Not Your Parents' Religion
Joe Manzella has been hugged thousands of times in his life. But never did he have to wait in line for several hours before receiving a warm embrace. And when it was all over – with the hug lasting perhaps 30 seconds or so -- he described the experience as a feeling he will never forget.
Manzella, a professor of anthropology, traveled last summer to New York's Jacob Javits Center to learn first-hand about the legend that is Mata Amritanandamayi. The Indian woman – known affectionately as "Amma," an Indian word for mother – travels around the world to hug people from all walks of life. Many have claimed that her hugs brought them to tears with a peaceful radiance emanating from her embrace. A former journalist, Manzella was in the process of researching alternative spiritual groups for a book he plans to write on the subject.
"My wife, myself and a friend went and people were lined up for a half mile," he says. "There must have been at least 2,000 people there that day. When it was finally our turn, we were kneeling and they smeared something on my face that smelled like rose water. Amma then embraced me, and then my wife and I together. It was an almost a trance-like experience. All I could hear was her voice. She whispered something in my ear that sounded like it might have been 'madonna,' but I'm not sure."
Manzella says Amma has an extensive charitable network and her following is worldwide. She is based in India, but she has a U.S. headquarters in San Ramon, Calif. Amma, 59, claims to have hugged more than 32 million people in her life, beginning in her youth.
The Amma experience is just one of many encountered by Manzella during the last few years as part of his research. The impetus for the book stems from the trend in which a growing number of Americans consider themselves "spiritual, but not religious." He pointed to a Pew Research poll last year that shows nearly 20 percent of Americans now consider themselves to be religiously unaffiliated – up from 15 percent just five years earlier. Among those under 30 years of age, about a third consider themselves to be religiously unaffiliated, according to the poll. And in Western Europe, those percentages are dramatically higher.
Manzella says that among those who have moved away from traditional religious organizations, there is still a yearning among many toward some type of spirituality. And during his research, he visited a variety of movements in the United States and Europe.
One spiritual community that he says stood out was the Federation of Damanhur, located in the foothills of the Italian Alps. "The community features nine interconnected temples that extend into the bowels of the earth," says Manzella, who adds that it is carved out of a mountain. The temples are filled with statues that pay tribute to the gods and goddesses highlighted in Roman, Greek, Egyptian and Norse mythology, as well as others. "They believe in all of those gods and goddesses collectively and also incorporate elements of modern religions," he says.
The temple has become a tourist attraction and is often referred in Italy as the "eighth wonder of the world."
Not too far from Damanhur, in the nearby Burgundy region of France, is the Taize Community – a Christian ecumenical group that has developed a significant following among younger adults, according to Manzella. The services entail people sitting on the floor of a huge, arena-like chapel and repeating a series of very short chants. Each chant is repeated continuously for 5 to 10 minutes, followed by about 10 minutes of meditation, he said. Chanting is conducted in various languages. "It has a hypnotic quality to it," Manzella says. "The monks lead the chants, but when I was there, the chanting continued even after they left."
Manzella says the services remind him of a cross between the simplicity of a Quaker meeting and a high Catholic Mass. The community was founded in the 1940s, but has really gained popularity in recent decades, he adds.
A much smaller community – consisting of several dozen people – is the Earthaven Ecovillage, located in the western North Carolina community of Black Mountain. Manzella described the members as hard-core environmentalists. The community does not practice a single religious belief, but it does have a special reverence for the Earth. He notes that the group has an initiation rite that involves the community members huddling and lifting up the inductee.
Other spiritual communities he has visited include a Hare Krishna group in rural West Virginia; the Lake Shrine Retreat of the Self-Realization Fellowship, which sits atop a hill not far from California's Pacific Palisades and blends various Hindu traditions with Western religious traditions; and the Findhorn Community, which some have called the "Vatican" of the New Age Movement and is located in Scotland.
"What I found is that while some of the alternative spiritual communities are quite familiar – such as Scientology and Wicca – others are much less known," Manzella says. "Some of these communities have roots in the 1960s counterculture."
The Findhorn and Earthaven communities were discussed in Manzella's 2010 book, "Common Purse, Uncommon Future: The Long, Strange Trip of Communes and Other Intentional Communities." In his new book, Manzella intends to include those two communities, as well as Damanhur, Taize, Amma and others.
NEWS NOTE: The New Haven Register ran a story about Joe Manzella's research into alternative spirituality communities in its April 7 edition. The following is a link to the article: