Dr Glenville Ashby, Contributor
Spiritualism has been maligned, impugned and discarded as a veritable ensnarement by the Devil. Christians base their judgement on Deuteronomy 18: 9-12: "There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or daughter pass through fire or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer or one who interprets omens, or sorcerer, or one who conjures spells or a medium or a spiritist."
In the Koran, Muslims are warned in Sura 6:100, "Yet there are people who think falsely that there are invisible creatures, Jinns (spirits) and occult powers with Divine attributes."
Indeed, just about every orthodox denomination never let up casting stones at Spiritualism.
Ouija boards, a tool of spiritualists, have attracted capricious teenagers with fantastical tales, while seances, long frequented by grief-stricken adults, are approached with respectful solemnity.
Remarkably, this cryptic indulgence is making a dramatic comeback, courtesy of the New Age Movement, Hollywood's high-yielding screenplays on the supernatural, and the shift in reality TV towards the paranormal.
As if in lock step with this growing trend, the Holistic Studies Institute of New York, affiliated with the sole Spiritualism Church in the Borough, advertised classes in becoming a certified seances conductor.
It was just enough to pique the enquiring mind.
Are seances genuine, or are they ploys of charlatans bilking unsuspecting individuals of their hard-earned resources?
Do sitters really contact dead relatives and friends?
Should we heed the warnings of mainstream religions that spiritualism leads to emotional breakdowns, perversion of the soul and eternal damnation?
I was willing to take the risk and embrace the reasoning of New Age gurus who promote the existence of spirit guides, 'Gate Keepers', the eternity of the soul and seances' therapeutic side.
Sitting among seasoned psychic mediums was surreal.
Stephen Robinson, a world-renowned and gifted medium equally impressed as an instructor. Graduates of the programme are eligible to conduct seances at the Church of Spiritualism that teaches an ecclesiology that conjures images of a mainstream Christian Church, were it not for its message circles that connect congregants to the dead.
The practice of mediumship has changed since the days of the Greek Oracle and the 19th century stage craft of the Fox sisters.
Today, it's a fine-tuned and savvy art, more so, a blend of Oriental meditative teachings and Western religiosity.
And Robinson was true to the new script.
He cautioned against cold reading - a jab at popular television psychics who have mastered this art of fishing for information.
"It means that the psychic medium is insecure or not genuine. The policy here is that you shoot first and ask questions later."
We were advised to be confident and articulate the impressions we receive.
"Sometimes spirit gives us messages in a symbolic way and it is up to us to interpret. Oftentimes we think so literally that we miss the crux of the spirit's message."
That we must leave "all negativities outside" was said to be essential for a successful sitting.
"Like attracts like, so, positive energy will attract positive spirits."
Contacting the dead is a form of artistry only realisable with practice.
Spiritualism attracts learners form various faiths, creeds and economic backgrounds, hence practitioners are cautioned against reciting prayers of any particular faith. The opening prayer of a seance binds and protects sitters.
"You can invoke the 'Great Spirit', the 'Eternal Mind' or something similar, but never use the name of your particular God or prayers of your faith. You don't want a sitter to feel uncomfortable or think that Spiritualism is promoting any particular religion," Robinson reminded us.
We were trained in understanding the role of the gate keepers and how to petition them.
"In a seance, there is a lot happening in the unseen world that we are not aware off," argued Robinson.
"The gate keepers are there to help us, to prevent negative spirits from entering the circle and attaching themselves to us."
We were encouraged to acknowledge our spirit guides, "who have been with us from birth".
Our deceased loved ones were next. "We must ask that they come among us and deliver messages they wish to impart.
The class was then guided through a series of meditations, using a single deep breath and bringing our awareness to a white light around our solar plexus.
Robinson called it the white light of protection, making reference to Jesus' transfiguration (Matthew 17:1). "He exuded brilliant light as he conversed with Moses and Elijah."
Robinson continued, "This white light has been scientifically proven to be true."
He directed our attention to trans-cultural research on Near Death Experience and participants who have vouched that a white light was experienced during the final stages of transition (death).
"It is this light, this protective light, that you must visualise moving upward from the solar plexus to the throat, then to the centre of the forehead or third eye and finally the crown of your head. Bathe yourself with that light. It is your protection."
Soothing instrumentals whispered in the background.
Now in a state of quietude, the setting was ideal for encounters from the spirit world. Many experienced visitations and messages from loved ones, as in the case of Marlin Cronin, a trans-medium who said: "My mom came to me and spoke but I cannot reveal the contents of the message."
Earlier, we were told of a distraught widow who, having just buried her husband, received definitive advice on pressing financial matters.
The seance was touted as an immediate balm that cannot be offered by psychotherapy.
But questions persist. Who are these spirits? Are they mischievous and diabolical entities masquerading as our loved ones, as religious dogma would have us believe? If they are, is the protective light enough to withstand the wiles of these riff-raffs that inhabit the spirit world? Or are they compassionate souls ever ready for an opportunity to counsel and reassure those they have left behind? The jury is still out on this timeless debate.
Dr Ashby is the president of the Trinidad and Tobago Interfaith Council. You may send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby.