Labyrinth Making and Celebrating

chartres1Labyrinth Making and Celebrating

Christ Church Cathedral

April 11, 2009

“How to Build a Labyrinth”            Workshop Saturday    10:00 until 4:00

Vanessa Compton and I offered an experiential workshop on building a temporary 11-circuit Chartres Labyrinth with tape. We had ten people come to participate and help to create the largest and most elaborate labyrinth I have done, to date.

It is always slow to get started but the participants were keen to learn how to use the tape laying gadget I had brought along. When working indoors I like to start by laying down the outermost ring, claiming and defining the space and also insuring that the labyrinth will in fact, fit into the room. The 12 circles went down quickly with people taking turns. It is quite something to swing a compass that makes a circle of 42’ diameter. This is claiming space!

The cardinal crossings of north-south and east-west were then laid in and we were anxious to begin the work of establishing the lunations around the outside.


photo: Barbara Brown

Food is important in maintaining good spirits and a lunch of veggie soup gave us a chance to rest and have a conversation that was not interrupted by mathematical calculations. The people who had come to the workshop came from a wide variety of backgrounds and interests and curioously none of them were members of the church for which we were building the labyrinth. We became a temporary community of builder however ephemeral our connection, we came together to create and to learn.

The afternoon was filled with learning how to make the labyrus and further number crunching on the lunations. A circle with a diameter of 42 feet (12.8 m) has a circumference of  approximately 131.88 feet (40.2 m) which was laid by hand, by me, and incorporated some unknown factor of human error. That plus 100 or so pencil lines and it makes a difference when you try to lay 114 marks around the outside of your somewhat wobbly tape circle. I am of the school of “good enough” and it was pretty close but not exact. When we build it in stone, we will take the time to get it right!


photo: Barbara Brown

We were finished by 3:30 or so, just in time for the first wave of children coming from their choir practice to try out the labyrinth. Kids are energized by the labyrinth and have a tendency to want to run in the labyrinth. I took the opportunity to put on a Libera CD (English boys singing some of the most beautiful choral music). The kids slowed their pace somewhat and wondered if that was a recording of themselves singing! One boy walked the labyrinth at least three time and after learning the significance of the central petal shapes he went on to enlighten his choir master. It was an interesting turn of events to observe.


photo: Barbara Brown

With all the gear and tools gathered up finally, it was our turn to try the  new labyrinth. The walk takes about 20 minutes. It’s a good long way and time to let go of the distractions of the day and be carried away to some other dimension. Some of the labyrinth makers were surprised by how powerful their experience of walking the brand new labyrinth was. Perhaps even more surprising when one realizes the experience is supported and maintained by tape on the floor and a design from the pages of history.

A quick dinner at the Green Door with a friend and fellow artist and our families and then back to the labyrinth to greet the singers and light the candles.

Labyrinth Liturgy 2009

In the lobby we set out a large copper bowl filled with water and three dozen floating candles symbolizing the “New Fire”. I always like to find a way to incorporate water into the setting, as it introduces another lever of symbol and metaphor. People gathered and the quiet murmur of conversation filled the space as we waited for the appointed hour and the arrival of the Dean.


Photo: Jim des Rivieres

I gave an introduction and explained the order of events for the evening. Following the opening prayer the Pascal candle was lit and was carried into the labyrinth. After the Dean, the singers entered, carrying their unlit candles. At the centre of the labyrinth they encountered the Dean and lit their candles from the Pascal Candle and gathered around to chant Psalm 19 in hauntingly melodic tones that suggested another time and a far away place.

I have long wanted to experiment with a combination of simple chant and the experience of walking the labyrinth and after a couple of other attempts things really came together for this occassion.  I had a couple of conversations through out the year with Bruce Nicol, fellow collaborator and talented music maker, to establish some common ground. Then we called on women we knew who were interested in singing. The first of our two practices was a true experience of the creative process. It is important to start with an idea and then to be open and responsive to what is happening in the moment. We made great changes over the one hour practice and settled on the ancient form of “plain song” following again in the footsteps of long ago traditions with the addition of a melodic refrain that Bruce had composed. At the second practice we worked out how to use the space of the room and the labyrinth and how to sync with the tones of the singing bowls. Kevin Hassell who has worked and recorded with Bruce brought his heavy weight hardware of at least a dozen singing bowls.  The integration of the two elements  helped by Kevin’s wealth of  experience as a choral  singer and violist. He brought all of his experience to provide a most gentle accompaniment to the evening. It all seemed to come together as if we were following a plan. 

My personnel experience of singing and the labyrinth are limited, but when I was at Chartres walking the labyrinth I sang a simple Halleluiah chorus and was carried away by the experience. I have found the labyrinth to be a very accessible tool for meditation. It engages the body and busies a part of the brain thereby freeing up space for contemplation. Adding the activity of chant only magnifies the experience and introduces a resonance with the space and pattern of the labyrinth.  I don’t think it is worth explaining and understanding all the dynamic of what is going on, better to give yourself over to the experience and see what you notice. Each person will have a different experience and no two labyrinth walks are the same.


Photo: Jim des Rivieresliturgy-with-linesPhoto: Jim des Rivieres

As the labyrinth filled I began to wonder what the capacity was. The path width was only 17” so some accommodation had to happen for participants to pass each other. As the labyrinth became illuminated by the light of the candles a quietness came to me. The rest of the evening flowed and it was all over way too fast.

This day and evening has been like a piece of theatre in many acts. I am grateful to all of  the many people who came together to create a very special place and time. Thank you to the Dean the Very Reverend Shane Parker for the invitation to create in collaboration with the community at a very special time in the Church calendar and to the anonymous labyrinth builders and singers for their generosity of spirit, to Bruce and Kevin and all of the Women who like to sing for acoustic dimensions and to all those who came to participate and also to the photographers who spent their Saturday evening capturing memories and images that we can share vicariously with you.

As always, I encourage those who participated and are reading this blog to, be brave and share your impressions and memories of the experience of building, singing and walking the labyrinth at Christ Church Cathedral. As my friend Margaret says, “It’s all good”!me

Photo: Jim des Rivieres

2 thoughts on “Labyrinth Making and Celebrating

  1. Thank you very much for leading this very special worship service. Walking the Labyrinth is a mysterious experience as one undergoes their pilgrimage. Having to pay attention to everyone else in the Labyrinth (and there were a lot of us) was a challenge that I hadn’t experienced before – I am usually walking the Labyrinth alone or with my husband.

    1. The invitation of the labyrinth is to see everything that happens as a metaphor. In life one is constantly meeting people on the path and having to accommodate them. So what do you do? Do you always step aside and let others pass, do you go ahead and assume the other person will give way to you? What do you do? There is often a wonderful sense of community when we walk as a group. Something special happens in the word-less encounters in the labyrinth. Thank you for your comments. Barbara

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