If challenged to imagine an Episcopal priest, Lauren Artress wouldn’t necessarily spring to mind: the cropped white hair, bright lipstick, immaculately manicured gel nails, and most of all, her big laugh, and her devotion to the game of golf, suggest a human being more complex than the stereotype of a traditional cleric in a starched white collar.
Then there is her passion for the 11-circuit Chartres Cathedral labyrinth, a Medieval marvel that set her on a path that has transformed lives around the world, as well as her own. Her taste in labyrinths is ecumenical and encompasses every type, from pre-Christian stone and turf to modern portable canvas.
The 75-year-old Artress, Canon Pastor Emeritus of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, is one of the world’s foremost authorities on labyrinths. She has written four books on the subject, most recently, “The Path of the Holy Fool: How the Labyrinth Ignites our Visionary Powers.” In 1995, she started Veriditas, a nonprofit foundation devoted to training labyrinth facilitators, as well as popularizing the labyrinth as a healing modality for anyone, at any age.
Artress calls labyrinths “watering holes for the spirit.” Unlike mazes, labyrinths have no obstacles or dead ends. They combine the archetypal symbols of spiral and circle into a purposeful path, one that calms the mind and lifts the spirit as the walker moves mindfully to the center and out again.
“When you’re moving, your mind quiets more easily. You can get into a flow. It’s so important as we age to become comfortable in our inner world. I am terrible at sitting still, and that’s one reason I was drawn to walking meditation,” she says.
Love of the Outside and Now Zooming
The youngest in her family, Artress grew up in Willoughby Hills near the Chagrin River outside of Cleveland, Ohio. There, she took comfort in wild creatures and places, developing a love for the natural world that shaped her profoundly. Her current home at Rossmoor, an active senior community in Walnut Creek, Calif., is set on a hilltop with a full view of Mt. Diablo, a towering hulk of a mountain where she relishes each sunrise and sunset. These days, when she’s not facilitating labyrinth workshops on Zoom, you’ll find her on the Rossmoor golf course.
‘It’s so important as we age to become comfortable in our inner world.’
“Golf is my other passion,” she confesses. She took her first lesson as a pre-teen, played at Willoughby High School and at Ohio State, and never gave up her devotion to the game. She plays often and has a wily sense of her opponents’ strengths and weaknesses. She has watched other players fall into negative self-talk when they miss a shot.
“One friend always says the sand trap at the seventh hole has her name on it. I want to say, ‘Well, why don’t you aim straight for it, then?’ ”
“Labeling yourself works against resilience—you can’t be dragging around a huge negative hole inside. You can have a ‘senior moment’ at the age of 12,” she says, laughing.
“In the labyrinth you can hear that negative voice and transform it. We know from current research that meditative practices can change the structure of the brain.”
Through Veriditas, the foundation she started 26 years ago, Artress set a goal to “pepper the planet with labyrinths.” With some 4,567 labyrinth sites in the United States. and more than 6,000 worldwide, her nonprofit work has brought labyrinths to prisons, community parks, retreat centers, public schools and colleges, as well as to churches and cathedrals around the globe. It is this path of personal and communal transformation that fuels her life.
Artress explains in her book, “Walking A Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Practice,” that the labyrinth serves as a sacred container. “This container is even more powerful when we add community. New emotions, unique thoughts, and a sense of being at one with others can enter our awareness,” she writes.
The boundaries of her community continue to expand. Ironically, the pandemic has doubled attendance at her Zoom labyrinth workshops. At one recent training there were attendees from all corners of the world—South Africa, Ecuador, Finland, Canada and the United States.
Observing Artress facilitate online is a treat—she welcomes people with a genuine warmth that is infectious.
“Lauren is very sparkly and alive online,” says her long-time collaborator Dawn Matheny, executive director of Veriditas.
“It’s been a privilege to support and grow her work for the last 14 years. Lauren is not slowing down,” Matheny adds. “Working remotely allows for more flexibility, so we work around her schedule. I want her to be in it for the long haul.”
Thoughts on Getting Older
That will mean more pilgrimages to France once the pandemic subsides. Chartres Cathedral is where Artress in the early 1990s first discovered the labyrinth, seemingly by “divine accident.” The stone circuits were covered with chairs and largely invisible from years of disuse. But along with five colleagues, Artress moved 256 chairs and walked the venerable labyrinth. And so began a journey she says was like opening her “sealed orders.”
‘Her nonprofit work has brought labyrinths to prisons, community parks, retreat centers, public schools and colleges.’
Artress believes it’s vital to stay engaged as one ages. “Find a way to be useful, do what you love and leave a legacy, like a journal or your favorite stories,” she urges. “Keep your imagination open to whatever calls to you, whether it’s a ladybug crawling across your patio or reading a good book.”
Does she fear death? While it may be overused, the butterfly is a good metaphor, she says. “Death is a kind of transfiguration where we move out of the cocoon of the body. We live in a sea of consciousness—that’s what spirituality deals with.”
“Everyone knows there’s an end to this journey,” she adds. “You have to name your fears and boost your courage, nurture your positive imagination, something the labyrinth is especially made to do,” she says.
Veriditas offers a variety of online and in-person workshops for labyrinth walkers, trains labyrinth facilitators and offers pilgrimages to Chartres Cathedral in France as well as Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.
Photo caption: Lauren Artress at the Chartres Cathedral labyrinth in France.
Eleanor Vincent is a writer who lives in Northern California. She has published a memoir, poetry and essays and writes a monthly column on resilient aging for the Rossmoor News. Visit her here.