Mind/Body/Spirit Special

Rodrigo can. Even with her son Xavier looking on and a photographer snapping away with a flash just inches from her face, Rodrigo slowed her heart rate. She eased her muscles. She breathed in gentle waves worthy of low tide.

Rodrigo says the benefits of biofeedback and imaging stick with her in daily life. The whistling now is often no more than a hiss, quiet enough to be an almost innocuous background noise, she says. She seldom gets panic attacks anymore, which has made her feel more confident about getting involved with her local church and helping at a school for disabled adults. As scientists are beginning to experiment with new ways of treating tinnitus, Rodrigo has already conquered hers—or at least signed a peace treaty with it.

"For me, it was only two choices—either to relax and be calm, or to take medication," she says. "I pushed myself to live with this. Now it's a very minute noise."

Grateful for the Dead
Knock, knock. Who’s there? The Spiritualists.
by Ambrose Clancy

At the door leading into the church's main hall, with organ music groaning beyond, Reverend Virginia Berg, a plump, friendly, pleasantly dotty woman in her 60s, greets each member of the Sanctuary of Infinite Spirit. Each member, that is, whom you can see.

The congregation, a branch of the Spiritualist Church that meets at the Smithtown Masonic Lodge, seems to be composed of about 40 average-looking Long Islanders. But that's not counting past adherents of the faith, like Arthur Conan Doyle and William Butler Yeats. They may have left the building, but they're still around to these folks, who believe in having conversations with the dead. Not a bad concept, considering that every religion depends on mystery and poetry.

To an outsider, Berg explains her religion: "We're not Christians, but our services are similar to what you find in a Protestant church. We don't believe that Jesus was our savior. We believe in karma, what goes around comes around."

Spiritualism was founded in the middle of the 19th century, so does that mean it was New Age before New Age was cool? Berg laughs and says, "New Age is off center. We feel our church is stronger than that, stronger even than all the other churches started in the 1850s, of which many were founded in upstate New York. All in one area, which I find interesting."

After about 60 years of séances, floating tables, strange knocking sounds and non-medical healings, their religion was finally defined at Chicago in 1914 by the National Spiritualist Association. (The Smithtown group is a member of the organization, sending representatives to the annual convention this past October in Virginia Beach.) They decided their church was "the science, philosophy and religion of continuous life, based upon the demonstrated fact of communication, by means of mediumship, with those who live in the Spirit World." It was a genuine craze around the turn of the century here and in the British Isles, where Doyle and Yeats communed with something beyond.

No one should mock these people when mainstream religions depend on a belief in virgin birth and God having a son, or are convinced that an obscure desert tribe was chosen by the Deity who contracted only with them, or that the way to heaven is to lay off caffeine and booze and practice polygamy. The Spiritualists are entitled to be as fruitcake as everyone else.

In the wide, low-ceilinged room, the congregants sit against the walls while Reverend Virginia presides along with Associate Pastor Nancy Lloyd in black robes, at a stage with a lectern and American flag. Where Reverend Virginia is all smiles and sweetness, Reverend Nancy is small, iron-haired and grim. Of these 40 parishioners, only seven are men and one is a child. There are some cheery hymns and a sermon by Reverend Virginia, with attempts at humor, about fear and faith. The elderly organist, Miss Betty Ooms, climbs behind her big instrument and accidentally hits a low buzzing note. She smiles mischievously.

Some announcements are read. "After services we'll all go for a Chinese buffet in that restaurant—what's the name of it? In the shopping center in Islandia. We have our own room—all you can eat for $10."

Then the healings take place. Lights fade to yellow flickers, six folding chairs in a diamond formation are set up and healers stand behind seated people. Wind-chime music floats through the hall. The healers wave their hands around the seated heal-ees. One healer, a tall, broad-shouldered woman with a manic expression, is really working, pulling unseen things out of an old woman and flinging them away. Across the room a young woman is weeping as a friend comforts her.

The lights go up, and people, one by one, walk to the foot of the stage and ask individual members, "May I come to you?" They then give the person advice or counsel that they'd heard from the Other Side. It's striking how so many of the dead have such banal concerns. "Watch that snow-shoveling this winter, Peter." "Adam, I've heard something...today is the first day of the rest of your life." "Pat, I see an envelope coming."

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