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Plant Life Valerie Easton

Let the labyrinth take the lead

Urban respite lures kids and dogs and the tired and the poor, and the just plain curious

St. Paul's Episcopal Church on Lower Queen Anne offers the only 24/7/365 outdoor labyrinth in the city. Not the mission you might expect from an Anglo-Catholic tradition, but Rector Melissa Skelton says, "Something special is happening in this parish, and the labyrinth is a big part of it."

Labyrinth as community outreach may be a particularly vital use for one of the most ancient physical forms known to humankind. And maybe not such a stretch as you might think for a church dedicated to the beauty and mystery of worship. The intensely urban corner on Roy Street, sandwiched between a Bartell's parking lot and the tall, wavy roof of the 1960s addition to St. Paul's, used to hold a big yellow house. For a while an Episcopal bookstore operated out of the old house, but the place fell into disrepair and the church demolished it in 2003.

What to do with this valuable piece of property in the heart of an expensive in-city neighborhood?

A sunken garden with a labyrinth might not be what most parishes would hit on. "When we came up with the idea of a neighborhood focus, of giving it away rather than capitalizing on it, it all came together," says Christie Hammond, one of the parishioners instrumental in creating St. Paul's Centennial Garden Labyrinth Park.

"Many of us were aware of the famous labyrinth at Grace Cathedral" in San Francisco, she says. "There were so many possibilities, we wrestled with it." But the idea of creating a garden, a sacred, spiritual space, as a bridge between the city and parish won the day, and a committee set in to raise $70,000 to create its own urban oasis with a focus on walking meditation. Parishioners were active in concept, design and signage, working with architect Larry Woodin and labyrinth designer Dan Niven. It was brilliant to sink the garden a few steps down from the sidewalk, so that when you descend toward the labyrinth you feel enveloped in plantings, attune to the splash of the stone fountain.

Check it out online

To learn more, including the difference between mazes and labyrinths, see www.stpaulseattle.org.

Ornamental grasses, maples and low-maintenance, drought-resistant shrubbery soften the perimeter of the stone-paved garden. Short retaining walls are capped with a narrow ledge perfect for sitting, but not wide enough for sleeping. Which brings us to the problems encountered with any open urban space. St. Paul's park successfully draws in passers-by in search of respite, prayer or a place to eat lunch or drink a cup of coffee in the sun, surrounded by plants. But it also attracts the homeless, often looking for the same thing as everyone else, sometimes for a place to camp. "This is a hospitable space for all folks, and the beauty and openness of it has kept vandalism to a minimum," says Skelton. "The homeless have respite here like everyone else."

Yet she doesn't minimize the challenges. The labyrinth has brought St. Paul's up against the realities of hospitality in a very urban setting.

Whatever the challenges, this is one well-used in-city green space. Passers-by are attracted by the splash of water on stone, duck in for a look at the park and plants, and end up treading the path into the center of the labyrinth. Cast in stone and concrete, the labyrinth's undulations are wreathed in a cups and cusps design of astronomical significance for the lunar year. In the center is a rose form inspired by the rose at the center of the famous labyrinth of the Chartres Cathedral in France.

Says Skelton: "What's so wonderful about the labyrinth is that it speaks to the Episcopalian tradition and to so many others." People coming to conferences at St. Paul's tour the labyrinth, parishioners walk it with regularity, especially when anticipating major life changes. "It helps us to figure out where our feet should go," says Skelton.

Hammond concludes: "You start into the labyrinth and it takes you into another world . . . If you let it."

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "A Pattern Garden." Her e-mail address is valeaston@comcast.net. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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