‘We are not going in circles. We are going upwards. The path is a spiral. We have already climbed many steps.”
When Bernard McMullan came across these words in Hermann Hesse’s 1922 novel of spiritual growth, “Siddhartha,” he knew he had found what he was looking for: a greeting for the entrance to the labyrinth at Trenton’s Trinity Cathedral on West State Street.
McMullan, who built the labyrinth with his son and several community members, sees it as a walking meditation, an invitation to look deeper into oneself.
Elsewhere, about four miles north of Trinity Cathedral, on the grounds of Villa Victoria Academy, Sister Josephine Aparo stands before the labyrinth at the Morning Star House of Prayer surrounded by trees on one side and a bank leading to a canal path on the other. “Walking the labyrinth is like one’s journey through life,” she says. “You walk the labyrinth with the intention of reaching the center, which represents God. When you come to a juncture where the labyrinth path turns in a new direction, you need to turn and follow where it leads you.”
Aparo says some labyrinth paths lead to the center and others lead away from it. But the center is always there, and if you stay the course, you will eventually arrive there. That’s the way it is in life. Sometimes you feel that God’s presence is close and other times you feel it is distant. But God is always there regardless of what you’re experiencing in the moment.
While the labyrinths at Morning Star and Trinity Cathedral are affiliated with religion, they are also found in secular settings such as counseling centers, healthcare institutions, senior centers, correctional facilities, and parks, like the one at Ringing Rocks Park in Bucks County. A labyrinth can serve as an inspiration for deepening one’s connection to one’s faith or spirituality, or it can be used as a tool for mental clarity or mindfulness.
Public interest in labyrinths has been growing over the past several years, according to the World Labyrinth Society, an organization that provides education and resources on the topic. A society survey from 2014 estimates that over 5,000 people participated in Word Labyrinth Day (WLD) in more than 23 countries that year. On Saturday, May 7, the society celebrates its eight annual WLD with the theme of world peace. It is inviting people from around the globe to walk a labyrinth in their locale in an event titled “Walk as One” at 1 p.m.
The society’s website includes a link to a labyrinth locator interactive database where users can find labyrinths around the world. It also includes a link that offers suggestion for things you can do on May 7 and throughout the year, including instructions for making your own labyrinth.
Creating a labyrinth can be as simple as making a drawing with pen and paper or using a smartphone or tablet app, and following it by tracing your finger along the path. But building a walking course that you expect to last for years requires a bit more planning and usually involves team effort.
A little over 10 years ago, Sister Aparo and Sister Geraldine Calabrese, founder of the Morning Star House of Prayer, became interested in labyrinths through conversations with a Quaker friend, Sharon Strickland.
Inspired by the labyrinth at the Chartres Cathedral in France and envisioning a labyrinth as a walking prayer they and their retreat visitors could enjoy, the sisters set about researching the project. They were helped by their friend Father Gabriel Zeis, the then president of St Francis University in Loretto, Pennsylvania, and former president of the Newman Club at the College of New Jersey.
The actual work of making the labyrinth was carried out by a community benefactor and was completed between 2005 and 2006. Consisting of a flat blacktop with walking circuits painted white, the labyrinth measures 50 feet in diameter.
When Sister Calabrese died in 2007, the House of Prayer dedicated the labyrinth in her name. Today a plaque bearing an image of the sister alongside a meditative prayer written by Father Zeis graces the labyrinth entrance.
For McMullan, the process of building Trinity’s labyrinth was a personal hands-on experience. About 12 years ago, Dean Dianne Nancekivell introduced the idea of installing one at Trinity when McMullan was the volunteer head of property and maintenance. After convincing a few skeptics that a walking meditation was not a new age fad, church members were willing to consider an installation.
McMullan, who had visited the labyrinth at Ringing Rocks Park with his son Zak, was keen on the idea, but there were practical matters to address. How would it be paid for and who would build it? It wasn’t long before he found the answer. After consulting with his son, the two came up with a plan that would provide a labyrinth for the church and an Eagle Scout project for Zak.
To make their vision a reality, Zak had to present the project and gain approval from both the West Trenton Scout Troop 33, and Trinity church members.
His commitment involved designing the path, leading a fund raising project and budget plan, clearing a plot of land, laying the walking stones with help from his troop, his three siblings, and community members. Because Zak was not legally old enough to operate the heavy stone cutting machinery, McMullan took on the job. “It was a long month,” he says.
The finished project — a seven circuit Medieval, Ravenna, Italy, style labyrinth, 30 feet in diameter — is comprised of about 450 stone pavers, bricks, and a marble center. Colored deep grayish blue with random white streaks, the marble design reminded Zak and McMullan of photos from outer space with wisps of swirling stardust, and it seemed to have a meditative quality.
The project cost was close to $15,000 and included machine rental materials, and marble purchased from Stone Tech Fabrication in Trenton. Upon completion in June, 2004, Zak participated in the opening ceremony, wrote a final report presented to scout leaders, and was awarded the status of Eagle Scout.
Today, Zak, now 30, lives in Ewing and owns a mobile auto repair business, “Back on the Road for Less.” McMullan, still an active church member, has worked with the Trenton Health Team to make the labyrinth a part of a walking trail that circles around the church property.
In addition to McMullan’s hands-on work and planning, he created a brochure that includes a brief history of labyrinths. The reader is informed that the labyrinth is a unicursal — one path — design leading to its center. Unlike a maze, there are no false turns or dead ends.
Individuals, formal cultures, and traditions have used spiral and labyrinth designs as symbols of their search for meaning and guidance since ancient times. Archeologists have found them embossed and etched on coins and pottery and carved into rocky hillsides. Labyrinths discovered in the Mediterranean lands date back to 2500 to 2000 BCE, and an early Christian labyrinth dates back to the fourth century at a basilica in Algeria.
One of the most famous labyrinths is from the 13th century and consists of 11 circuits inlaid into the floor of the Chartres Cathedral in France.
In an article titled “The Center of the Labyrinth,” scholar and author Jeff Saward describes various labyrinths made by the Hopi Indians of northern Arizona and the Tohono O’odham tribe in the southern part of the state. He also describes a labyrinth design said to represent a plan for defending the city of Scimangada in the foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal.
McMullan’s work with Trinity Cathedral isn’t the only way he serves the community. Through his company, Bernard J. McMullan Consulting, he works with not-for-profit organizations in education and social services providing program evaluation design and execution. In one of his many volunteer projects, he is coordinating this year’s Taste Trenton, a three-day restaurant crawl including more than 25 restaurants in the Chambersburg neighborhood and downtown Trenton. This year it is set for May 13 to 15. In his free time, he sings with Princeton Pro Musica and Mostly Motets.
McMullan became interested in social work growing up in a Catholic family in Norwich, Connecticut. His father, who moved to the U.S. from Ireland, was a baker, and his mother, who moved here from England, was the family matriarch. McMullan studied sociology and history at Connecticut College.
After earning a master’s and doctorate in sociology at Indiana University in Bloomington, he moved back east, settled in New Jersey, married in 1982 and adopted four children. His partner, Sam, is the director of child care and early education research connections at Columbia’s National Center for Children in Poverty.
Sister Aparo, also a native of Connecticut, grew up in a Catholic family in the town of New Britain. Her father owned an auto parts store which was staffed by the family including Sister Aparo, her mother, and two sisters.
She decided to enter the convent during college and has been serving the Catholic Church ever since. She and Sister Lucy Battistuz are among the Religious Teachers Filippini, and they staff the Morning Star House of Prayer in Ewing. The center offers its visitors private and group retreats, prayer hours, a hermitage, and several walking paths in addition to the labyrinth.
Both the labyrinths at Trinity Cathedral and Morning Star are designed in the medieval style with concentric circuits surrounding and leading to a central point. Labyrinthos, an online resource and archive center, identifies other types (although there appears to be overlap among them): the Roman style, generally found in mosaic flooring; classical, dating back to the Stone Age and often simple in design; and contemporary, which can be asymmetrical in shape.
Regardless of which type of labyrinth you walk, it will have only one path ultimately leading to the center and out again. It is not a magical tool but can serve as a spiritual or mindfulness practice. Upon completing a labyrinth path, many walkers say their problems seem lighter, and walkers sometimes say they feel a sense of resolution.
Perhaps that’s why the Morning Star House of Prayer brochure refers to the labyrinth experience with this simple message “Solvitur ambulando” — “It is solved by walking.”
Labyrinth Day, Saturday, May 7, details and a labyrinth locator can be found at the Labyrinth Society: www.labyrinthsociety.org.
Trinity Cathedral, Diocese of New Jersey, 801 West State Street, Trenton. Labyrinth open to the public. No appointment needed for individual walks. www.trinitycathedralnj.org.
Morning Star House of Prayer, 312 West Upper Ferry Road, Ewing. Labyrinth open to the public. No appointment needed for individual walks, but visitors are asked to knock on the House door to let the sisters know you are present. www.morningstarprayerhouse.org.
Other public labyrinths:
Fellowship in Prayer, 291 Witherspoon Street, Princeton, www.fellowshipinprayer.org.
Saint James Episcopal Church, 1040 Yardville Allentown Road, Yardville. www.saintjamesepiscopal.com.
James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 South Pine Street, Doylestown, PA. www.michenerartmuseum.org.