Winter Labyrinths

“At first you want to arrive but then you realize that it is the travelling that you want, and you are always surprised that it is over too soon.”  Annick Hardie

The Oxford dictionary defines a labyrinth as a complicated irregular network of passages or paths; a maze.  The origin of the Greek word, labyrinthos, differentiates it from an actual maze with multiple paths intricately linked, to describe it as any maze-like structure with a single path.

Labyrinths and labyrinthine symbols have been dated to the Neolithic Age in regions as diverse as modern-day Turkey, Ireland, Greece, and India among others. In the Tantric texts of India, the labyrinth is often featured in the design of mandalas while in Britain and Ireland they are pre-figured in the ring-and-cup marks often found in stone work and the famous swirl designs found at sites such as Newgrange. The labyrinth represents wholeness. It combines the imagery of the circle and the spiral into a meandering but purposeful path. It looks like a maze but is not. Unlike a maze, a labyrinth has no dead-ends. You cannot get lost. You just follow the path to the center and out again. The labyrinth symbolizes a transformative journey to your own center and back out into the world.

Labyrinths occur in all cultures and have long been used as tools for meditation, centering, and healing. (For more on the history and purpose of labyrinth, scroll to the bottom of this blog entry.)

If I were to follow the Oxford definition, I would say in some ways this story has an irregular network of paths that took me on a side trip where I made new connections and then journeyed back to my purpose, and yet the labyrinth which I snowshoed, followed a single path which led to singing and contemplation, or one could say, release and peace.

In the fall of 2019 Annick Hardie had a book launch for her follow-up novel, Second Chances.  The original master of ceremonies had the flu and Annick contacted me to step in, which I was more than happy to do. Two days before the launch at the Wakefield library, I got off the bus and went to the Hardie home which is situated, as the crow flies, nestled against the hills southwest of Wood’s Road.  Annick and I had a lovely chat about her new story, the familiar characters and the new characters, one of which came from Neuchâtel Switzerland.  Curiously, I had gone to school in Neuchâtel where I completed Grade 13 at the Canadian Junior College.

Feeling more or less up to speed with my responsibilities and getting ready to leave the warmth of the Hardie home, Annick drew my attention to a photograph hanging in their kitchen – an aerial photograph of a labyrinth in their front field taken on a brilliant winter’s day.  It was gorgeous. Immediately I wanted to know more as it struck me as so unique and something worth sharing.  Annick said she would be happy to give me the back story and invited me to drop in again in the New Year.

On a blustery day in mid-January I stopped in on what was to turn into a very snowy late afternoon.  Seeing the Hardie home for the first time by light of day, I did not at first notice the labyrinth in the front field, but I did notice that we shared the same view of the hills on the other side of the river.  A view so inspiring that I discovered for both John Hardie and me, the words of Psalm 121, “I look to the hills from whence cometh my help,” is a common refrain.

Hardie Labyrinth

Arriving at the side door, Annick’s first question was did I bring my snowshoes, and of course, I had not.  She very rightly knew that to experience the power of the labyrinth, you had to walk it.  Kindly she agreed to lend me a pair of hers, which wasn’t ideal. As the wind was picking up, I set out to walk, what was now, an obvious labyrinth. And lumbering along a bit, I made my way to the centre. As I walked quietly putting one foot in front of the other, I started to sing.  Not thinking about it at all, Christmas songs and familiar hymns from my youth popped in my head as I walked from the outer circle to the inner, and finally to the centre. Once there, I lifted my head up to look around at the beauty surrounding me, but the wind was slapping me in the face and I quickly started my return walk, still singing but now anxious to get inside.  I cheated.  I side-stepped to an outer circle so that I could hasten my return and when I came to the entrance of the labyrinth I took off my snowshoes and headed for the door just as the snow started whipping by. I will have to wait on a sunny day for the full experience.

Annick made a lovely pot of Lapsang souchong tea, a new taste experience for me, and as I enjoyed its warmth and smoky flavour, we sat down to talk about labyrinths, the Hardie’s creations and others here in the hills largely inspired by perhaps the most well-known labyrinth located in the nave of the Chartres Cathedral in France. With its rounded sides and eleven concentric circles, any labyrinth using this model has come to be known as a Chartres-type recreation.

Chartres labyrinth design

What had inspired John and Annick to create a labyrinth in the winter of 2011? 

Well there are several Wakefield threads and people of influence, however, first and foremost was Edie Jane Eaton, local Feldenkrais practitioner.

Edie Jane’s passion for horses and animal therapy led to an interest in the therapeutic benefits of walking the labyrinth and how animals become more present as their breath changes and both pulse and respiration drop.  Precise movement and gentle circular touches work at the cellular level to activate the body’s potential, and lead to a state of composure.

In researching labyrinths, Edie Jane discovered that brain wave studies had revealed there is deep awareness when the focus is simply on putting one foot in front of the other. Turning the corners of the labyrinth brain-wave patterns change and the mind is awakened, spawning creativity and a connection with the sacred.

Thinking she would like to organize a workshop, Edie Jane contacted Grace Cathedral in San Francisco which was the only place she knew of where the Chartres design was being used for teaching purposes. She hoped to find someone in the area trained in their teaching method but had no luck in finding anyone moderately close by.

While the workshop did not pan out, the labyrinth did. At her farm off the Lac Bernard Road in the winter of 2007 Edie Jane created her first labyrinth by shovelling snow. She had worked out (perhaps incorrectly (sic)) that it was 1/3 of a mile.  She said it felt like nothing when she did it, which she attributes to the special qualities of the labyrinth.  This first winter labyrinth was bigger than later versions made using snowshoes as she needed to have enough space in between for the shoveled snow.

Edie Jane’s Labyrinth

Edie Jane’s neighbour, Sally Landon, was also inspired to create a labyrinth and used wrenches pulling string and making lines delineating the boundary between the paths.

Sally Landon’s grandson Max studied the labyrinth pattern and coloured it in 3 segments. The first colour (pink) identifies the kernel, marking out the 6-7 paths nearest to the centre, in all four quadrants.  The second (green) deals with the left hemisphere only, the 4-6 outermost circles; and the third (yellow) is continued in the 5 to 7 circles remaining in the hemisphere, finishing in the middle. In the journal of various labyrinth walks taken by themselves and others, this entry by John Hardie is noteworthy, “The more I walk it and the more of them I make, the more I am impressed by [Max’s] geometric understanding.   Max was about 5 when he figured this out.”  This jotting in the journal is noted as, “The Maxian Comprehension”.

Maxian Comprehension

Circling back to 2011 and the Hardies first foray into the making of a labyrinth, John told me he used spanners of various heights, beer bottles and tape to create 11 concentric circles, 4 ft. apart.  Subsequent creations have been done using dowels 3-4 feet apart to mark the paths.  The Hardies haven’t missed a year since Edie Jane first showed them how to do it.  John has it down to a science and it takes him only an hour to make. He tries to walk each winter creation every day to maintain it.  By his reckoning it is 15 minutes to the Centre and 15 minutes to the entrance. Time for reflection at the centre is up to you.

John referenced an entry in the Hardie journal by Jo Lath which tells of a ceremony used for grieving and comfort where you walk into the labyrinth carrying a rough stone and drop it in the middle where you symbolically unload your troubles. At the centre you make a wish and pick up another smoother stone, symbolic of smoother days ahead, which you then hold in your hand as you return to the entrance of the labyrinth.

Perhaps the mystery and the meaning of the labyrinth is best captured by two journal entries from Wakefield poet, Mary Lou van Schaik, who walks the Hardie labyrinth every winter – 

“Take me to the place where I can climb no further Leave me barefoot in the snow and maples I will come to you…”  Jan Zwicky (Canadian philosopher and poet)

“Thoughts come and go; the wind bites my cheeks.  The contrast between untracked snow and tracked paths, the lovely contrasts of this world.  Thanks for making the labyrinth so that we can walk it for ourselves and the world.”  Mary Lou van Schaik.


History of the Labyrinth

Labyrinths like the one at Chartres began appearing in Europe in the 12th century, mostly in Italy and were thought to be a representation of the spiritual quest of the pilgrim traveling to the holy land. The labyrinth at Chartres is a little over 42 feet in diameter and is thought to have once been graced by an image of the Minotaur at its center (a motif common in mazes and labyrinths around the world).

The Chartres Cathedral itself is a marvel of Gothic architecture, constructed over 26 years beginning in 1145. It was toward the end of this period, between 1215 and 1221, that the church’s labyrinth was placed within the nave.

Because of the cathedral’s impressive size, the labyrinth itself would be equally grand, attaining a diameter of 12.85 meters, making it the largest church labyrinth ever constructed during the middle ages.

In the Middle Ages, labyrinths were used as a way for people to participate in a pilgrimage without the expense or time required to travel to another place. Labyrinths were created on the floors of cathedrals to help draw people into meditation.

Labyrinths constantly reappear in different forms at different stages in the evolution of Celtic culture and some of them are earlier than the Minoan labyrinths. The labyrinth as an idea is closely related to the knot: the line that winds all around a design. The difference is that, in a knotwork design, the line has no beginning and no end while, in a labyrinth, there is usually a starting point and a goal. Both symbolize journeys.

The labyrinths of the ancient Egyptians or Greeks, whether in their architecture or in myths, portray the labyrinth as a journey of the self to wholeness, that it is in working one’s way through the labyrinth of one’s present circumstances that one comes to realize one’s purpose and a final meaning for existence.

The labyrinth is a model or metaphor for life. The Christian life is often described as a pilgrimage or journey with God, a journey in which one can grow in relationship with God, and in turn, closer to others.

In the Eastern tradition, a labyrinth is also a “yantra” or “living mandala,” wherein you enter and experience a sacred space dedicated to housing Spirit and spiritual energies.

Purpose of the Labyrinth

The only requirement of walking the labyrinth is a receptive mind.  Regardless of belief, the labyrinth has a transformative, healing power for those who walk it. Walkers are encouraged to pay attention to sensations, thoughts, and feelings while in the labyrinth and to use what happens in the labyrinth as a metaphor.

It is said that there are three stages to walking the labyrinth – releasing, reflecting and returning.

Stage One — Releasing

When moving from the entrance of the labyrinth toward the center, set aside the worries of the day and what you may need to do.  demands behind.  Set aside the anxious desire to get the most out of the labyrinth and simply allow yourself to be in the moment.

Stage Two — Reflecting

Arriving at the Centre it is important to be still and open to contemplation and to the presence of a higher power.  Enjoy the silence, stillness and prepare to receive.

Stage Three — Returning

As you retrace your steps, returning to where you began, you may discover that you have renewed purpose or new insights, or you may simply be overtaken by a deep sense of calm.