SA­CRED SPACE

Why a new spir­i­tu­al­ity is on the rise in our time-crunched world.

Elle (Canada) - - Trend - BY JOANA LOURENÇO

t hap­pened ran­domly, as th­ese things of­ten do. One minute I was walk­ing through a grove of trees in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and the next I had an en­counter that I still can’t make sense of, even months later. On that spring day, a stranger ap­proached me with an out­stretched hand and I of­fered a “Sorry” with­out tak­ing much no­tice.

When I did see the small woman’s down­cast face, I had a jar­ring thought: A voice within me said, “You’re look­ing into the face of God.” Time seemed to stand still. I turned away for a mo­ment, and the stranger dis­ap­peared into the crowd.

Though I was raised Catholic, I have con­sid­ered my­self an athe­ist for years, so I was shaken and dis­ori­ented by the feel­ing that I had peered be­hind some sort of mys­ti­cal cur­tain. Maybe I’d been watch­ing too many Bib­li­cal movies. This year has wit­nessed a flood of Judeo-Christian-in­flu­enced biopics, such as Son of God, Noah and Heaven Is for Real, the lat­ter about a boy’s life-after-death ex­pe­ri­ence. And my fave new show, The Leftovers, is cen­tred around an un­ex­plain­able event h

dur­ing which 2 per­cent of the world’s pop­u­la­tion dis­ap­pears from the earth.

So maybe it’s no sur­prise that I had preter­nat­u­ral thoughts on the brain, but that day in Cal­i­for­nia rat­tles me still—and I hadn’t told a soul un­til now. Where do you turn when you want to talk about faith (or a lack thereof) or re­flect on life’s “big ques­tions”? You’re likely to get blank stares if you men­tion the topic of a re­li­gious ex­pe­ri­ence over lunch with a col­league: “I had a mys­ti­cal en­counter with a ran­dom stranger in a park—pass the mus­tard.” And there’s no way I’m post­ing th­ese thoughts on Twit­ter, for fear of com­ing off as em­bar­rass­ingly earnest.

Cana­di­ans don’t typ­i­cally talk about re­li­gion: It’s taboo to poke about in oth­ers’ most deeply held be­liefs. “There’s so much cyn­i­cism to­day,” says Gretta Vosper, a United Church min­is­ter and au­thor of the best­seller With or With­out God. “There’s this sense that if you put your­self out there, you’re go­ing to get trounced on.” And she would know. The or­dained min­is­ter has faced her share of de­ri­sion since “com­ing out” as an athe­ist more than a decade ago. The crit­i­cism from out­side her com­mu­nity was fierce, but in­stead of fir­ing her, her Toronto con­gre­ga­tion of­fered ac­cep­tance. To­day, Vosper leads a church that iden­ti­fies it­self as “post-the­is­tic,” which means they do things a bit dif­fer­ently. (In­stead of a Christ­mas Eve ser­vice, for ex­am­ple, they cel­e­brate the win­ter sol­stice.)

Vosper’s story is unique, but it echoes re­li­gious trends in this coun­try. “One in four Cana­di­ans claim to have no re­li­gion at all,” says Joel Thiessen, so­ci­ol­o­gist at Am­brose Univer­sity in Cal­gary and co-au­thor of The So­ci­ol­ogy of Re­li­gion: A Cana­dian Per­spec­tive. But while devo­tees of main­line re­li­gions are dwin­dling, the group of peo­ple who iden­tify them­selves as “spir­i­tual but not re­li­gious” is on the rise. “More and more, peo­ple are cob­bling to­gether dif­fer­ent be­liefs and prac­tices that don’t tie them to a par­tic­u­lar re­li­gion, per se,” says Thiessen. To feel spir­i­tu­ally sat­is­fied, peo­ple have been flock­ing to ac­tiv­i­ties such as med­i­ta­tion, prayer and even ex­er­cise. (Think of the pseudo- sa­cred lan­guage used in SoulCy­cle, a can­dlelit sta­tion­ary-cy­cling class that counts Oprah as a devo­tee.)

Pre­pare for penance with the handy Con­fes­sion: A Ro­man Catholic App. It of­fers help­ful prompts to exam

ine your conscience (“Have I been in­volved with the oc­cult?”) and takes you through the con­fes­sion rit­ual step by

sin-purg­ing step.

Th­ese spir­i­tual no­mads—I count my­self among them—aren’t nec­es­sar­ily look­ing for a re­li­gious com­mu­nity. They may feel dis­il­lu­sioned by the faith they were raised in, or shun the dogma al­to­gether, but they still crave what Vosper calls the “off-la­bel ben­e­fits” of such groups. Stud­ies show that de­vel­op­ing friend­ships in a com­mu­nity—not nec­es­sar­ily a faith-based one—leads to a greater sense of well-be­ing and bet­ter health.

This partly ex­plains the rise of so-called “athe­ist churches.” It may sound like an oxy­moron, but th­ese god­less con­gre­ga­tions are grow­ing, and fast. The largest of th­ese is the Sun­day Assem­bly, which has 70 con­gre­ga­tions world­wide, in­clud­ing three in Canada (in Hal­i­fax, Ot­tawa and Toronto). The group re­pur­poses the church model—mem­bers sing along to Ste­vie Won­der and Queen, read po­etry and lis­ten to guest speak­ers—to cre­ate “com­mu­ni­ties pow­ered by karaoke, kind­ness and cake.” “The ser­vice has to be en­ter­tain­ing, but it’s not just en­ter­tain­ment,” ex­plains co-founder and co­me­dian Sanderson Jones. “It tries to serve a higher goal, which is to bring peo­ple to­gether so that they can live the lives they want to lead.”

A sim­i­lar ethos is be­hind Full Cir­cle, a New Agey re­li­gious move­ment co-founded in Venice Beach, Calif., by An­drew Kee­gan. (Re­mem­ber him? He starred in 10 Things I Hate About You and in most of my 13-yearold fan­tasies.) The group de­scribes it­self as a “non-de­nom­i­na­tional non-profit” that of­fers live per­for­mances, yoga, dance classes and support groups.

Groups like th­ese seem to be in touch with the spir­i­tual hunger that’s out there right now. But with all the de­mands on our time, it’s not al­ways fea­si­ble (or de­sir­able) to be in the same place on the same day ev­ery week to get our fix of com­mu­nity con­nect­ed­ness. Es­pe­cially not when we can plug in any­time we want.

That’s why more and more faith com­mu­ni­ties are turn­ing to the Web. Thiessen cites an ex­am­ple from his own parish, where the pas­tor is now field­ing ques­tions from the con­gre­ga­tion texted to him in re­sponse to the ser­mon. Tech­nol­ogy has cut down the hi­er­ar­chies in re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions, shrink­ing what Vosper calls the “chasm be­tween the h

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