A sacred walk to the new year

An oasis of peace and beauty is available to those looking for an alternative to hectic, perhaps stressful, New Year's celebrations.

Ritualist and life coach Elizabeth Austin and a group of volunteers and musicians will bring the 12th annual Sacred Walk to the New Year to Wesley Hall at First United Methodist Church, 175 N. Main St., Ashland.

"Our inner and outer worlds yearn for meaning and peace," says Austin. "The annual Sacred Walk is dedicated to providing a space that will evoke the highest vision of how humanity might be together in peace and acceptance. Many people consider a visit to the labyrinth an essential part of their New Year's celebration."

Austin will present an opening ceremony for Ashland's Sacred Walk to 2011 at 4 p.m. Friday, Dec. 31. The labyrinth walk will be open to visitors until 1 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 1, and will reopen at 9 a.m. Another ceremony at 6 p.m. Saturday will close the labyrinth.

The labyrinth is a replica of the famous one laid in stone during the early 1200s at Chartres Cathedral in France. Its design has been hand-painted on a large-scale canvas that can be rolled out for use.

Austin bought the canvas in 1997 from Veriditas, an organization founded in the early '90s by Lauren Artress, a canon of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.

"Artress was the one who recognized the labyrinth's strength as a spiritual tool, and she took it out into the world," says Austin. "She is still with Veriditas, though it has moved from Grace Cathedral."

The particular pattern replicated on Austin's canvas also is used on the labyrinth next to Trinity Episcopal Church in Ashland and at Rogue Valley Medical Center in Medford.

"What's important is that people love it," says Austin. "It's a space that is open to anyone, no matter what their beliefs or what their lives are like. It offers a time to be away from mind and worry."

Scientists have studied the physiological benefits of walking a labyrinth, such as balancing the left and right sides of the brain and lowering blood pressure and stress levels, says Austin.

Live, inspirational music will enhance the annual tradition of walking a labyrinth as a symbolic journey from the old year to the new one.

New to the event this year is a children's program led by local actor Brandy Carson at noon on New Year's Day.

"However, the focus is not on the performers," says Austin. "It is on walking the labyrinth."

The Sacred Walk is free, but donations will be accepted.

See www.ashlandmethodist.org or call 541-482-4132 for information.

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