09/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The New Sacred Travel: Labyrinth Pilgrimages

Over the past two decades a design revolution has been transforming town plazas, hospital courtyards, public parks, schoolyards and churches all across the country. Equal parts public art, spiritual heritage and stress reliever, the ancient patterns of the labyrinth are making a comeback in public places, and may be starting a whole new pattern of contemplative tourism.

The most famous labyrinth is the one built into the stone floor of the Chartres Cathedral in France. Built around 1220 CE, the Chartres labyrinth hearkens back to an early tradition in the Christian church of walking meditation. Worn smooth by the slow passage of generations of pilgrims, the Chartres pattern (known as an 11-circuit labyrinth) is thought to mirror the soul's journey through life, and bring spiritual insight to the walker.

In addition to the Chartres 11-circult labyrinth, there is an even more ancient pattern known as the Cretan or 7-circuit labyrinth, which was found in Neolithic rock carvings. This pattern is easy to construct by sprinkling corn meal on the ground, or by dragging a stick through the beach sand. There is something timeless about walking this prehistoric pattern, regardless of the crowds and traffic that may be nearby.

Here in Northern California alone, there are several public labyrinths that receive a steady stream of visitors. Grace Cathedral in San Francisco has a beautiful outdoor labyrinth inset into a public terrazzo patio. I have gone there with friends several times, sometimes late at night when no one else is around, to walk the sacred pattern under the stars, with the sleeping city all around us and the fresh ocean air clearing our minds and spirits.

Across the Bay in the Berkeley Hills, a local artist took it upon herself to create a stunning labyrinth in a public park. Because "Mazzariello's Maze" is not officially supported by the Sibley Regional Park, locals formed a Friends of the Labyrinth group to help maintain the site for all.

Accessing this labyrinth involves following an unmarked trail for almost a mile, which is more effort than most people want to put into their labyrinth pilgrimage. For less ambulatory folks, there is a labyrinth at a nearby middle school, and at medical centers and churches throughout the Bay Area.

But this is not a movement that is limited to California. While the Bay Area has a wonderful online guide to local labyrinths, there is also a World-Wide Labyrinth Locator that guides labyrinth tourists from Georgia to Ohio, Wyoming to Baton Rouge. Communities that create local labyrinths can also add their own entries to the list.

With membership in most churches declining and many individuals choosing to follow their own path to spirituality, public labyrinths can become a low-cost, low-maintenance destination spot for any town that wants to attract a steady stream of contemplative tourists. And with the great need for peace of mind and rejuvenation in troubled times, labyrinth tourism may be just beginning.

Anne Hill, D.Min., is available to consult, design, and lead labyrinth tours and pilgrimages throughout Northern California.