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Off the Beaten Spiritual Path

Art by Loretta Weeks

“A lot of apocalyptic cults and New Age religions stem from Western religions’ fear of the year 2000, an arbitrary date that came about because a medieval pope decided to date the birth of Christ. Many references to Jesus in the New Testament have astrological significance, just as our calendar. People who study the stars are trying to predict what is in store for them, which has little to do with Jesus.” —Jonathan Nelson (atheist), Co-President of Atheists United

All religion is, in a sense, an attempt to get off the beaten path of ordinary living — a reach upward, outward, to grasp the divine with one’s own hands. In the West, with its profoundly ingrained Judeo-Christian tradition, the quest for a life set apart and transformed involves a constant search for new avenues, unexplored territories, unread signs. Some seekers have discovered ancient traditions of spirituality unfamiliar to the Occident, and thus new and stimulating to the contemporary American devotee. Others have braved uncharted waters, inventing a fresh language and methodology of faith. The following is a smattering of the resources available to those of us who desire an unconventional encounter with the intangible, and a community with which to share the journey.

Church of All Worlds — Live the Dream Nest (6454 Van Nuys Blvd., No. 211, Van Nuys; 818-361-6737, Ext. 3; or 818-989-2923, Ext. 3) is a pagan church inspired by the fictional one in Robert Heinlein’s novel Stranger in a Strange Land. Its mission is to promote a tribal community through "information, mythology and experience that provides a context and stimulus for re-awakening Gaea." Each subsidiary group, or "nest," emphasizes a different core belief of paganism. The Live the Dream Nest is centered on "polyamory"; members of church families — chosen according to desire, not blood — love and commit themselves to more than one partner at a time, sealing their group marriages with a water-sharing ceremony. Through role-playing, discussion and communal activities, Dreamers seek to emulate the alternative lifestyles of science fiction and speculative literature.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (10777 Santa Monica Blvd.; 310-474-1549; www.lds.org) was founded by Joseph Smith, who, in 1823, was led by Moroni, a resurrected being, to the buried relics of an ancient American civilization. Engraved plates bore an account of Christ’s visit to America after his resurrection. Smith’s English translation became known as The Book of Mormon and is, along with the Bible, the basis for Latter-day Saint beliefs. Emphasis is placed on the family as the locus of godly love and earthly harmony. Members are encouraged to lead a lifestyle free of tobacco, alcohol and caffeine.

The Church of Truth (690 E. Orange Grove Blvd., Pasadena; 626-795-6905; www.churchoftruth.web-page.net) defines itself as a "Christian metaphysical light center." Its basic tenet is rooted in the scriptural authority: "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." While the church is inclusive and embraces the beliefs of many religions in the search for God within the individual, its credo is based largely in the teachings of Christ, recognizing Jesus as the first to achieve perfect oneness with God. It preaches that the potential to know God personally exists within each of us. Services mix the traditional — prayers, music and Sunday School — with guided meditation, yoga and instruction in healing practices.

Gnostic Society and Church (4516 Hollywood Blvd.; 323-467-2685) is a modern movement with a historical Christian Gnostic lineage that was once condemned as heretical. Gnosis means "knowing" and Gnostics believe that what you know, not simply faith, is what saves you. The society offers lectures on topics such as the history, ideas and writings of Gnostic movements. Sunday services combine traditional church rituals and sacraments with Gnostic interpretation, based upon ancient scripture dating back to the religion’s advent as an early, mystical form of Christianity.

International Society for Krishna Consciousness (3764 Watseka Ave.; 310-837-0419) finds its purpose in developing a total love of God, or Krishna (Sanskrit for "the all-attractive one"). This practice of Hindu-based â spiritualism is anchored in the sacred text of the Bhagavad-Gita. Chanting and yoga connect followers to the eternality of their souls, which are part of the supreme soul of God. Krishnas believe that a dedicated life will allow them to leave this world and live with God forever. A rebellious attitude will send the soul back to Earth in a reincarnated form, where it will remain until devotion becomes total. Krishna consciousness teaches that world history goes through cycles of devastation and rebirth.

The Kabbalah Center (1062 S. Robertson Blvd.; 310-657-5404) works to make the wisdom of the Zohar, written 2,000 years ago by a rabbi inspired by Moses and Elijah, accessible to people of all religious backgrounds. Kabbalah is the Aramaic word for "to receive"; practioners believe that by transforming themselves internally and following the timeless laws of creation (the Ten Utterances, for example), they will be open to receiving the joy and peace emanating from God. The center also offers traditional synagogue services, with an emphasis on Jewish spirituality, for Jews and non-Jews alike.

 

The Los Angeles Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (4167 S. Normandie Ave.; 323-296-0733) believes that truth will make you quake, hence the term Quakers. This mystical, Christian-based group emphasizes simplicity, community and social activism. Its radical pacifism dates back to 17th-century England, when believers decided that the government and its wars should have no part in their lives and spirituality. Quakers consider themselves the ultimate expression of the Protestant Reformation, eschewing the hierarchy of the Church and coming to God without an Earthly intermediary. Rather than practice their religion only once a week, Friends see all of life as worship, and have stripped their spirituality of ritual and sacrament.

The Naqshbandi Sufi Order (8391 Beverly Blvd., Box 295, L.A., 90048; 323-651-2134, Ext. 2; www.naqshbandi.org) practices mystical Islam, and traces its origins to Ali and Abubaker, companions of the prophet Mohammed. They taught followers to practice their faith inwardly, through meditation and purification, rather than be content with outward expressions of piety. Sufis believe that religion is the experience of the divine, and strive to create a balance between the physical and spiritual realms so that their souls may be unfettered in the pursuit of truth. They continue to practice the crucial Muslim rituals, such as daily praying and chanting, and follow the Qu’ran.

The Temple of Isis (11666 Gateway Blvd., No. 163; 310-473-3818) and its priestesses focus on the Goddess and the ever-present Feminine Spirit. Meetings are conducted in homes, or in virtual temples outdoors by the sea. The temple sponsors classes on the spiritual life, as well as evenings of dance and drumming and public ritual. It also offers teaching programs on topics such as magic and Scottish shamanism.

Unitarian Universalism (1260 18th St., Santa Monica, 310-829-5436, www.members.aol.com/uusm; 301 N. Orange Grove Blvd., Pasadena, 626-449-3470, www. pacificnet.net/~ncuu; 12355 Moorpark St., Studio City, 818-769-5911) was founded in 1961, when the separate religious traditions of Unitarianism and Universalism, sharing a philosophy of tolerance and questioning, merged. Although both faiths were rooted in Christianity, Unitarian Universalists say they have "faith without a creed." Individualism and inclusion characterize the church, whose members have been known to debate whether to use the term "church" at all, because of its Christian connotations. Those from all religious backgrounds are encouraged to congregate in the search for spiritual truth through dialogue, exploration and meditation. Religious education for children and regular Sunday services constitute the traditional activities of the church, but sermon topics such as "More Than a ‘Feel Good’ Religion?" demonstrate its capacity for self-reflection and nonconformity.

Looking Beyond

The following is a guide to other spiritual resources not necessarily rooted in a religious tradition. Shops, psychics, retreats and workshops offer the opportunity to discover and practice every avenue of ethereal custom.

The Bodhi Tree Bookstore (8585 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood; 310-659-1733; www.bodhitree.com) has a corner on the market for spiritual stuff. Check out the latest books on angels, UFOs and the coming of the millennium. Wander the incense-scented aisles in search of candles and crystals; read the posted fliers about spiritual events around town; take in a lecture or workshop at the Bodhi Tree Annex, which, in the past, has hosted programs on naturopathy, the "spiritual Elvis" and meditation, among many others.

Clearsight (1640 Fifth St., Suite 200, Santa Monica; 310-395-1170; www.home.earthlink.net/~clearsight/) offers a Clairvoyant Program that teaches students how to become intuitive counselors and energy healers, how to reassess their own lives, and how to read themselves and others. Clearsight maintains that everyone has the ability to be clairvoyant. Graduates are eligible to enter the Teacher Training Program, which instructs them on how to pass their knowledge on to others.

Gay Shamanism (presented by Tumescence, West Hollywood; 323-874-9561; www.tumescence.org) offers gays the opportunity to connect with their unique souls and deepen their own understanding of what it means to be gay. This individual renewal is believed to invigorate the community as a whole. Shamans (i.e., walkers between worlds) guide participants in exploring dreams, sacred space and gay-centered psycho-spiritual consciousness.

The Hard Light Center of Awakening (310-828-0290; www.mindspring.com/~coa/index.html) is devoted to the study of spirituality and meditation, and offers retreats that make use of seclusion and devotional practice to reach the goal of awakening. The retreats, offered several times a year, take place in the Sierra Nevada on land the center purchased for this activity — an activity it considers the best reflection of its mission.

 

Mutual UFO Network Los Angeles (877-MUFONLA; www.mufonla.com) is an education and research group dedicated to collecting a solid body of evidence and scholarship related to UFOs and extraterrestrial contacts. The question at the core of its project is a deeply spiritual one: Are we alone? Members pursue the answer by documenting and authenticating sightings and by offering support groups for abductees. Discussions, sharing of individual stories and regression hypnosis help survivors cope with and learn from their encounters.

Pan Pipes (1641 Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood; 323-462-7078; www.panpipes.com) is L.A.’s oldest occult shop, specializing in supplies for the practice of all occult traditions, including candles, crystals, cauldrons and biologicals. It also has the world’s largest formulary, producing up to 6,500 oils and potions and more than 4,600 dry blends. The general manager, a Ph.D. in comparative religions, is on the premises to answer questions.

Self-Realization Fellowship (3880 San Rafael Ave.; 323-225-2471; www.yogananda.org) is an international organization that instructs in yoga meditation. Its goal is to bring diverse people together, promote harmony and demonstrate the fundamental unity of all religions. Concentration and meditation techniques are designed to create an inner stillness that leads to the realization of one’s true self or soul. Retreats and youth programs are available, as are the published writings and lectures of the fellowship’s founder, Paramahansa Yogananda.


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