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Katherine Rowland: City of Light, Laboratory for the Future

December 21, 2012

Inside the community of Damanhur, where devotees safeguard connections to the stars, study alchemy, and prepare to rebuild human civilization.

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Image from Flickr via Alex Jarvis

By Katherine Rowland

From the outset, the Federation of Damanhur seemed incredibly promising. Sprawling across the foothills of the Piedmont, just north of Turin, Italy, it is home to about 1000 citizens who live in settlements dispersed across the mountains. The self-titled “laboratory for the future” has evolved a sophisticated system of governance, replete with a constitution and democratic elections and its own currency. The community is almost completely energy self-sufficient, and claims abundant agricultural lands, health and educational facilities, scientific research centers, impressive works of art, and an extensive volunteer corps, whose services run the gamut from caring for the elderly to fighting forest fires. And these activities are all sideline to the community’s central work in spiritual revival. The Federation is composed of multiple villages, or nucleos, each distinguished by the particularities of their residents; one nucleo might focus on the arts, while another emphasizes international affairs, land conservation, or monastic pursuits. But most impressive of all is their massive architectural feat: the spiritual and artistic center of the community, the Temples. A vast network of cathedrals carved by hand into the heart of the mountains; hewn from the living rock, if you will. They have been called the world’s eighth wonder.

When I arrive, though, it seems these accolades must pertain to some other place—I find instead a renaissance fair run head long into the New Age. A sea of flowing robes, and faces adorned with bright colored paint. As I maneuver my bag from the taxi’s trunk, I collide with a woman in a purple cape. She bows, her hands in prayer. Con te! Con te! With you! With you! A silver ornament crowns her tall wooden staff, encasing a luminous glass ball that looks much like the giant orbs held in the hands of the painted men drifting past; the clear, sloshing liquid inside plays with the bright sunlight.

Con te! Con te! A young man with yellow streaks across the bridge of his nose rushes over to where I stand. Con te! Con te! He cries and looks to me expectantly, but when I hesitate he frowns. “Oh, I see that you’re not one of them.”

One what?

“The Spiritual People.”

I shake my head. No, just a visitor.

“Ah hah, then you won’t get very far.” But before I can ask him what he means, he saunters back in the crowd, bowing over and over as he walks.

My cab driver offers a bemused grin before driving slowly against the steady traffic winding in through the tall metal gates. By chance my arrival coincides with the annual gathering of the Spiritual People, and hundreds have come to express their renewed faith and fellowship in this community. Colored banners flap in the winds. A slow procession begins to overtake the hill, a parade of trailing fabric, talismans swinging with each step. A choreography like an ant farm, as hundreds proceed along countless paths. Con te! Con te! All are wearing intricate pieces of coiled metal, wound round their wrists, their heads, their necks; twisted bands in silver or gold, which like the painted symbols that dress the skin, look like a hybrid of Nazca lines and hieroglyphics.

What am I to do? I stash my bag behind a wall and join step with the procession, drifting along up the hill. Pillars rise against the sky, totemic sculptures flank the paths. Giant clay heads lie scattered across the grass, and as I gain elevation I see that the gentle valley is studded with concentric stone circles. The streams of people are all flowing toward a clearing, gathering round a man with arms outstretched, calling out in a strange language.

“What are you doing?” A voice freezes my step. A set of hands snatch my own and I’m whirled around to meet a face oddly crossed by smiling reprimand. “Absolutely prohibited,” says a slender woman with short-cropped hair and dark eyes, at whose corners begin a wild pattern of magenta lines. Still smiling, she yanks me back down the hill, weaving backward through the procession. Everyone is now walking with their gaze upturned and their wrists placed on top of their heads. “Forbidden.”

“It’s an ancient language.” I ask from which culture. “Oh no,” she rolls her eyes. “It’s older than culture.”

Having navigated me back down to the driveway, she sighs. Don’t touch. Don’t look. Don’t ask. Don’t enter. “We’re dealing with other powers here,” she begins with a tone of explaining the obvious. “Only people who are charged can be brought into contact with the elements. You have to have the right alchemy, and that requires the right training.” She sighs again and looks up at the sun. “All right, I suppose I can spare a few minutes, otherwise you’ll really be stranded.”

As though she’s suddenly forgotten my presence, she closes her eyes and raises a wrist bound in metal and thread to the top of her head. Behind the thin skin of her lids, there is a perceptible movement of the eyes in their socket, as though scanning an imaginary horizon. The procession steadily winds on, the man’s voice grows more insistent. My gaze wanders until the woman’s eyes snap open. “Everyday,” she stares at me, still holding her hand to her scalp. “Everyday we have to charge this thread with our intention. We reaffirm our commitment to the Federation and our commitment to save the world.” There’s a war going on, I’m told. It’s not a conflict of nations, but rather a struggle between the human soul and humankind’s steady drift toward self-destruction.

Goura, as I learn my guide is named, grabs again for my hands and leads me along a rocky path, past the flowing robes, and toward animal statuary, tangled gardens and walking labyrinths. The buildings scattered in the hills are painted with over-sized flowers, plants as high as the rooftops. “We are much, much more than a bunch of people living together. We’re all researchers, we’re scientists. Listen,” she gestures into the air. “You hear that?” The wind carries the muted rumblings of the man in the clearing. “One of our most important areas of research is that: the sacred language. It’s all right that you’re hearing it now, since you can’t understand, but it’s good, too, for you to be touched by the sounds. It’s an ancient language.”

I ask from which culture.

“Oh no,” she rolls her eyes. “It’s older than culture, but all great traditions have traces of it. Sanskrit, Mayan, Egyptian.” Goura looks to be in her mid-thirties, she wears lipstick and has fine manicured fingers, and speaks with a strictly matter-of-fact tone. “Bral Talej. You find it across the world. It’s the antecedent to all language, it’s completely pure. In fact,” Goura nods with authority, “it’s not just the language of the human world. It’s used throughout the cosmos.”

When Goura deposits me back in the driveway, I again see the man with the yellow face paint. He looks very much like a swami with his flapping white dress and wild, wide eyes, except that he is puffing agitatedly on a cigarette and glancing nervously about. Con te! Con te! He whispers, hailing me over. “You’re a visitor, that’s OK. It’s the first step. You’ll get a taste of this place.” His eyes bulge as he speaks, like a lens zooming in and out. “And then you won’t be able to leave. For thirty-three years I’d been suffering, and now I’ve found my place. Wow.”

Before time and space, before our universe of forms, there was an entity called Il Reale, The Real. Absolute. Perfect. It possessed all that ever was and would ever come to be. But one day, it developed self-consciousness. The Real gazed at itself in the mirror, and the mirror shattered into infinite pieces, creating all the stars and the planets, and all the life in the cosmos.

***
I’ve been placed in a small house. Far removed from the main properties, it is a single storied square of concrete behind an ugly metal fence, steps off the steep curving road. The power to the kitchen has been cut off, my bedroom door has no lock. At night, all is cast in darkness, and there is no one else around until you hike some kilometers back down the road to the center of the Federation. I would be utterly alone were it not for another woman: Corinne, soft-eyed, soft-spoken and beautiful. She tells me she comes from Luxembourg and is, like me, here to get to know the Federation.

“But I’m really interested in just getting to know more about Falco.”

Corinne’s statement is echoed by all of the guests I’ve met, and one that I also share, as one of the central fascinations for those coming to visit this place, and the central fascination for those living here, is its unobtrusively powerful founder, who claims the Federation as his realized dream.

Born Oberto Airaudi in Turin in 1950, the leader chose Falco as his Federation name. It is Italian for falcon; all citizens adopt the name of an animal, and the after a period of deeper self-exploration take on a second name of a plant. Goura, I later learn, is shorthand for Dove Lotus. Falco asserts that the naming custom is integral to the community’s larger goal of connecting with the earth, and through it, with the divine.

A painter, philosopher, writer and healer, Falco founded the Federation in 1975 with the desire to create a “university of the spirit,” where “the concept of the ‘impossible’ is under constant investigation.” Believing that the nation-state is fast becoming obsolete, Falco endeavors to create a community that serves as a nursery for a new civilization. He intends the Federation to be a safeguard for humanity as the 21st century rolls toward constant war, spiritual deprivation, and resource plunder. Falco also claims to come from 600 years in the future and has convinced 1000 people to commit their lives to his social experiments.

The Real created the universe, which produced in turn The Darkness. And now we must ask, with this rock in my hand, am I to destroy or to build?

***
“Falco is a magician, but he is more of an artist in the alchemy of people.”

Corinne and I are walking round the main property with a man named Platypus. He is short and speaks without affect. “A future aspect of himself gave him the information as a child. Of course, with maturity and time travel, he is very much aware that he is not of this earth.” Platypus pauses in his tutorial to indulge a rare burst of laughter. “But is anyone from this earth? Hardly!” He chuckles and clutches his belly as though nothing could be more amusing.

“Our task here is to apprehend the forces at work beyond the physical world. The spiritual physics. What, for instance, guides the laws—as we know them—of the universe? What precedes gravity? What generates matter? We have to understand the origins of the laws governing time and space, and to do that we have to investigate ourselves.” Platypus guides us round to a large building covered in murals of outsized flowers and dwarfed human figures. Like taking on plant and animal names, these characterizations are, I am told, another way of representing man’s embeddedness in nature. The faces in the murals are those of the community’s own members: here and everywhere, they pictorially inhabit their own mythology.

“You can’t deny that this is an urgent point in time. You can feel the transformations in effect, you can feel the end that’s coming. And anybody— anybody!—whether they understand what we know about the universe or not, can plainly see that the world is in chaos.”

Words that speak to doom, but uttered in total calm. There is a persistent tone here that unsettles me. I find at Damanhur a discomfiting absence: the prevailing sense is one of anonymity, as though individual traits have been siphoned off.

Butterfly Pineapple. Lizard Pepper. Dove Lotus. I’m introduced to dozens of Damanhurians, and while each has his or her own style, accent, and occupation, collectively their manner of interacting with me is so ubiquitous that it might as well be that I’ve met not dozens, but one. And this one iterates the same story over and over: I was called here. I’m part of creating a new civilization. I’m a researcher, a magician, a scientist. I travel through time. I’m helping to save the world from its end. Doom, but uttered with the tranquility of lullaby.

“It’s a very real possibility that the synchronic lines will be completely shut down,” Platypus continues. The Federation sits on what in lay terms might be understood as a cosmic fault. Not unique to Falco’s imagination, synchronic lines are a common feature of much New Age thinking, conceived as flowing rivers of energy that envelop the planet. The Federation’s take on this notion is that the synchronic lines are also direct pathways to life in outer space, which our human penchants for violence and pessimism risk occluding. Fortunately, however, Damanhurians believe that their community exists at an epicenter, the lines intersect right here: it’s a powerful place. “So,” Platypus is nodding, but despite sustained eye contact he does not appear to be looking at me. “We’re building new synchronic infrastructure, to connect with other stars. That way when the main lines get shut off, we’re assuring continued contact.”

***
“This is going to be a very profound experience, but I think you’re ready for it.” The mustachioed Platypus leads our band of visitors into a large, dark room. “Wait, wait!” he instructs and scuttles to the corner, where he switches on a set of neon strobes and hits play on a dull recording of insistent gongs. Rubbing his small hands together in excitement, he tells us not just to look at the paintings, but to experience them.

The room, now awash in electric light, light much at odds with the bright sunshine beyond the curtained windows, is hung with hundreds of paintings of varying size and shape. Apart from their consistency of palette—nearly all are composed in shades of gold and neon color—the contents differ markedly, from angular diagrams to large scenes of human movement.

“Can you smell them?” The man whispers. “See where your feet guide you, where you’re most inclined to linger.”

We shuffle around the room, until one woman in our group, Thym, exclaims, “This one! I can smell it!”

“Goooood,” Platypus glides over the word as he begins rubbing his hands in earnest. He comes to stand beside Thym, nodding his head in approval, as they gaze upon a bunch of triangles. “This one, yes. This one is about the memory of recollection. It’s the dance of soundless words.”

Thym smiles, looking pleased, and Platypus continues, “These are not just paintings, of course. They’re alchemical processes inspired by the synchronic lines. Each work transmits a certain charge that reworks the chemical constitution of your body. ”

“Now, I’m going to give you all notebooks so that you can record your profound reactions to these profound pieces.” He walks round the flashing room, distributing a stack of writing implements. But when he comes to me, he scowls. I already have my own journal, open and scribbled upon in my hands. “Hmmm,” he says. “I see. I would like to suggest in this instance that you refrain from relying on custom. This,” he taps my open page, “is a block. You’re engaging in resistance.” He deposits a fresh notebook on top of my own, and plucking the pen from my fingers slides a new one between them.

Resuming his post in the corner, he speaks in a soft, lulling tone: “Let the sensations flow.”

Everyone has paused before one work or another and is scribbling intently. From the sidelines he intones, The essence of the spirit. The soul of the cosmos. Spiritual geometry. . . Spoken like incantations, soothing, deep, grand. For a fleeting moment they pass through my mind like a ship aloft on significance. But I shake my head and the illusion crumbles, the little boat sinks as my mind’s ocean rolls on, loosened from the spell of language.

***

“ . . . Joining was easy,” I’m told by a former member. “You just get these little bits at a time, there’s always the promise of much, much more. But you don’t get it yet. That’s your own fault. And so even if the little pieces don’t quite make sense, you’re still convinced that they will when you move on to the next level. There’s always more.”

Before I arrived at Damanhur, I had decided it would be valuable to speak with people who had lived in the community, but for whatever reasons later left. I gathered that making these connections would be difficult, given some of the intensely personal considerations at stake. However, it was not until I came to know the Federation first-hand that I began to appreciate the challenges involved with obtaining information: the elaborate hierarchies and guarded secrets, not to mention how accepting Damanhur’s particular values seems to entail relinquishing what much of the world accepts as fact. It took a long time and I cast a wide net. Most of the people I contacted did not wish to talk with me.

Falco intends the Federation to be a safeguard for humanity as the 21st century rolls toward constant war, spiritual deprivation, and resource plunder. He also claims to come from 600 years in the future.

“It was so simple to say yes to everything, because in the end you knew that absolutely everything would be explained. And that really great things, momentous things, were right about to happen. Once you begin to see that, it’s just impossible to say no. I joined and I believed, I mean really, really believed that all of this was completely true. And you see, I’m a very rational person. I’d never thought of myself as someone who’d ever be drawn into some kind of collective craziness. But all this just made sense. Even though I had to destroy everything I knew in order for it to make sense . . .”

***
The “laboratory for the future” is not simply New Age-speak for experiments in community living. It is a literal reference to the Federation’s scientific activities – though here, science takes on a wholly new form. The language of physics explains the fantastic; the rigor of method is applied toward magic. And across the scattered properties, there are numerous, actual laboratories where researchers investigate subjects as diverse as time travel, past lives, sentient communication, and most importantly, Selfica – an entire Damanhurian discipline devoted to harnessing, increasing and redistributing energy

“This is the most critical part of all our work,” explains a head researcher as she leads me down a pristine corridor of offices and locked doors. “You’re not going to understand much of this, of course. It’s too complex. But I’m an expert, with advanced training in this field, so I’m qualified to explain the fundamental elements of our investigations.”

We come to a large door, bolted shut with a series of complicated mechanisms, which my guide manipulates and then ushers me into a space filled with elaborately wound coils of copper wire forging structures from the minuscule to the gigantic. Dimly glowing orbs contain alchemical substances; with the touch of a switch, some of the apparatuses begin to move and moan; flashing bulbs pulse to electrical currents. Tangled pathways of circuits, conductors, and twisted shapes, like a set designed by Shelley.

“The Selfic technologies are a very powerful and ancient mechanism for augmenting the inter-penetration of energies between the physical body and the domain of spirit potentialities.” She moves briskly across a panel of levers and switches. Flipping through a series of charts, she makes some minor adjustments on a large, ridged dial. “I’m sure by this point you’ve come to realize the critical condition of the present, that being the high probability of the complete occlusion of the synchronic lines. So we need to rediscover the lost pathway to the stars. If we had to wait around for everyone to achieve enlightenment, it would take thousands of years, and by then it would be too late. That is why we have Selfica. It accelerates evolution. You can think of it as a spiritual weapon to counter the Darkness by generating change.”

This one iterates the same story over and over: I was called here. I’m part of creating a new civilization. I’m a researcher, a magician, a scientist. I’m helping to save the world from its end.

Every citizen is a research subject in an investigation to locate the lost fragments of divinity lodged deep within themselves. I wonder whether any of these machines or devices are really necessary at all, or if their main function is to support psychological overhaul and constant social tinkering, symbols for life-as-laboratory.

But the aspect I find most striking is neither the varied pieces of machinery, nor the elaborate descriptions that accompany them. It is rather the manner of description: the unwavering seriousness that proposes a new order of logic. And on the surface, it all sounds quite logical. In delivery—if not in content—it sounds a lot like academia. But the content represents nothing less than the oblivion of all we identify as logic. I know that alchemy will not halt climate change. I am certain I’m not skipping back and forth through time while sitting in this room. But how? My knowledge and certainty is but a proxy for belief. I can call something crazy, absurd, irrational, but these pronouncements are not based on empirical information of my own, but rather the truths I subscribe to. And what are these truths but the manufacture of my culture, where too a lot of colorful constructs masquerade as fact. When you’re searching for meaning, so much conspires to be fate.

This earth is where the battle is waged: light against the absence of meaning. Once upon a time, this planet occupied a place of great universal importance, that’s why it’s so beautiful, every element was a pure reflection of the divine.

***
My discomfort crests when I’m ushered to the giftshop. Having just been sold on the idea, now I can buy into it. There is a Selfic pen, “charged for writers,” trinkets whose energies heal PMS or accentuate dreams. You can purchase Selfic paintings. You can buy copies of Falco’s textbooks on Astral Physics and the Truth about Atlantis. You can spend lavishly on visits to the sacred areas, where you can then pay more for guided meditations, gong sessions, creativity enhancers, and spiritual accelerators. A willingness to spend does a lot to alter the tone of the “beyond your level” comments: investment is a sign of spiritual maturity.

You can also convert your money into the local currency, the Credito.

“We should all invest in Creditos!” cries George, a compact man from Greece, who is in the New Life program, the fast-track for obtaining citizenship. “The Credito can’t crash. It will always be safe as long as Damanhur exists.”

The Credito is officially valued as being on par with the Euro, and all around the property are change machines into which visitors can feed their monies in exchange for supposedly commensurate geld. Citizens, who all must work extensively for the Federation, are paid in Creditos, and the currency is accepted across all their stores and restaurants. But beyond the Federation the coins have value as only quaint souvenirs, looking rather like car wash tokens in over-bright gold.

The language of physics explains the fantastic; the rigor of method is applied toward magic. Researchers investigate subjects as diverse as time travel, past lives, sentient communication, and most importantly, Selfica.

For the past several days, I’ve watched, aghast, as George has steadily fed his income into these machines. Bill after bill after bill in exchange for colored coins. “Invest in the Credito!” he tells me. “Even if everything else goes up in smoke, this will still exist. We’ll all be safe here. We’ll all be saved!”

Time’s running out. But we’ve been given one more chance in this game. One chance to realize that we are god, that all our thoughts are agents of the creator trying to makes sense of its creation. The stakes are high. We’re losing more than we can retain, but the thing is—and what most people don’t realize—is that we’re all playing the game.

***
“ . . . Imagine: everything that you believe in, you realize suddenly is false. All your convictions. Everything that you learned in school. Everything that you ever got from your family. It’s all distortion. It’s a system of lies. And all that you think you know, you know you know, suddenly has no foundation whatsoever. And for me, it felt like I was falling right through the ground. Like I couldn’t trust in anything anymore, I certainly couldn’t trust myself. That was terrifying. But just as you’re falling, like falling through space with nothing to hold, you begin to see. This is the Truth . . .”

***
“This is human potential made manifest,” says the driver as we wind our way up the mountain.

“This is spirituality made real, explains the guide as we enter a small house set into the rock.

“This is a mission based on the capacity to dream. We’re not working just for ourselves, but for everyone. And the Temples are our greatest gift.” An old woman presses a button and down into the earth we descend.

Two million buckets of earth hauled from the mountains by hand to create a vast network of subterranean cathedrals. It is impossible to not be awed by this achievement. Hewn from the living rock, truly: marble, mosaics, stained glass, hidden doors, secret passageways. They compare the Temples to organs of the body, the book of life, a journey deep into the caverns of yourself: five stories, 8,500 cubic meters and counting, as the current structure represents only ten percent of what is planned.

It all began in secret, in the late 1970s, the excavations were illegal. And the Temples, though today recognized by the Italian government, still bear traces of their covert history. Driving up the mountain, you come eventually to a modest house, set against the rock, and enter through a wooden door. The corridor is painted with murals in a faux-Egyptian style; the first reaction is disappointment. But this is all a ruse.

“Just in case anyone came, we wanted to throw them off. People in the Valley were convinced that we were somehow connected with Ancient Egypt anyways, and the best way to get someone off your back is to just give them what they want.” The murals are painted with clues, pointing out where on the wall one needs to push, to guide the clever visitor through a set of trick doors.

A masterpiece of science fiction, or of religious ecstasy, every last detail reflects Falco’s philosophy. From the time before time to the far distant future, the Federation – or more specifically, Falco – has conceived a holistic, if wholly improvised, theory of being in the universe: it covers the whole of the cosmos and explains the purpose and function of the human soul. The floor of the Hall of the Labyrinth is a serpentine mosaic of Bral Talej, the sacred language. Massive seraphim form columns and the walls depict the sweep of time from cavemen to the uncertainty of the present. On one side, the evolution of fertility and tenderness, while the opposite marks the progression of culture and violence. The walls include the World Wars and the World Trade Towers in flames, but the final section has been left blank.

“We know that it is disaster, but we don’t yet know its shape.”

“We used our own money. We gave it everything we had. We held jobs, we worked at night,” a guide tells me when I ask how it was all possible.

In the beginning, construction was taking place in secret almost twenty-four hours a day. “It was like a hobby. A very expensive and all-consuming hobby. And the work is never done.”

I’m reminded of the Kafka short story, “The Great Wall of China” and its commentary on motives buried within motives. It seems relevant from here, meters inside the earth, in considering how hundreds of people have been recruited into creating a collective identity. Building something together to distinguish between us and them, while creating through myth a sense of shared history and future. But Kafka’s Wall, like Falco’s Temples, is also a testament to how so many can be drawn into grand plans that namely benefit their authors.

We move on. Tiny lights in the ceiling recreate the heavens on the marble floor.. Every citizen has created a clay sculpture of him or herself; thumb pressed figurines with accentuated sense and sex organs so that each can always be present in the Temples, better attuned to the divine.

“We’re in a war right now,” a male guide intones, leading us into a tall and impressive chamber whose walls illustrate the great struggle between The Real and The Darkness. A giant, bleak gray shadow is snatching at the colored fabric of life. “We all are, even though most have no idea it’s going on. Most don’t even know that they’ve joined the shadow. Of course they don’t, because the main weapon of the shadow is meaninglessness. But they’re placing all of us at risk. If we don’t recompose the mirror, the earth will be cut off from the stars.”

Not one careless detail. Everything is a symbol. I’m awed, touched, but I just can’t shake the impression that the symbols are so thickly embedded that they actually refer back to nothing. “Write in your notebooks, record your profound experience.” We are called upon to feel and then told what it is we feel.

I know that alchemy will not halt climate change. I am certain I’m not skipping back and forth through time while sitting in this room.

Signifiers that allude to depth, but only touch the surface. As though by so loudly insisting on divinity, the possibility for mystery is trampled upon. The continual assertions – this is sacred, this is symbolic, this is an expression of god – leave little room for impressions to make their natural claim on the imagination. The mass of detail delights the eye, but forecloses the imponderable. The soaring caverns of Cathedrals, a chapel’s muted austerity, the focused intent of a shrine: these examples of faith architecture encourage contemplation and a particular sort of spiritual relationship, where questioning itself becomes a holy act. Surely, the Temples are beautiful, but they insist on an exact form of god. As I wind my way back up from the depths, I feel anxious for fresh air, eager for the sun. Even though Damanhur means City of Light, all illumination in the Temples is completely artificial.

***
“You’re late.”

“I’m sorry, but-”

The woman in the long red gown sits in shadow, and gestures with her candle back down the hill I’ve just climbed in the hopes of attending the evening’s ceremony, the Rite of the Oracle. “It is impossible to enter once the ceremony has begun.” She rises from her throne-like chair and moves as though prepared to physically bar me from advancing any closer. Smoke and drum beats rise from the darkened hill. “If you had really wanted to come, you would have been more mindful of the time. Go. Now.” To punctuate her command, she blows out the candle, so that suddenly her shrouded features are lost to the dark. The pounding grow more insistent. The fire spits and crackles.

Earlier in the afternoon I had seen the young man with the yellow face paint. “Con te! Con te!” He bows and prays and tells me wild stories about this night’s event: there will be white stallions, sacrifice, dancing in trance ‘til the dawn. “It would be real stupid not to go,” he tells me. “Really, really stupid.”

So I decide to not be deterred by this woman. I walk part way back down the hill, and then in the darkness begin to pick my way up an embankment, hoping to climb to the landing that overlooks the Open Temple. Stumbling, I make my way to the clearing, and look down to behold an astonishing site. Huge pyres smoldering at intervals along the Temple grounds, their flames illuminating tall pillars, against which robed men stand beating deep, heavy drums. Presiding over the flames, figures dance round and round, screaming incantations into the smoke. No stallions, but a shifting assembly of robes. Red and black, sweeping the ground and crowned with peaked hoods. Bral Talej, as I’ve been told, can be written, spoken and performed; these bizarre calisthenics are a function of language. NEFTJ SAT ET – the way of the oracle.

What is the Oracle? I ask.

It’s very complex.

I’ve been here for over ten years and I’m still just learning how it all works.

The presiding air of cherished mystery: That’s beyond your level.

This ceremony, held under the full moon, is one of the numerous – and I’m told compulsory – rituals, during which time windows open for participants to cross into divine dimensions. Seekers, aspirants and, moreover, community members are encouraged to submit written question, to which the High Priestess will divine the answer. Concerns about purpose, wonders as to place, these queries are given over to the heads of the community and then resolved in moon and smoke.

***
A number of us, guests and citizens, have gathered for a supper at one of the Federation’s restaurants, a refurbished farmhouse deep in the countryside. I am again much impressed by the scale of their holdings, the diversity of their projects. At the restaurant, the owners showed us a picture of the musician Sting and his wife, who according to the guestbook proudly passed around, visited last year and had a spectacular time.

As we pass around wine from the community’s vineyards and seven sumptuous organic courses from Federation gardens, Else speaks up from the far end of the table: “We should really be talking about the relationship between spirituality and money.” She is unabashed when it comes to her wealth. Her conversation is strewn with references to her many properties. Precious gems adorn her neck, her fingers. She has a habit of extending her hands when she speaks and rotating them from side to side, to ensure that everyone can appreciate each facet of her many rings. She is a first time guest here, and like most has come because she has been called. Dutch and in her mid-sixties, she is a woman who, quite frankly, fills me with nameless horror. The lightest exchange leads invariably down the rabbit hole: recitals of pains reincarnated, dialogue with the deceased, and exacting accounts of being burned as a witch in 1667. The worst part was not the excruciation of burning flesh, but looking out from the pyre and seeing my young daughter, watching, helpless and pregnant with her first child . . . She breathes loudly, having been instructed to regard the air as a sip-able substance, so as to better intake its energetic properties. It’s as though she’s sucking from an invisible straw. “We need to talk about money.” From her rasping I can tell that she’s gearing up for another soliloquy, but Bart, the kindly Belgian doctor gratefully cuts her off.

“Well, with these uncertain times that’s all the more reason to study alchemy,” he chuckles. “Knowing how to turn lead into gold is a sure protection against the collapse of the financial system.”

His humor is lost on the table.

“That’s not what Falco’s alchemical school is about, Bart,” Helleh shakes her head. “This is the alchemy of the soul, it has nothing to do with material wealth.” A pretty blond woman, it is established that Helleh is of a higher order. She dresses in a manner I would think consistent with a pagan priestess, carrying about various orbs and amulets.

Else describes her plan to sell her properties so that she will have plenty of cash “when the system explodes.” George is again extolling the virtues of the Credito.
I can’t erase the image of his convicted fingers steadily feeding the machines with his life’s earnings. “Even if Europe were to collapse tomorrow—” he begins

“Let’s say December 2012, be more realistic,” Else interjects.

“Ok, December 2012. Europe totally breaks down, we’ll still have this place where our money is worth something.” His eyes dance, pleading.

Corinne again shakes her head.

But Helleh slams the table, “Nnnnnnnooooo,” the word rumbles from her lips. “That is the void claiming you, Corinne. You have to remember that all thought is the line of connection between you and god, and you are just a channel. When you are negative like this, you’re closing off The Real.”

“No,” Corinne persists, “I’m just saying this currency system is based on one that is unstable, and I think we should keep that in mind.”

“Hmmm,” Helleh frowns. “I can see the void all around you. And I thought that you were doing so much better today.”

“Please don’t tell me how I’m doing. I know how I’m feeling today.”

***
“ . . . One of the hardest parts was that if you question it, it’s like holding up a big banner that says, I’m not worthy. You play along completely. But at some point what happens is that it just grows so messy between what you’re pretending and what you really are and what you really think. You begin to lose the ability to identify what’s what. You start to lose track of the boundary between real and make believe. What’s true and what’s just playing the part . . .”

***

“Katie, we saw you getting into a car . . .” Corinne and Thym approach with stern looks.

“Yes,” I answer, “I got a ride into town.”

“But don’t you know?”

“Haven’t you heard?”

Just the day before, I had been chatting with Goura.

“Ah, Katarina, one more thing.”

Yes?

“Past the field there is a stone circle surrounded by large standing rocks. It’s a very special place where we gather for the solstice and equinox.”

Yes.

“Have you been there?”

No.

I’m feeling quite on edge, residing now with a woman who claims she was once a sorceress, who says nothing as we cross the short stretch of the lawn, and a distant but distinct sound of gunfire echoes in the night.

“Good. Because it’s only for the Spiritual People.” Goura gestures a manicured hand toward the still ribbon of concrete on the other side of the gates. “It can be very dangerous there,” she says.

Thinking she must be referring to the breakneck speed of the drivers on the winding roads, I nod. Narrow road, fast cars.

“No,” she shakes her head. “Not the cars, it’s the people. You have to watch out. There’s a man, he drives a blue car. He offers rides to young women, guests of the Federazione, and then he assaults them and abandons them on the side of the road.”

How wretched! In this peaceful place of mist and ruined castles perched high on peaks, how eerie. But something to me seemed strange in this warning, especially as it was delivered so fluidly: sacred language, time travel, temples . . . blue car.

“Don’t you know,” Corinne persists, “That you should never get into a blue car.” I pause. Corinne has been my comrade in doubt, my sister in skepticism.

Thym nods vigorously. “Blue,” she says, managing to endow this most benign of sounds with unimaginable evils.

“There’s a rapist out there.”

“There’s the dark.”

***

“You seem much better today,” Helleh comments to Corinne, as we sit, a small group of women and a bottle of wine. “Yesterday you were not with us at all.”

“I know,” Corinne nods. “Sometimes I have very dark days. During times like this it’s difficult for me, and I’ve felt these periods getting worse and worse.”

“That’s because,” offers Thym, “You’re getting closer to the truth.”

“I’ve just been feeling so much resistance,” Corinne continues.

“Yes,” Helleh nods, “That is quite common when you start getting close to The Real. The old you puts up a big fight.”

“Yes, I felt so lost and so dark and I didn’t want to have a part in any of this. I didn’t want to hear any more of these stories, I didn’t want any of this magic.” Her speech has grown rapid, she takes a large sip from her wine and looks to me. “But then in the middle of the night I bolted right up. Voom!” She opens her eyes wide and raises her hands. “I understood. I understood why I’ve been hating all this talk of magic and alchemy.”

Yes? Yes?

“It’s because I’ve known all this before.”

Yes! Yes! The table is rapt.

“I was a magician in the past. I mean in my past life.”

“Hmmm, it’s powerful here,” says Else again.

“I had all the magic, but I had used it for bad.”

The darkness! The women murmur excitedly.

“Yes, I was a master, but I walked with the shadow. And I see now that this is where the resistance comes from. I don’t want to go down that path again, something in me-”

“God.”

“The mirror.”

“-Something was trying to protect me and to protect other people. But I see it now, I see it.” She is smiling, and she keeps staring at me.

***
I feel uneasy with Corinne. She seems transformed. From the level-headed skeptic of my early acquaintance, to the woman beside me talking hurriedly about her past evils. We’ve been driving for what feels like hours, navigating the dark, winding roads after another strange meal. Ahead, Bart and Helleh veer off an unmarked road and vanish. “That’s the killing ground,” Corinne says offering no further explanation. I’m feeling quite on edge, residing now with a woman who claims she was once a sorceress, who says nothing as we cross the short stretch of the lawn, and a distant but distinct sound of gunfire echoes in the night.

Thoroughly uneasy, I climb into my bed, and remain wide-awake.

As I wind my way back up from the depths, I feel anxious for fresh air, eager for the sun. Even though Damanhur means City of Light, all illumination in the Temples is completely artificial.

An hour, two hours later: “Katie! Katie!” Corinne bangs on my door. Shouting in a whisper, “He’s here!” Shaking, I join Corinne on the porch, looking out to see a man standing unmoving on the lawn. The blue car, is my first thought, but there is nothing on the black road, just a dark silhouette rising from the dark of the lawn. The signal on my phone, flickering at best, is gone. We bolt the door. We bolt the windows. I opt, despite my reservations, to bunk with Corinne. But it is a long and wakeful night. Like many women, I am no stranger to violence; such is the grim reality of our country, where a culture of sanctioned aggression leaves its cruel imprint on the body. Thus, I am fairly savvy, whether at home or abroad, to the possible perils of my environment. But on this night, I lie in the grip of sleepless nightmares, feeling more and more that whatever strange apparition appeared on the lawn was not nearly so terrifying as the blonde woman now snoring lightly in the bed beside mine.

***
“ . . .But what if? What if? This is what starts up in the back of my head. What if I’m just so skeptical that I just can’t even see the magic here. What if this is The Real and I am making a conscious decision to reject that because I’m too scared, or too brainwashed, or maybe my soul isn’t open enough? What if the world really is all about to end? Call it what you want, but there is a darkness. Maybe not their Darkness, but you can’t argue against the fact that there’s a lot of evil in the world …”

***
Every other guest who I’ve met during my time here has purchased Selfic ornaments, obtained Selfic treatments, and invested in Creditos, in addition to books, paintings and various self-realization technologies. And today, all of them, a good dozen, are signing on to become Spiritual People.

How are you feeling now, Katarina? The constant question throws my doubt into relief, and I look toward the refuge of my coming departure. Don’t you just love it? Isn’t it all so astounding? Today, I am met with concern: Why aren’t you becoming one of the Spiritual People? I grope for common language.

Though I’m not joining, I attend the initiation, watching the guests hand over not much and receive in return a piece of string for a bracelet. Most all, by this point, are adorned in Selfic jewelry, silver bands and coiled earrings, but this string is the first mark of fellowship. The others are notably disappointed when they learn that Falco is too busy to preside over their indoctrination, but they obediently follow the orders they’re given to hold their threaded wrists to their heads. “Every day, we have to charge this thread. We take time to acknowledge our commitment to the Federation. If you don’t do this, the thread loses its power, and you’ll be cut off. Remember, this is free will.”

When we leave the small room in which the initiation has taken place, I see the man with the yellow face paint.

“Hey!” He cries, “So did you it?”

He frowns deeply when I answer, no. “Hmmm,” he begins, shaking his head, but soon he’s distracted by the sight of Corinne, who is strolling nearby with Helleh and Else.

He calls to her. Con te! Con te! But he uses a different name.

“You’ve met Corinne?” I ask.

“Corinne?” He looks confused. “No, no, that’s – ” he uses a different name.

I think he must be mistaken. “That’s Corinne, from Luxembourg, she’s in my group of guests.”

He stares at me and smiles, a face of patient condescension. “No,” he shakes his head slowly. “No, that’s—” and again he uses the unfamiliar name. “She’s been living here for years.”

***

“ . . . I no longer know what’s real anymore and what’s made up. You see, now I understand that almost everything is made up. But even still, having gotten out of there, having escaped to here – I can’t escape my faith. I can’t quite let go of having been so close. We were at the center of the world. The future. Not just the future of humanity, we were the future of all the light in the universe. We were the keepers of everything that is sacred and under attack. I imagine that having been there, you’ve seen the beauty of that. I lived there. I know! But even though I know that it’s not real, I still have a hard time in letting go of the beauty of that possibility. It’s so hard, because being here, back in normal life, just living like a normal person, what is there? Sometimes I feel like I sacrificed everything in order to save my life. But the life that I’ve saved . . . what is it?”

Katherine Rowland is a journalist currently based in New York. Her work has appeared in Nature, the Financial Times, the Independent, OnEarth and other publications.

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