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Magical thinking

Americans—including some churchgoers—are showing an increasing interest in New Age beliefs and practices

Deborah Hanekamp gives a shamanic medicine reading at Maha Rose healing center. Piotr Redlinski for The New York Times/Redux

Magical thinking
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Maha Rose, a crystal shop and reiki healing center in Brooklyn, asks clients to remove their shoes when they enter, so on a Tuesday afternoon Brooklynites were quietly padding around tables of crystals in their socks. The crystals, priced from $6 to $40, each have descriptions of what they do: Citrine “raises self esteem,” black moonstone “enhances fertility,” and labradorite “calms overactive minds.” For tangerine quartz, “singing to it while it is in your pocket cultivates a more positive future.”

Sadie Kadlec, the resident crystal guru who does crystal-healing sessions, came out from the back. “What’s twinkling to you?” she asked me, meaning that I should point out what crystals I was drawn to. She’s worked at Maha Rose for five years, and the place has doubled in size over that time.

Throw rugs led the way through hallways piled with large rose quartz crystals, back to healing rooms where Kadlec works, placing crystals on different parts of people’s bodies to send particular spiritual “energies” to heal them. Kadlec comes from a Christian background and went to a Christian school but said she has been spiritually drawn to crystals from a young age.

As we talked in an open area near Maha Rose’s temple in low voices, a woman all in flowing white clothes came to shush us. But soon after, children poured in from the street, laughing loudly and running around.

“The fairy school,” Kadlec explained.

Americans have a returning appetite for New Age beliefs and practices. Tarot card sales have been steadily climbing, according to distributor U.S. Game Systems, and over the last five years adults’ use of meditation tripled while it also increased tenfold among children ages 4 to 17, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“New Age” refers to a 1970s movement that incorporated occult and metaphysical beliefs and practices, including meditation, medium readings, astrology, and alternative medicines as the means to personal and social transformation.

New Age is also chic now: Dior featured tarot card designs from a 1970s deck on its clothes in a 2017 fashion show—sending sales of that particular deck rocketing. Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle brand Goop employed an in-house “crystal healer” and shaman and has an online section to shop “cosmic health.” On Goop’s website one crystal healer sells $27 “psychic vampire repellent.” (Instructions: “Spray around the aura to protect from psychic attack.”)

Customers shop at Maha Rose

Customers shop at Maha Rose Piotr Redlinski for The New York Times/Redux

A recent Pew Research Center survey showed that 62 percent of Americans hold at least one New Age belief, whether that be in the power of crystals or astrology or reincarnation. What’s more surprising is that about half of those whom the Pew survey categorized as “Sunday Stalwarts” (most of whom go to church weekly and describe their faith as the single most important source of meaning in their life) also hold at least one New Age belief. The Pew survey questions were straightforward, asking whether the subject believes in psychics, astrology, and so on, with definitions for each.

For self-described evangelicals, 19 percent said they believe in reincarnation, and 33 percent said they believe in psychics. About 30 percent of Sunday Stalwarts responded to the Pew survey saying they believe spiritual energy is focused in physical objects like crystals and mountains. That number was much higher among Catholics (47 percent) than evangelicals (24 percent).

Stepping into mediums’ offices and crystal healing centers and talking to those who burn sage or use tarot cards reveals vastly different approaches and levels of commitment to these practices. Some burn sage to have a relaxing smell in their home. Others dig more deeply into the troubling spiritual side of New Age, seeking out crystals for “spiritual energy” or trying to channel the spirit of a dead friend through a medium.

Dónal O’Mathúna, a bioethics professor at the Ohio State University College of Nursing, finds anecdotally that most Christians who engage in New Age practices like crystal healing often get into it by a friend’s word of mouth, without doing extensive research on either the scientific benefit or the theological roots of the practice.

“The first thing is that you have to go beyond the anecdotal report, that my cousin tried this or my sister tried this and they felt better,” said O’Mathúna.

O’Mathúna and Dr. Walt Larimore, both members of the Christian Medical & Dental Associations, wrote Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook, a book that looks at some of these practices. They aren’t universally dismissive of everything New Age–related. Having a beautiful rock or the scent of burning sage that helps you relax is not a problem, O’Mathúna said.

“Paul’s teaching on meat sacrificed to idols is the closest I think we can get to guidance on this,” said O’Mathúna. “There’s nothing in the meat itself that is bad, but if you understand the spiritual aspects behind it, at times it can be good to stay away from it. When someone understands the roots of it, they may not want to be involved in those practices even if someone else may say there’s no problem with it.”

So, for example, he cautions against the Japanese energy healing called reiki, which he says is in its essence a practice to connect to the spirit world: “We’re given clear teaching in the Bible that there are spiritual beings out there, and they’re not all good.” He also recommends going to health practitioners in one’s church to talk about evidence-based practices. He finds there is a slice of Christians that is often suspicious of mainstream medical studies.

Studies have debunked crystals’ healing power, except to show a placebo effect. But clients come to Kadlec, the crystal healer, who have “tried a lot of other things,” she said, including “Western medicine,” without success. Kadlec personally says certain crystals help her with muscle or back pain.

Kadlec carries a pouch of stones everywhere with her and, depending on the day, carries one or two larger stones. Every morning she does a crystal meditation, to “reflect on the energy properties.”

Customers participate in a breathing workshop.

Customers participate in a breathing workshop. Piotr Redlinski for The New York Times/Redux

When Kadlec does a crystal healing session, she lays out stones, then has the client close her eyes, and guides her through a meditation. Then the client opens her eyes and picks stones. Then the client lies down, and Kadlec places the stones on the person’s body, before guiding the client through another meditation.

“I don’t say this will cure you,” she said. “But it’s a great tool to supplement emotionally what you’re going through healthwise. A lot of time when people get colds, they’re over-extending themselves.”

Kadlec was not surprised at the Pew results showing an overlap of belief in the spiritual power of crystals and Christianity. She cited the special priestly breastplate in Exodus 28 that had 12 different gems for the 12 tribes of Israel, as evidence of the historic “creation power” of stones.

Though she doesn’t call herself a Christian, Kadlec said her Christian family has become more open to her crystal practice. She’ll post images of crystals on her Instagram account, and family members will comment on which ones speak to them.

One woman, Janet McKnight, wrote to me on Twitter about Christian households getting into essential oils and crystals and said: “When we’re ill, our frequency drops. The sicker we are, the lower our frequency. … Using things like oils & crystals to help raise our frequency is just 1 mode of healing … not all EO [essential oil] use is New Age, same with crystals. The creation glorifies the Creator.”

People look at healing stones and crystals in Portland, Maine.

People look at healing stones and crystals in Portland, Maine. Tim Greenway/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

BACK IN MANHATTAN, a “Certified Psychic Medium & Tarot Advisor” showed a New Age practice that appeals to mainstream professionals. Dressed all in black, with black fingernails and sleek cherry-red hair, Marina Margulis caters to New York’s highly educated class. She thinks crystal healing is goofy and better left to doctors. She doesn’t advertise anywhere, but her business is thriving.

Margulis’ office by Lincoln Center has no candles or crystal balls or incense, but instead is sunlight-filled with a leather couch and several vases of tulips, like a therapist’s. That’s how Margulis fashions herself, with the side specialty of talking to the dead. Looking for help getting pregnant? Go to a gynecologist, she says. Predicting the future? Forget about it.

Margulis is Jewish but not observant, has a Brooklyn accent, and brings up Albert Einstein and Carl Jung more than any Eastern philosopher. Her chow chow, Loki, whom she refers to as her “assistant,” shuffles around behind her at her office. Her day was booked solid with tarot and mediumistic readings, with appointments until 7:30 p.m., which seemed pre-emptively exhausting to Loki, who was soon curled up and snoring through our interview.

Clients come to Margulis about two things: their careers and their love lives. She says she can help clients “fulfill their destiny” by tuning “into the World of Spirit to connect to your loved ones that have passed over” and, in some cases, by using tarot cards. For Christians, her business is clearly at odds with Leviticus 19:31 (“do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists”) and 20:6, just for starters.

But some things she won’t do. Several times a week she will get a phone call from someone wanting her to remove a curse or spell, which she rebuffs; she doesn’t think spells and curses are real. In some ways she is less astrally minded than many in New York’s professional class who come to her.

“Logical people need to find a source of why things don’t go your way,” she said. “It’s easier to believe that you’re cursed, rather than turning a finger at yourself: Where did I go wrong?”

One woman came to her for a second opinion after visiting a fortuneteller in Hell’s Kitchen in order to remove a curse. The fortuneteller had told the woman she had to do 10 sessions, at $400 a session, to remove the curse.

Margulis was in disbelief. “This is an educated woman I am talking to!” she said. “People cling to this glimmer of hope that their problems will go away because of magic. That to me is scary.”

O’Mathúna said there is research that supports the idea that “better-educated people” want to direct their own healthcare—a potentially good thing—and so tend to get into alternative medicine, which often leads to New Age practices.

Marina Margulis

Marina Margulis Handout

Ben Jacobs was one of those who took a path of alternative healthcare. Ten years ago, Jacobs had a 16-hour surgery to remove a tumor at the base of his brain. His neurosurgeon wasn’t sure he would make it through the surgery, and when he did wake up, the doctor told him simply to rest and heal. But for two years after that Jacobs was in misery, at 40 percent of his mental capacity and having gained over 50 pounds from his limited physical capacity.

The neurosurgeon who took his case post-surgery only physically touched him once in that recovery period, he said, to check his scar, and then simply had him fill out a pain journal so she could prescribe him more pills. Jacobs ran into a friend from high school, who recommended he try an energy healer she knew.

“At that point if you had said, ‘Here is some bat blood,’ … I would have knocked a small child over to get it,” Jacobs said. He went to the energy healer and got treatment he describes as deep tissue massage that finds “energy blocks” in the body, and he began feeling better within two weeks.

Since then he has continued going to an energy healer and after some research added acupuncture, meditation, and eating a more organic diet. Jacobs, now 40, grew up in the church and reads Scripture every day, but he has now incorporated these more Eastern practices into his life.

Jacobs’ frustrating experience with traditional doctors is not a surprise to O’Mathúna, who said alternative therapists often have a better bedside manner than traditional doctors, taking time to listen to people about their stresses.

“That’s where the placebo effect can be much more powerful, when you trust the practitioner who takes a half hour with you, versus the doctor who takes two minutes with you. Whatever they suggest to you, you might have more trust in,” said O’Mathúna. “But the question shouldn’t just be, ‘Does it help me feel better?’ What is the power or the energy behind this thing? What’s the evidence that this is a benefit? … Just critically examine things.”

Emily Belz

Emily is a former senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and also previously reported for the New York Daily News, The Indianapolis Star, and Philanthropy magazine. Emily resides in New York City.



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