To the Center and Back

To walk a labyrinth is to follow a path of discovery, full of twists and turns. It’s a lot like Robert Ferre’s life–and this story.

One unexpectedly steamy afternoon in St. Louis last May, master labyrinth artist Robert Ferrè ’66 was giving me an impromptu lesson on sacred geometry – elegant ratios and forms found in nature that inspired the builders of the great medieval cathedrals. We were at a Blimpie inside a Wal-Mart, drinking lemonade. It’s quite pleasant to listen to Ferrè talk. He speaks with authority and thoughtful fascination for his subject. His voice is distinctive – at once musical and rough, silk and sawdust – and his words flow as though they’re winding their way downstream. All the while, in counterpoint to Ferrè’s soft exposition, two counter clerks were shouting a running conversation to each other as they wiped down the work surface and refilled the soda dispenser. On whether sacred proportions might be found in a fast-food joint inside a mecca of mass consumption, Ferrè didn’t opine.

Talking about sacred geometry is second nature to Ferrè. He’s given lectures on the topic at the Labyrinth Society, which he co-founded in the late 1990s. He talks about it when he teaches weekend-long seminars in his studio at Labyrinth Enterprises, which he and his late wife Ruth Hanna founded 12 years ago when drawing the labyrinth turned from an obsession for Ferrè into a viable business. The principles of sacred geometry are what he uses to design labyrinths, so he tends to mention it in passing the way someone else might mention data spreadsheets or e-mail. A conversation with Ferrè about sacred geometry will touch on the history of mathematics in the Western world, the tools of a 12th-century artisan, an appreciation for a world tottering on the cusp of the Renaissance, and, of course, the labyrinth.

The labyrinth is a beautifully intricate form of concentric lines or circles. Labyrinths turn up in many cultures and ages as a powerful symbol. One of the definitions for labyrinth in The American Heritage Dictionary is “maze.” People in the labyrinth community take umbrage at this. Both labyrinths and mazes feature pathways that are organized in complicated patterns. But there’s an important difference in function. Mazes are meant as a puzzle, a left-brain challenge, replete with misleading pathways and dead ends. (Mazes are trickery, one woman told me.) For sure, mazes are something to find your way out of.

In a way, a labyrinth is simpler – a journey to the center and back. When you walk a labyrinth, the paths fold in on themselves in ways that make it hard to predict where you are heading at any given moment, and in that sense a labyrinth is a brainteaser. But all that is required of you is to stay on the path. Besides, where you are going isn’t the point of a labyrinth. The point of walking a labyrinth is walking a labyrinth.

I had arrived in St. Louis earlier that day on an assignment, an opportunity, and a quest. The assignment – to see Ferrè at his studio and to walk a few of his labyrinths. The opportunity – a chance to have some time to reflect. The quest – a personal and ongoing one for me – defining what I believe.

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