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Back Roads Bill: Invitation to new spiritual path

This week Bill tells us about a labyrinth project he has been working on and forwards an invitation

A labyrinth is an ancient symbol that is being rediscovered as a path for spiritual growth. And it won’t be long until the next full-sized labyrinth will be completed within a provincial park. It seemed like the right thing to do but how does one begin such a journey in creating a labyrinth?

A maze is a complex branching, multicourse puzzle that includes choices of path and direction, it may have multiple entrances and exits and dead ends. Jack Nicholson fell victim to a maze in the 1980 horror film, The Shining, produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick.

The labyrinth is an ancient example of “sacred geometry,” it is unicursal and has only a single, non-branching path, which leads to the centre and then back out the same way, with only one entry and exit point. Thought to be a representation of the spiritual quest of the pilgrim travelling to the Holy Land, labyrinths began appearing in Europe in the 12th century.

Labyrinth history

The labyrinth and similar spiritual forms are very ancient spiritual symbols. In some form, the labyrinth has appeared in almost every culture. Though the meanings vary, there is always the core idea that the labyrinth is a path you can trust.

One of the meanings that have been given to the labyrinth within different cultures is life after death. The earliest labyrinths were carved on grave sites and probably represented the journey of the soul after death or the victory of the higher self over animal instincts.

Another meaning ascribed to labyrinths is fertility. English turf labyrinths celebrated the regularity of seasonal change and the fertility of the earth.

Scandinavian sailors walked rock labyrinths on the shore to assure a safe voyage.

For the North American Pima tribe, the labyrinth represented a safe place where no evil could come.

Medieval cathedral labyrinths were often called "the road to Jerusalem" and were a substitute for people who were unable to go on pilgrimage. Sometimes the centre of the labyrinth was called "Ciel" or "heaven.”

Labyrinth designs were found on pottery, tablets and tiles that date as far back as 5,000 years. Many patterns are based on spirals and circles mirrored in nature.

In Native American tradition, the labyrinth is identical to the Medicine Wheel and Man in the Maze.

The Celts described the labyrinth as the Never Ending Circle. It is also known as the “Ka Bala” in mystical Judaism. One feature labyrinths have in common is that they have one path that winds in a circuitous way to the centre.

Labyrinths are constructed both indoors and outdoors. Indoor ones are found in church or community halls, hospitals, retreat centres and jails.

Outdoor ones are often positioned everywhere in nature from backyards to community gardens to beaches and can be made of a variety of materials. Ideally, the entrance and orientation point symbolically towards the east. Some enthusiasts use divining rods to ascertain favourable conditions for energy sources.

Years ago I first walked the expansive labyrinth at the Sisters of St. Joseph of Sault Ste. Marie, Motherhouse, Main St. West, west of Gormanville Rd., it is located at the west end of the building via the parking lot; as a courtesy check in at the front desk.

This labyrinth is 72’ in diameter with a 17’ inner circle. It is modelled after the Chartres Cathedral in France (Google this for images.) The labyrinth at Chartres is thought to have once been graced by an image of the Minotaur at its centre, a motif common in mazes and labyrinths around the world.)

Their labyrinth was built as a Millennial project as a meditative tool. Sister Sharon and Sister Mae helped me with the first labyrinth story, others followed below.

They said, “The labyrinth can be used as a meditative tool for many intentions: to celebrate, to grieve, to silence inner turmoil whatever is needed for desired for the person. Each time is usually a different experience.”

This was the needed encouragement to dream on.

Contemplation and relief

Lori Haskings-Barbe is the Facebook page coordinator for the Labyrinth Community Network.

“My mother died in 2006 and I wanted to make a negative experience into something positive, it became the most profound experience in my life,” she said. “Halfway through there were tears of joy and sadness, it became a cathartic release. I found profound peace, that I had never felt before. I wanted to feel this again and I want to give this to someone else.”

“The labyrinth represents our passage through time and experience. Its many turns reflect the journey of life, which involves changes of direction, transition, and some uncertainty but also discovery and achievement," Haskings-Barbe said. "Different from a maze which has dead ends and false passages, the labyrinth has a single path that leads unerringly to the centre. It shows us that no time or effort is ever wasted; if we stay the course, every step, however circuitous, however many turns, however distant it seems, takes us closer to our goal.”

She has a portable 27' labyrinth in a hockey bag for training others.

Phyllis Paryas is a labyrinth facilitator and the Outreach Coordinator for St John’s Anglican Church in Kanata.

“My journey with the labyrinth began when a good friend, who is an artist, told me of walking local labyrinths and of the peace and creative inspiration she found there. The image of the labyrinth was in the back of my mind I had not yet walked one. Then we later lost our 27-year-old son in October of 2005. All we could do, I thought, was to try to help others find some peace after a time of trial such as my family had endured," Paryas said. 

"My research persuaded me that the labyrinth was and is one important path for prayer and contemplation,” she said. “Labyrinths are used regularly for grief education groups and new groups associated with mental health (ADHD and anxiety) wellness and fitness."

Paryas is a Certified Labyrinth Facilitator (CLF) and offers the following tips when embarking on a labyrinth walk.

“Thinking is not required to walk a labyrinth. At the same time, one must remain alert to stay on the path,” she said. “This combination of reduced mental activity and heightened awareness makes the labyrinth ideal for walking meditation or prayer."

"Some walk or dance the labyrinth just for the fun of it, or to express a certain intent or wish," Paryas said. "The turns of the labyrinth are thought to balance the two hemispheres of the brain, resulting in physical and emotional healing. As reaching the centre is assured, walking the labyrinth is more about the journey than the destination, about being rather than doing, integrating body and mind, psyche and spirit into one harmonious whole.”

Begin by putting away your 'physical baggage' such as key chains, pocket change, cell phones, watches and dangling jewellery.

“We suggest you take off your watch to remove the temptation to measure your progress chronologically," she said. "In an outdoor setting, enjoy the sounds of nature."

There is no required way to walk the labyrinth.

“The beauty of the labyrinth is that people can approach the experience on their own terms.” However, as a guideline, the walk may be approached in stages, she explains. “Entering - during this stage as you walk around the paths toward the centre, you should try to acquire a relaxed, peaceful state. Temporarily release concerns and quiet the mind.”

Time in the centre is described as illumination. It is a time of openness and peacefulness. People experience, learn or receive what this unique moment offers.

“Take your time,” she says. The journey back outward is described as union.

“You choose when to leave the centre, following the same path. This is a time to review and consider what occurred in the centre and how it may be applied in your life.”

And finally, implementation, as you leave the labyrinth,

“The exit represents your life outside the labyrinth. It is the world into which your experience or illumination is carried and thus affects your everyday life.”

Resources and Toronto

You can access the labyrinth locator online for public-access places near and far. As mentioned there is the Sisters of St. Joseph of Sault Ste. Marie Motherhouse, Main St. West, in North Bay. Here are a few known labyrinths in northern Ontario and in Toronto.

Travelling to the City of Greater Sudbury, visit St. Peter’s Labyrinth at Lourdes Grotto, 271 Van Horne St, downtown (near Paris and Elgin Streets). This labyrinth is a gift from the congregation of St. Peter's United Church to the people of Sudbury, it has 11-circuits and measures 60’ in diameter, it is constructed with paving blocks with a pathway of crushed rose quartz sand.

And a favourite is the Anishinabe Spiritual Centre, located just south of Espanola. 1091 Anderson Lake Road, easily accessed on the east side of the road; the labyrinth has seven circuits, a 46’ diameter and is outlined with birch bark logs.

Circling Hawks Centre is located in Burk’s Falls at 156 Ontario St, east side; it is a Cretan design, with seven circuits, stones outline the paths within a perennial flower and herb garden. The hours are Wednesday to Saturday 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. and Sunday, 11 a.m. – 4 p.m.

There is a labyrinth challenge in Toronto, the very one I seek out and walk when downtown, close to Nathan Phillips Square (city hall). Jo Ann Stevenson is the Chair and Co-founder of the Toronto Public Labyrinth and Labyrinth Community Network (LCNO).

“The labyrinth in the Trinity Square Park has been there since 2000 - in grass till 2005 and then interlocking bricks. We still hold six open public walks a year with live music. (The) next one is Dec 21 at noon for Winter Solstice.

"We've been plagued by development pressure - and vandalism. The centre stones have been dug out by some deranged soul and have been filled in with asphalt, so not a pretty sight. Walkers have told me they see it as a metaphor for life - that's a labyrinth enthusiast for you!

“The other development is that the city has approved a 59-story high rise atop the Bell building at the west corner of the square. It will cast a shadow over the labyrinth; making it less desirable to walk - metaphors exempted. But the developer is obliged to invest in local parks and with us at their doorstep; literally, we hope to be refurbished to our accustomed elegant state.”

Another resource is Veriditas. It is a non-profit incorporated in the State of California in 1995 by Lauren Artress.

The word "Veriditas" means "the greening power of life.” Veriditas is dedicated to inspiring personal and planetary change and renewal through the labyrinth experience “as a tool for personal and community transformation. See the online “Finger Labyrinth Walk and Meditation’ program and video.

Immersion within a topic leads to obsession and thoughts of what could be.

New Labyrinth

There is another Northern Ontario resource. Who knew? The author of Celebrating The Labyrinth - A Journey of the Spirit Gailand MacQueen, lives on the shores of Lake Nipissing in North Bay and on a global scale is a leading authority on trusting your path especially when it comes to the spirituality of labyrinths.

From a previous Village Media article in 2021. “I am thrilled that there will be another labyrinth in our area.”

He says like most spiritual symbols, the labyrinth can become part of a rich spiritual practice not only in formal ceremonies and practices but also in everyday life.

“We cross many thresholds, great and small, that are not predictable life crises. Moving, starting high school or university, graduations, new jobs, job loss, separation, divorce, leaving home, sickness, hospitalization, and many other such events occur in our lives all the time. Some of them are so common in the modern world as to be almost predictable crises," said MacQueen. "And all of these transitions can be occasions to walk a labyrinth." 

You can order the book at Wood Lake Publishing - [email protected] or from the author - [email protected] .

Stephen Scharper is the author of the The Green Bible. He is a professor and director of the Trinity Sustainability Initiative, Department of Anthropology, School of the Environment, University of Toronto.

The first edition of The Green Bible was published in 1993. He retreated at the Canadian Ecology Centre for more than a year during the pandemic and then knew of the labyrinth plans.

“Beyond its architectural denotation labyrinth also has an anatomical definition. It refers to a complex structure in the inner ear, housing organs of balance and hearing and a skein of bony cavities. Both definitions contribute to the evolution of the labyrinth as a spiritual tool, a walking path of a meditative and at times sacred space which leads us to a centre and then to a way out," he said. "It is a place of potential confusion as well as insight and compels us to listen to the spiritual susurrations of the heart.

“Recently there has been burgeoning interest in labyrinths and a surge in labyrinth construction. One recent study noted that approximately 6,000 labyrinths have been registered with the Worldwide Labyrinth Locator; ensconced in private properties, libraries, schools, gardens, recreational areas, as well as celebrated temples and cathedrals.

“In the context of our global ecological morass, and perturbing social injustice around the world as well as threats to democracy in the USA and elsewhere, labyrinths might play a special role in helping persons quietly reflect upon the tangled and perplexing social and political issues we now face."

"Moreover, they offer a practice and a path of reconnecting us with our thoughts, and our deeper stirrings, outside electronic devices and the constant patter of electronic platforms and their jangled voices and visages.

"They represent a centuries-old method of reflective peace, a way of finding our way out of the maze of a soul-scrambling cacophony of contemporary life and into a journey of self-awareness, of listening peace, and sagacious insight.”

These experts helped to solidify the commitment.

So after many years of walking labyrinths, it seemed like the right thing to do – create one. It is almost finished near the Canadian Ecology Centre and within Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park located on a decommissioned baseball field (main Bagwa Beach turnoff before the campgrounds).

After two years, site location and preparation were completed. The labyrinth outline was scribed onto the landscape, there was a great deal of math involved and thanks to Laura Kielpinski, Coral Mason and Court Vincent from the Canadian Ecology Centre. The centre is festooned with a huge piece of amethyst from this mine.

The five-pin bowling ball-sized, round glacial rocks have arrived at the labyrinth site. We need help with the final stage of completing the outline.

If you have a pair of gloves and have some time between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., this coming Sunday, Nov. 6 your volunteerism, moving these small rocks into place, will be appreciated. (The second opportunity, if needed will be Saturday, Nov. 12, at the same times as above.)

Your name will go on the commemorative plaque and there will be warm beverages. Visitors will be able to walk the labyrinth for the first time.

For more information, call 705-840-0848 or [email protected] - people from outside of the Mattawa area, we may be able to put you up at the Canadian Ecology Centre.

When we walk a labyrinth, we let our own experience be our guide. The paths of a labyrinth seem to meander and double back, reflecting the journeys we have taken. This one is almost complete. It is a metaphor for coming home to ourselves, of becoming, finally, all that we can be.

Think about helping out, or come for a winter labyrinth snowshoe this winter or beyond.

Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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