Wednesday Night Soul Searching

The labyrinth at Westminster Presbyterian Church serves as a spiritual retreat for many.

If you visit the Westminster Presbyterian Church on any given Wednesday night, you’ll notice a sudden change of atmosphere once you step in from the street. The room is dim and smells of incense. A small yoga class stretches out on the stage at the front of the room.

The expansive space has a stained glass window and five pews pushed to each side, but no altar. A large cross hangs high above the stage and blends in to become just another piece of the abundant artwork in the room.

It’s easy to mistake Westminster Presbyterian Church for an art gallery; except, on Wednesday nights, a sense of Zen and reverence sucks in whoever wanders through the glass doors. Even though the architecture says multipurpose, it is clear that this is a spiritual space. Maybe it is because of the illuminated labyrinth, lined with tea candles, spanning the sanctuary floor, where the hosts Yoga & Labyrinth Walks.

A labyrinth is an ancient spiritual device employed by cultures all over the world. It is made up of a single, tightly coiled and well-defined path into a center circle. Unlike a maze, it is always circular, and never deceptive or difficult. Instead of going from start to finish, a person walks from outside to inside, then back out the way he or she came. Over time, different cultures have lent it to different purposes but a labyrinth is used generally for meditation or as a decorative symbos. Westminster installed its Native American Hopi-style labyrinth in 2001.

On Wednesday nights, people from the surrounding Southwest community and beyond — some, members of the congregation and others who claim no religion at all — find themselves here, waiting their turn to reflect. Eric Eldritch, the volunteer who facilitates this ministry, has been a community organizer in the District for 25 years. To him, the labyrinth and Westminster’s other activities are a vital part of a church’s responsibility to the community.

“It’s about meeting people where they are and supporting them on their journey,” Eldritch said. “This is kind of an internship for me because I want to get into interfaith services. I think spirituality can do a lot of healing in this city.”

Eldritch welcomes people to the church and leads them through breathing exercises before they walk the labyrinth, or unroll their mats on stage for yoga. Barbara Patterson, a Ward 4 resident, has been a regular in the yoga group since January, but began her new tradition with the labyrinth.

“It was the spirituality of what I was doing — walking the labyrinth — that made me come back,” Patterson said. “Now, there is not a Wednesday that I don’t look forward to yoga, Just for the physical aspects of yoga, as well as the meditative aspects. It helps me quiet down.”

Quira Clarenbach, a Mount Rainier resident who has been walking various labyrinths since 2000, recently visited Westminster for the first time. She has visited places with labyrinths painted on large canvas that can be rolled up, or outdoor labyrinths done in brick or concrete. For Clarenbach, Westminster’s peaceful atmosphere and permanent, indoor ceramic tile labyrinth is “fantastic.”

“The weaving in and out, and the turns, getting close to places you were-it’s just like life,” Clarenbach explained. “Just when you think you’re going to a place you’ve already been, you make a turn and go in the opposite direction.”

Eldritch often walks the labyrinth and believes that people are drawn to it for its mystique and tranquility.

“It allows me to think of where I have been and where I am going,” he said. “Sometimes when I walk I get inspiration, or a message that’s important for me and my life in the present.”

Clarenbach has a similar experience when she walks. “I find walking the labyrinth is a prayer. Usually I have a question or thought I’ve been working on,” she said. “When I get to the center I wait for the question to settle in me, and on my way out I listen and receive whatever message is for me at the time.”

Westminster Presbyterian Church is a small congregation at 400 I St. S.W. Its ministries are largely community driven. They include catering/food delivery service and sponsoring Narcotics Anonymous meetings, Blue Monday Blues and Jazz Night Fridays. Yoga & Labyrinth Walks are from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. every Wednesday. For more information, call (202) 484-7700 or visit www.westminsterdc.org.