It should be no surprise, perhaps, that the decade of the '80s that brought us the harmonic convergence, "Bonfires of the Vanities" and hundreds of self-help books should also have spawned a new kind of religion. More surprising, perhaps, is that it happened in conservative upper Northwest Washington.
Yet there, in a sanctuary in the Palisades that once was home to a Pentecostal church, is the Washington headquarters of the Institute for Spiritual Development, a nondenominational church whose spiritual roots are grounded in self-determination.
Once a month, about 40 members of the mostly suburban, middle-class congregation meet in the darkened chapel of the tiny church to meditate -- clutching $1, $5 and $100 bills.
They come to change their future for the better, they say. They come to win a new job or a higher salary, lose weight or get extra cash. In the language of the New-Age culture, they are there for "prosperity meditation."
The institute is part of a network of seven churches in cities along the East Coast. All play down the guilt and redemption of traditional dogma and focus on New-Age thinking, a hodgepodge of ideas that center on the power of people to invent their own lives.
"Imagine you have taken a magic potion that would give you the power to create any reality that you wish," the Rev. James De Biasio, director of the institute, told his worshipers at one monthly session.
The lights dimmed. An organist stroked a few alien chords. Then, speaking with a gentle, nurturing voice, De Biasio told the congregants to shut their eyes and imagine an ideal universe: "Take a $1 bill and put it in your left hand. If you used a $1 bill last month, use a $5 bill. Whatever you used the last time, go up one denomination.
"Now pass the bills from your left hand to your right hand. Move from the plane of the immaterial to the plane of the material."
God, he said, was ready to give people the reality they imagined. "Be noble and accept it. Be true to your destiny. Take a deep breath, grab reality, bring it back, exhale quickly," he exhorted before the music stopped. The lights went on, and the people stuffed their money back into their wallets.
"I really got into it," said Suzanne Dunn, 36, who said she has gone to several sessions to try to find a husband. This night, she said, she imagined she had a house and a family. "I could see the green lawn," she said.
Lydia Gross, a Bethesda real estate agent, has been a follower since the institute opened three years ago. Once it helped her sell a car for the price she wanted, she said.
Her daughter, Tracy Gross, 22, said the meditation has helped her lose weight. "What you want actually happens," she said.
The testimonials have caught the attention of students of anthropology and folklore such as Alan Dundes, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. He is critical of these 1980s New Agers, saying they are materialistic and narcissistic. They see themselves as "co-equals with God," he said, "who only think of money, money, money."
De Biasio dismisses the critics. He said the main tenet of the church, which accepts some Christian teachings, is that the "individual makes his own happiness."
It's an idea that probably didn't occur to Christian peasants of the Middle Ages, who credited God for anything good that happened to them. But to the prosperous in modern America, it's a concept that has a following of thousands.
"Every day we receive a clean slate on which to build our reality," De Biasio said.