Sacred Places of San Francisco: beyond Chartres

the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral was constructed in the 13th century and has been revered and reproduced ever since

Somehow, through a combination of seeking out and happenstance, I have found myself walking through the opening to a labyrinth at times of uncertainty and transition in my life. These labyrinths have presented themselves in many unique designs, constructed materials, and locations throughout the years- a labyrinth painted onto canvas at a retreat on spirituality and service in Point Reyes, CA, a labyrinth marked out in brick at an out of the way city park in New Orleans, or a stone labyrinth in a vaulted and cavernous Episcopal cathedral in San Francisco which hosts weekly yoga classes.

This past week was no exception. In the midst of big changes professionally and personally, I was in need of much clarity and self affirmation as I flew down to visit San Francisco for a week. After being given Rebecca Solnit’s book “Infinite City,” upon my departure of San Francisco in June, I made a list of must-see places which have now spilled over into future visits. Hidden parks, old movie theaters, mosaic-studded stairways, etc. etc. Upon reading and examining Solnit’s map/essay “Treasure Island,” I was pleased to discover that San Francisco hosted more than just the two stone labyrinths at Grace Cathedral. There were, in fact, community constructed labyrinths at Bernal Hill and Lands End, two of San Francisco’s most wild and beautiful areas.

Bernal Hill is one of the most visible sites in San Francisco, and was a staple of my daily life as a resident of the city. It was often the first thing I saw when I walked out of my bedroom in the morning, illuminated gold by the rising sun. Throughout the year, the hill cycles between a green shirt and a brown shirt depending on the relative rain and grass seed available in its rocky red soil. One of the first things I did upon returning to San Francisco was visit this place that had such a distinct presence during my time there. I returned via a tucked-away neighborhood stairway and hidden path which brought me to the main road that winds its way to the top of the park. To my delight, upon reaching the top, I found that the labyrinth I had searched for just months prior had been reconstructed! When I visited in June, I had thought that this supposed labyrinth must have been trodden upon and kicked apart over time, lost in the rubble of rocks that are strewn throughout the park. But low and behold, upon one of the hill’s only flat reprieves, a complicated, snaking labyrinth has been outlined in stone.

Bernal Hill labyrinth and fog

Ann and I reverently walked its paths, as a strong evening wind whipped violently at our hair and a solid wall of fog made its nightly advance over Twin Peaks like clockwork, snuffing out the descending golden ball of the sun. The true wildness of Bernal hill and the walking meditation of the labyrinth’s circuitous paths calmed and centered me as I took deep breaths of the cold, fog-ridden air.

Just days later, I made my long-awaited pilgrimage to Lands End. I had been waiting to return here ever since I visited the Sutro Baths in April. This historical landmark is often a hand-in-hand destination for those also eating at the ritzy Cliff House, a tribute to Adolf Sutro’s once magnificent ocean amusement park. Lands End, however, a series of winding trails treacherously close to cliffs descending to the Pacific Ocean, is known for its wild splendor. According to Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy writers, Lands End is “San Francisco’s wildest and rockiest coast, a place strewn with shipwrecks and rife with landslides.” According to the website for the Land’s End labyrinth, made by creator Eduardo Aguilera, the labyrinth was created in 2004 as a place for Peace, Love, and Enlightenment. Though it has been destroyed twice, Eduardo has returned often to maintain, rebuild, and celebrate the solstices. His care demonstrates to visitors that, regardless of our differences, these sacred sites can be places for peoples of all faiths to connect to the beauty in our world and find peace in everyday interactions.

Land’s End labyrinth and ocean

After Ann and I had walked along a precipitous trail and descended a steep set of stairs, we thought we could go no further but into the ocean itself. But we rounded the corner and there was the labyrinth, laid out upon a plateau that jutted out into the ocean. It was almost as if we had reached the end of human civilization, the great crashing ocean the only entity in our vision. We began walking the Chartres-inspired labyrinth to the soundtrack of the crashing waves and whipping wind. Dozens of Brown Pelicans searched for their meal, diving and circling, as fishermen leaning over the edge of the cliff did the same. The wind whipped at our clothes relentlessly but the remote beauty of the scene was calming. I emptied my mind and reassuring thoughts bubbled to the surface as I walked. You are beautiful. You are strong. You hold all the answers. There is much wisdom in finding beautiful places of peace like this. Be humble. Be patient.  When we reached the center, an altar had been constructed of one large rock and contained offerings of labyrinth walkers, soggy with the ocean fog but colorful in their diversity.

What is it about labyrinths that have drawn humans to create, recreate, and revere their unusual shape for hundreds of years? For me, the wisdom in labyrinths have come in their ability to realize one’s own potential. When one is craving clarity, a walking meditation helps you realize that you already have so much inner-wisdom, you only need a quiet and inspiring place in which to bring out your greatest creativity. Labyrinths have been places of religious outlet for centuries, the walk representing the path of the soul through life. Labyrinth rituals today are often infused with artistic and musical expression as is the case of the Grace Cathedral labyrinth in San Francisco, but can still be used to calm the mind by walking along a determined but contained path. The path of the labyrinth walker often mirrors the walk into one’s own consciousness. Because there is a given ending, the center, but no obvious straight path in which to get there, the walker is able to concentrate only on the few feet in front of them, similarly the one or two thoughts inside his or her head. Just as the center destination is inevitable, so are answers. Not necessarily immediately, but answers are available to any seeker. As one historian says, labyrinths are not,  “in any normal sense, a church service, but an interactive environment resembling a contemporary art installation, self-evidently constructed and playful, with visitors coming and going as they please… However, this installation offers more than an aesthetic experience – it will take you on a spiritual journey.” And, contained in only a few feet of diameter, these sorts of journeys can often take you very far.

offer yourself to this world. you never know what wisdom you will receive

Note:  San Francisco is known for its spiritual innovation, particularly its bevy of hosting sites for public art and interfaith religious expression. The labyrinths at Grace Cathedral are two of these such sites, reconstructions of the famous labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral and sites for regular meditation, artistic expression, and physical-spiritual expression daily. (see here for more information on the historical progression of the labyrinth shape and Grace Cathedral.)

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6 thoughts on “Sacred Places of San Francisco: beyond Chartres

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