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Walking in circles

Reverend uses snow to build labyrinth, connect to spirituality

By: Erin McClary | Rochester Post | Published March 1, 2011

 Passersby are invited and encouraged to walk the snow labyrinth built by the Rev. Jack Amick of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, 620 Romeo Road in Rochester.

Passersby are invited and encouraged to walk the snow labyrinth built by the Rev. Jack Amick of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, 620 Romeo Road in Rochester.

Photo by Deb Jacques


ROCHESTER — He starts in the center of the yard, eyes the rows and marks their width with little red flags. He cuts the first turn with a shovel, and then grabs the snow-blower.

It takes about an hour, and he doesn’t use a template.

Just building the 40-foot snow labyrinth could be considered a spiritual journey. Its real potential, however, shines during a walk through the finished product on a sunny morning or quiet evening.

The Rev. Jack Amick, 48, brought many things to St. Paul’s United Methodist Church when he arrived three years ago. The one he may be most famous for, though, is the massive snow labyrinth he builds each winter.

The amount of accumulation and this season’s fluctuating temperatures have made it necessary for him to rebuild it three times. It didn’t dawn on him until last month to put a sign at its entrance, inviting the public to take an impromptu journey as they pass the church’s eastern yard on Romeo Road in Rochester.

Walking the entire labyrinth only takes about 10 minutes. But upon reaching its center, people often spend another 10 minutes reflecting.

“When people get into the center, they feel different; they feel contained,” said Amick, who lives in the parsonage with his family.

It’s a great metaphor for “a faith journey,” no matter what the traveler’s faith may be, he said. Many utilize the circular walk as a form of meditation.

Labyrinths — which can be made of hedges, brick pavers or even snow — differ from mazes in that there are no wrong turns, just one winding path that leads to a center. Amick said the concept has a following, and many people will travel the world just to walk different styles of labyrinths.

His was inspired by the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France, which was built during the 12th century to give Christians a way to pilgrimage without having to travel to Jerusalem.

“The labyrinth is another tool to use in creating a quietness, separation from the busyness of life, to ponder and perhaps feel a closeness to God,” said Phil Swisher, a member of St. Paul’s who previously made a canvas labyrinth.

“As you walk it, there is no concern about losing your way (as one might in a maze),” he continued. “There is only one way in and one way out. So you are free from worrying about messing up or getting confused.”

Labyrinths like Amick’s can help with discernment and problem solving. They can soothe agitation and allow people to let go, or simply enjoy a spiritual adventure in the winter.

“All kinds of studies and research have been conducted on labyrinths,” Amick said. “Some even attribute the turns as having an effect on your brain that’s good for you.”

What makes the labyrinth a spiritual practice is that it doesn’t take its traveler anywhere. “It’s an intentional act of physical prayer,” Amick explained. He likened its meditative attributes to the practice of yoga.

Nancy Fidler, a Rochester resident and member of St. Paul’s who teaches adult groups at the church, uses the snow labyrinth alone or in a group.

She hadn’t heard of labyrinths until Swisher’s canvas labyrinth. Since being introduced to the concept, however, she’s found comfort it its effect.

“It gives you time to ponder,” she said. “By the time you get to the center, you’ve had time to ponder, and on the way out, it’s a release of the problem.”

Fidler said walking Amick’s snow labyrinth in a group offers a time to meditate while also feeling a sense of togetherness. “You’re passing one another, but you’re all on your own personal journey.”

Swisher said the concept also mirrors the common human trait of pacing while thinking something over.

“The labyrinth provides this method/tool to facilitate this quiet, reverent time,” he said.

The idea, Amick said, is to provide balance and structure to thought. “It refocuses us, even though you’re walking in circles.” He smiled at the notion.

Not only that, the labyrinth at St. Paul’s gives parishioners a new and different way to pray while still honoring traditional practice.

It literally brings prayer outside the church’s walls and into tiny walls of snow.

“People are hungry for the church to be relevant in new ways,” he said. “I’m trying to give people something that connects them to spirituality.”