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Northern Ontario labyrinths - trust your path through mindfulness

Join Back Roads Bill in a spiritual journey wherever you are on Saturday, May 1, for World Labyrinth Day

A silent spring is upon us. The ground is drying up nicely and World Labyrinth Day is Saturday, May 1. Make your way to the nearest Northern Ontario labyrinth or secure the new release one of the most definitive works on the subject. It might be the time to experience the circular path that cleanses and quiets.

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 of “trusting your path” especially when it comes to spirituality of labyrinths.

A labyrinth is not a maze. It has only one path to the centre and back out, which is called unicursal (one line). It has no blind alleys or dead ends as mazes have. The path twists and turns back on itself many times before reaching the centre. Once at the centre, there is only one way back out.

“The other thing that lends to simplicity in the labyrinth is that the whole figure is visible at once. Mazes, on the other hand, use all sorts of walls, illusions, and psychological tricks to prevent you from seeing what's ahead. Mazes are out to fool you. Labyrinths are not,” the author explained.

Labyrinths are an ancient archetype dating back 4,000 years or more, used symbolically, as a walking meditation, choreographed dance, or site of rituals and ceremony.

The labyrinth may be a prototype, a symbol that appeals to us at an “unconscious level.” 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.

Labyrinths appear outside of formal religion as a ritual object to express spiritual values in many countries including China, India, the Holy Land, Ireland, Southern Europe, Scandinavia, pre-Columbian America, and England. They have been identified at Neolithic and Sardinian and Hopi rock art sites, Hindu temples and Taoist shrines, and Roman mosaics.

“We associate it mainly with the great European Gothic cathedrals but it is a common symbol of the trustworthy path. In our own time, when many people feel that they have lost control of their lives, some folk are turning to the labyrinth as a symbol of trust in something greater than themselves," MacQueen said. "It is always risky to talk about the meaning of archetypal symbols, such as the labyrinth. We know that they must carry a wealth of meaning to appeal to so many different sorts of people over such a long period of time.”

MacQueen has advanced degrees in philosophy, theology and educational theory. His thesis in educational theory, Ideology and Childhood explored the rights of children. He served in ordained ministry in various congregations in Northern Ontario and taught religious studies at Huntington University in Laurentian University in Sudbury for 17 years.

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. And all of these transitions can be occasions to walk a labyrinth.’

“I have walked the labyrinth before surgery, before moving, before taking on a new job, before an overseas vacation. There is nothing magic about this; sometimes new insights came while I was walking, but not always. However, when I walked the labyrinth with the new phase of my life journey in mind, I did find that I was better able to trust my path. I even found it helpful to walk the labyrinth for the smallest of transitions, for example from the workweek to the weekend, or after a particularly difficult day of work.”

The Spirituality of Mazes & Labyrinths, was his first book, a best-seller, but the publisher wanted labyrinths only for the next release.

“There is almost nothing on mazes. It is brought up to date concerning my experiences and includes resources for labyrinth celebrations and instructions for drawing and making the Santa Rosa labyrinth,” There are no photographs.

As a younger man, he discovered W. H. Matthews' 1922 book Mazes and Labyrinths: Their History and Development.

“But they didn't make much sense to me. I couldn't see the fun in creating a path that couldn't fool anyone. Then (while walking the South West Peninsula Path in Cornwall England) I encountered the Rocky Valley Labyrinths and really understood their importance.

“Labyrinths are about embodiment. When we walk, run, or crawl the labyrinth, we are using our bodies. Our spirituality becomes embodied even when we trace labyrinths and mazes with a finger, or dance through the pathways in our imagination. Labyrinths help us to rediscover our bodies as vehicles of spirituality.’

Labyrinths are used in many ways, but it is common for people to walk them meditatively, to foster mindfulness.

“During these COVID shutdowns, labyrinth enthusiasts are creating beautiful, meaningful virtual experiences. One example is the labyrinth committee in Sudbury which is interviewing people to talk about what the labyrinth means to them.”

MacQueen describes the geometry of the labyrinth.

“Even though the labyrinth may appear quite complex, it is really quite simple. I often illustrate this in workshops by attaching a cord to the path of a labyrinth and having two participants take one end each and pull while walking apart. The cord forms a single straight line, the simplest possible one-dimensional figure. When we do the same thing with a maze we end up with various bits of cord dangling down and/or forming loops. In the technical language of topology, the labyrinth is monocursal; the maze is multicursal. In my presentations, I usually avoid the technical language of mathematics because participants are there to be introduced to the spiritual dimensions of the labyrinth.”

Try making one of your own.

“My own portable labyrinth was inexpensive to make, is lightweight, and fits easily into a sports bag. It takes only a few minutes to roll out and to roll up again. I like to call it my Canadian labyrinth because it is made with hockey tape on a 25-foot (7.6 metres) square tarpaulin. I used the Santa Rosa labyrinth pattern and blue hockey tape, but there are a variety of nice tape colours."

We are fortunate to have several labyrinths in Northern Ontario. MacQueen says he loves The Sisters of St. Joseph Motherhouse labyrinth in North Bay.

“It is the size and design of the labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral in France. I also love the labyrinth at the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in Sudbury. I actually wheeled wheelbarrow loads of gravel and crusher dust making that one," MacQueen said. 

"My wife and I have walked both of these during changes in our lives (changes in employment, retirement, moving) and walked them with folk who were dealing with difficult diagnoses, grief and depression. With such memories, how could I not love these labyrinths? I am still involved in labyrinth events, though now they only occur two or three times a year. I think these events have contributed to many Canadians becoming aware of labyrinths for the first time and finding them helpful in their spiritual practice.”

Dr. Stephen Scharper, author of the Green Bible (see this Back Roads Bill Village Media article) and University of Toronto-Trinity College professor says, "Though a labyrinth can be amazing, it is not, in fact, a maze. In this gracious book, Gailand MacQueen adroitly illustrates the difference between a maze, which began as a form of amusement, and a labyrinth, which has always represented a ‘journey of the spirit.’ In a time of COVID, climate chaos, and computer-mediated overload, such labyrinthine spiritual sojourns are perhaps more necessary for our collective human sanity than ever before."

There 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. For all sites, because of the pandemic it best to call ahead. Here is the labyrinth locator. The 108-page book can be secured through Wood Lake Books or request a signed copy through Gailand MacQueen, [email protected]. Unlike but like a formal scripture, many leading words give guidance and counsel.

World Labyrinth Day is an annual event sponsored by The Labyrinth Society as a worldwide action to “walk as one at 1” local time it is intended to create a rolling wave of peaceful energy.

Every year on the first Saturday in May, people worldwide participate in this moving meditation for world peace and celebration of the labyrinth experience. Walk the path, use a finger labyrinth or create labyrinth art, see this website created by St. Peter’s United Church or walk with them on their YouTube channel on May 1. MacQueen will be a presenter.

It is like being with nature; a labyrinth helps to focus on what is important. 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. It is a metaphor for coming home to ourselves, of becoming, finally, all that we can be. Give thanks.

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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