The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a labyrinth as “a place that has many confusing paths or passages” and asserts that it is synonymous with a maze. But that definition is incorrect. A labyrinth and a maze are not the same. There is a distinction between the two. A maze is multicursal and refers to a complex branching puzzle to be deciphered with choices of path and direction, dead ends and either no exit or one that is difficult to find. A labyrinth, on the other hand, is unicursal, with a single, unambiguous path leading to the center and back which is not difficult to navigate.
The Labyrinth Society is a international organization whose mission is to support all those who create, maintain and use labyrinths. According to the Society, a labyrinth is a tool for personal, psychological and spiritual transformation which is also thought to enhance right brain activity. Labyrinths have been an important part of many cultures spiritually for thousands of years, and have also been used to create decorative art. Walking through one is usually intended to be a meditative and contemplative act, and many religions, including some Christian churches, integrate walking meditation into their spiritual practices. For others, labyrinth walking is simply a great way to unwind on a beautiful day and clear your mind.
There are a number of labyrinths in the greater D.C. area – a dozen, actually. Two are nearby in Virginia. One is indoors, the other outdoors, and both are located at St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church in Alexandria. There are also two in Maryland, one at the Hallowood Retreat Center in Dickerson, and the other at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton. There are also eight which are located in D.C. proper. One is on the grounds of the The Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, located in D.C.’s Brookland neighborhood. Another is located on the rooftop terrace of a commercial office in northeast D.C. which houses the American Psychological Association. There are also labyrinths located in some of the city’s churches. These include The Church of the Epiphany, Westminster Presbyterian Church, St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, and at Washington National Cathedral. The remaining labyrinth is the one I chose to visit and walk during this lunchtime bike ride.
Located in the Georgetown Waterfront Park, located at the southern end of 33rd Street (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood, The Georgetown Labyrinth is the only labyrinth located on public property in D.C. It was provided by the TKF Foundation, a private grant-making foundation whose purpose is to create “Open Spaces, Sacred Places.” The Georgetown Labyrinth is meant to “foster human spirituality and connections for people of all beliefs, faiths, and cultures.”
No one knows for certain the exact number of labyrinths in the United States, but in addition to the seven in D.C. there are 112 more in Virginia, and another 71 labyrinths in Maryland. There are labyrinths located in every state, with some states having 400 or more. So if you’d like to visit and maybe even experience a labyrinth walk for yourself, but you’re not in the local D.C. area, there is bound to be one near you. You can find one using the online World-Wide Labyrinth Locater. And you don’t have to wait until World Labyrinth Day (which is the first Saturday in May) to do it.