From a distance, it can be weird to see people walking by themselves slowly in a circle. Up close, it can still look odd. But when you understand the intention of people pacing a labyrinth, it is charming and enticing.
By definition, labyrinths can often be almost invisible. A new one at the Unitarian Church of Vancouver could be mistaken merely for a nice design in the paving stones of a courtyard. On the other hand, many are elaborate and unmistakable. There are, according to a global database of labyrinths, no fewer than 10 in the city of Vancouver that are open to the public and dozens more throughout the province. But who are the people who find comfort or spiritual fulfilment in this ancient yet unusual pursuit? It’s a diverse group, from pagans to devout Christians, atheists to New Agers.
There are two new labyrinths in town, thanks in part to Mary Bennett, a Vancouver woman who is the former executive director of the Canadian Unitarian Council and a regular at the 49th and Oak Unitarian church. She and two friends stumbled upon the idea of labyrinths about 20 years ago during a women’s spirituality conference.
“People have sometimes described it as a meditative technique that works better for Western people because it’s active rather than sitting passively,” says Bennett. “I find it useful as a kind of walking meditation.”
Another thing that appeals to her is that some of the fundamental labyrinth designs appeared throughout the ancient world at remarkably different locations — Scandinavia, South America and parts of what are now the southwestern United States.
In Greek mythology, Daedalus constructed the first labyrinth to contain the half-man, half-beast Minotaur and nearly got lost in it himself. The point of today’s labyrinths, though, is not to get lost like you might in a corn maze or to replicate a house of mirrors. Most have a single path leading from the mouth to the middle.
The classic Cretan or seven circuit labyrinth is designed like the double-headed axe (“labrys”) of the Minoan mother goddess of Crete. Another of the most common styles is the Chartres labyrinth, which resembles a four-petalled flower, designed in the 13th century at the French cathedral.
Rather more recent are the two labyrinths at the Unitarian church.
“There is a courtyard area that we thought could accommodate a small labyrinth and this year they were replacing some of the concrete there and fortunately somebody remembered that we had had hopes and dreams of having a labyrinth there,” Bennett says. Using concrete pavers, they embedded a labyrinth into the concrete. A second one, on the east side of the church property, will be a garden labyrinth.
“It’s still kind of a work in progress, but you can walk it,” she says of the garden version. “It’s not as beautiful as it will be next year at this time.”
While walking a labyrinth can be a form of meditation, she says, it is also a process with a beginning, a middle and an end.
“What people say, and I do experience this myself, is when you walk into the centre, you could walk in with some kind of phrase on your mind, or an intention,” says Bennett. “But sometimes, and this is what I usually do, just kind of open.”
People will occasionally begin walking with their palms up until they get to the centre. This is a gesture of openness.
“And then in the centre, sometimes, if you have a labyrinth experience,” she says with a laugh, “you receive what I say is… not necessarily an answer to your question or dilemma, but some kind of a response.”
Quite simply, she admits, it is probably just a matter of finding the answer you seek once you quiet yourself.
“Then, on the way out, people sometimes walk turning their hands palm-side-down to kind of ground that intention,” she says.
Bennett does more than just walk labyrinths. She is part of a group called G.L.A.D. — The Gathering for Labyrinth Art and Dance. The group meets the third Thursday of each month — the next one is Sept. 15 — from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Unitarian church.
“The first half-hour is doing art, usually relating to labyrinths, drawing labyrinths, painting labyrinths on stones, making labyrinths out of clay,” she says. Labyrinth art allows you to “walk” a labyrinth with your eyes or trace it with your finger. “Then the second half-hour, if it’s good weather, we go out and walk one of the two labyrinths that have just been put in at the church over the past year and then the last hour is doing circle dancing together.”
Circle dancing is not very proscribed. It is just what it says, a group of people dancing without partners in a circle to music of any sort.
“Most recently, the first dance that I choreographed, I took one of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s songs from her Polaris-winning album ‘Power in the Blood,’ It’s called ‘We are Circling.’ It just called out to be danced to.”
The Unitarians aren’t the only ones in the city getting into labyrinths. At least four Anglican churches in town have labyrinths, including St. Paul’s, in the West End, which does a big celebration around the labyrinth on New Year’s Eve. There are labyrinths in the Renfrew Ravine, in Strathcona Linear Park and at VanDusen Botanical Garden.
“It had a real surge 20 or 25 years ago,” Bennett says of modern humans’ interest in the design and practice, adding that there are probably plenty that almost no one knows about. “People sometimes just install them in their backyard if they got the space.”