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A quest for the mysteries of spiritual experience

A conference in upstate New York explores the unexplained about the country's spiritual and cultural movements that started there.

August 31, 2009|Louis Sahagun

PHOENICIA, N.Y. — In his role as editor of the online magazine Lapis, Ralph White is scholarly and staid, offering literary explorations of myths, traditions, symbols and lore that have swayed thought for centuries.

But once a year, White, 60, leads a number of adventurous souls on quests for the deeper mysteries of spiritual experience in castles, cathedrals, temples, tombs and ancient ruins around the world.

Last week, White and 65 others have been on "An Esoteric Quest for Inner America" in Rip Van Winkle country, or upstate New York, which is the birthplace of such homegrown spiritual and cultural movements as the 19th century utopian Oneida Community and the 1969 Woodstock festival. The area also served as a launching pad for the westward shift to the land of new beginnings that was California.

Among the alternative cultural and religious movements that began in the New York region were the Six Nations Iroquois Confederation, which maintained peaceful relations among Native American tribes; the Hudson River School painters, who celebrated spiritual and other glories of the American landscape; and the Shakers, who have all but died out, not least because its members practiced celibacy. There were sisters Kate, Leah and Maggie Fox, whose reports of mysterious knocks on the walls of their rural home in 1848 triggered the rise of spiritualism, a movement that flourished after World War I as friends and relatives of slain soldiers desperately tried to communicate with their dead loved ones.

Leaning against a tree last week at the edge of a pond sprinkled with fallen maple leaves, White said, "They may have been a little loopy, but nobody can say they weren't true to themselves, and genuinely fascinating."

"These were all vibrant American spirits worthy of closer examination," he added. "We want to bring alive an extraordinary, yet half-forgotten history of Western culture and, in the process, fire people's imaginations. We are heirs to their quirky and often beautiful works and writings and would all do well to see their relevance in the present day."

This year's conference began Aug. 24 when participants met at the Menla Mountain Retreat, a 320-acre private nature preserve in the Catskill Mountains near Woodstock, for a series of lectures on the nature and development of esoteric perceptions.

The retreat lies in the heart of terrain swept over by so many religious movements during the last two centuries that scholars know it as "a caldron."

Outsiders might dismiss them as collections of eccentrics and misfits. To members of their communities, however, they were zones of enlightenment and peace in a world gone wrong.

"They were rather comical, even ridiculous," said Joscelyn Godwin, a music professor at Colgate University in New York and author of several books on America's obscure spiritual dimensions. "But they all had something that seized them, and gave them their life's work. I honor their experience."

By the start of the 1900s, some of New England's spiritual communities and lesser-known religions were setting up shop in California. Mormonism, which began in upstate New York, had already spread throughout the western United States. Separately, offshoots of New York City's Theosophical Society were established in Hollywood, Oceanside and at the Point Loma promontory west of San Diego.

One conference lecture examined how mystical notions -- for example, spiritualism, Freemasonry and the Transcendentalism of poets Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau -- helped shape America in surprising ways.

Another dealt with the Los Angeles of a century ago, a time when many civic and business leaders, judges, architects and entertainment industry figures were members of Masonic lodges or esoteric schools whose Neoclassical temples were among the most imposing buildings on the Southern California landscape.

"We in California tend to think we are at the forefront of other-than-mainstream philosophies and religions," said participant Jane Olinger, 69, an Irvine real estate agent. "Now I realize, in times past, they were popping up all over the East Coast. They were way ahead of us."

She and other participants each paid $895 for accommodations and meals during the weeklong event, which was organized by the New York Open Center, a nonprofit offering events and classes on health, ecology and spiritual inquiry.

Conference field trips included visits to Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, site of the original 1969 Woodstock festival; the 33-year-old Moosewood Restaurant in downtown Ithaca, which has grown from a small natural foods eatery to a large collectively owned company; and Seneca Falls, where one of the first women's rights convention met in 1848.

They also explored the influence of Iroquois culture on pioneer feminists; the Theosophical Society, which introduced millions of people to the ideas of karma and reincarnation; and the Hawthorne Valley Farm in mid-upstate New York, where the legacy of Austrian mystic, educator, architect and philosopher Rudolf Steiner lives on.

Nancy Poer, a lecturer at the conference who also is a consultant on death and dying, a pilot, an author and a co-founder of the Rudolf Steiner College near Sacramento, put it into perspective.

"America is not just about making money in a brash, technological, brave and wonderful country, although that is something we can certainly appreciate," she said. "Beneath all that is also an innate will toward sisterhood and brotherhood, a desire to be better, wiser and more useful."

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louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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