LILY DALE, N.Y. -- Maybe it's the drive past farms and along the wooded shores of a quiet lake. Or maybe it's passing through a gate into a cozy community of 19th century gingerbread-like houses and streets not widened since their horse and buggy beginnings.
Whatever the reason, the first moments at the Lily Dale Assembly establish a distinct sense of tranquility, a feeling continuously nurtured through the course of a visit.
Calling itself the "world's largest Spiritualist community," Lily Dale and its year-round and seasonal residents invite visitors to renew body and spirit. That could involve meditating at an ancient tree stump deep in a virgin forest, taking part in a "thought exchange," or walking a shrubbery labyrinth while contemplating life's challenges.
For many of the 22,000 to 25,000 who pass through the gates each year, it means meeting with one of the assembly's three dozen registered "mediums" -- people who claim to commune with the spirit world -- in hopes of receiving a message or guidance from a loved one who has died.
But, cautions historian Joyce LaJudice, "It is not a psychic fair." She stresses Lily Dale residents are serious about privately practicing the religion of Spiritualism. "We are not here for entertainment."
Being a believer is not a requirement to wander the grounds, browse the bookstores or attend free daily meditation and healing services and clairvoyance demonstrations by resident and visiting mediums.
Lily Dale, now in its 121st year, is busiest in summer, with workshops, services and lectures on topics ranging from past-life regression to yoga scheduled every day through Sept. 3. Services are held on a more limited basis during the rest of the year and Lily Dale's resident mediums continue to offer readings.
The Marion Skidmore library is stocked with hundreds of books devoted to healing, mediumship, transpersonal psychology and spiritual development and gift stores stock crystals, clothing, herbs and jewelry.
Lily Dale Assembly, named for the abundance of lilies flowering on Cassadaga Lake on which it sits, has its roots in a group of Spiritualists who met regularly in the mid-1800s to discuss their beliefs and practice their healing and mediumship. The first speaker at Lily Dale was suffragette Elizabeth Lowe Watson, who was followed by peers like Susan B. Anthony, as the gathering place about 55 miles southwest of Buffalo became a stronghold for the suffrage movement.
Today, visitors come for a variety of reasons.
"To get away and find peace and connect with yourself," said Jackie Laird of Pittsburgh as she walked the wooded grounds.
Beverly Burdick-Carey, one of 15 mediums who live permanently at Lily Dale, noted a shift toward a search for something beyond material worth.
More and more of those coming to see a medium have a spiritual purpose, she said. "Not only whether they should marry Joe or Bill or if they should buy a blue or green car. They want to know about their spirituality; what they can do to uplift their spirituality.
"This really became noticeable last year. There's a definite change in society," she said.
Laird, who was making her second visit to Lily Dale, agreed and said the lectures and lessons help teach people to find "inner peace."
"I think people are searching and it's a good thing," she said. "I think we went to one extreme and had to find out who we really are."
Burdick-Carey and the assembly's other mediums know there are many who doubt their abilities -- and the mission of Lily Dale and other spiritualist communities in general. They welcome the challenges.
"People can be extremely skeptical and I have no problem with that," Burdick-Carey said. "I won't accept something I haven't researched."
But she added, "This place radiates peace, love and a gentle, healing energy, and everyone feels these things."
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