Press Coverage

W.W. Norton & Company

August 8, 2011

Sweet Heaven When I Die

by Jeff Sharlet

Bhakti Sondra Shaye W.W. Norton The Rapture

I FIRST MET BHAKTI Sondra Shaye, nee Shaievitz, B.A, M.A., J.D., guide, teacher, and adept member of the Great White Universal Brotherhood and Sisterhood of Light, ritual master in the High Council of Gor, universal Kabbalist, Reiki master, and metaphysician, at the New Life Expo at the Hotel New Yorker. The gathering billed itself as "America's Largest Mind, Body, Spirit Expo," four floors of alternative spiritual options. Vendors barked discount rates; "consumers" haggled over the tools of their salvation. In New York the hidden economy of new age mysticism is laid bare with pride. I was interested in the transactions.

A session titled "Spiritual Capitalism: what the FDNY Taught Wall Street About Money" promised to reveal New York's version of new age on the make, but the teachers failed to show. So I spent a few hours inspecting spirit sticks, dodging feng shui-ers, and having various intangible parts of my aura balanced, stacked, and aligned. Bhakti Sondra Shaye was the least assuming person in the room. Three middle-aged women who would fit right in at a Betty Crocker bake off, purveyors of "Soul Talk"™, pointed her out. "She's the one you want to talk to," one of the women said, regarding the anti-agers, crystal forkers, and aromatic transformers with just the slightest eye role.

Sondra sat in a corner, wearing a purple tunic. She wasn't hawking anything. If you asked, she'd give you, for free, a picture of her teacher, a ruggedly handsome Irishman named Derek O'Neill, who in turn would name the famed Indian guru Sai Baba as his master. But since I told her I was investigating the spirituality of money - she liked that word, "investigating" - she did me one better. She drew a Prema Agni on my back, and nearly made me fall down.

The Prema Agni is a cross with two legs, one of them serrated, a heart above the arms, and a triangle below. It was supposed to open my heart, "for love to flow in and out." It came with a flyer that instructed: "On receiving this simple, you pledge to donate $7 to a good cause, but not to the person who draws it for you." Her, you pay. Not for the Prema Agni - that's a free sample - but for a menu of services which you will, presumably, be moved by unseen forces to purchase as part of your spiritual journey.

That's how it had been for Sondra. Derek O'Neill drew the Prema Agni on her back not long after he met her, at the 2001 New Life Expo, a month after the attacks of September 11. A friend of hers had invited her to tag along. Sondra, already working successfully as a healer, wasn't looking for new business. She thought then - and, truth be told, thinks now - that much of what's on offer at the Expo is snake oil at best, or worse, "dark energy." And America's Largest Mind, Body, Spirit Expo was experiencing serious doubts that crisp autumn in 2001. Detoxification was big that year; alchemy, with its focus on instant wealth, not so much. Sondra went with low expectations and was disappointed.

Then, Derek. Helmet of prematurely silver hair, ocean blue eyes, a jaw like in anvil, a bemused half smile. He and his wife, Linda, came up to Sondra at her table. They'd been looking for Sai Baba. Although Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, a jolly, ever-smiling Indian man with a giants Afro and a penchant for conjuring jewels, claims at least 10 million devotees, Sondra recalls that she alone brought his picture to the Expo.

Sondra also remembers that Derek smelled smoky, because, she'd later learn, he's been down at Ground Zero, healing people. But that's not what slayed her. She talked to him for what felt like only ten minutes, ordinary chat; but when she looked up, in midconversation, two hours had passed. Her friend was staring at her, and Derek was gone.

At that moment, she says, she was open to yet another new healing, of which she is the primary channeler. "Way more powerful" than her old routine. "Way." Her friends, her Jewish mother who didn't really believe in any of this meshugas, could all feel it's sparking off her.

Maybe I could, too. When Sondra drew the Prema Agni on me I felt a surge of vertigo, a spiral of twitches running down my spine. Weeks later Sondra told me that when Derek draws the Prema Agni, people shudder, weep, and fall down - not unlike Christians who are "slain in the spirit," an experience known to strike even nonbelievers.

Derek is no mystic. Ex-Irish army, ex-Catholic, working class in spirit if no longer in income (he can earn $45,000 with a single workshop), he lives in Dublin like an ordinary guy, with an ordinary family. On the phone he makes jokes, asks me about my background, talks about pop music. But he is "so f*cking evolved," Sondra says - she and Derek both love the word "f*cking," because "it grounds you" - that while he teaches a workshop "his consciousness can be off having a Guinness somewhere." One of her ambitions is to join Derek - a married man whom she chastely loves - for a pint on the astral plane. But she's not that powerful.

Actually, though (Sondra also likes that word, "actually," its marriage of skepticism and belief), actually, she will be that powerful soon. Things are happening in other dimensions. Channels are opening. It's no coincidence, her friends tell me, that I'm writing about Sondra. The power is growing. Someday soon she'll join the metaphysical Derek. Sai Baba, too, and Jesus, Krishna, Merlin, all the ascended masters, like a great big dinner party. Sondra doesn't normally drink, but when that happens, she'll raise a glass. It's going to be f*cking amazing.

BEFORE I COULD INTERVIEW Sondra further, I needed to be healed. "It will clear you," Sondra told me. Later both she and Derek would declare that God had sent me to be their gospel writer, but at the beginning, Sondra was wary. "I don't want to come off sounding crazy," she said. So she decided to let me experience the energy for myself. And I did, after a fashion.

Sondra began my healing with an "Emotional Cord Cutting." This entailed my standing very still while she swiped a foot-long blade up and down, very fast, inches from my body. She paid special attention to my crotch, which is only natural - it's there, she pointed out, that we form many of our unhealthiest attachments, emotional and otherwise. It costs $110.

Once my emotional cords had been cut, I lay, lightly clothed, for two hours on a cold table in a cement-floor studio above a Park Slope coffeehouse, which Sondra rented from a yoga center by the hour. She worked me over with a battery of energy services - the Rising Star, divine energy healing, etheric surgery - "ancient healing modalities" revealed to her or other teachers she admires. But as far as I could tell she wasn't even there. Occasionally I heard the rustle of her silk jacket, a special garment she wore to perform healings. Once a finger traced a hard line from my right shoulder to my collarbone, but Sondra later said she hadn't touched me anywhere but my knees and abdomen. I shivered through most of the session. Sondra said it'd been so hot in the room she'd been sweating.

The next day I got the flu. I was down like a sedated hippo for a week. Sondra called. She said it was a healing crisis. I was lucky, she said; a lot of people experience such crises emotionally, but it's quicker and easier to get the negative energy out through the body. Price tag for the whole affair: $395. Sondra comped me.

I mention these sums not to cast doubt on the authenticity of the services rendered. You don't have to be a moral relativist to recognize that "true" and "false" are empty categories when you're trying to understand other people's mysteries. The light flashing off the blade, the bead of orange at the tip of a stick of incense slashing along with the knife, the sweetness of its smoke, the look of concentration that made Sondra's giant brown eyes flutter and drew her pretty face into a scary look of loose-jawed concentration - it all made for sensual accoutrements to what could, for some, be a persuasive metaphor. Viewed from another perspective Sondra's healing services were no sillier or more profound than the idea that by dunking yourself in water, you experience death and resurrection, or that by beating yourself on the chest every Yom Kippur, you really take responsibility for a whole community's sins - or even your own.

If Sondra's Cord Cutting lacked the historical pedigree of better-known rituals, it was no less "real." In fact it may be Sondra's rates that are proof of her spirit guides' full arrival in the pantheon of American gods; money is the means by which Sondra and other New Age healers show themselves to be a movement that's within the economy of belief. "Some people have this misconception that spiritual work is real only if it's free of charge," Sondra told me early on in what she'd come to call "our work" together….

This new New Age takes as its mediator, meanwhile, its high priest or priestess, the hero of the story, you: the recipient of Esalen strokes and Prema Agnis and aromatic transformations. It has become the fulfillment of Martin Luther's dream of divine access - "the priesthood of all believers" - to say nothing of the prognosis made by Max Weber in his 1904 classic, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Everyone who buys a stick of incense or takes a yoga class or listens to Tibetan monks chanting is experiencing the cosmopolitan godhead just as Luther and Weber might have wanted: unfiltered.

AND YET THE new New Age is the result of more than commerce. Its catalyst was September 11, 2001. "Spirituality" was big in the days right after the disaster. At first church attendance soared, 60, 70, 90 percent, depending on which pastor, which rabbi, which culture warrior you asked. But after a while it returned to normal. The new traditionalism did not endure.

Practices such as Sondra's - spiritual experiences one could engage at a time of one's own choosing - did. The rhetoric of "spiritual war," popular among conservative evangelicals, found a parallel among New Age adherents, who spoke of "wounds" and "scars" and allies in their "personal battles." And then there was the sensual appeal of it all. The scents and the poses and two dozen ways to get your back rubbed, chopped, and prodded. Down at Ground Zero, firemen lined up for massages. Across the city cheap Chinese tui na became more common than shoeshines, its vague "spirituality" implied by the masseurs' inability to speak much English.

And practitioners such as Sondra found their client base expanded by real-estate agents who wanted properties "healed" of the "bad energy" lingering from those who fled the city, working-class stiffs who decided that in "a time of war" it's okay to be emotional about one's "inner pain," former fundamentalists who believe they can't live without some kind of spiritual practice, not any more.

Sondra made more money as a healer than she did in the early nineties as a young litigator for Davis Polk & Wardwell, a corporate law firm. How much is that? Enough that she buys what she wants (not much) and gives as much as she wants - sufficient to empty her bank account twice in the past few years - to an orphanage in India.

She sees nothing contradictory in her material comfort. The division between the sacred and the profane, God and money, she thinks, is one of the "wounds" that alternative spiritualities were meant to heal.

"Real estate," she told me when we first met. "Perfect example."

One of Sondra's clients is a former telecom exec named James Hatt. Hatt moved to New York from London in 1999, and fell in love: with an American woman, the city, its opportunities. He bought properties, he sold them, he prospered. But then he picked up a million-dollar co-op in which, he later learned, the previous resident had lost his mind. The apartment sat on the market for seven months, real money locked up in a few rooms Hatt came to think of as diseased. Finally, says Hatt, a fellow real-estate agent said, "Look, there's this woman you should try. A lot of agents use her. Nobody talks about it."

"This woman" sounded like an arsonist. But what Sondra offered was a "cleansing," a service she and other healers quietly supply for most, if not all, of the city's major brokerages. (The fee, usually around $250, came out of the broker's pocket.)

Hatt had witnessed a cleansing before, and as far as he was concerned it hadn't done a bit of good: "Nothing but dressing." Still, what else could he try? He was desperate, so in came Sondra. And what did she do? Nothing. Walked around the place for an hour and a half. There were some prayers, a few chants, "a variety of faiths and persuasions," but they were quiet, "unto herself," as Hatt puts it. "Not for the audience."

And when she was done? "The place was warm." Sold in two days. A few months later Hatt called Sondra again. He had a $1.5 million loft lingering unsold in SoHo. Sondra came, strolled, cleansed. The loft moved within a few days. So Hatt started seeing Sondra for personal healings, long sessions that began with Sondra's setting up an altar to a variety of divine figures and going on to channel their energy into and around Hatt's spirit-body. At first it felt awful; but that's what made him believe. If she was just trying to sell him something, why would she make it so hard to take? I told him about my Emotional Cord Cutting experience, and Sondra's surprising readiness to claim credit for the flu that followed.

"A lot of people turn to spirituality for immediate relief from pain," he observed. "Sondra forces you to experience pain. There is no other option: It's inside you, an unwelcome third party in your home. You have to make it clean. With Sondra you feel like paint stripper is being applied."

IN THE MATERIAL WORLD Sondra is surpassingly gentle, an elfin assemblage of diminutive bones and smooth skin and big eyes. These days, she believes she's a "fairie." She says that a close friend, a high-powered real-estate broker herself and a conservative woman in most respects, is "of angelic descent," with an invisible dragon living in her apartment.

In the early eighties, when she was an English major at Rutgers, Sondra was "Goth before there was Goth," moping to bands like the Smiths and the Violent Femmes. Later, when she was getting an M.A. in fiction writing at New York University, she had a sideline in modeling. When she graduated from Brooklyn Law near the top of her class in 1992, she molted into tailored suits and spiky hair. Bored into a state of depression by corporate law practice, she left Davis Polk to work as a part-time attorney while studying acting at the Stella Adler School. She still has her head shots, wet lips and thick mascara, off-the-shoulder outfits with serious cleavage.

Now her favorite color is pink, which she says is a color of love. In cold weather she wears a puffy pink coat over a pink sweatshirt emblazoned with a Brooklyn logo, with a pink hat and pink gloves and Nikes with pink Swooshes, and blue jeans that are a little too big for her. She often stands too close to people, but nobody seems to mind. Her presence is asexual, not so much celibate as ethereal.

One Saturday I accompanied Sondra on a house call to Rose and Bowie, who lived in a tidy little apartment with no signs of mystic inclinations. Rose was a nurse and a painter. Bowie was a cat. Rose had a face like a quiet pond, smooth and calming, marred by a ripple of agitation around her eyes. "Look at my cat," she said, as if to explain. "This isn't about me, it's about Bowie." Bowie's right eye was green, her left eye blue, and her plump belly, recently shaved for an operation, was bright pink.

Rose had hired Sondra to heal both Bowie and herself; Bowie had been listless since she came home from her surgery, and Rose had also been having troubles, but she couldn't describe them. "This should be a good time," she said. "I mean, everything is working, like what the universe wants to happen is actually happening." Her painting, she felt, was developing. Her work situation - she had spent years caring for children with cancer - was painful but meaningful. Her small studio was just the right size for her, and a shiny building across the street caught the sun, softened it, and sent light cascading onto her art. Her life, she said, was just fine. When she sat on the couch, bathed in the amber of the setting sun, she looked like Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring.

"So I thought maybe the problem has something to do with Bowie," she said.

Sondra gathered Bowie on her lap and began kneading her shoulders, cooing to her. At first Bowie slapped Sondra's thigh with her tail and squawked. Then she settled down, gripping either side of Sondra's knee with a paw. Rose was already pleased. "She hasn't been friendly since she got back from the vet," she said, marveling.

"I called in Saint Germain," Sondra explained. "He's an ascended master who works with animals."

"Ah," murmured Rose.

"I mean," said Sondra, "Saint Francis." Until recently Rose was neither religious nor spiritual. Then, she saw a PBS special about people who talk to their animals, and believe that their animals talk back to them. It inspired her to enroll in a week-long course on the subject, after which she let her new spirituality lie fallow until a friend treated her to a session with another healer. He also recommended Sondra.

Bowie uncurled from Sondra's lap, ambled over to the litter box, squatted. "There are a lot of angels around her," Sondra whispered. Then, to Rose: "Bowie is telling me that we really have to do some work on you, Rose." Rose nodded, as if the healing of Bowie had been just ritual prelude - as of course it was. Sondra turned off the lights, leaving nothing but a rectangle of afternoon gold stretching across the wall. Sondra directed Rose to lie down on the couch, told her to take off her watch. "Time isn't really cool in the spiritual realm," she explained.

Sondra knelt at Rose's head. I sat in a folding chair a few feet away, but I might as well have been watching through a one-way mirror. Over the next hour the light faded to blue. Bowie watched, too, perched on the ridge of the couch, green eye/blue eye fixed on Sondra. I was thinking about her knees. They must have been hurting.

Her hands framed a triangle over Rose's closed eyes. Rose's face had collapsed into the couch. Sondra's, meanwhile, had undergone an even more curious transformation. Her chin had disappeared. Lines normally invisible stretched like deltas from her eyes, and her smooth forehead was as furrowed as rough seas. She shuttled on her knees down the length of Rose's body and then back again to her head. She raised her triangle hands, the veins popped in her neck, and when she had her arms fully extended above her head, she blew - Foof !

And that was it. She stood, knees cracking, shook herself out, and took a seat on the floor beside me. She bit her lower lip.

"So, you can take your time coming back."

Rose wiggled her toes. We sat in silence.

Rose opened her eyes. She was crying.

"He's with you," Sondra said. Derek? Sai Baba? Jesus?

"I saw him," Rose whispered, finally moving to rub her nose.

"I know."

"It’s so hard. To say good-bye. I flew back. To Australia. And - and - I didn't get there in time."

Rose pulled herself up. Sondra moved to a seat beside her, wrapped an arm around Rose's shoulders.

"My brother," Rose said. She shuddered with tears.

Rose's brother had been sick, she explained as she shook in Sondra's arms. She'd flown home to be with him; he'd died before she could get there.

"When I saw him, I didn't want to come out of it," Rose said. "I didn't want to come back. Here."

She looked up at Sondra. "Did . . . did James" - Rose's friend, Sondra's client - "did he tell you about my brother?"

Sondra shook her head. She didn't lie. "I didn't know," she said, leaving it at that - either a testimony to her power to enter others' lives or an acknowledgment that this wasn't about magic so much as ritual, the gestures, symbols and theatrics that free us from the flow of ordinary time, that allow us to return to moments not yet resolved.

"I would like to offer you a gift," Sondra said. She went to her pink backpack, rummaged, and pulled out her knife. It was a really big knife, in a small room, and Rose winced, the no-nonsense nurse in her replacing the brokenhearted sister. Sondra explained the Emotional Cord Cutting. "Oh," said Rose. Then: "That makes sense." There is, after all, a narrative logic to the ritual; to succeed it must be alien and obvious at the same time. Rose stood. Sondra lit a stick of incense, gripped it next to the knife, and took her position before Rose. "Now," she said, "envision your brother standing in front of you." Rose nodded. "You know he has to go, right, Rose? You have to let him." Rose agreed. Sondra breathed out - Foof! - and began slashing. Rose gasped. Sondra dropped to a knee and tapped the blade to the cement floor. Then she told Rose to open her eyes. "Look at the incense." She was to watch it burn. Everything she had to give up would go into the flame. Everything she wanted to keep would remain, purified by fire. The incense flared as it burned to its end. After the lights went on, while the money was changing hands, both women agreed that the quick, bright sizzle was Rose’s brother, saying thank you.

I BEGAN VISITING SONDRA at her apartment, just off of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, to learn the biographical data that led her to don a dozen different spiritual symbols, including a giant cross she hid beneath her shirt when she visited her parents. There had been some hard-partying years, a youthful, heart-shuddering night of excess, followed by years of vitamins, healthy living - a rhythm of achievement and boredom. There'd been broken hearts, an appreciation for show tunes. Nothing out of the ordinary. To explain her unusual beliefs by the facts of her life would make no more worldly sense than dismissing them, or declaring myself of angelic descent, as Sondra suggested I might be.

That wasn't a New Age version of a come-on; it was a recognition of my role in our relationship as the listener, the role Sondra so often plays for others. Not as a therapist, one who reveals root causes, but as a reenchanter, someone who makes you feel as if your story matters.

We watched a fair amount of TV together. We sat side by side on the pink comforter of her four-poster bed, hung in a gauze of pink and roses, in a pink-walled room in which there were two main variations of color - a life-size poster of Sai Baba, and her dull black TV and VCR. Together we watched an old acting reel of hers from her days at the Stella Adler School. "I feel like Norma Desmond," Sondra said, the aging actress antiheroine of the 1950 classic Sunset Boulevard.

The first scene we watched was taken from Living in Oblivion, a 1995 low-budget comedy about the making of a low-budget art film. Sondra chose a scene in which she plays an actress forced to pretend devotion to a jerk she can't stand in real life. Sondra's job is to be a good actress playing a bad actress overwhelmed by the contradictions. She nails it, doe-eyed and contemptuous at the same time, a combination I'd never witnessed in Sondra Shaye, metaphysician. In the next scene she plays a sobered-up junkie, trying to convince her ex-lover, still strung out, that he's romanticizing their relationship. "In rehab," says this sensible, firm Sondra, "they call it selective recall. It means you remember all the highs and forget all the lows." This is followed by two scenes from a modern adaptation of Henry James's The Wings of the Dove. If the first two clips showed the early stages of a woman's life - dating-life angst, first disillusionment - these scenes reveal Sondra as an adult: witty, sexy, kind of sad.

The next several scenes show the onset of middle age. A woman who can't have a baby, arguing with her husband about adoption. A scene from the 1998 film A Price Above Rubies, with Sondra in the Renee Zellweger role as the middle-class, bitter Jewish matron she might have become (she says) had she herself remained a lawyer. "There is no escaping God," a rabbi advises her character. "Then let him do what he wants," Sondra spits back. "I don't care anymore."

"Do you want to see more?" Sondra asked. I wasn't sure I did. I felt as if we were watching Sondra's life unfold in a parallel universe, one lacking the magic she believes surrounds her in this one.

"Let's look," she said, and pulled another tape off her shelf, unlabeled. "I don't know what this one is," she said, popping it in. Sondra always keeps her apartment at hothouse temperatures, but with the clouds outside clearing and the sun pouring white light and heat in through two big windows, it was unbearable even for her. While the tape rewound, she pulled the shade. We sat in darkness, then blue light as Sondra appeared on the television.

The camera looks at her from across a desk, as if it's a job interview. "Oh my God," Sondra whispered beside me. "It's The Rapture." Sondra is playing the Mimi Rogers role from the 1991 movie, the story of a swinger who's born again as a fundamentalist Christian awaiting the Second Coming. It’s a strange movie, beloved by fundamentalists who take the thundering horsemen of the apocalypse witnessed by the heroine as accurate depictions of what's soon to come, and by film geeks who admire what they see as the movie's ambiguity. Does it really end with the end? Or is our heroine utterly delusional?

"There's a fire inside me," Sondra's character tells her unseen interrogator, staring into his, the viewer's, eyes.

"I did this with no rehearsal," Sondra whispered.

"And now it's getting hotter and hotter," Rapture-Sondra says. "It hurts." There's nothing sexy about it, as played by Sondra; it hurts.

We watched one more clip that morning. The Today show, a decade ago, a segment on nutrition. There's Sondra. Long hair and tailored suit, the gorgeous Brooklyn Heights apartment she used to live in before she quit lawyering. There's a rainbow of pills on the table in front of her, and as the camera watches, she pops them, one by one. They're vitamins. Back then, divorced from the spiritual realm, Sondra believed she needed to take at least a couple daily just to survive. She didn't really need them, though, not physically, anyway, a point subsequently made by a snarky doctor interviewed by the program, who dismisses fads and alternative health and the whole kit and caboodle of the New Age as nothing more than a lifestyle.

This brought Sondra back to reality, grounded her as surely as would a pint of Guinness with Derek in a pub in Dublin, or a day with the family in Jersey. "Ah, shut up!" she yelled at her television. "What do you know about my f*cking lifestyle?"

JIM FARAH, A CORCORAN real-estate agent, sat with perfect calm as Sondra squirted holy water - tap, blessed by her, dispensed from a pink plastic spritzer - on the carpet, ceiling, and walls of a Kips Bay apartment he'd been trying to sell. It was a one-bedroom in a doorman building, with an open terrace overlooking St. Vartan's dazzling, gold-domed Armenian cathedral and the East River, and it was priced very reasonably - $680,000 - but it wasn't moving. Farah, a sober, dignified man with neat gray hair, a black jacket, and a gray sweater, an Episcopalian, a former retail executive with no supernatural experiences, called Sondra on the recommendation of a colleague. Now she was standing in the living room, her eyes fluttering and her shoulders twitching as she called in a full congregation of minor and major gods.

"Jim," I whispered. "Does this - is any of this kind of, I don't know, hard to swallow?"

Farah shook his head and offered the best defense of New Ageism I've encountered. "Absolutely not," he said. "To some extent it's a language of its own." The terms, he said, may be peculiar, but the ideas at hand - that spaces reflect their inhab-itants ("bad energy," Sondra had diagnosed this property), that faith goes by many names, that all rituals, "true" or "false," cohere around metaphors of our own creation - are perfectly ordinary.

Sondra slumped, hanging like a puppet on strings, straightened, and left the apartment. She needed to get some distance so she could draw a magic circle around the newly cleansed space. Neither seller nor buyer would consciously budge an inch on the basis of this invisible shield, and Farah, like most brokers, wouldn’t even mention the procedure. I looked at him, hands folded in his lap, waiting for Sondra to return. It's then that I understood: He had purchased this spell, the details of which do not concern him, for his own peace of mind.

So I tried to follow his lead, and since Sondra was willing to comp me again - a savings of thousands of dollars - I signed up for her special Adept/Great White Universal Brotherhood workshop, a healing "initiation" Sondra shares with Derek O'Neill. It was a collective effort involving half a dozen students gathered for twelve hours of instruction, meditation, visualization, and holy dancing - the highlight, for me, gently absurd and genuinely lovely, was a spirited session of Ring Around the Rosy set to George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord." We met in a midtown luxury apartment decorated in shades of buttercup yellow, the home of one of Sondra's regulars, a real-estate agent named Louise, who sells apartments to ball players and rock stars - cleansed, when necessary, by Sondra. Along with several rookies like me, there was also Anthony, an actor who'd won a modest but real role in a recent Sylvester Stallone movie, and Mary, a breathtakingly beautiful psychotherapist who had been on what she called the "guru trip" for years before she found Sondra.

Louise, Anthony, and Mary were veterans of Sondra's workshops, "adepts," so when it came time for me to graduate from the first level, they led me away from the living room and into a candlelit study, where Sondra awaited. With a sword. A real sword, much bigger and heavier than the Cord Cutting blade, but Sondra held it as if it were a butter knife. Only, this wasn't Sondra, I was informed. It was Jesus.

"Jesus?" I whispered to Louise. "But Sondra's Jewish."

Louise just smiled.

"So," Jesus said, "you're wondering if this is real." Jesus spoke in Sondra's voice, but an octave lower. He/she instructed me to kneel, then she hoisted up the sword, and a prayer followed as she swung it down with speed toward one shoulder and then the other, arresting the blade before contact so that the blows became taps: I was being knighted. I was now a member of the Brother/Sisterhood of White Light.

Jesus kept talking, murmuring just for me. My knees hurt. My legs were asleep. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to get up. What Jesus was saying, she explained, was private, personal, a secret of sorts.

"But Sondra," I said. "You know I'm here to write about this."

"No details," she declared. She made me promise.

But the gist, she added, I could share. So here it is: Jesus knew I didn't believe her. And that was okay. Because she understood my skepticism, she said, and she knew where it came from. Then she delivered an outline of my life story. For the most part she got it right: Sondra knew why I was there, why I was kneeling before her. I'm not a seeker, she said, I'm a doubter. Doubt, she said, is a calling. It is not unbelief, it is in between. That's my niche, Sondra/Jesus whispered, my place in the chain of supply and demand. "Doubt," she said, "is your revelation."

SONDRA HAS WORKED WITH thousands of clients since she left lawyering ten years ago. And since she recently received a new variation on her healing methods, she has trained hundreds of new practitioners, many of whom have launched generations of Rising Star healers of their own. One of Sondra's first students is in talks now about introducing the Rising Star to a chain of spas for wealthy women. If I continued in my spiritual work to the point where I was ready to take another class, I, too, could practice and even teach the Rising Star.

It's Amway without the hooks, without a catch. According to the social critics John Naisbitt and Patricia Aburdene (themselves sort of New Age sociologists), American corporations spend $4 billion a year on New Age consultants. IBM provides employee seminars in the I Ching. On a smaller scale, a major New York real-estate agency invited Sondra to address a group of eighty brokers. And in the everyday, we all fill our lives with uncountable tiny totems, gestures toward the unseen. Not just candles and incense and Buddha key chains, but also commodities as ordinary as juice. Ever had one that claimed "antioxidant" properties, a scientific impossibility? Welcome to the New Age. . . .

Rightly or wrongly, we search for a whole whenever we find a hole in our lives. One of the rules attending the drawing of the Prema Agni is that the recipient must give at least seven dollars to a good cause. One day I told Sondra I'd given my seven dollars and then some, to tsunami relief. Sondra agreed that that counted. But the 2004 tsunami, responsible for the deaths of 230,000, didn't really register for her as it did for most of the world.

"If you want to know the truth, my guides told me it was gonna happen about a year ago. That's why I wasn't like, 'Oh, the tsunami! The tsunami!' " And she won't be shocked by the next disaster. "It's already written in the karmic book, the Book of Life," she said.

The "karmic book, the Book of Life" - in a phrase Sondra assimilates Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism. But these awful fated events "can be erased," Sondra said - she was vague on whether they'd be prevented or simply made irrelevant - if we'd all just learn "compassion" in our individual spiritual realms. . . .

It's simple, really: Home Depot sells the idea of home, Best Buy sells a wired world, the new New Age sells "spiritual health" - while the right of the sovereign consumer to acquire it, purchase by purchase, is praised as the law of nature: an orthodoxy of a thousand choices, an infinitely marketable economy of belief.