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May 19, 2019  |  

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1

The seven-circuit laybrinth at 

Mercy by the Sea provides a “metaphor for the twists and turns life hands us.” 

Photo courtesy of Mercy by the Sea

The seven-circuit laybrinth at Mercy by the Sea provides a “metaphor for the twists and turns life hands us.” (Photo courtesy of Mercy by the Sea )

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The labyrinth at the Mercy center in Madison Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source

The labyrinth at the Mercy center in Madison (Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source | Buy This Photo)

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The labyrinth at the Mercy center in Madison Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source

The labyrinth at the Mercy center in Madison (Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source | Buy This Photo)

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The labyrinth at the Mercy center in Madison Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source

The labyrinth at the Mercy center in Madison (Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source | Buy This Photo)

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The labyrinth at the Mercy center in Madison Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source

The labyrinth at the Mercy center in Madison (Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source | Buy This Photo)

6

The labyrinth at the Mercy center in Madison Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source

The labyrinth at the Mercy center in Madison (Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source | Buy This Photo)

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The labyrinth at the Mercy center in Madison Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source

The labyrinth at the Mercy center in Madison (Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source | Buy This Photo)

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The labyrinth at the Mercy center in Madison Photo courtesy of Mercy by the Sea

The labyrinth at the Mercy center in Madison (Photo courtesy of Mercy by the Sea )

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The labyrinth at the Incarnation Center on Bushy Hill Road in Deep River is designed to let children and adults alike experience growth, discovery, and renewal. Photo courtesy of the Incarnation Center

The labyrinth at the Incarnation Center on Bushy Hill Road in Deep River is designed to let children and adults alike experience growth, discovery, and renewal. (Photo courtesy of the Incarnation Center )

Seeking Answers on a Path in a Sacred Space

Published Mar 13, 2019 • Last Updated 11:53 am, March 12, 2019

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The labyrinth at Mercy by the Sea is in tucked behind a majestically tall tree, perched on the edge of the lawn bordered by a rocky slope that ends in the waters of Long Island Sound, an ideal place to watch the sun set and the moon rise. The labyrinth path itself is inviting, bordered by hedges, outlined in gravel and brick, with the magnificent shoreline vista just beyond.

But my first experience with the labyrinth itself is somewhat less than magnificent. I start to walk.

I get stuck. I’m not lost, but I don’t know where to go. I don’t get it. I get annoyed. Then I lose my glasses that I had tucked into the pocket of my puffy jacket on this cold winter’s day. I need them to drive, and so it seems a good idea to find them before I drive home. But I can’t find them. I retrace my steps. Once, and then, again. I start to curse and then feel bad because I’m pretty sure that’s not appropriate in his sacred space tended to by the Sisters of Mercy. I know there are kind people inside the nearby center who would be happy to help, but I don’t want to bother them.

So I make my way home, which, fortunately, is not too far away. I get another pair of glasses, and upon my return find the lost glasses right near the entrance of the labyrinth.

Where Psyche Meets Spirit

When planning the labyrinth at the Mercy Center in 1997, Sister Genie Guterch wanted to make something where people could walk in, face challenges, and then walk out.

“The idea is that you make a pilgrimage, like the medieval idea of the search for the Holy Grail. There’s only one path. It’s not like a maze, but you can wander off and not be able to go any further if you don’t have your feet on the path,” says Sr. Guterch, who now lives in East Haven.

Quite a bit of planning went into creating the maze.

“We wanted the mediums to be reflective of our area. And we didn’t want it to be too isolated and we didn’t want it to be too public. We found a spot. And we acclimated the entrance to the winter sunset, its peak at the winter, because we have that beautiful piece of nature on the horizon.”

The labyrinth that Sr. Guterch created will be the site of a Full Moon Labyrinth Walk on Tuesday, March 19, with several others planned later this year. Right before the March labyrinth walk at the Mercy center, there will be a Celtic Prayer Circle celebrating a “community seeking to open up a sense of God through alignment with nature,” starting at 6 p.m., with the labyrinth walk at 6:30 p.m. Participants will gather in the Lyons Chapel at the Mercy center, 167 Neck Road, Madison to experience what the organizers say will be, in the words of author and Episcopal Priest Lauren Artress, “a walking meditation, a path of prayer, and an archetypal blueprint where psyche meets Spirit.”

The labyrinth walks are designed to be personal and even healing, centering, calming, reflective, and prayerful.

Sr. Ann McGovern, who will be leading the walk, says a full moon night is an ideal time to experience the labyrinth.

“The moon is more associated with feminine reflective light, as opposed to the sun with its more masculine type of energy. And the labyrinth is something that has a universal appeal, across cultures and religions. I find it’s a way for people to process their day, and to really center themselves for an experience of however they name their God or higher power,” she says.

The labyrinth in Madison is one of several along the shoreline area. There are others at the Connecticut Mental Health Center in New Haven, One World Wellness in East Haven, Someday Farm in Killingworth, St. Mark Catholic Church in Westbrook, and the Incarnation Center in Ivoryton. Guidance for walking the labyrinth on St. Mark’s website includes these suggestions: “Focus on a particular concern or question. Read a passage from scripture or some other piece of writing. Pay attention to a word or phrase that captures your attention. Repeat this word or phrase to yourself as you walk. Pause in the center and rest awhile in God’s presence before heading back into the world. Walk once or several times. Alter your pace through the labyrinth. Pause along the way. Children will often race through—let them!”

A Sacred Setting

The labyrinth at the Incarnation Center in Deep River is open to the public from September through May. Between June and August the center hosts a summer camp and so access then is by permission only. Made of stones, the labyrinth is behind the retreat center buildings on the 700-acre campus, in the middle of the field in what used to be an old donkey pasture.

Incarnation’s Dana Stivers says the labyrinth is a good fit with the center’s mission as a camp, retreat, and nature center, and that it provides a sacred setting, among others on the campus, where both children and adults can experience growth, discovery, and renewal.

“Sometimes it is used as part of a program, and other times people just stumble upon it,” she says. “I can see them walking out there.”

She loves spending time on the path.

“I feel at peace when I’m there,” she says. “Sometimes I’ll go walk at night under the stars. It’s a beautiful place to watch for shooting stars.”

She says the center also has a kind of a booklet that people can request and bring with them when they are walking the path, one that includes quotes from scripture and general spiritual quotes that they can meditate on while walk.

“Some people will just try to clear the mind entirely, or maybe focus on one particular word. It depends on what one needs at the time,” she says.

It’s a classic, seven-circuit labyrinth, and it leads the walker from the outside to the center.

“So there’s a lot of symbolism in that, about finding your center while you’re zig zagging back and forth. You might feel like you’re retracing your steps, but you’re always moving forward,” she says. “It’s about finding your path.”

All Zig-Zag, No Center

Back at work, I ponder my inability to move forward and find my path. My experience was all zig-zag and no center. One of my office mates kindly explains how it works, easily tracing with her finger the path one takes to find the center of a seven-circuit labyrinth, like the one at Mercy. It looks easy, and it makes sense, except it doesn’t, not yet, to me.

Sr. McGovern tells me there is no right or wrong way to walk the labyrinth. As important as where we are going, she says, is the centering effect of the labyrinth and our journey through it, while allowing ourselves to get in touch with the wisdom of our bodies.

“It allows us to slow down and become more aware of the plants surrounding the path, the sky, the air, and the smell of the earth and sea,” she says.

The guided labyrinth walks she leads always start with prayer to focus on peace in our world, and in our individual hearts, she says.

“And we walk out in silence, and walk it at a nice slow pace, and gather afterwards,” she says. “It’s a letting go and a centering, to receive whatever gift or guidance you are seeking. And then you return. It’s a tool for people of all beliefs to come together for a common spiritual experience. There’s a nice sense of community formed, through walking, and prayer and conversation.”

Ready to Walk Again

I get there for the February walk and there is, in fact, a very large crowd, about 30 people in all. There are very young children and much older people, and every age in between, all of us dressed to fend off the cold outside and ready to walk the labyrinth together. Sr. McGovern then provides an introduction to the evening. There are prayers and a song, and a blessing that in part reminds us to “take time to celebrate the quiet miracles that seek no attention. Seek balance in the secret symmetry of your soul. Receive encouragement as new frontiers beckon. Respond to the call of your gift and the courage to follow its path.”

Sr. McGovern encourages us to be quiet during the walk outside and we head out. The full moon emerges briefly from some dark clouds to stand in the sky above us in all her glory. It is a huge, warm, orange supermoon, so called because it is at its closest orbit to the earth and this Snow Moon supermoon apparently is the brightest and biggest of the year. It is so beautiful, several of our group stop to take pictures, while the rest of us head over the labyrinth, enter it, and start to walk around.

I wondered if walking the labyrinth with such a large crowd might be unwieldy, but instead find it is a comfort. There is nowhere to go but exactly behind the person in front of me. It is a small parade of people seeking whatever it is they need to find that night, and the sheer mass of people warms the night up a bit. Our feet crunch against the gravel and I realize my earlier confusion may have been that I tried to follow the bricks underfoot instead, and paid too much attention to the hedges perhaps. But no matter, it makes sense now, and we all travel one by one into the center of the labyrinth. The clouds have covered the moon again, so it is just us and our thoughts.

We walk out again. Some people head directly for their cars and the rest of us head into the Mercy center dining room, where a plate of freshly baked cookies awaits us, along with tea and hot chocolate.

One woman talks about her plans to bring a labyrinth to a park in her community, and the rest of us pitch in with our ideas about that. We then talk for a bit about nothing in particular. And I sit, and drink my tea, and take comfort in this small community of people. It feels like we are all seeking something, in my case something I don’t even fully understand, and on that night it’s nice to have company on that journey.

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