When Linda Moxsom-Skinner was pondering whether she should run again in the next provincial election, she turned to a labyrinth to find the answer.
The New Democrat lost the Timberlea-Prospect riding to Liberal Iain Rankin in 2013 by more than 2,000 votes. She was working last year as a fundraiser at the Atlantic School of Theology, but wondering whether she should focus more on another campaign to take the seat.
“Things were starting to heat up and they were starting to talk about the election,” Moxsom-Skinner said.
She had taken the job as director of advancement at AST in 2014 and was making plans to start a capital campaign for the theology school.
“But my clear plan was to run again in the next election.”
In what she describes as a profound experience, Moxsom-Skinner took any doubts about that plan for a stroll through a private labyrinth created by a former AST student on a property just outside Mahone Bay.
“I was at a time in my life where I was (questioning) do I focus more on my work at AST, more on my election work, or do I just keep on doing what I’m doing,” she said.
“It was amazing. You go up the hill and I kind of knocked one of the rocks out. So I stopped and put it back in. I came down a little hill and I stumbled. But I got back up and kept going. It was so much in line with what was happening. I knew I was going to make mistakes. It’s OK to make mistakes. I knew I was going to stumble. It’s OK to stumble. But I really felt, by the time I came back out the other side, that the question had been answered for me. I was doing the right thing and I should continue doing both for the foreseeable future.”
The way she puts it, walking a labyrinth quiets the mind long enough for the answer to come bubbling to the surface.
“It’s almost a calming is what happens,” she said.
For such a relaxing garden feature, the idea of building a labyrinth at AST was born from violent circumstances.
In September 2003, Hurricane Juan devastated the lower end of the school’s campus, off Francklyn Street deep in Halifax’s south end. Massive trees toppled with the force of the storm that made landfall with winds of 160 km/h.
“They just let it grow over,” Moxsom-Skinner said of the detritus left in the wake of the hurricane. “But prior to that, it had just been a great field where people could go down. There was grass. You could sit under the trees.”
In the intervening years, “it just became a bramble down there,” she said. “You could hardly get through it.”
During recent campus planning sessions, a lot of people said they wanted to see a contemplative space on the waterfront.
“One of the things that we started to recognize was how special this space is,” Moxsom-Skinner said.
That’s when she floated the idea of building a contemplative garden where professors could teach outdoor classes. “In between classes you can come down and sit and look out at the Northwest Arm or look towards the Dingle. Let’s leave it as natural as we can.”
The garden will also provide a space for people using the hospice soon to be built nearby. Two old buildings on the campus will be torn down and construction starts this spring on what will become an active hospice.
“If you need that solitude, if you need that moment to be away from there and not far, you can walk down and you’re in a garden.”
The school hired a student last year to clear some of the land.
“He went down and he cut out what we call rooms,” Moxsom-Skinner said.
A crushed rock pathway connects the small open spaces. Park benches will eventually be set up along the route.
“Anybody with a wheelchair can go down there and you can sit right on level with the water. And you can hear it lapping and you’re just like in another world. There are no sounds of the city in the background. All you can hear are the birds.”
Now Moxsom-Skinner wants to build a labyrinth in the centre of the garden.
“This will be the first public labyrinth, where people will be able to access it, in Nova Scotia,” she said.
There aren’t many communal meditative spots in Halifax, Moxsom-Skinner said during a trudge around the divinity school’s property.
“Even Point Pleasant Park these days, you go down there and there’s tons of people around,” she said. “It’s hard to find a quiet spot. And I think you’ll be able to find that down here. I hope that students come down here and have some of their classes here. It’s way better than being stuck in a classroom. It just brings us closer to nature.”
Unlike the labyrinth of Greek mythology, built like a confusing maze to hold the Minotaur, Christian labyrinths are meant to be easy to navigate.
“A maze has many ways in and out and places you can get stuck,” Moxsom-Skinner said.
“With a labyrinth, there’s one way in and one way out.”
While the path will be delineated somehow with gravel, stones or bricks, there won’t be any high walls to the labyrinth that she envisions on the grounds of the theology school.
Moxsom-Skinner said she has friends who even draw them in beach sand at the low tide mark. “Then they try and walk it before the waves take it away.”
The AST labyrinth will be circular in shape, like its early predecessor at Chartres Cathedral in France, which is believed to represent the pilgrimage to the holy land.
“So you’re winding your way back and forth all the way through until you wind up coming out the other side,” Moxsom-Skinner said.
“But the whole time you’re doing this, you’re asking a question.”
Whatever problems people bring to the labyrinth, she’s clear on one thing: “I hope they find peace, whatever the question is. I hope they find a way to deal with whatever challenge they might be facing.”
She stops at a group of cherry trees re-discovered last summer on the divinity school grounds. “Last year we were just pulling handfuls of them down out of the trees.”
Blackberry and raspberry bushes grow thick on the property. “We couldn’t even give them away last year there was so many of them.”
Strolling the labyrinth should take about half an hour if people take their time, she said.
“One of the challenges I have — and we’re going to end up bringing a committee together to do this design work — is I’d like it to be able to (accommodate) people in wheelchairs.”
Moxsom-Skinner doesn’t know yet how much the project will cost.
“We’ve done about $10,000 worth of work already,” she said. “We have a couple of donors who are very interested in seeing us do this. That’s all going to be part of the (planning) process over the next six months.”
The project should be finished by next year, Moxsom-Skinner said.
It can’t be built right away because the divinity school is waiting on Halifax Water to complete more than $15 million worth of work revamping a century-old sewer pipe that runs along the Northwest Arm.
“Part of our challenge is that we have an easement through the bottom of our property,” she said.
“And they don’t know, at this point, how much destruction is going to happen in the construction period.”
If Halifax Water can get the sewage work done this summer, the theology school might be able to start working on the labyrinth this fall.
“But we don’t know that,” Moxsom-Skinner said.
“They haven’t given us the timing yet on when they’re going to be down there. They’ll put everything back the way it was, as much as they can. But they’ve asked us not to construct anything new until they get finished.”
Other changes at AST
There are other, less transcendent changes in the works at the theology school.
Offices are moving into the library. They’ll be turned into residence rooms for some of AST’s 300 students to produce more income for the school.
“The President’s Lodge will become a business service centre,” Moxsom-Skinner said.
That space, which has a full kitchen and comes with free parking, will be rented out for meetings or workshops, she said.
“The big project that’s coming down the pipeline is completely re-doing the 1898 building (at the top of the campus) with the turrets.”
Right now the imposing structure is being rented out to film productions. But the big renovation to transform it into “a teaching and learning centre,” will happen “as soon as we raise the money,” Moxsum-Skinner said with a chuckle. “We still have to figure out what it’s going to cost us to do what we want. But we’re looking in the $5 million, maybe $6 million range.”
That should buy a lecture theatre that can seat 125 people, four or five different classrooms and space for inter-faith lecturers.
One of the school’s problems – “believe it or not” – is AST has a class with over 80 people in it, she said.
“We don’t have any classrooms that big,” Moxsum-Skinner said. “So we’ve got them in the chapel right now.”