CHESTERFIELD, Mo., Oct. 4-- Louise Barringer, 78, has breast cancer that's spread to her bones. She lives with daily pain. She's on her second round of chemotherapy at St. Luke's Hospital in this suburb of St. Louis. She likes to schedule a little extra time before or after her appointments to walk a labyrinth in a large conference room at the hospital.
The 30-foot-square canvas is laid on the conference room floor every Tuesday. The purple painted lines form a geometric pattern rooted in ancient religious rituals. And, while it looks like a complicated maze, there is only one path and it leads to the center. There are no tricks, no dead ends, no opportunities for wrong turns. Many faith traditions have used labyrinths throughout the centuries as a tool to reach insight and find peace.
"It has a very calming effect, it really does," Barringer said. "It helps you to put life in perspective." That's exactly why the hospital offers it. The idea was suggested by the chief of pediatrics, Dr. Juanita Polito-Colvin. Once, she said, she believed labyrinths belonged only in churches or other places of worship. But watching the parents of her young patients struggling as their children underwent surgery, she wondered why a labyrinth wouldn't work in a hospital.
"One thing about hospitals is they're a place where people are under a lot of stress. They have to deal with some unusual situations," Polito-Colvin said. "We thought a tool for people to focus their thoughts would be nice for our patients, their families, and our staff as well."
Polito-Colvin suggested the idea to Dotty Barnard, the director of mission at the hospital. Barnard was intrigued but had a difficult time convincing the administration that it wasn't a strange or inappropriate thing for a hospital to offer. Hospitals are, after all, centers of cutting-edge science and home to expensive and state-of-the-art medical equipment.
Barnard persuaded administrators the labyrinth would directly support the mission of the hospital. "It seems to me we're talking about healing, not curing--and there is a difference. We can't cure everybody, but we can certainly help in healing people. And healing has to do with the total person, and that has to do with the mind and spirit as well as their body," Barnard said.
"Let's face it, we think a lot of things are weird until we try them," Barringer said. Nationally labyrinths are experiencing a resurgence. The round, swirling shapes are popping up at churches, retreat centers, and even, last spring, in a temporary art exhibit on Capitol Hill. Numerous labyrinth societies and projects across the country work to establish labyrinths wherever they can.
St. Luke's turned to the St. Louis Labyrinth Project for help with its portable version. Robert Ferre directs the project. He'd like to see labyrinths in schools, airports, prisons, hospitals, parks, private property, seminars, and conventions. The project publishes and produces how-to manuals, videos, and kits for creating labyrinths. A $4 publication offers instructions on how to make a masking tape labyrinth, while a $149 kit includes 600 feet of nylon cord, pegs, and a carrying case complete with instructions on how to build a rope labyrinth.
"The final decision was we wouldn't have one outside because we were really having trouble figuring out the location," Barnard explained. "It turned out to be a fortuitous decision because we have used it summertime and wintertime when the weather in St. Louis gets too hot or too cold." Having the labyrinth inside also means the hospital can provide some recorded meditation or New Age-style music.
Many who walk the labyrinth, like Barringer, write comments about their journey. "The walk allowed me to feel that where I am is fine. God's love and life is bigger than me and I can cry at my grandfather's closeness to death," wrote one. "It felt safe. I needed this," the writer concluded.
Another wrote: "I was relaxed and all the tension and stress was gone for the first time in a long time. I only wish I had the time at home for this. Thank you for the experience."
Some of the comments are less spiritual, but that's OK with Barnard, who's glad people are willing to give it a try. "Boy did my feet look big," wrote one. "I didn't get it, but I liked it," wrote another.
Barringer, whose cancer is now making her short of breath, can't walk the labyrinth as much as she did when she was first diagnosed. She admits she misses it.
"I guess the biggest thing it helped me with was to accept," Barringer said. "It's a tool. You don't feel quite as down as you did when you started. You realize things can get better."
It is just a conference room, but take out the chairs, lay down the canvas labyrinth, dim the lights, and turn on soft music, "and somehow it creates a space that's different. It becomes a kind of holy space," Barnard said.