Published April 01. 2013 4:00AM Updated April 01. 2013 9:09PM
East Lyme - Dozens greeted Easter in the minutes before dawn on Sunday, clustered together in worship high on the upper level of McCook Point Park Beach.
An annual tradition, the ecumenical service - hosted by Niantic Community Church and attended by ministers and members of several other area churches - was followed by a new tradition this year of a seaside labyrinth walk, set up in stones along the water.
Worshippers began to make their way down to the labyrinth just as the sun's rays slowly began to peek over the horizon. Liz Buhler of Niantic paused to stand with her uncle, Bob Blodgett, and admire the sky.
Blodgett said he's been coming to the beach for 77 years - since he was a boy growing up in Niantic.
"I always think it's fabulous. I come every year," Buhler said. "It's a great way to start Easter morning."
Brian and Cynthia Tucker of Waterford sat with their two daughters - Ava, 5, and Aubrey, 2 - tucked between them on a bench overlooking the water.
"I thought it was beautiful," Brian Tucker said of the service. "A little challenging, with two kids, two young ones. They were wondering why we were getting up in the middle of the night. But it was worth it."
Cynthia Tucker said she used to attend Easter sunrise services when she was growing up, but this was the first occasion that they all went together.
"We don't see sunrises very often in our family," she said. "We're not early risers."
Down on the beach, the labyrinth - designed by Niantic Community Church labyrinth ministry members Joanne Moore and Susan Laurencot - was set up by a handful of volunteers in a couple of hours on Saturday.
Moore said Niantic Community Church's own labyrinth tradition originated 10 years ago at a women's retreat - an indoor version with canvas laid on the floor.
As a broader religious and spiritual tradition, Moore said, labyrinths exist all over the world as a tool for prayer and meditation. In the versions built into the floors of European cathedrals, she said, they could have been symbolic of an ancient pilgrimage to the Holy Land for those physically unable to make the actual journey.
"It was a way to have a path to a holy place," she said. "Or some people think that's it's just a way to kind of start your life over again."
The beach labyrinth idea has been in the works for some time now, she said. Last year, poor weather got in the way. But this year, it all came together.
"It's a dream come true for me," Moore said.
Shaped in the sand like a giant mushroom cap, the labyrinth's seven narrow circuits were laid out in stones and some wispy bits of driftwood along the short stretch of beach, just a few yards from where the cold water lapped at the shore.
Around the labyrinth stood three small signs stapled to stakes parked in the sand: "Meditation labyrinth. Welcome. Enjoy. Please don't disturb the stones."
People wended their way delicately through the circuits, footsteps muffled in the sand. When they reached the middle, many paused in silent prayer or reflection, closing their eyes or tilting their heads downward or gazing pensively out over the pale horizon.
"You wait until you feel enlightenment or peace, forgiveness," Moore said. "And then you come back out, following the same path, to the same world, but as a new person.
Though the morning was frigid enough to see your breath - most people were tightly bundled, some with their hands wrapped around warm thermoses - the complaints were scarce. Around the labyrinth, those looking on - those who had already completed their journey - spoke in reverent whispers, careful not to disturb.
"On your way in, you're seeking or you're shedding," Moore said - seeking forgiveness, perhaps, or shedding guilt. "And there's only one path. You can't get lost. You will come to the center."