Inner Circles

Inner Circles

What happens when you walk a labyrinth? “Sometimes, nothing!” Bill Ludwig says with a laugh.

But sometimes a labyrinth—a simple path marked on the ground with stones or shells or painted lines that leads you into the center of its circular design and back out again—can have a meditative effect. “As you focus on the path, the extraneous thoughts you may have from the day or whatever tend to drift away, and sometimes it can be profound,” Ludwig says.

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The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven

Every month on the day before a full moon, Ludwig hosts a candlelit walk through the Branford Labyrinth, which he proposed and helped build along a segment of the Shoreline Greenway Trail. But you can visit any time. Park at the intersection of Tabor Drive and Ark Road, then follow the paved path about half a mile. You can’t miss the huge, circular system of paths lined with pink-, blue- and white-speckled Stony Creek granite, wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair. Built last year with the help of Branford town crews, who prepared the site, and a team of volunteers, who constructed the actual path using materials donated by Stony Creek Quarry, the installation was intended as a healing response to the loss of a 10-year-old Branford boy in 2017.

The labyrinth has a quiet home next to a small pond edged with stands of cattails and tall, yellow evening primrose. Just a few people walked or biked past while I was there, though I was surprised to see a Metro-North train creep along the far side of the water. I stepped over the threshold (“Say yes to the universe,” it instructs, quoting Ludwig) and began with purpose—until I realized I was walking as if I had somewhere to be. I slowed my pace and suddenly felt the expansiveness of the space. I was small in comparison, a realization akin to that feeling of looking into a vast, starry sky.

The labyrinth took over; all I had to do was put one foot in front of another, and it would tell me where to go. The soothing colors and the shapes of the granite chunks marking the edges of the paths are unified, yet every piece is different. Spills of white shells fill the gaps created where paths touch and turn. As I walked, a single monarch butterfly flew a circle in front of me, landed to flap its wings a few times, then lifted off toward the pond.

Branford’s labyrinth is just one of 64 in Connecticut and Rhode Island that Ludwig has documented in his book Chasing Labyrinths: A Field Guide to Labyrinths of Connecticut and Rhode Island (2020). The Nutmeg State’s oldest permanent outdoor labyrinth was built in 1996 at the Wisdom House retreat center in Litchfield, Ludwig says, but the concept is thousands of years old. Labyrinths “have developed independently in different societies and cultures around the world. Some of the earliest were painted on walls of caves,” he writes.

A labyrinth may be a simple spiral, like an improvised structure that has weathered several winters on the beach at Meigs Point in Hammonasset Beach State Park, or it may follow a more complex pattern, which might be named and copied over and over again. Some have been built in peaceful, remote places, and some are “located next to roads, sometimes next to highways,” says Ludwig, “and part of the way through… you realize that you didn’t hear any of that traffic noise for most of the walk.”

Farther up the shoreline from Branford, the Mercy Center in Madison offers a seaside labyrinth that’s smaller and more intimate. The spiritual retreat center’s beach is currently closed due to COVID-19, but you can still park near the main building off Neck Road in Madison, check in at the front desk and walk down the beach driveway, where you’ll find a narrow, winding brick path tucked among boxwood hedges. The churning surf, the songs of insects and birds and the occasional gentle tone of a wind chime are the only sounds you’re likely to hear.

It took me a while to figure out how to walk this labyrinth; the clue is in the parallel lines of brick. Start anywhere, and follow the right “lane” of brick as it leads you between the hedges along a gravel path. The route turns you around—it’s easy to feel this as a metaphor for life—and, later, shoots directly from the outer edge to the center. Eventually, I slowed down, settled in, and walked several circuits, letting the wet branches brush my legs, calming my mind. Each time I circled the center, I noticed a different token that had been left there: a pebble with a natural stripe running through it, a smooth rock painted with the word “Bliss” and even a small geode.

Ludwig’s book will help you “chase” labyrinths across the state, but there are several more here in Greater New Haven, at First Church of Christ Woodbridge, Church of the Good Shepherd in Orange and First Congregational Church in Guilford, whose new labyrinth is under construction. Ludwig also notes a labyrinth at the West Haven VA Medical Center, which requires prior arrangement to visit. Closest to home, a small, paved labyrinth is tucked into a courtyard at the rear of Yale Divinity School. Information abounds online for making your own labyrinth as well—including a “finger labyrinth” if you don’t have room to travel one with your feet.

Ludwig himself has stomped an impromptu labyrinth in the snow in his backyard. He even proposed to his fiancée in the center of le labyrinthe on the floor of Chartres Cathedral. Your own contemplative walk won’t likely yield such romantic results. Then again, you never know exactly what its twists and turns may bring.

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1 features the Branford Labyrinth. Image 2 features the Mercy Center labyrinth. Image 3 features the Yale Divinity School labyrinth after a little rain.

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