Each summer thousands of people flock to Lily Dale, a small, run-down Victorian town in upper New York State. They come to consult the hundreds of mediums who live there - Spiritualist believers who claim to deliver messages from beyond the grave. Journalist Christine Wicker visited Lily Dale once out of curiousity - and kept coming back for three years. In this conversation with Beliefnet, Wicker explains how Lily Dale challenged--and expanded--her own sense of spiritual possibilities.

You describe Lily Dale as the nation's oldest Spiritualist community. What are the fundamental beliefs of Spiritualism?
That they can prove the existence of the afterlife by communicating with the spirits. They also believe in a universal intelligence--a God. They don't believe that you go to hell.

They have bibles in spiritualist churches, and they often talk about Jesus as being the greatest medium of all time. Because, of course, he did healing. He had knowledge of the spiritual world beyond what most people have. And he came back!--as a spirit. So they have great reverence for him. But the thing that's really distinctive is their belief that anyone can communicate with spirits.

Why do they think spirits want to communicate?
They think spirits want to come back and assure us they're all right and that they're still alive. Often what they come back to say is that they love us, and sometimes they come back with apologies for behavior. But one thing that William James noted is that they often don't say things that we might want them to say. (laughs) They don't come back and say, "The lottery ticket's in the drawer."

But spiritualists do talk about heaven, which they call Summerland. There are books with information from the spirits describing what you do there and how old you are. A lot of them say you're 35, which is supposed to be the optimal age of physical, emotional and mental development. Or some people say that you are the age that you were when you were the happiest.

Do they think people age in heaven?
I heard two different stories about mediums talking to women who'd had abortions. They came to the meeting wanting to communicate with the spirits of their aborted fetuses. And in both cases, these mediums reassured the women that the babies were happy and growing up in Summerland.

You write about a lot of praying in Lily Dale. Whom do they pray to?
They address their prayers to Mother-Father God. They pray to God and they do believe in God. But I had a lot of trouble with that because, although I'm not Southern Baptist anymore, those are my origins. So when people would talk to me about spirituality in Lily Dale, I have to tell you, I was just lost. For me spirituality was about doing God's will, and I never heard people [there] talk about doing God's will. And they never ask for forgiveness because they don't see any reason to have forgiveness. They believe that whatever you do, you pay for. That you reap what you sow, that it all comes back to you, in this life or the next.

Spiritualists don't have a big dogma or doctrine. And so everybody can believe pretty much what he or she wants. One of the things that's nice about going there is that nobody gets mad at you if you don't believe what they believe. It just wouldn't occur to them.

The other thing I really like about them is that while the mediums act as a conduit for the spirits, they never claim any special holiness. They don't set themselves up as gurus.

So do they believe what they do is something everyone can do?
Yes. They often say that it's like playing the piano. Not everybody's Mozart, but everybody can plunk away.

Do you think that's true?
I saw a study cited that said 50-80% of people have felt at least the strong presence of their loved ones who've passed on.

It's a funny thing about these experiences--sometimes people have them and they register, but not completely. They put them so far in the back of their consciousness that you talk to them for quite a while and then they look sort of funny and they say, "You know, something like that did happen to me."

Your book gives the impression you think Lily Dale is a spiritually unique place--that there's something about the actual physical location that makes this kind of communication possible.
Lily Dale in the summer does feel magical. I had been there in the winter and spring, but in the summer the energy rises. People say that if you go to Inspiration Stump, which is in the middle of this old growth forest, and you stand near the stump -- which they used to stand on to give messages until somebody had a heart attack and everybody got scared that the vibrations were too strong -- or you stand behind it, the hair on your arms will rise and you will feel the energy in the air. I never did.

But I often have trouble sleeping in Lily Dale. One of the mediums told me, "Well, you stayed too long--it's the energy, it keeps you awake." He said, "If you will spend a night outside Lily Dale, you'll be able to sleep." So I did. And I could. But was that a self-fulfilling prophecy? I don't know. What I loved the most about doing the book is that it forced me to explore my own consciousness in a way that I never had before.

And where did that exploration lead you?
In the workshops I attended, I learned how many filters we have, how much we just filter out so quickly that it doesn't even reach consciousness.

They give you techniques and they have you do meditations and you are there in a concentrated environment. But then they call on you and you're on the spot to give a message. And your mind goes immediately blank -- whatever comes into it, you start to fight. You tell yourself, "This is ridiculous." That made me think: How often do I do that? How often do I just kick stuff out of my mind?

At one point, I'm sitting there and I'm looking at this woman and the coach is walking around and I'm stuck. I'm feeling like a fool either way, if I can't say anything or if I do say anything. As the coach came by, I said, "I'm not getting anything." And he said, "Well, keep trying." I said, "Nothing, nothing, nothing." And he said, "Lie."

So I did. And, what a whopper! Came to me immediately. I said, "Ok, I see you. You're in a forest. And, oh my gosh, this is so dumb, you look like you're dressed like Robin Hood--one of Robin Hood's Merry Men and you're walking along." So here I am, just lying my head off. Well, the woman looked at me and she starts to laugh and she said, "You know that's one of my fantasies--one of the things I most love to imagine."

Later, when I shared with the group that he'd said, "Lie," they didn't like it too much. But it really was kind of a breakthrough for me. It was all I could do.

Given all your intellectual resistance, why did you find Lily Dale so hard to dismiss?
It had such an impact on people's lives. And because I came to believe people were sincere about things that seemed so fantastical to me. But also, in an even deeper way, I came to see in Lily Dale that human beings look for patterns of meaning in their lives--and Lily Dale is a place where you are not constrained in that. Where you're able to tell the stories that the rest of society does not allow. And those are often deeply spiritual moments for people.

One of the women I met there said to me that there's a connection between human beings. It's real and it's more powerful, I think, than I realized. So whether or not spirits are speaking to us, in exploring that human connection, I found new confidence in my own instincts - in myself. I have never had the confidence to pay attention to myself very much because I'm usually wrong and I'm so fearful. Lily Dale said to me, 'go ahead!'

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