Belief in Spirits Lives On
Mystical beliefs have endured in the United States. A 2009 Pew Research Center survey noted that 29% of Americans believe they have been in touch with someone who passed away and 18% feel they have been in the presence of a ghost. It’s tempting to point to a subset of crystal-wielding New Ageists to dismiss these statistics; yet 2012 Pew data indicates that Christians are about as likely as those unaffiliated with any religion to believe they’ve experienced psychic or spiritual phenomenon.
The Pew poll illustrates what I found at Lily Dale. Our beliefs and motivations for seeking out spirituality do not fit precisely into the binary categories of “Yes, I’m a believer,” or “No, I’m not.” If almost a third of Americans believe they have been in touch with someone who passed away, only one-fifth answered yes to having felt they were in the presence of a ghost. There seems to be gradations in what we believe and nuances in the terms we are willing to attach to our beliefs.
These different approaches are reflected in the visitors at Lily Dale. I met people who were taking courses in mediumship, investing hundreds of dollars to improve their skills, and people who believed not only in spirits, but also in orbs (a manifestation of a spirit visible in a photograph), as well as in crop circles.
There were others too, like my aunt and my mother, who had come on a lark. Virginia Kujala is in her 80s with a strong Boston accent. She travelled to Lily Dale with her daughter and had gone to four services during which “quite a mob” had come to support her. Relatives came forward and it fused together she told me tearfully. She felt calm about it all, saying of the spirits “they are fine, probably more than we are.” How did she combine her belief in spirits with her Catholic faith? “I have a brain,” she said matter-of-factly. Then after wrapping me in a strong embrace, she parted with “love and a hug to you.”
In contrast to Virginia and her daughter, there were visitors who flitted around our Lily Dale guesthouse like shadows, seemingly broken people who were reluctant to open up. Grief seems to be a catalyst for Spiritualism. A quick scan of some of the prominent people associated with the movement during its heyday bears this out. The creator of Sherlock Holmes Arthur Conan Doyle wished to be remembered for his Spiritualist work rather than his novels; he lost a son. Staunch Spiritualist Oliver Lodge, a British scientist who helped perfect the technology for wireless telegraph communication also lost a son. Sometimes called the “father of American psychology,” William James lost a son. So too did President Lincoln, and although he is not thought to have been a Spiritualist, his wife had faith in mediums and held séances in the White House.
One could argue that Spiritualist beliefs are tailored to assuage our grief. They do seem to be designed to uplift people who are crushed by a loved one’s departure. If you hear and feel something, are you to ignore it? Why not pray and speak with the essence of someone who passed? You are at the very least honoring their memory, honoring the part of them left in you. And what’s wrong with that?
Where Spiritualists roil the skeptics is in their claim that mediums bring proof of the existence of an afterlife. Spiritualists also assert that their beliefs constitute a science. Michael Shermer, founder of The Skeptics Society, argues against this reasoning in his book How We Believe. He posits that “if someone says she believes in God based on faith, then we do not have much to say about it. If someone says he believes in God and he can prove it through rational arguments or empirical evidence, then, like Harry Truman, we say ‘show me.’” And this is an important point, particularly when faced with fraudulent operators like certain psychics online or tucked away under neon lights. In 2013, The New York Times reported on the conviction of a Manhattan psychic for stealing over $100,000 from her clients. Mediums bilking victims out of their savings should be prosecuted.
But in the case of Lily Dale perhaps the more important question is not whether what is happening has any validity. Christine Wicker, a reporter and author of a book on Lily Dale, pursues another line of questioning. Do the residents and mediums of Lily Dale believe in what they are doing? Of course it’s impossible to know what goes on in the hearts of others, but my impression was that the people of Lily Dale genuinely believed in their work and thought of it as a way of life. Neal Rzepkowski comes to mind; he’s lived with HIV for decades drawing on the well of his beliefs.
Yet, I am in Mandi Shepp the librarian’s camp. She affirmed, “I’m more on the agnostic side of things where, like, I’m open to it. If there is ever a really powerful phenomenon that I can’t explain in any other way, than I will happily entertain the idea.” “So that hasn’t happened?” I asked. No, she answered, “I haven’t found the book that shoots lightening yet.” Same here.
Still as I lean towards a more secular worldview, I find myself embracing spiritual practices and rituals like prayer and meditation. This may seem contradictory, but it has to do with what I saw in Lily Dale. Before going I thought so much emphasis on the afterlife, might sap focus from our present one. But many of the beliefs of Spiritualism as practiced in Lily Dale have to do with being kind to others and taking responsibility for one’s actions in this life. I may not embrace life after death as conceived in Lily Dale, the idea that a loved one who’s deceased can share a beer with me, can dance with me, can watch and advise me, but I do see the beauty in connecting with the essence of a loved one who passed.
My mother once told me that she felt like the individuals who really touched her left an imprint on her. She said the feeling made her think of a pillow in the morning when it’s still pressed. Isn’t that something we all feel? And so it would seem that remembering and honoring the dead could do with a little more active engagement.
I went to Lily Dale to quench a thirst for the weird and wonderful, to live out my fascination with this tiny town which professed to understand this world and what happens after we pass, but more than that, to bring news from the afterlife, actual descriptions of it. Yet, I left with something more subtle, even intangible, that came from interacting with people who have a worldview that is different from my own, one that promotes an active approach to honoring the memories of those who pass and puts a heavy emphasis on individual responsibility.
I left Lily Dale strangely stripped of belief in spirits I had been harboring but also imbued with a new respect for spiritual ritual and the healing it promotes. I’m not sure where this will take me, but I don’t have to know. My aunt and my mother taught me what it means to be an individual, a seeker, to not necessarily have it all figured out; to go on a lark because you might learn something and be surprised; and to take everything with a grain of salt but also listen deeply and ask: does this resonate? They taught me to find grace wherever and however you can: by going to church, scribbling in a journal or maybe just sitting on a bench under a tree on a spring day where you might softly engage with the memory of someone you loved.
* You’ve reached the end of my series on Lily Dale, New York. I write three to four in-depth articles on forgotten history per year. To have these sent to your inbox, sign up here!