Screaming Pencils: The Life, Times,
and Transformation of a Labyrinth Maker

A talk given September 27, 2002, for the Labyrinth Society Gathering
in Sacramento, California, by Robert Ferré, director of Labyrinth enterprises.


Screaming pencils
Writing on paper, pencils speak softly. When drawing with pencils, you can hear them, especially when you cross something out. On canvas, however, they don't just speak, they sing. Due to the texture of the material, the pencil skips along the surface, making an audible sound. [Make sound.] This is especially true when drawing circles. We make sweeping arcs, as long as the arm can reach. With added speed, the sound increases in pitch. [Make sound.]

On the good days, when our backs and knees aren't too sore and the gymnasium in which our studio is located isn't too hot or too cold, we scoot along the canvas, quickly swinging long arcs. On those days, the pencils scream the most. [Make sound.] That sound is music to my ears. Screaming pencils means we have orders to fill, that we are healthy and strong, and that we will be getting another labyrinth out into the world [Make sound.] If I ever actually write the memoirs of a labyrinth maker, I'll call it Screaming Pencils.

I find biographies and autobiographies and memoirs very interesting, seeing how other people have met and handled the circumstances of their lives. My wife Ruth and I enjoy watching the Tour de France bicycle race each July. As part of that, we have read the autobiography of Lance Armstrong, who has won the last four races. It's exciting reading, and it's a real life story. In that spirit, I have decided to use this time to share my experiences as a labyrinth maker. It is my belief that that which is most personal is the most universal. I think you will find some of yourselves in my descriptions

Story starts in 1995
My story starts in January of 1995, when Ruth brought to my attention an article in "New Age Magazine" about a woman in California who was leading programs using a Chartres labyrinth drawn on canvas. It was the word "Chartres" that caught my attention. Chartres is the greatest of the Gothic cathedrals, located an hour's drive southwest of Paris. I'm a big fan of Chartres Cathedral. Had the article said Amiens or Crete, I might have paid it no attention. But it said Chartres. I had seen bits of the labyrinth, between the chairs, but knew nothing about it.

So I called the woman in California, who was, of course, the Rev. Dr. Lauren Artress, canon of special ministries at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. As a result of our conversation, the labyrinth came into my awareness. Think back to that moment in your experience, not to the first time you saw a labyrinth, but to the first time you realized that the labyrinth offered something important, that it offered something extraordinary. That happened to me through my contact with Lauren Artress.

Sacred geometry
Suddenly, for reasons unclear to me, I had a strong urge to study the geometry of the labyrinth. That was strange, as I have no background in mathematics. It turns out that sacred geometry, which was used in the labyrinth and in Chartres Cathedral, has little in common with modern mathematics. In fact, it dates back thousands of years to ancient times when they didn't have mathematics as we know it. I know so little about mathematics that I had to look up basic formulae, such as C = pi D. It was probably a benefit that my mind wasn't polluted by modern learning.

For almost three months I spent every spare moment standing at my drawing counter, teaching myself the geometry of the Chartres labyrinth. It was an amazingly mystical experience of following guidance. In the end, I could draw the labyrinth using only a compass and a straight edge, and no measurements - using only its own internal proportions.

I didn't know it yet, but the labyrinth had chosen me. The labyrinth finds its own way in the world, choosing whom it will to do its work. I'm sure that there are many in this room whom the labyrinth has claimed for its own, perhaps much to your surprise. It's not something you have to think about, you don't have to apply or submit your resume, you just know. And while the labyrinth offers equal opportunity to all, it doesn't resonate with everyone. A few years ago my mother went with us to Chartres and lost interest half way into the labyrinth. She simply walked out and went to look at the windows. In another instance, we have a photo of a man walking one of our labyrinths while conducting business on a cell phone. Still, numerous people have been chosen, and have accepted. Many of them are in this room.

Chartres Cathedral
We're talking about 1995. A number of years earlier, in 1989, I had founded One Heart Tours and began leading pilgrimages to sacred sites in France. In May of 1995, I was putting the final touches on a group tour which I was leading to France the following month. Ruth came to me and declared that I had to change the order of the itinerary. I said. "What? At such a late date? All the hotels, the bus, the meals. Why?" She replied, "Because the labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral is uncovered only on the summer solstice, June 21, and our itinerary calls for us to be in Chartres on June 18th. We need to be there on the 21st."

I made some calls and, miraculously, rooms were available on the alternate dates. So we changed the itinerary and found ourselves in Chartres on the summer solstice, June 21, 1995. We were sure there would be a big crowd, so we got there early, waiting for the doors to open. Finally, at 7:15, the cathedral opened. In fact, there were only four of us. We didn't know the other couple,but they got to the labyrinth first. So we were the third and fourth people to walk it that day. It was the first time I ever walked a labyrinth. I had drawn labyrinths, I had seen photos, I had read about labyrinths, but I had never walked one. The first labyrinth I ever walked was the one in Chartres Cathedral.

Last month, in August, I went to Hendersonville, NC, to take a course in sacred geometry given by Keith Critchlow, with whom I have previously studied. When we met, I shook his hand and repeated my name, in case he is as bad at remembering names as I am. He said, "Oh, yes, the Chartres man." He's right, of course. Over the past 35 years I have been to Chartres 46 times. I thought to myself, "There are a lot worse things that one could be called than 'the Chartres man.'"

During that same June visit to France in 1995, I met Chanoine Francois Legaux, then Rector of the cathedral. We had a long talk. Serving as my translator was Malcolm Miller, the English guide to the cathedral. Having been there for some 36 years, he's a bit of an institution himself. As a result of our conversation, the Rector came to realize that I was a serious student of Chartres, and not a proponent of the questionable mysteries that people like to make up about the place. Because of this friendship, I was subsequently able to get permission for my groups to walk the labyrinth after closing hours. We would move all the chairs, walk the labyrinth, and put them all back again.

First labyrinth conference
Have you noticed that when you surrender to the labyrinth, opportunities appear everywhere? That first year, 1995, was a seminal year for me. In September I attended the first ever All-Labyrinth Conference in New Mexico, sponsored by Jean Lutz. There, for the first time, I met other people who knew about and worked with labyrinths. What a treat. I'll bet that some of you here today are in the same boat, that you have developed your interest in labyrinths under somewhat isolated circumstances, and now you are thrilled to see so many kindred spirits who work with labyrinths. That's how I felt.

I remember Alex Champion being surprised that I had actually read Penelope Reed Doub's book on labyrinths. With Marty Cain I first learned about dowsing. The first time I asked the dowsing rods a question and they moved into position, the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. Wow. I met many others. In fact, how many people here today were at that conference in New Mexico? Would you stand?

It was also in New Mexico that I met Lauren Artress. In our conversation she expressed two needs: 1) Finding a canvas labyrinth maker, and 2) Finding someone who could organize trips to Chartres.

Here was a labyrinth lesson. Everything that had come before, in my life, was preparation for that moment. Previously, I had a twin stream of careers. I had learned business skills as a restaurant manager and as a real estate broker and developer in Dallas. I had learned to use tools while making my living as a craftsman. In the 1970s, for example, I sold wire jewelry on the streets of Austin, Texas, and at craft shows along the East Coast. Later, I built harpsichords, starting with a pile of wood and ending up with a beautiful instrument. Later still, I built and renovated houses, learning about construction (which would later be useful in constructing on-site labyrinths). I had just learned to draw the labyrinth. And, as director of One Heart Tours since 1989, I was experienced at taking groups to France. Furthermore, I could get us access to the labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral.

Every step in walking a labyrinth, which is to say, every step in life, is progress toward the goal, for which there are no shortcuts. Previously, I had thought that short-lived careers and failed relationships were dead ends, mistakes, failures. Now, from the labyrinth, I discovered that changes of direction don't indicate mistakes, they are a necessary part of following the path. Turning and going in the other direction are essential elements in reaching new territory. The labyrinth showed me that our steps are never wasted, time is never lost. Everything in the past was necessary to arrive where we are now, and this is a step toward wherever we will be in the future. This, too, will change when we come to another turn in the path.

Founded the St. Louis Labyrinth Project
Within weeks after the 1995 labyrinth conference, three of us had formed the St. Louis Labyrinth Project. By the end of 1995 I had made three canvas labyrinths, and had begun to plan a tour to France for Lauren Artress the following September. On New Year's Eve of 1995 the St. Louis Labyrinth Project made its first public labyrinths, for First Night St. Louis - a city-sponsored event: We made two outdoor 7-circuit labyrinths, 66-feet wide, one left-handed and the other right-handed, made of stones on a parking lot, and a 95-foot masking tape Chartres labyrinth indoors, in the convention center. The labyrinths were walked by some 2,000 people. After that, I was hooked on labyrinths for good.

Originally, I thought that the labyrinth project would be a hobby, a sideline, a non-profit organization. But I was so energized, so gung-ho in my plans to make more labyrinths, that my fellow founders of the St. Louis Labyrinth Project were intimidated, and they withdrew. So I was left with a sole proprietorship, which opened the way to making labyrinths my profession. And so I did.

In 1996, the seeds of 1995 took root. There was another labyrinth conference, at Omega Institute. This time I attended as a presenter, demonstrating how to make a labyrinth in less than an hour. By then, my business had started to grow. From January, 1996, to the present we have made all of the canvas Chartres labyrinths sold through Veriditas - I guess they total some 300 by now. I also began to make other designs, to sell retail, and to make both temporary and permanent ones, which now total more than another 350. I didn't know then that I would be making so many labyrinths. Such a revelation at the beginning might have been daunting. There was no reason to push, I just followed where labyrinths led me.

Again, this is something many of you have experienced. You made a labyrinth in your community, and suddenly, everyone looked to you as the expert. They wanted you to make other labyrinths, and to speak on the subject. So you had to quickly brush up on your labyrinth-making skills and read up on the subject. Early on, we at the St. Louis Labyrinth Project accepted as our mission to provide technical and instructional information for the labyrinth community. And so, we produce a series of small books for just such a purpose, to help people find concise and accurate information. [Show books.]

More in 1996
And so the years unfolded. In September of 1996, on our first tour together, Lauren Artress met the Rector of Chartres Cathedral, Chanoine François Legaux. The following year, on our second tour, riding in the bus on the way to Germany, our group decided that we should invite the Rector to come to Grace Cathedral. We passed the hat and raised $1,800 towards expenses. He arrived in June of 1998. Alan Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral, and Lauren Artress showed the Rector how effectively the labyrinth could be used as a spiritual tool, within a Christian context. They taught the Rector about his own labyrinth. The relationship between those three people flourished, right up to the present time. In 1999 Veriditas began holding a month of week-long seminars in Chartres. In 2000, Alan Jones and François Legaux each was made an honorary canon of the other's cathedral.

Perhaps some of you aren't familiar with what that means. A cathedral is a church at which a bishop is resident. Cathedra means throne, referring to the bishop's seat. A priest assigned to a cathedral is called a canon. In the Middle Ages, there were 72 canons at Chartres Cathedral, compared to 51 at Notre Dame in Paris. Together, the group of canons form a chapter, which is headed by a dean. Alan Jones is the dean of Grace Cathedral. The Rector of Chartres Cathedral also serves as the dean. Incidentally, the only contemporary account from the Middle Ages of the use of a labyrinth is from Auxerre, describing an Easter Dance performed on the labyrinth by the canons and the dean.

There is a new Rector now, with whom I am not close friends. However, he has opened up the labyrinth one day a week, on Fridays. So if you plan on visiting Chartres, go on a Friday. The new Rector also allows groups to walk the labyrinth, provided they make a contribution to the cathedral. I think that's a fair exchange.

Spiritual practice
The work of Lauren Artress has designated the labyrinth as a spiritual tool. Walking the labyrinth is a spiritual practice. I like that term. Getting in touch with spirit does indeed take practice. Prior to labyrinths I was aware of certain metaphysical principles. "Meta" means "beyond." Beyond the physical. There is something more than all of this. The labyrinth helped me see the role of the physical in attaining the metaphysical. It reminds me of the statement by Ram Dass that you have to be somebody before you can be nobody.

Previously I had dismissed this illusion, because it is meaningless. The labyrinth helped me see that we need the physical as a doorway into the spiritual. We need a glass to hold the water, a container, a language, a format, a context for spirit. This relationship of using illusion to find truth, the mundane to find the spiritual, time to find eternity, limitation to find the infinite, addresses our purpose here. This process of transformation, or if you wish, transmutation, has led me to study alchemy, and Hermeticism, and ancient wisdom. Pythagorus, Plato, and many others. It has led to sacred geometry, the Middle Ages and Chartres Cathedral in more depth, Islamic geometry, and more.

So how do labyrinths work as spiritual tools? Journalists call me and ask this all the time. I think, to find spirit and our authentic selves, we must shed our egos. Virtually all of our culture is egoic - the over-working, the commercialism, and even institutions, including governments and churches. Virtually every spiritual teaching says that truth lies not in the world outside, but only within. To go within requires us to stop all worldly activity. We must take a break, get away from the noise and pace of society. We can do that in labyrinths. That's what the guy with the cell phone was failing to do.

I have been enjoying the work of Eckhart Tolle, called The Power of Now. He makes a very convincing case that the only power there is, that happiness, and eternity itself, lie only in the present moment. Our bodies are always in the present moment. It is our minds that dwell on the past or the future. We should follow our bodies into awareness of the present moment. And where better to do that, than in a labyrinth. Our bodies take us into the labyrinth, into the now, and into ourselves.

Labyrinth business principles
So when we talk about a labyrinth business, we come to a contradiction. Business and labyrinths are two different worlds. Churches have the same problem. Sometimes the religion business gets in the way of finding God. A labyrinth business. Hm-m-m-m-m. I have dealt with this oxymoron for quite some time. As a result, I have developed a number of principles that I think pertain.

1) If we are going to get labyrinths into the world, we must make it possible for people to earn their living in that way. It must become a viable business. This is a commercial society. We must talk their language. That was a big point in Lauren Artress's talk at the Denver gathering: Know your audience, and speak their language. I once asked Pat Rodegast, during a session in which she was channeling the entity Emmanuel, whether it is good to become a master of illusion, of living within the illusion. Emmanuel said, "Yes, as long as you don't believe it."

2) Secondly, we must charge enough for our services to be able to create enough income to live on. To some, this seems sacrilegious; it seems like the commercialization of the labyrinth. People have heated debates about copyrighting labyrinth designs, or registering trademarks. So let's remind ourselves of what I just said, about the physical being necessary as a doorway into the spiritual. Promoting labyrinths takes resources, and business creates such resources. Institutions and architects, for example, are used to paying a rate consistent with professionalism.

3) We must maintain our personal values. Going into business doesn't mean destroying the ecology, cutting down rainforests, or doing unethical things. My particular style is to be low-tech. I know that the sign industry has the technology for making labyrinths with computers and stencils. I don't know the sound of screaming computers. I prefer the human touch of drawing and painting by hand. The irregularity is pleasing to the eye, and it has a favorable energy component.

4) I have never considered drawing labyrinths to be proprietary information. Perhaps that is true for certain artistic techniques, but not the knowledge to actually make labyrinths. We have always supplied that information to everyone. The same is true with regards to competition. I prefer to see it as collaboration. We are have the same goal: To get labyrinths out into the world.

5) And last, I think it is important to give something back. If you have benefitted from labyrinths, either financially or in some other way, I think it is important to give something back. In my case, it took the form of planning four labyrinth conferences, two in St. Louis in 1997 and 1998, at which the Labyrinth Society was formed, and then the first two gatherings, in Denver and Fayetteville. When I discovered that the world's greatest labyrinth compendium existed only in German, I wrote to the publisher and began the process that led to the new English edition. Jeff Saward and I worked for three years editing this volume. By the way, we receive no royalties or compensation. All payment goes to Mrs. Kern, who is still alive and who, quite frankly, needs it.

Changes to business
So those are the values that I hold important in the labyrinth business. I can't say that my business is perfect. I would like to have a lot more business, but I'm not willing to do most of the things that would take. There are a few changes that I would make, however. I want to finish our website. I would also like to learn several types of software to enhance my computer skills. Thirdly, there is the matter of our name.

Recently, in a moment of quiet meditation, Ruth heard a new name for our business. We have long thought that The St. Louis Labyrinth Project is too long, too confusing. It sounds geographically limited. Project sounds like a single event, not an on-going business. So I am using this opportunity, this morning, here at the Labyrinth Society Gathering, to announce our new business name: "Labyrinth Enterprises." It speaks more directly to our multi-faceted approach. It might sound a little formal and business-like, but that's exactly what was missing from our previous name. Considering what the dictionary says about the word "enterprise," it seems clear that we are all engaged in a labyrinth enterprise. Here's what it says:

1. An undertaking, especially one of great scope and complication
2. Systematic and industrious activity
3. Eagerness to venture. Are any of you Star Trek fans? Remember the Enterprise? "To boldly go where no labyrinth has gone before"
4. A bold, hard, important, or dangerous undertaking
5. Readiness to try something untried
6. Energy and initiative
7. The carrying on of projects, and finally
8. A business organization

Only our name will change, not what we do. All of my old email and website addresses will still function. We have reserved the Internet address "labyrinth-enterprises.com" I will continue to make labyrinths and teach and write. I don't do this by myself, of course. I depend on invaluable help from my wife Ruth, my production manager Judy Hopen, and her helpers. While I'm on the road traveling, Judy is generally back in St. Louis, hard at work in our studio, making those pencils scream. [Make sound] And Ruth watches the office, shepherds the daily flock of emails, pays bills, keeps track of orders. I'm sure it can be enough sometimes to make her scream, as well.

Life is good
I have indeed made a living as a labyrinth maker, however modest. Three years ago Ruth and I moved to a close-in village-like suburb, to a modest bungalow on a one-acre lot. We truly enjoy our towering pine trees, the quiet, and the small-town feel. Ruth has fallen in love with the library and together we swim laps at the public pool. The pool has a consistent level of four to five feet. Actually, Ruth swims and I walk beside her. At any rate, we pinch ourselves daily, saying how fortunate we are. We even began tucking away a few savings for an addition to the house, to make it more suitable to our needs.

In December of 2000, I drove Ruth through a snowstorm to St. Anthony's Hospital to get her sonnogram, to further investigate a suspicious spot noticed earlier on a routine mammogram. In January of 2001 an excisional biopsy removed the lump from her breast, which proved to be malignant. Breast cancer. I can barely even say the words. Once again we came to a turn in the path of life. Not a failure, not a mistake, not an injustice, just a turn, which continues our progress towards out ultimate destination.

Breast cancer
Ruth took nearly a year off from her work as a psychotherapist and attended to herself, using alternative treatments. I remember sitting across from the oncologist, when Ruth was told that the only prescription that the doctor could assure would work would be chemotherapy and radiation. Ruth, who has used alternative health sources for decades, asked about other treatments. The oncologist said that she knew of nothing that would work as well as radiation and chemotherapy. Ruth said, "Thank you, but no." What courage that took. She knew that the suffering identified with cancer often comes more from the treatment than from the disease itself. I knew nothing about cancer, then. I know a lot more now. My question is this: "In 1972 Ronald Reagan declared war on cancer. Thirty years and 300 billion dollars later, the only prescription most doctors give for breast cancer is still chemotherapy and radiation? There's a scandal here somewhere. Where did all of the money go? Where are all the results? Why don't we have access to alternative therapies that have been shown to work?"Why aren't they covered by insurance?

Ruth went to Germany to a clinic for Holistic Immunology. The treatments are designed to strengthen the body's immune system to naturally fight and eliminate cancer. She returned home physically fit, ready to deal with the inner issues and psychological factors which faced her. They were very real. She faced them straight on and dealt with them in an admirable way. As a symbolic act for her full recovery to health, we began to fold 1,000 paper cranes. Each evening we each fold a crane before retiring for the night. Tonight we will do 769 and 770. We should be finished towards the end of the year.

Despite our huge monthly payment for health insurance, our insurance company has refused to pay for most of Ruth's cancer treatments, which has amounted to tens of thousands of dollars. Instead, labyrinths have paid for it. Plus the money we had set aside for the addition to our house. Frankly, I think Ruth is a nice addition to have around the house. During 2001, for the first time in our 13-year marriage, I was the sole bread winner. It turned out to be a good year. Those pencils were really screaming. [Make sound.] Labyrinths supported us. Along with the love and help and prayers of our friends. Thank you.

Seven years
It has been seven years now, since that first conference in New Mexico in September, 1995. Seven - a good, mystical number. We've made some 650 labyrinths and our books have allowed hundreds of people to build their own. In a moment, let me ask you to raise your hand if you fit into any of the following categories. Please wait until I read through them. If you have bought a labyrinth from us or a Chartres labyrinth from Veriditas, if you have made a labyrinth using our manuals, if you have benefitted from the instructions on our website, if you have been to Chartres with our groups, in you have included my drawings or materials in your book or articles, or if you have been personally instructed via email or in one of my trainings. In other words, if you have interacted with me during these past seven years, please raise your hand.

Thank you. That's what makes the journey worthwhile. For all of us working with labyrinths. I'm grateful to Lauren Artress, who got me started, and to all those who have helped me along the way. And I'm grateful to have helped others. You've heard of the saying, "When you are ready to learn, a teacher will appear." I believe that when you are ready to learn, a student will appear. After all, we learn what we teach.

The life and times of a labyrinth maker. I think the transformation is slow, incremental, but inevitable. I remember the staff in Fayetteville saying what a wonderful group we were - cooperative, considerate, friendly. We stood out. And that was a church center. I think it's true. I don't know of a single instance in which someone walked a labyrinth and it ruined their life, or made them more critical or aggressive.

This was my story, but it's also your story. It's a story about following guidance. It's a story about labyrinths. I've played my part, and you are playing yours. It's an important, honorable, worthwhile story. And, it's still being written. The gatherings keep getting better and better. Labyrinths are everywhere, being made faster than Cindy Pavlinac can travel California to photograph them. Nor is the story finished, as new people continue to join the Labyrinth Society. The founding members are retiring from positions of leadership. New folks are stepping into responsibility.

My wish for all of you, be it only be a metaphor, is to keep those pencils screaming. [Make sound.]
Thank you.

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