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Spiritual But Secular

Sanctuaries for skeptics

By Anne Bokma


It’s a Sunday morning at the Centre for Spiritual Living on Toronto’s Queen Street East, and Rev. Jonathan Zenz is waiting in the wings to take to the stage once the regular half-hour guided meditation wraps up. Sixty of us are sitting on wide-bottomed cushioned chairs in the dimly lit worship space, our ears perked to the velvety murmurings of the woman leading the meditation.

And then — it’s showtime! Zenz, a former Los Angeles theatre actor, bounds onto the stage. A headset microphone projects his message to the audience directly in front of him and to the one watching online: “Thank you for bringing your consciousness to this space.” It’s two days after last November’s terrorist attacks in Paris. Zenz says he doesn’t know why bad things happen but urges us to “step into a higher vibration of love, light, peace, joy and beauty — these are the attributes of the Divine, and the Divine is in you. . . . We can heal the world by operating at a higher frequency.” He goes on to quote his childhood hero, Mr. Rogers: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers.’”

I’ve dragged my skeptical husband to this service and imagine him rolling his eyes. But after an hour of listening to relentlessly positive messages (“Love is the highest healing in the world”) and upbeat jazzy tunes performed by an energizing seven-piece band, we find ourselves holding hands with the strangers around us, swaying to John Lennon’s Imagine. I look over at my husband and, what’s that I see? Not an eye roll, but a tear rolling down his face.

The Centre for Spiritual Living (there are 400 centres in North America) offers “Sunday celebrations” rather than run-of-the-mill services and draws on the teachings of everyone from Plato to Buddha, Jesus, and, yes, Oprah. Call it religion-lite. It’s one of the few formal worship spaces — along with Unitarian congregations, a smattering of humanist gatherings, and, arguably, some of the more unconventional United churches — attracting those who consider themselves spiritual but not religious (SBNR).

While most SBNRs have bolted from the church, some are still drawn to the rituals of a worship service, often because they grew up with it.

“There’s something dangerous and even narcissistic in trying to [have a spiritual life] all by yourself,” says Rev. Shawn Newton of First Unitarian Toronto. “In the Unitarian tradition, we have Thoreau, who went into the woods to sort things out. We romanticize what he did, but what a lot of people forget is that he went to his mom’s house and she made him lunch on a daily basis.” We need other people, says Newton, who describes congregational gatherings as “loving laboratories of the human spirit.”

If the number of SBNRs is on the rise (20 percent and growing in Canada), why aren’t these alternative congregations experiencing parallel growth? Partly it’s a marketing issue. “We have an allergy to proselytizing,” admits Newton. The other problem, he says, is that Sunday morning services simply don’t work for a lot of people. “Imagine if you had a favourite restaurant, and it was only open one hour a week — that restaurant wouldn’t be very successful.”

Over at the Centre for Spiritual Living, the doors are open all week. You can buy a coffee at the Conscious Café or peruse such items as organic skin cream and The Affirmations Coloring Book at the bookstore and gift shop. There’s a Wednesday night meditation group and classes such as “The Power of Feng Shui.” Zenz says it’s the perfect church for those who reject institutionalized religion. “We don’t preach fear and guilt. Our only desire is that people leave here feeling great.”

By the time we leave the centre, my husband’s tears have turned into a smile. Zenz has done his job.

Anne Bokma is a journalist in Hamilton.



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Anne Bokma left the Dutch Reformed Church as a young adult and eventually became a member of the United Church and then the Unitarian Universalists. Having long explored the "spiritual but not religious" demographic as a writer, she decided to immerse herself in practices — like hiring a soul coach, secular choir-singing and forest bathing — for 12 months to find both enlightenment and entertainment.

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