LILY DALE AS PILGRIMAGE
Having been a summer resident of Lily Dale for more than forty years, I always sensed that there was more to going in this lovely place every summer than just returning to a summer house, or getting out of the steamy south, or reconnecting with old friends. For all these years, my mind has struggled to articulate just exactly what this something more was.
From the very beginning of my journeys to Lily Dale, there has always been a visceral, embodied pull to return, which never made sense to my rational brain. Many folks at Lily Dale talked about the special "energy" that existed there. I was never particularly good at sensing or feeling this energy, so for many years, I just assumed that the more that we felt, was this elusive energy - that caused people to feel that they had come home when they entered Lily Dale, and pulled them to return.
I began going to Lily Dale in the late 1970's, traveling just two hours from where we lived in Pennsylvania. I made my first trip with my sister. We went as a lark because we heard you could get readings there. Walking around this run-down little community of about 200 homes was like stepping back into Victorian times. We went to the free 2:30 service, and a medium, John White, asked if he could come to me.
"I see you majoring in psychology and studying behavior modification. You love learning about people and how to help them. I see you surrounded by books and immersing yourself in this knowledge." I was somewhat stunned because I had just started my masters in counseling and had actually just completed a graduate course in behavior medication. I always studied on my bed, surrounded by books. How could he know this? Over the next few years my sister and I continued to return, started taking classes and got many more readings.
My right brain loved all the experiential learning -creating mandalas, guided meditative journeys, meditating and practicing intuitive skills that were always part of any class. Having taken countless traditional academic courses in so many subjects, I was fascinated by the completely different approach. My left-brain however, and my real life as a faculty wife, mother and student that I returned to after every visit, could find no way to integrate my Lily Dale experiences into my life. I found myself questioning why this experiential, right-brained kind of learning wasn't available in traditional academic contexts. It was exciting and infinitely interesting - like entering a whole new world filled with magic and mystery and possibilities and what ifs.... And, in many ways, this learning was more real to me than the basically boring college courses I had taken. For some reason, however, this type of learning was not considered to be as real or meaningful or legitimate as traditional academia.
For almost five years, I found it almost impossible to bring the two worlds together in my mind. When I tried to explain it to my husband or several close friends, I always felt that they were looking at me sideways and secretly wondering if I had joined a cult. During those years, I felt like I was living in two different worlds. The hardest part of being at Lily Dale was leaving. I would get in the car, still high and buzzing about what I had just learned and as I drove, would feel the euphoria slowly melting away as I realized that there were so few people I could share my experience with.
Forty years later, as the owner of Angel House Guest House, I continue to see the same struggle on a daily basis as guests prepare to leave and return to their various and different "real" lives. Some guests were there with the blessings of their family -the husband who assumed all the parenting duties because he knew how special this trip was to his wife, or the daughter who said she couldn't wait to bring her mother next year. Sometimes whole families came together. Others, however, were returning to real lives that were very different. "My family doesn't even know I am here." Or, "I couldn't even tell my family where I was going. They would think I was going to hell." Or, "My family knows I am here and they are all praying for my soul." Very often, it was even sadder. "I feel certain that the medium brought my dad in, and I would love share what he said with my family, but I know they won't want to hear it."
Regardless of what they were returning to, the experience of coming to and leaving Lily Dale always had a common theme, whether or not we sensed it consciously. We all seemed to feel touched by something greater than just the actual place.
Don't miss yourself!
I believe it was Leo Buscaglia who said, "Don't miss yourself!" By that he meant that we are all touched by deep, symbolic and archetypal experiences, but few of us understand these experiences on a more profound level. The more, however, that we flesh out and articulate the true nature of these experiences, the more we understand ourselves and our connections to that which is most "real," in our lives.
And, I think I finally understand why Lily Dale is so special and touches people so deeply.
I share this with you many guests in hopes that you, too, might understand your journey to Lily Dale in a way that is richer and more meaningful.
Journeying to Special Places as Pilgrimage.
According to anthropologists, religious studies experts, art historians and the transpersonal perspective, a pilgrimage is a "rite of passage that transforms those who make the trek." In ancient and medieval times, the journey was designed to connect the pilgrim with the non-ordinary and supernatural.
We think of pilgrimages as having happened in olden days, and then, only to a select few. Today, however and somewhat surprisingly, articles and books have been written that a trip to Disney World is like a modern day pilgrimage. The authors draw many similarities between the two experiences. Having just gone to Disney this past Christmas with my children and five granddaughters, I must say that "something" very special does indeed happen there. We found ourselves in tears while watching the fireworks at Disney and the light show at Epcot. Trying not to miss ourselves, and because we all felt it, we tried to explain to explain it to ourselves. We tried to better understand, beyond the joy of just being there with children and grand-children, what exactly we were experiencing that seemed to elevate our deep love and appreciation for each other to an even higher level. I even wondered if something as mundane as fireworks could elicit a spiritual experience. My daughter, a life coach, thought it was similar to Brene Brown's concept of being fully present, which seemed closer to the point.
After reading a recent article on traveling to Disney World as a Medieval Pilgrimage, it all began to come together. Disney World does indeed provide something special. We not only get to experience the magic through our children and grandchildren, but also get to re-experience our own child-like magic and wonder. Disney World is wonderful. I get it.
But as I was reading the article, something deeper was working its way into my consciousness. Our trip to Disney did meet many of the criteria that are essential to a pilgrimage. We traveled to a special place that was unlike our everyday lives. We anticipated joy and magic and fun. We expected special experiences. The article even mentioned that a visitor can experience a sense of time travel as they leave Frontier Land and enter Tomorrowland. When I read that I thought they were stretching the point a bit. I had had time altering experiences that were far more meaningful than walking into Tomorrowland. And finally everything came together in my mind!
I realized that I am one of the lucky few who has not only been to Disney World, but has also been to Lily Dale. Reading the article, I finally had the culminating flash of insight about what really happens at Lily Dale. I finally had the words and the template for why a trip to Lily Dale is the truest essence of the pilgrimage. Forty years later, I realized that the more that happens at Lily Dale may very well include energy, but even deeper, it connects us to a universal and archetypal journey in search of ourselves, and does so in a way that is far deeper and meaningful than Disney World.
Lily Dale as Pilgrimage
Lily Dale may just be the best place in the world to truly experience the essence of the journey. A true pilgrimage is designed for adults, who have lived long enough to hunger for more than just fun, or seeing a lovely or famous site or person. The true pilgrimage goes beyond just entertaining us to connecting us to our deeper selves. We feel or sense this primordial connection whether or not we are consciously aware of it.Aspects of the true pilgrimage:
- Pilgrims travel a great distance. Owning a guest house in Lily Dale allows us to welcome people from all over the world. Lodgers can lock their individual rooms, but we never lock the front door because it is not unusual for guests to arrive at 2:00 or 3:00AM after traveling from Europe or Australia. Just as those making a pilgrimage in ancient times had to walk for several days, todays visitors have often gone to great lengths to get to Lily Dale.
- The sacred space is set apart from the ordinary and is often bounded. Visitors must pass through a gate, as in olden days, to enter. The Lily Dale gate actually looks exactly like it did when thousands of people traveled each week by train or carriage in Victorian times. Spiritualism was the most popular religion in the US and Lily Dale was at its zenith.
Lily Dale is actually an island, literally surrounded by an old growth forest and two lakes. The forest is everywhere around and is naturally integrated into every visit. One must walk through the old growth forest to get to "The Stump" - a sacred place where the mediums give messages twice daily. Many of the experiences are actually integrated with the nature that surrounds it. The Forest Temple seems to be tucked into the woods. The labyrinth winds its way through small trees. The fairy trail is in the woods. Sun dappling through the trees, shines on hundreds of tiny fairy houses -many that have been made by the children attending Children's Week each summer. Angels and fairies, both real and imagined, seem to beckon from the trees.
- Visitors can symbolically pass through time. People at Lily
Dale often remark that time feels altered. Even on the most literal and
mundane levels, people experience this time alteration in different
ways. Some find it very relaxing, rocking on the porch and talking to
other pilgrims or spending long afternoons looking for fairies on the
fairy trail. Others, like my sister and I, typically felt there were
always too many things to do as we rushed from a class or an intuitive
reading to one of the many free experiences that were offered during the
day and evening.
These experiences with time however can't compare to the personal and felt experience of time of being involved in right brained activities. We feel this shift in time, whenever we are involved in creative activities -and Lily Dale is nothing if not a composite of right brained experiences in a right-brained place. Guided meditations, drumming circles, sweat lodges, walking the labyrinth, medicine wheel ceremonies, ghost walks, midnight swims and trips to the Stump, guided only by the light of the moon, all shift the ordinary into the magic of being with nature.
The experience of time being altered is probably most true during a past life regression. Following the words of a guide, you are gently directed to sense yourself traveling back to a time that has significance for you. Typically, it is suggested that you look down at your feet to get a sense of where and when you find yourself. Looking at your feet, you may find you are barefoot on a vast savannah, or that you are wearing moccasins, or women's Victorian shoes - and you then watch the story that unfolds in your mind. Sometimes the "story" is more real to you than real life and you find yourself crying inexplicably. Other times a tiny little part of your brain is simultaneously posing questions: "Am I making this up? I can't be.... I'm not this creative. Is this real?" These experiences are so much more than walking into Tomorrowland. Afterwards, when given time to process your experience, you are literally one with every philosopher, mystic and free thinker through time who pondered the big questions: What is consciousness? Does it survive death? Have I lived before?
- Travelers explore the major themes of life and death. While
this theme is touched upon at Disney, nowhere is the theme of life and
death more prominent than at Lily Dale.
Lily Dale was founded by the Free Thinkers and Spiritualists who came together to explore all the esoteric quandaries of the day -especially what happens to us after we leave the earth plane. The tenets of Spiritualism are, for the most part, simple: "We believe in the Golden Rule" and "We believe in Infinite Intelligence." Men and women have always been considered equal in Spiritualism. There is no concept of punishment or hell. There is a strong focus on inner knowing. However, the one tenet that sets Spiritualism apart from other religions is the stated belief that death is just another form of existence and that we can communicate with those who have passed.
Because there was so much death during Victorian times, with the Civil War and children dying in infancy, the concept that our loved ones are still with us and can communicate with us was the ultimate comfort. Little by little however, the pull of the traditional religious beliefs returned. The stated belief that the dead can communicate with the living is the very thing that caused, and still causes Lily Dale to be marginalized by consensus reality.
Ironically, most religions share the same comforting belief that we will indeed be reunited with our loved ones. Traditional religion, however, believes that this happens later - not now -in this life time.
The greatest irony, however, is that regardless of what religious beliefs people hold, the truth is that most people have indeed had profound personal experiences of being visited by their loved ones - in this life time. They sense, feel, smell, dream of, or communicate with their dead loved ones - in this life time. And, because we believe that this should happen later, we often think we imagined it or that it was just wish-fulfillment. The experience of visitation or communication may feel true but, at the same time, the rational mind and traditional mindset has to believe that tells you that the sense of visitation was just a coincidence or desperate desire.
Imagine if this feeling of connection was confirmed. This happens every day at Lily Dale.
Intuitive readings, by definition, include a description of the loved one. You may or may not identify. Yes, your father smoked cigars and worked on the railroad and had a lot to apologize for, but.......while it is fun to think about, it may not rock your world. When a medium is specific, however, and talks about things that no one but you could know, it is a whole different experience. "She is telling me that she is happy that the pink quilt with the roses that she gave you when you were a child is still on your bed." Or, "He is telling me that he is happy that you framed his Little League uniform and have it hanging in your bedroom."
Specific intuitive readings, more than any other experience, can cause a person to rethink everything they ever thought was true. For this reason, coming to Lily Dale is often a life-changing event.
- Visitors are typically changed by their visit. In this space,
set apart, they undergo transformational and transcendent experiences.
Lily Dale is a sacred space where people can transcend the ordinary. The
Free thinkers came to this lovely place on the banks of a lake to
discuss issues around the meaning of life. The free thinkers were the
intellectuals of the day. In early Victorian times the climate was far
more open to the exploration of the ancient mysteries and the hidden
wisdom than it is today. Madam Blavatsky had written numerous books on
the perennial wisdom shared by religious and spiritual practices in
The early Free Thinkers and Spiritualists must have sensed something special about this land and healing mineral springs. Rumor has it that much of this land had earlier, been a sacred site for Native Americans and, before that, if you believe skeletal evidence, a race of 7 foot tall giants.
Even today, this area is still referred to as the "burned over" area because this part of western New York spawned the birth of eight different religions -Mormons, Adventists, Quakers, Shakers, etc. People in Victorian times were said to be "burned in the spirit." It is hard to know exactly what it is about the area that continues to stimulate such philosophical inquiry. Some propose that Lily Dale sits atop energy or "lay" lines that run through the earth.
- Lily Dale is a place where magic can happen. In the same way that Mickey can be walking right beside you in Disney world, you can be walking down the street in Lily Dale and have someone say to you (as happened to my friend) " I am drawn to tell you that 'Doris' is walking right beside you. Does that make sense?" My friend came back in tears. Doris was her mother's name. To be fair, the unprompted message was not given by a registered medium at Lily Dale, for that sort of unprovoked reading would not be permitted. The message was delivered by a visitor who just happened to be near my friend and share with the information he received with her. This happens frequently because people who have had these types of experiences, often since they were children, are drawn to Lily Dale. For many, they have finally found a place that validates what they have been experiencing all their lives and were told not to talk about.
- Visitors leave the everyday world of consensus reality. A trip to
Lily Dale is an immersion into all that is associated with the right
brain. We live in a rational world where thinking is more valued than
feeling, where facts, analysis and data are more important than fantasy
and imagination. Another way to say this is that the left brain or
masculine qualities are more valued and are considered to be more real
than the right-brained, feminine qualities. One can easily look at a
list of Yin and Yang qualities such a thinking / feeling, head/ heart,
analysis / synthesis, curing / caring, words / images ... and readily
recognize that, 100% of the time, even today, we strongly value the
left-brained, masculine quality over the feminine, right brain
counterpart. Simply look at the yearly budget for the US. 60% of all
money goes to defense, while 6% goes to education and 6% goes to social
welfare, etc. All of us literally hunger for the mindful balance of both
aspects of consciousness.
Lily Dale is full of right-brained activities. It is an entirely different kind of learning that allows for us to be in touch with 'other than conscious' parts of our psyche, and can bring about deep insights and feelings that can only come from accessing both sides of consciousness.
- Not surprisingly then, Lily Dale is a feminine place. It is often said that women are more in touch with right brain qualities such as compassion, empathy and intuition. The majority of visitors and mediums are women. Both aspects of consciousness come together at the Dale to reflect a soft, playful feminine energy. The equalitarian nature of Spiritualism enabled women to speak publically for the first time -often on topics such as morality, inner wisdom and intuitive knowing. This openness to the feminine qualities made Lily Dale the natural place for the early suffragettes to meet. Lily Dale is actually the only place in the United States that permitted Susan B. Anthony to speak. In 1891, more than 3,000 women, including the true architect of the Women's movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, convened at Lily Dale to draft the first Declaration of Sentiments. While Elizabeth and Susan lived in Seneca Falls, it could easily be argued that the women's movement actually started at Lily Dale.
For all these reasons, Lily Dale is often referred to as the "best kept secret." Others call it "Hogwarts" or "summer camp for adults. It is a place where adults can play - for as one medium explained, play for adults is intelligence having fun. Lily Dale is a place that takes pilgrims away from the common place of everyday life and consensus reality. It is a place where, in an organic, natural and fun way, we can explore every mystery that humans have ever pondered. And, very often, Lily Dale is life changing.
Angel House Guest House
2½ South Street
Lily Dale NY 14752
PO Box 144
Lily Dale NY 14752