Mollie Dvorak was worried that it wasn't going to fit.

Dvorak, pastor at St. Marks Lutheran Church in Circle Pines, wheeled in a sturdy container with a canvas floor covering inside. At more than 80 pounds, it was very heavy and more than a little unwieldy.

"This thing is ginormous," Dvorak said.

She and Jenny Aleckson, the church's director of ministries, struggled to unfold and position the 36-foot circular canvas, slowly transforming the floor of their fellowship hall with a pattern of one of the world's most famous labyrinths — the 13th-century stone tile path at Chartres Cathedral in France.

And it fit — perfectly.

In a week, they'd fold it back up again. The labyrinth was a rental.

Over the past few decades, Minnesota has become a veritable hub for labyrinth enthusiasts. Besides hundreds of permanent walkways in gardens, churchyards and parks, the state is home to several centers that rent labyrinths, some of which ship portable paths to clients around the country.

The place where Dvorak rented her labyrinth, St. Paul's Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality, recently rented labyrinths to New York University, the Manhattan School of Music and churches in North Carolina and Ohio.

Pop-up labyrinths have become popular for schools, churches, hospitals and companies to use in retreats, workshops and wellness activities. Some use them for a "de-stress fest," said Marian Diaz, director of Wisdom Ways. The ancient practice of slowly walking a set path can be spiritual, religious or fun, depending on who's walking and why.

Weekly rental prices at Wisdom Ways range from about $25 for a tiny "finger labyrinth" to $150 for one that fits as many as 11 walkers.

Along with the canvas labyrinth that Dvorak's church rented, Wisdom Ways included a guest book where folks who had walked the path wrote little notes about their experience ("It's like an Airbnb!" exclaimed Aleckson).

While the words labyrinth and maze have been used interchangeably, they are quite distinct. A maze has multiple routes and dead ends, leading some to get lost inside, but a labyrinth has a single, winding path leading to the center. That's what makes it a meditative tool, not a puzzle to solve.

"Labyrinths encourage mindful walking. Sometimes people do not associate mindfulness or prayer with movement, but the focused, circuitous walk of the labyrinth can provide time for silence or for reflection on something you might be dealing with in your life," Diaz said. "Life itself is not a direct path from point A to point B, and the winding paths of the labyrinth reflect that truth. The labyrinth guides you into its center and hopefully, there you find your own center."

Wisdom Ways' rentals slowed during the pandemic's early days, but have picked up again. The largest labyrinths are often continuously booked, Diaz said. She's hopeful the spiritual tool can help those struggling with today's many and shifting worries.

"I would really like to see more people using them with children and teenagers, especially given the challenges of the pandemic and the mental health crisis that younger people are facing now," she said.

Labryinth central

Many of the portable walkways in Wisdom Ways' collection were hand-painted by Stillwater labyrinth designer and maker Lisa Gidlow Moriarty, who also rents out a fleet of her own Paths of Peace creations. She's shipped them to every state but Alaska and Hawaii, she said.

Moriarty has fostered Minnesota's ever-growing infatuation with the winding paths. She began making labyrinths in 1999, as their revival blossomed, creating both precise replicas of historical patterns and new designs. She built a permanent stone labyrinth along Spain's Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route this spring and typically creates dozens of portable canvas walkways each year.

"Minnesota today is a hub for labyrinth activity because we go back to the 1990s," said Moriarty. "There are more public labyrinths in the Twin Cities area than any other metropolitan area in the world. So we are very rich with labyrinths here."

The idea of portable paths that can be set up indoors made sense in Minnesota, where winter weather can drag on for so long. After learning about the idea decades ago, Moriarty painted her first portable canvas for her church to use. The idea took off — and while she rents them only within the U.S., she's created portable labyrinths for clients around the world.

"It just became an international project," she said. "In Minnesota, our labyrinths are only available for part of the year. So having something that you can lay out and use indoors is a viable option for lots of places."

A winding journey

Labryrinths are adaptable to "pretty much any kind of situation," said Moriarty.

"The labyrinth itself is over 4,000 years old. And they've been found all over the world," she said. "And so, one of the beautiful parts about the labyrinth is that it's not connected to any particular religion or doctrine or anything."

Many churches use labyrinths following a Christian tradition of associating the pathway with a spiritual journey to salvation. (Some historians believe worshipers walked the Chartres Cathedral labyrinth, for example, as a symbolic pilgrimage to the Holy Land, while others say the design was created to represent Christ's passage through death to eternal life).

Walking a labyrinth at church is now a popular activity during Lent, making those weeks before Easter the busiest rental season for both Paths of Peace and for Wisdom Ways.

At Dvorak's Circle Pines church, the rental labyrinth arrived as part of a two-year contemplative practices program run by St. Catherine University. Each month, parishioners try a new mindful activity — from deep listening to prayer journaling. May's contemplative practice was a labyrinth walk.

As Cindy Huseby walked the path with other members of the church, her thoughts took unexpected directions — but she felt joyful, hugging friends as their steps met, she said.

"At some point, all of us were like, 'Wait a minute, am I following the right path here?' " Huseby said. "And someone in the group said, 'You know, that's a little like life. You wonder that all the time. Is this the right path, or did I stray somewhere?' "

Dvorak was excited to share the practice with Huseby and other parishioners who hadn't experienced it before.

"I love being a witness to how it transforms people," Dvorak said.