Andover pastor takes Lenten path of prayer at Merrimack labyrinth

NORTH ANDOVER -- Augustinian Father Peter Gori, pastor of St. Augustine Parish in Andover, likes to walk when he prays, and pray when he walks.

He can do both at the labyrinth, a big round patch of medieval European Gothic spirituality that snakes its way through the heart of the Merrimack College campus in North Andover.

"It's a very ancient meditative prayer," Father Gori told The Pilot on March 21, when he walked the labyrinth in observance of Lent. "The labyrinth itself is itself a solitary form of prayer, very beautiful and relaxing."

Labyrinths are long and winding paths, typically round in shape and marked in stone on the ground, that for centuries have served as both Christian prayer aids and geometric works of art. As the faithful walk through the long and winding path, they have the opportunity to pray, meditate, and reflect.

"St. Augustine was very fond of describing our life experience as a journey," Father Gori said, "or, for the Christian, a pilgrimage, the destination of which is eternal life in Heaven. But through the course of anybody's life, there are many, many, many twists and turns."

Contrary to the popular definition of the word, a Christian labyrinth is not a maze. There is only one path, and only one way in or out. When one is finished walking the path, they find themselves at the same place where they started.

"It's not something you get lost in," Father Gori said, "except to get lost in your prayers and reflection."

The labyrinth at Merrimack College is a red-and-white-brick replica of the famous labyrinth found in Chartres Cathedral in France. The money used to build the labyrinth was donated by Father Gori's friend, Augustinian Father Jim Wenzel, in memory of his parents. The labyrinth was completed in 2009. At its center is engraved a quote from St. Augustine: "Be of one mind and heart intent upon God."

"You don't have to be Catholic, Jewish, Muslim," Father Gori said. "You don't have to be even religious to benefit from the soothing, peaceful experience of walking a labyrinth."

As he walked the labyrinth, Father Gori prayed in memory of and gratitude for all of the teachers he had throughout his life. He silently thanked each of them by name, starting when he was in first grade in 1958 and continuing through his doctoral studies.

For the last three years during Lent, Father Gori has organized a parish trip to the Merrimack College labyrinth. Typically, about a dozen parishioners attend, but due to below-freezing temperatures and heavy winds, only Father Gori and St. Augustine Parish Religious Education Director Bridget Rao walked the labyrinth on March 21. Completing the labyrinth typically takes 30 minutes, but Rao said that since she and Father Gori were "wind-assisted by the Holy Spirit," it took them only 25.

"Each day we happen to have had it, including today, has been rather cold," Father Gori said, "and this is the coldest one yet."

Father Gori has a heart condition that is aggravated by the cold, but to him, the spiritual benefits of the labyrinth far outweighed the physical hardship.

Rao likes to explore different forms of prayer, and the labyrinth is one that she finds great fulfillment in. She walked the labyrinth on behalf of her friend, who underwent cancer surgery on March 21. Despite the cold, she couldn't let her friend or Father Gori down.

"I've got a very busy day today," she said, noting the labyrinth "gives me half an hour, 20 minutes, to actually focus on God. It refreshes the rest of the day."

The miserably cold weather helps her connect to Christ.

"Not that I'm comparing myself to Christ for a moment," she said, "but Christ suffered in the coming days, particularly during Holy Week. And sometimes, to get a result, you have to put some effort and pain into it."