Traveling in France some years ago, I paid a visit to the great Cathedral at Chartres and took the time to walk the labyrinth located inside. It was my first such experience, one heartily recommended to me by a longtime friend who was once my Sunday School teacher. Though labyrinths have recently experienced a surge in popularity, they have been a part of Christian practices for centuries. In this case, the existing building for Chartres Cathedral was in use in the early 1220s, but it was not consecrated until 1260. The labyrinth dates to the early 13th century, though the exact date of completion is unknown. Centuries later, the faithful still worship there and they still travel the winding path of the labyrinth.
Since my introduction at Chartres, I have walked labyrinths at Kanuga and at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, as well as a few other places. I find it to be a grounding, meditative experience that helps me to focus on prayer, without as much distraction as I usually face. Needless to say, when I learned about the Meditation Garden at St. Francis Hospital, featuring a labyrinth inspired by the one at Chartres, I was very excited and eager to enjoy it. What I found there was far more than I expected.
St. Francis Hospital has been taking care of the health and wellbeing of Charlestonians since 1882, when it began as St. Francis Infirmary, the first Catholic hospital in South Carolina. Many generations of families have been born there, treated there and prayed over there during the last 134 years. In 1996, the hospital moved to its current location in West Ashley, a vast wooded campus for a beautiful medical facility. In 2010, the mission of the hospital was realized in a new way, when the Meditation Garden was completed and opened to the public as a place to enjoy quiet time and guided prayer within a natural setting. Alongside other ways to engage in experiential prayer, the Meditation Garden features a labyrinth in the same design as the one at Chartres, in a lush garden setting that is peaceful and calming.
For those unfamiliar with labyrinths as an aid to prayer, the most important thing to know is that it is not a maze. There are no dead ends or misdirections. You walk the same path outward as you do to reach the center. It is intended that a walker go at a slow pace, using the time to pray, to reflect and to listen for God’s voice. The journey mimics, in a way, our relationship with God, with twists and turns that sometimes make you feel as though you are headed away from the center, when in fact, you are moving ever closer. In much the same way that rosary beads or a holding cross provide a tactile experience that help the supplicant stay focused, walking a labyrinth provides a way to be physically involved in prayer.
The Meditation Garden is a beautiful, well-designed, artfully landscaped and uniquely sacred space constructed among the live oaks that arch overhead creating an outdoor cathedral. It has five distinct areas, or rooms: the Grand Portal, the Prayer Garden, the Camellia Garden, the Labyrinth and the Christ Statue Garden. Each garden has unique features, working together to create an uplifting experience. The attention to detail is astounding, the landscaping is intentional, all creating this holy and Godly place. It is a perfect place for a family to enjoy together, engaging in prayer and conversation.
Much like a traditional liturgical church service, the Meditation Garden engages the senses. Instead of incense, there are fragrant herbs planted on paths. Hymns are played by the breeze on multiple wind chimes hanging among the Spanish moss and sung by the birds nestled in the branches. The processional is your journey inward and then outward on the labyrinth. There are numerous opportunities to engage your tactile sense as well. The Prayer Garden has a stone fountain that you are invited to reach for and allow the water to cascade over your hand, a gesture reminiscent of being baptized. It is profoundly peaceful place, drawing your focus to God.
In my work with young people, I seek out opportunities to guide them to prayer and to engage them in it. The Meditation Garden was a great experience for both my middle-and-high school group, as well as my elementary-age students. As it was not designed with children in mind (and certainly not large groups of them), I came up with some additional elements that complemented the different components of the garden. Some of these ideas would work well with family groups or individual children and they add to the interactive experience. For example, I placed large seashells at the base of the fountain, to be used to dip the water and pour it over their hands, connecting it more overtly to Holy Baptism. As they strolled the path in the Camellia Garden, familiar worship music played softly in the background. Under a nearby tree, I provided pencils and paper for sketching or recording thoughts. Passages of scripture about Jesus were left for study around the stone statue of Him in that particular garden.
While I make advance arrangements to take a group there, there is no such need for a family to do so. The Meditation Garden is open during daylight hours to all visitors. Families benefit from new ways to experience God and opportunities to talk about their faith. Sharing the Meditation Garden is a unique way to be the family that prays together.
Dorothy Porcher Holland is the youth minister at Holy Trinity Windermere in West Ashley and a teacher at The Holy Communion Day School on Ashley Avenue. She holds both Level 1 and Level II credentials in the Montessori-inspired faith formation curriculum Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. A native Charlestonian, she is a 1995 graduate of the College of Charleston. She and her husband Jonathan have two daughters, Ellison and Eudora.