‘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.
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 recent society survey estimated that over 5,000 people participated in World Labyrinth Day in more than 23 countries. On Saturday, May 1, the society celebrates its annual WLD with the theme of world peace.
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 1 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.
For McMullan, the process of building Trinity’s labyrinth was a personal hands-on experience. About 20 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.
McMullan, still an active church member, has worked with community groups 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.
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.
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.
Trinity Cathedral, Diocese of New Jersey, 801 West State Street. Labyrinth open to the public. No appointment needed for individual walks.