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Meditation on Being Centered: Juniata Builds Contemplative Labyrinth

(Posted January 25, 2010)

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- On every college campus there is a student center, but where can students go to become centered? On the Juniata College campus, stressed-out scholars can head to Beeghly Library and "walk" the newly installed labyrinth, an ancient aid to meditation or prayer.

A labyrinth is a maze-like structure laid out on a flat surface, but the labyrinth differs from mazes in that mazes are complex puzzles featuring choices of path and direction, while a labyrinth has just a single path that leads to the center. Juniata's circular labyrinth is constructed in paver bricks and forms a contemplative study space near the north end of Beeghly Library.

"To 'walk' the labyrinth you start and follow the meandering path until it leads you to the center. The metaphor is that as you walk toward the center, you clear your mind and find your own center. The center of a labyrinth is designed so you can stand or sit in the center if you are feeling meditative or prayerful."
David Witkovsky, Juniata chaplain

"To 'walk' the labyrinth you start and follow the meandering path until it leads you to the center," explains David Witkovsky, chaplain at Juniata. "The metaphor is that as you walk toward the center, you clear your mind and find your own center. The center of a labyrinth is designed so you can stand or sit in the center if you are feeling meditative or prayerful."

Juniata's labyrinth was installed this fall as the class gift from the college's class of 2009. The project cost $15,000 and the class raised $13,380 for the gift. About 71 percent of the class contributed to the gift. The labyrinth, which is shaped as a circle, was installed by Tussey Mountain Landscaping.

Labyrinths date back more than 4,000 years and archeologists have found the pattered structures in sites in Crete, India, Egypt and Goa. In Greek mythology, the Labyrinth was built by Daedelus to house the Minotaur, a ferocious half-man, half-bull that was killed by the Athenian warrior Theseus. The mythological labyrinth is described as a maze, which has lent confusion to how modern labyrinths can be used.

"The labyrinth doesn't have to have an overtly religious connotation, it really predates Christianity and many other religions," Witkovsky says. "It's a very old method of contemplation used (by cultures) all over the world."

The labyrinth form became associated with churches in the Middle Ages, when Christians who could not make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land instead visited cathedrals and made a pilgrimage through the labyrinths set in stone on the floors of the great churches. The pattern in Juniata's labyrinth is the same pattern used in the labyrinth at the historic medieval cathedral at Chartres, France.

"Typically, people start quickly and then slow down as they find their own rhythm and pace," Witkovsky explains. "As you walk out of the labyrinth, the idea is that you leave behind any worries or stress and then you're ready to re-enter the world."

Witkovsky is planning a spring event to "christen" the new quadrangle feature, although students already use the space as a study site. He plans to hold an educational talk and demonstration on how to walk the labyrinth, tentatively scheduled for the college's annual Springfest.

Juniata has held labyrinth events for the past few years, using a canvas labyrinth that rolls out onto a floor. The college uses the Sill Boardroom for most of its labyrinth events. Typically the campus ministry office advertises an opportunity to use the labyrinth once or twice a semester, usually around Christian Holy Days, such as Easter, Rosh Hashanah or Ash Wednesday. The college also has held events on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

"I see the labyrinth becoming part of our traditional events such as Springfest, Homecoming and Commencement," Witkovsky says.

In addition to its use as a contemplative aid, Witkovsky wants to make it clear that the space can be used for anything from studying to sports to socializing.

"It's meant to be used," Witkovsky says. "It's not like a flag. You're not going to desecrate it by walking over it."

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.