The Month of Elul as a Labyrinth

Around the corner from my house in Mt Sinai, New York is the Little Portion Friary.

This is a Franciscan community which is part of the Episcopal Society of St. Francis. The Friary itself is a residence for friars: Franciscan brothers who pray, live simply, study and work with others for peace and justice. Gracious hospitality is a hallmark of Franciscan life.

This particular friary sits on a lush and beautiful 63-acre piece of property. The brothers are known for the delicious bread they bake every Friday (their bakery runs on the “honor method”: rarely is someone there to take your payment. You take a loaf of bread and leave the payment in the box).

Bakery of the Little Portion Friary, Mt. Sinai, New York
Bakery of the Little Portion Friary, Mt. Sinai, New York

Behind the bakery and residence itself, are walking trails, a tranquil outdoor chapel, and picture-esque grounds.

One of the most interesting elements on the property is the labyrinth, which is open to public from 2:00 PM to dusk daily.

This labyrinth was designed by David Tolzmann of “The Labyrinth Company” (a division of Prism Environmental Group). It’s a seven-circuit labyrinth and is located on a peaceful hillside lawn rising up from the friary, surrounded by magnificent trees and simple gardens.

The labyrinth at Little Portion Friary, Mt Sinai, New York
The labyrinth at Little Portion Friary, Mt Sinai, New York

Labyrinths are not like mazes: once you begin to walk, the path always leads to the center. There is no right way to walk. The goal of walking the labyrinth is to help one find a sense of calm, meaning and peace in one’s life. By walking the labyrinth with purpose, keeping focused on the path, being intentional about staying centered on one’s body, and being open to the experience of the labyrinth itself, we are told that “walking the labyrinth helps to understand thoughts and feelings, soothes and calms one’s spirit.” It has been said that walking the labyrinth can even help one to problem solve. And, it can simply be fun or enjoyable.

As I walked the labyrinth with a friend on our evening walk the other day, it was a very peaceful and calming experience.

I realized that the labyrinth is similar to the Hebrew month of Elul, the month that immediately precedes the Yamim Nora’im – the Days of Awe (aka, the High Holy Days). We enter Elul deliberately, hoping to find purpose and meaning to our lives. We reflect on the year that is ending. We try to be intentional about staying focused on the path of renewal and t’shuvah – repentance. And we are hopeful that the experience of this time of introspection, soul-searching and reflection will not just “sooth and calm our spirit”, but will lead us to spiritual fulfillment. We hope that when we reach the “center” – the High Holy Days themselves, we emerge from this time renewed, refreshed and recommitted to our Jewish community, to God and to the best of ourselves.