A new year, a new opportunity to cleanse the soul and start afresh. Isn’t that what everyone says? Around this time of year, people can get consumed with ambitious resolutions, new gym memberships and spiritual purification. It’s never been my experience, though. I’m not sure where my soul resides, but wherever it is, it’s probably a terrible mess.
In New York, however, even the soul can be outsourced. And so it was that I found myself standing on the western edge of the Pond in Central Park, touching an egg to my forehead and reciting I had no idea what.
In search of someone to guide me through a New Year’s cleanse, I had found Ken Nunoo, a kabbalah teacher who advertises for private rituals and tutoring.
Kabbalah teacher is not a highly regulated profession, but even so, Mr. Nunoo falls outside the mainstream. As his Web site boasts, “Ken Nunoo was first to introduce the formula Mind = Square root of (sound squared + light squared),” with the whole formula capitalized. Remember that for your next bar bet.
For $5, I downloaded an article by Mr. Nunoo and took it to the park. It began with a long, rambling reading containing news you can’t use, like “Somehow a woman’s sperm count or her reproductive water can be taken from her spiritually, preventing the woman from generating enough ovaries to reproduce or bear children.” Next came a string of blessings for me to intone. “May the Elohim endow this egg with power to accomplish our desire,” I began, standing by the frozen pond. A large family of tourists gathered to see. “O Gedulahel! O Geburahel! O Tiphereth!” I had no idea what I was saying, but I was having fun giving the visitors such a good show. I touched the egg to various parts of my body, so it could absorb any impurities.
It was fun at first, but I soon began to — is there a word for feeling ridiculous on someone else’s behalf? How could any adult believe that his mumbo jumbo could imbue an egg with magical powers? But start asking those questions and most religious practices begin to look dubious. Thinking about the implications, I just felt tired. As for my egg, which I broke open as instructed, I was hoping for something dramatic — a streak of blood, a foul stench, a three-headed lizard fetus — but it was clean on the first try. Just my luck, I was already pure.
Barbara Biziou, who teaches “Rituals for the New Year: Beginning the Year With Clarity, Intention and Inspiration” at the New York Open Center, approaches the project of spiritual cleansing from an entirely different perspective. Greeting clients in her art-filled home overlooking Sheridan Square, Ms. Biziou, an interfaith minister and corporate consultant, is gracious and articulate, a reassuring presence.
We began with some deep breaths and a sip of holy waters she said she had gathered from around the world. At her instruction, I lighted a candle, then thought about what I wished to leave behind in 2010. I symbolically transferred those unwelcome elements to a piece of paper, which I lighted with a match. Then out went the candle — that was last year — and I lighted another candle, for the new.
She handed me a bowl of tiny shells and crystals and told me to place them in a small, beaded box, naming each as a goal for the new year. “It’s your party,” Ms. Biziou said. “Who do you want to invite?”
The stones, which she later popped in a zip-tight plastic bag, were mine to keep — along with a nagging sense of frustration. Ms. Biziou was so patient, and had apparently touched so many people. Why didn’t I feel cleansed? Why didn’t I feel anything?
Next up was Donna Henes — Mama Donna, to friends — an “urban shaman” who has performed rituals on behalf of the mayor’s office and the governor’s office. Despite a short shock of candy-red hair, and a longtime starring role at the head of the Halloween parade, she comes across, more than anything else, as warm and understanding, a big hug of a person.
Sitting on a bench outside my apartment, she burned dry herbs, directing the fragrant smoke toward my various chakras, then gonged tiny Tibetan cymbals by my ear. “It’s like a mental shower,” she said as the sound rang through my head. “It clears out all the negativity.”
Placing objects in water (iridescent glass egg, rose of Jericho), she explained their mystical powers to attract, absorb or dispel negativity.
I was getting a familiar feeling, and it wasn’t positivity.
Just like Ms. Biziou, Ms. Henes was kind and well meaning. Both women were sincere in their beliefs, and they wanted to share those beliefs with me. But I couldn’t understand the power of the iridescent glass egg any more than I could of the raw egg whose blessings I had downloaded from that way-out-there Web site.
“If it’s a placebo?” Ms. Henes said, in response to my skepticism. “And it works?” She shrugged. “I can’t prove that it works. Only you can prove that it works — for you.”
For a moment I felt we understood each other perfectly. Then she spritzed me down with holy water, and I felt like a kitchen counter — a kitchen counter with a woefully underdeveloped spiritual life.
I did my spiritual cleansing on an astrologically auspicious day. Even so, and with some of the city’s most celebrated spiritual guides, the stars didn’t align for me: I never got that squeaky-clean feeling. But as much as these women charge for expert consultations ($100 to more than $1,000), the mere fact that New York can support a blessing business is in itself cheering. In any case, I’ve got some unusual souvenirs: an iridescent egg and a plastic bag full of my hopes for the new year.