.
“I was a part of the group that made decisions about use of funds given to EMU through a grant called ‘the theological exploration of vocation’ offered by the Lilly Endowment,” said Martin Burkholder. “I was aware that often grant money goes into programs that are initiated while the grant is in effect and then later dropped, and I wanted something lasting to come out of this.”
Linda Alley, director of the congregational resource center at EMS and a seminary student, did a project on labyrinths for a spiritual-formation course. She found the Santa Rosa design, a copyrighted design by Lea Goode-Harris, that combines the design of the labyrinth in the floor of the Chartes cathedral with more ancient designs.
Alley and her husband, Robert, had started to build a labyrinth in that design on their property in Harrisonburg and suggested that EMU use the same design.
Construction began on the project the summer of 2005. The first step was to find an appropriate place on EMU’s campus to build it. Grounds supervisor Will Hairston chose a spot and then checked it for rock outcrops that might create problems for excavating and placing the stones.
“I knew that this was the right place when we found no rock outcroppings in this space – quite rare in Rockingham County,” said Hairston.
Kirk Shank Zehr of Harrisonburg, who attended Eastern Mennonite Seminary 2002-2004, was contacted to do the stone masonry, both laying the stone path in the labyrinth itself and building a retaining wall around it.
For the labyrinth itself, Zehr gathered 30 tons of stone from the Dry River near Rawley Springs and Rushville.
“We wanted to make it clear that this was a labyrinth in the Christian tradition, so in the center I created a cross out of red stones, which are quite rare,” said Zehr.
The labyrinth itself contains 996 stones. The retaining wall is a dry-laid stone wall, created without mortar, by carefully cutting and piecing stones together.
The top of the retaining wall, which is conveniently seat height, is made out of stone that used to be the steps of Lehman Auditorium before they were replaced with concrete.
The wall was a gift from the seminary class of 2006 and the generosity of several other donors.
The labyrinth was created using money from Lilly Endowment, Inc.
For more information on the labyrinth, visit www.emu.edu/seminary/labyrinth.
Laura Lehman Amstutz is a regular contributor to The Augusta Free Press.