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
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.”
Gabrielle Gerard-Jenks, a well-known yoga instructor in Norfolk. Photo by David
Evidence of the melding became clear to me again and again as I talked with people throughout the region. Gabrielle Gerard-Jenks, one of Norfolk’s most popular and respected yoga teachers, was among them.
Gerard-Jenks, who teaches at The Space Above yoga studio in Norfolk, was born in New Jersey but moved here when she was in the second grade. She attended church as a child, but in time—like so many other people I’ve encountered—began to struggle with it.
“My father was a first-generation American from Sicily,” she said. “He carried with him a lot of complicated messages about what Catholicism meant, with all the guilt and ideas about damnation.” As a result, she recalled, her early experiences with Catholicism were “difficult and complicated, and burdened with a lot of manmade perspectives on hell and damnation, as well as concepts like the Trinity. My mom was more of a naturalist,” she added, “so these two worlds kind of left me confused.”
Out of that confusion grew a desire to learn about other spiritual traditions—and major in philosophy and religion in college.
“I was like a leaf in the wind at the time, so this stuff was really attractive to me. I was trying to figure things out.”
She was especially drawn to Buddhism but didn’t feel fully anchored in it. “I knew I wasn’t going to become a Buddhist,” she said. “But neither was my Catholic anchor strong enough.”
Gerard-Jenks began her yoga studies in 1993 and ended up studying for 13 years with a teacher named Kathleen Barratt, who specializes in breath work. Eventually she came to realize that yoga could enhance other religious practices rather than replace them.
“As yoga teacher, I have been around a lot of Catholics, Jews, atheists and people from other traditions. Yoga is nonsectarian, so it can feed and nurture the roots of your religion, whatever that might be.”
She is currently seeking a church home, in part because she wants her 6-year-old daughter to have that experience.
“Having a child,” she said, “has shown me the importance and value of seeing people congregate and celebrate, and then serve. I want her to witness that.”
For her part, Gerard-Jenks said that yoga has helped her understand and come to terms with the confusing messages she received about religion while growing up.
“It has helped me break down a rigidity of attitude toward things like the Lord’s Prayer and find the energy behind it. When you meditate on a prayer or passage of scripture long enough you begin to feel its energy, and it becomes real; it becomes an experience. You begin to understand what it means to embody spiritual principles versus just intellectually understanding them. I think the yogic principles help sustain that commitment. And then, everything’s yoga. I could walk into a Christian church and experience yoga because I’m experiencing union.” (The word “yoga” comes from a Sanskrit root meaning, “union.”)
Offering another example, she reflected on the story of Jesus dying on the cross.
“The crucifixion isn’t a one-time experience,” she said. “We are constantly being asked to die to what is no longer needed. So there’s been this confluence of everything merging together for me over many, many years. There are many paths, and one source.”
As she continues her search for a church to call home, she is determined to find one that is non-judgmental—and one that is committed to serving people in need. Yoga, she said, is very much about taking one’s abundance and giving back, but she said that yoga people tend to do that individually. She feels that her classes draw a lot of people who are on a spiritual journey, rather than attending simply for the physical benefits. But she noted that yoga studios typically aren’t structured in a way that foster community and social outreach, as many religious organizations do. She hopes to see that change eventually and said that recently there have been some efforts to join together with other studios to raise money for charity.
In the meantime, she continues to see value in organized religion, not only for that reason but because, in going to church, she has had to confront the discomfort of some of the narratives about religion that she received while growing up.
When she attended church on Easter, in fact, she heard from the pulpit a few things that at one time might have made her “instantly shut down.” Now, she said, “I can be there and receive what they have to say with ease, even though I may not resonate with everything.”
Another spiritual practice that has been growing in popularity since the 1980s is Wicca, which draws on ancient pagan rituals but was not formalized as its own religion until the mid-20th century, and did not become widely known until 1954 when it was popularized by a retired British civil servant named Gerald Gardner.
Drema Deoraich is among its local adherents.
Deoraich told me she was raised in northeast Florida where she regularly attended a Methodist church and Sunday school.
“I think I began to realize that that wasn’t going to work for me around the age of 15,” she said. “I got selected to be president of our youth group. At one point I proposed that we start visiting other churches—not just Methodist but all denominations. The elders of the church said no and pulled the plug. I said, hmmm, we’re not supposed to ask questions? What’s that about? As I got older I started asking more questions, and that kind of led me away from Christianity.”
Deoraich eventually became interested in herbal medicine and subsequently in Wicca.
“There’s a big connection between those two things,” she said. “Not all herbalists are Wiccans, but many Wiccans experiment with herbs. I began to realize, hey, there’s this other religion. At the time, though, there wasn’t much out there about Wicca. Everybody was hush, hush about it because it was witchcraft!”
For her, however, the appeal was strong. In particular, she liked the focus on “the direct connection between me and God. She is right there beside me at all times. She listens to me like I’m a friend, or her child, or a partner. Wicca sees our relationship to the divine as a very close connection. Personally, I see God in all of this,” she added, gesturing to the world around us. “To me, that means we are all part of God.”
The reference to God as feminine is central to Wicca, although some Wiccans are duotheistic, meaning that they worship a male and a female God—or perhaps both in one. In a traditional coven, she added, the priestess is “first among equals.” (A coven is a group of Wiccans.)
This did not surprise me. Most of the Wiccans I’ve spoken with in recent years have been women, and Deoraich agreed that part of the appeal is that it stands in contrast to Western patriarchal religions.
Because it is associated with witchcraft, however, it remained widely misunderstood for decades—and still is, among many people. When Deoraich began practicing in the ’80s, she kept it largely a secret because her husband at the time was working for a government contractor and had security clearance.
“It was not OK to tell people,” she said.
In an effort to change this, Deoraich started a pagan-centric nonprofit group, the main focus of which was to “make it OK for people to come out of the broom closet, as we call it.”
Deoraich “came out” as a Wiccan in 1994. Soon thereafter, she and other Wiccans organized a Halloween gathering on Mount Trashmore.
“The first year,” she recalled, “we expected 30 or 40 people. More than 100 showed up. And the press. It was madness; it was chaos. There were church people there along the hill, and all around us, handing out religious tracts. One guy was throwing red paint on people saying, “Blood of the Lamb.” The ironic thing was that the gathering was about religious tolerance, not just for Wiccans but for people of all faiths.”
Deoraich also remembers talking with a police officer to make sure the group was doing everything it could to adhere to laws. He told her that people had been calling the police station to say that they had heard rumors that there was going to be an altar and animal sacrifices.
“I remember him saying, ‘You’re not going to do that, right?’ I just laughed and said, ‘Of course not. That’s not what we’re about.’”
The following year, Deoraich recalled, there were protestors but fewer.
“By the fourth year, it was like, oh look, there’s people on Mount Trashmore—oh it’s just the witches. That was a real big moment for us because it was like, we’re finally becoming accepted.”
Deoraich told me that Wiccan practices vary among different individuals and covens but that they can include a wide variety of rituals, including crystal-gazing, fire-gazing and the reading of Tarot cards.
“People use these things not to answer their questions but guide them on the path,” she said.
When I expressed skepticism of the idea of finding meaning in randomly drawn cards, she made a good point: “If you find meaning, then what does it matter? If it makes you a better person and helps you make good choices in your life, who cares where it’s coming from? Maybe it’s coming from your higher self; maybe it’s coming from your subconscious. It really doesn’t matter what the source of that guidance is.”
Deoraich added that Wicca also appeals to her because it’s very open and inclusive.
“If God created everything,” she said, “then God loves everything, just as a good parent loves all of his or her children equally.”
That said, she sees Wicca as only one of many possible spiritual paths—an attitude expressed by virtually everyone with whom I talked for this article. Deoraich summed it up nicely.
“I think that more than anything else, I define myself as a spiritual seeker,” she said. “I don’t think it’s about any one religion. Let’s face it—any force that is this big,” she said, opening her arms to our surroundings—“that’s all God.” I don’t think there is only one avenue of approach. It’s like the summit of a mountain. You can get there from any direction.”
Faith, Hope and Love
Last year, when I began my series of articles on religious life in Coastal Virginia, I had one overriding question in mind: In these divisive times, was it possible to find common ground and notes of harmony across our landscape of religious diversity?
As I wrap up my series, I am happy to report that I found more of that than I’d even hoped for. In fact, after talking to dozens of people of all faiths, I now have the impression that the divisiveness, which we hear so much about, is overblown. This is due in large part, I think, to mass-media outlets that emphasize sensationalism over substance in a quest for ratings. In this environment, the worst among us get most of the attention, while the people who are simply trying to live in harmony with their neighbors get overlooked.
Social media sites like Facebook, moreover, aggravate the problem because the very nature of the medium itself so often creates an atmosphere of hostility rather than respect and understanding.
But here’s another observation that’s even more important: To the extent that the divisiveness and hostility are real, my sense is that they may be fading rather than intensifying.
I am not alone in believing this. Gabrielle Gerard-Jenks, a yoga teacher with whom I spoke for this last installment (see main article), put it succinctly: “Culturally,” she said, “I think we’re entering a renaissance.”
This, in fact, was the prediction of the late scholar Jacques Barzun in his masterwork From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. “The strongest tendency of the later 20th century was Separatism,” he wrote in his final chapter. But he ended his book on a note of hope—his belief that emerging on the future’s horizon were signs of new cultural energies that would spark new growth and cultural transformation.
Religion, I have come to believe, can play a key role in this revitalization. Yes, I know. Some people will read that sentence and say, “What?! Are you crazy?!”
I understand the objection: When the news of the day is filled with stories of violence in the very name of religion, how can this be so?
If you could talk with the people I encountered in the course of researching this series, I think you would understand what I mean. Overwhelmingly, they expressed deep and abiding respect for people of all faiths—and in many cases, a desire for interfaith dialogue.
This became especially clear to me when I spoke with Craig Wansink, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan University, and director of the Center for the Study of Religious Freedom.
“I’m so intrigued by the amount of interfaith activities going on in Hampton Roads right now,” he said.
In talking to people of all faiths, Wansink has come to believe that religion—of whatever kind—is about “reconciliation and redemption.” He noted that the word religion, if we break it down to its roots, points to this: “Re meaning ‘again,’ and ligio, like ligament, meaning ‘connection.’”
It occurred to me as Wansink and I were talking that religion, when practiced with spiritual intention, can help us reconnect on two levels. First is a reconnection with ourselves—something many of us sorely need. We live in an age, after all, of unprecedented distraction that discourages us from looking inward. When we do look inward, and feel discomfort in the face of what we see, well—not to worry. There’s a pill for that.
Many people I talked with are trying to turn away from the distractions and find healing in solitary spiritual practices of one kind or another—a healthy sign, I think, but one with limitations. In another book that I’ve found invaluable over the years, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, by Robert N. Bellah, et al., the authors argue that we are living in an age of “radical individualism” at the expense of community.
Wansink echoed the thesis of the book: “There has been a trend toward increasingly individualized religion,” he said. “The question is, when do you allow yourself to be part of something larger—something that has expectations of you? We live in a world that needs so much healing, and I wish we would see the sorts of movements that really work toward helping society.”
I share his concern. On the other hand, I see signs of hope. Gerard-Jenks’ sense that we may be on the verge of another renaissance is based in part on the observation that there is movement even among practitioners of yoga—which tends to be a solitary endeavor, even in classes—to move toward a greater sense of community, outreach and service to the less fortunate among us.
Meanwhile, our region is home to an abundance of churches, temples and mosques where congregants share a very deep sense of community, indeed. I found it at an ice cream social at Little Piney Grove, a black Baptist church in southern Virginia Beach; during post-service buffet lunches at both Temple Israel and the Islamic Center of Tidewater in Norfolk; during an all-day retreat at the Dong Hung Buddhist Temple just off Virginia Beach Boulevard—and in so many other places. In every case, I was welcomed with open arms—and deeply humbled as people shared with me their most intimate stories of faith, hope and love.
The greatest of these is love, as St. Paul said. And there’s a lot of it out there.