Searching for God in the 7 Cities: Transcending Religion
While churches, temples and mosques continue to thrive in Coastal Virginia, many area residents are seeking spiritual enrichment elsewhere
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The maze at A.R.E. is designed for walking meditation and contemplation.
The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face, we through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson.
When I was in my early 20s, I often spent my free time wandering through Manhattan. I had no particular destination in mind; I moved on intuition. Usually I stuck to the streets because I liked the energy of the crowds and the element of surprise when I stumbled upon an interesting-looking pub or a bookshop I’d never seen. But on one particular winter morning, I decided to go to Central Park. As I crossed the Great Lawn, there was not a soul in sight—an odd experience, since I knew that there were millions of people outside the park’s perimeter.
The day was far from beautiful: the sky was gray, the trees were bare, and the grass was brown and dotted with patches of week-old snow—and yet, as I walked, I felt enveloped by quiet contentment. Then, in a flash, my sense of solitude was gone. The park was still empty—but suddenly I felt the presence of something. What it was I couldn’t say. All I can tell you is that it was overwhelming and filled me with a sense of awe far greater than anything I’d ever felt in church.
I thought of that moment again as I began research for this article—the last installment of my series Searching for God in the 7 Cities. For the last year, I’ve related in this series stories of people who find comfort and a connection to the divine in traditional religious communities. But for many others, the path to enlightenment lies outside the walls of these institutions.
According to a poll conducted last year by the Pew Research Center, more than a quarter of U.S. adults now regard themselves as spiritual but not religious. Perhaps more surprising are the results of a Pew survey conducted in 2009, which found that roughly a third of Americans find enrichment in a kind of buffet of spiritual traditions and beliefs. According to the poll, for example, 23 percent of Christians believe in astrology, 22 percent in reincarnation and 21 percent in yoga as a spiritual practice.
Since the 1970s, the catchall term for these and other practices has been “New Age” spirituality. But that term is misleading, since there is really nothing new about them. Indeed, many of these practices are ancient—and in this country especially, there is a long tradition of individuals blazing their own spiritual paths, albeit while drawing on a variety of older ideas and teachings.
Prominent among them is Ralph Waldo Emerson. A graduate of Harvard Divinity School, Emerson had planned on giving his life to the church—and did, for a short time. But by 1832, he’d decided that traditional Christianity no longer made sense to him. Increasingly, he came to believe that every soul is infinite and lying within each of us is the power to know divinity “at first hand,” “without mediator or veil.”
Emerson placed special emphasis on spiritual communion with nature.
“The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister,” he wrote, “is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them.”
If he were alive today, Emerson would no doubt be interested to learn that, according to the aforementioned Pew survey, 26 percent of Americans and 23 percent of Christians believe that trees emit spiritual energy.
So would Edgar Cayce, founder of the Association for Research and Enlightenment in Virginia Beach.
“Whether it is mineral, vegetable or animal,” Cayce once said, “these are spiritualized in that ability of … doing … all that the Creator had given them to do.”
Unlike Emerson, Cayce remained a devout Christian his entire life. And yet many of his beliefs—notably his ideas about reincarnation—were at odds with traditional Church doctrine.
Born in Kentucky in 1877, Cayce is said to have demonstrated psychic powers even in childhood. Among other things, he was alleged to have seen and spoken to the spirit of his deceased grandfather.
Then, in 1900, a major turning point occurred in Cayce’s life. He had been working as a traveling salesman but had developed what initially appeared to be a severe case of laryngitis, leaving him unable to speak above a whisper. The condition lasted for a full year. Finally, in March 1901, he encountered a traveling hypnotist. Miraculously, under hypnosis, Cayce was able to speak normally. He diagnosed his own condition as psychosomatic, and through the power of suggestion, he emerged from hypnosis with his voice regained.
From then on, Cayce started doing “readings” in a trance-like state, diagnosing, for various people, medical conditions of all kinds. His recommended treatments proved to work, time and again, and Cayce earned a national reputation.
In the 1920s, he also had a vision that he was destined to establish a health and spiritual resource center in Virginia Beach. It seemed like an odd choice at the time, since the Beach, back then, was a little-known and sparsely populated community. But Cayce predicted that it would eventually become one of the largest beach resort communities on the East coast.
Today, the A.R.E. thrives at the corner of 67th Street and Atlantic Avenue. The institution includes a holistic-health center and spa, a school for massage therapy, a bookstore, a meditation room and a variety of other facilities. But at its heart is a database of more than 14,000 Cayce readings, catalogued by subject. Topics range from astrology and reincarnation to holistic medicine and life’s emotional challenges.
Kevin Todeschi, executive director of A.R.E.
Kevin Todeschi, executive director of A.R.E., told me that his engagement with the Cayce materials over the years has transformed his own life in many ways.
“I was raised in a very conservative Catholic household and went to church every Sunday,” he said as we chatted by phone recently. “In spite of that, I never really had an affinity for the Bible stories, nor did I feel that I had a close personal connection to Jesus.”
That changed when he was in his mid-teens and discovered a book about Cayce.
“Cayce read the Bible once a year throughout his life,” Todeschi said. “That encouraged me to read it more closely, and suddenly Jesus came alive for me.”
Todeschi’s interest in Cayce grew so strong that he had a personal epiphany: It was his destiny, he decided, to move to Virginia Beach and become president of A.R.E. After graduating from the University of Colorado, he followed through on the plan and began working for the institution. Finally, in 2006, he was chosen to become its executive director, and he has served in that role ever since. But for him, it is far more than a job.
“For me it has definitely deepened my spiritual faith and connection to the divine.”
That said, he was quick to point out that A.R.E. is not a religious institution but a spiritual resource center for people of all faiths.
“This is not so much about the nature of religion,” he said, “as about the nature of spirituality. God works and communicates with each and every one of us, regardless of our religion or lack thereof. Cayce believed that we are spiritual beings having a physical experience, and our goal is to bring spirit on earth—that’s why we’re here.”
As a regular churchgoer himself, Todeschi said he continues to see value in organized religion as a means of creating community.
“The downside,” he said, “is that it sometimes creates barriers between people who are different. That should not be the goal. I’ve traveled on five continents for my work at A.R.E. and have encountered many people of all faiths. Regardless of their religion you can see the love of God in their eyes, you can see the sparkle of divinity in the children. The world is a wonderful place if we choose to see it that way.”
That ecumenical spirit resonates with my own beliefs (it is the basis for this series, after all), but I remained puzzled by one aspect of Cayce’s readings—how he reconciled his Christian faith with his belief in reincarnation.
Todeschi told me that he doesn’t think those things are at odds at all.
“The Bible is filled with stories about reincarnation,” he said. “Probably the most notable one is in the New Testament when Jesus is on Mount of Transfiguration and he’s surrounded by light. Up to that point the disciples had thought of Jesus as a great teacher. But in that moment, they realized he was the Messiah. But if that were so, they asked him, where was Elijah? (In the Old Testament, it is prophesized that Elijah would return before the “coming of the Lord.”)
Jesus’ response, Todeschi noted, was that Elijah had come but had simply not been recognized. “He was speaking about John the Baptist.”
Beyond the Bible, Todeschi said, there are many stories of people in modern times remembering past lives—stories that have been documented and researched. He cited, for example, one story about a child who started screaming about a man in a plane that had caught on fire. The boy’s parents grew alarmed as the visions recurred but eventually became convinced that they weren’t just waking nightmares. The boy, they found, was able to remember names and other details associated with the life of a World War II fighter pilot who had been shot down over Japan.
While many skeptics continue to dismiss such stories, Todeschi said that, in his experience, the more you engage with the Cayce materials, the more compelling they become. Especially significant in Todeschi’s life were Cayce’s readings about medical ailments.
“When I was growing up, I had severe allergies,” he said. “At one point I was taking six allergy shots a day. After I started investigating what Cayce had to say about natural allergy treatments, my allergies cleared up. I don’t even need allergy pills anymore. When you have an experience like that, you think, well, if he’s right about allergies, maybe he’s right about other things. So you try them.”
Among the many other practices that Cayce valued—and that Todeschi has come to believe in—is dream analysis.
Todeschi discovered its effectiveness years ago while participating in a “Search for God” study group based on Cayce’s teachings. In one of these meetings, the participants were asked to come up with a question that they were supposed to dream about.
“I had never tried to work with my dreams,” he recalled, “and didn’t know if I could remember them. The question we settled on was, what do I need to work on spiritually? We were instructed to write it down on a piece of paper and read it before bed, then write down whatever dreams we had and bring it back to the group to discuss.
“The first night I didn’t remember any dreams, so the second night I read it over and over and over again, then I tucked it under my pillow. I dreamed I was in Egypt on an A.R.E. tour, though I had never been in Egypt before. As I was coming out of the Great Pyramid, someone said, ‘By the way, Jesus taught Kevin some dance steps, and Kevin wants to show them to you now. All of these people started gathering around me, and I was really surprised because I didn’t remember meeting Jesus and didn’t know anything about dancing. There was someone in the group I didn’t think a whole lot of; excuse the language, but I thought, what an ass.
“Then I looked out over the plateau and saw Jesus standing there at the edge of the desert. He’d [picked up on] my negative attitude toward the person in the group, and his [advice] came back to me: ‘Kevin, more than anything else you need to work on your thoughts.’ When I woke up I was blown away. From that day on I became dedicated to dream work. Since that time, I’ve written three books about it and lectured about it on five continents.”
Perhaps more than anything else, this story reveals the essence of Cayce’s beliefs—that while his readings can guide people, our own internal resources are infinite.
“We’re all wired for divine guidance,” Todeschi said, “but most of us don’t ever look into it. I think God will make his or her presence known in our lives every moment of every day, if we’re just open to that.”
A display in the A.R.E.'s bookstore highlighting the institution's eclectic approach to
John Van Auken, director of the Edgar Cayce Foundation, in front of the A.R.E.'s
collection of Cayce's readings.
John Van Auken, director of the Edgar Cayce Foundation, is equally devoted to A.R.E.
Van Auken’s father was a Naval officer, so they moved around a lot while he was growing up.
“Before World War II,” he told me, “my father was an Iowa farm boy and came to believe that God is nature. He used to take my brother and me on deep walks in the woods and have us sit quietly and feel nature.
“My mother, on the other hand, was an urban Irish Catholic girl, and she was a mystical Christian. On Thursday nights she always went to these novenas (a particular kind of worship service) and took me with her. There were no lights in the church, except for candles. Incense smoke hovered halfway down from the ceiling. She looked so devoted, and so did the other women, that I thought, man, something’s going on—something mystical. I think that stirred something in me.”
When he was 16, his father was transferred to Virginia Beach. Shortly thereafter, he discovered a book about Cayce. He had just gotten his driver’s license, so he drove to A.R.E. He was fascinated. Two years later—while the Vietnam War was still raging—he joined the military, and after his tour of duty he went to college at William & Mary. But he had never lost interest in Cayce, and after graduation he went to work for A.R.E, “sorting zip codes for $2.20 an hour.”
“My dad said, ‘You went to university! What’s going on?’ I said, “Dad, I’m so happy you can’t believe it,’ and he said, ‘If you’re happy, OK.’”
Van Auken was especially drawn to Cayce’s teachings on past lives.
“I started to see influences in my life that were beyond this particular lifetime,” he said. “Especially in relationships. I’d always wondered why we are attracted to some people, even before we know them, and repulsed by others. Cayce suggests that it’s because we knew their souls in previous lives.”
Much of what Van Auken was saying seemed to dovetail with Buddhism and Hinduism, so I asked him why he’s drawn to Cayce more so than those spiritual traditions.
“Because of the mystical Christianity,” he said. “I never left Christianity; it never bothered me like it bothered many of my friends in college.”
Van Auken told me that some of the people who are drawn to A.R.E largely dismiss the more mystical aspects of Cayce’s teachings but are interested in the benefits of holistic medicine. He was quick to point out, however, that A.R.E. does not reject Western medicine. Instead, they regard natural remedies as complementary to conventional treatments.
“We are totally devoted to cooperative medicine,” he said.
In spite of this reasonable approach, Van Auken, who has written 28 books since joining A.R.E., remembers a time when the institution was controversial.
“When I started lecturing,” he said, “I would have fundamentalist Christians in the audience ready to save my soul and the souls of everyone else in the room. Then I would have aluminum headed UFO-ers telling me to get ready for the mothership. They would all be in the same audience. That doesn’t happen anymore. It’s faded away. It’s as if there’s sort of a melding going on.”