Peaceful Path: North Alabama labyrinths offer mental health boost

Peaceful Path: North Alabama labyrinths offer mental health boost
Church of the Good Shepherd in Decatur (Source: Decatur Daily)

DECATUR, Ala. (WAFF) - Clutching a small stone, the Rev. Bude Van Dyke solemnly walked the labyrinth at Church of the Good Shepherd in Decatur. At the center of the winding path, he laid down the stone, representing the struggles and pains he carried.

“I always carry something. It could be a stone, a piece of wood or spices. When I set it down, it is a physical act of leaving those struggles with my God. There’s something about the doing of this that feels very real,” said Van Dyke, rector at Church of the Good Shepherd.

During the pandemic, a time of added mental, emotional and physical stress and hardship for many, the church hopes the labyrinth serves as a retreat — a place of calmness, relaxation and serenity, especially for first responders and front-line workers.

“Seeing the faces of people after they’ve come off a shift, you can tell they are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders,” Van Dyke said. “We want the doctors and nurses and first responders struggling with these intense stresses to use the labyrinth as a way to walk through some of their tension.”

Two years ago, before the emergence of the coronavirus, the normalization of masks, the shuttering of churches and the spike in unemployment, Church of the Good Shepherd built the labyrinth. Nestled between four birch trees, the path made of crushed slate is open every day, 24 hours a day.

For Christians, the spiritual practice of walking labyrinths dates back centuries. The circular paths symbolize a time for reflection, prayer, contemplation, meditation and worship.

“From the beginning, our hope was this would be for anybody to use whenever they needed a place to let go of their burdens. I don’t know for anybody else, but I know for me, during the pandemic, with this invisible disease I don’t even have a face I can scream into, it’s been a lifesaver,” said Van Dyke, who struggled with increased PTSD and anxiety this past year.

While walking the labyrinth, Van Dyke gives thanks for nature, the animals, his ancestors and relatives. He asks for them to be a blessing and receive a blessing. He thinks about his struggles and burdens and hands them over to God.

The path, located at 3809 Spring Avenue S.W., is open to everyone.

“We don’t have a register book. It’s your business. It’s not ours. No one is going to come out and try to save you. This is a place where people going into a late shift or coming out of a late shift can come and maybe give the dreads and the concerns and the sense of hopelessness to the God of their understanding,” Van Dyke said.

The Rev. Rosie Veal Eby of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, 207 Washington St. East in Athens, sees the labyrinth as an essential tool during a time when congregations, due to the pandemic, could not worship together in person.

“The church is not inside. We’ve learned that during COVID. The church is on our phone, on our laptops, out in our front yards and in nature. Wherever we choose to find our spiritual relationship with God, that’s where the church is. Spending time walking the labyrinth and in the prayer garden is a good way for people to connect with God,” Eby said.

In Hartselle, Christ Our Lord Redeemer Lutheran Church created an outdoor prayer path six years ago as a place for people to reflect and meditate. The ¼-mile Faith and Fitness Prayer Path features a wooden swing, stone markers, bridges and benches engraved with the scriptures, “For we walk by faith and not by sight” and “Be still and know that I am God.”

Other prayer paths and gardens exist at Austinville United Methodist Church, 908 Lamar St. S.W., Decatur, and The Church at Quail Creek, 233 Quail Creek Drive, Falkville.

In Huntsville, public labyrinths are at Monte Sano United Methodist, 601 Monte Sano Blvd. S.E.; Hope Presbyterian, 10001 Bailey Cove Road S.E.; Light of Christ Center, 4208 Holmes Road N.W.; Weatherly Heights Baptist, 1306 Cannstatt Drive S.E.; Aldersgate United Methodist, 12091 Bailey Cove Road; Covenant Presbyterian, 301 Drake Ave. S.E.; and St. Stephen’s Episcopal and United Church of Huntsville on Whitesburg Drive Southeast.

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