Janet York's house was not always a peaceful retreat -- the upstairs bedroom was used as a surgery center to treat the wounded from a Civil War battle that totaled more than 4,000 casualties.
While seeing an acupuncturist for general health concerns, York took some advice and booked a session with a local spiritual counselor to work on her home.
"It was suggested to me that there could be some negative energy that could be affecting me," said York, a psychiatric nurse at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. Her house in Rohrersville, west of Frederick, served as a hospital during the Battle of South Mountain.
For centuries, homeowners have honored a spiritual tradition that puts the final mark on a real estate transaction: a humble house blessing. Such a ceremony can involve a simple prayer by a priest, minister or rabbi, or a more complex ceremony. Frequently, such blessings welcome a family into a new home. Sometimes, as in York's case, they can also be used to spiritually tune up a space.
The tradition of house blessings stretches across Islam, Judeo-Christianity and beyond. Some American Indian tribes, including the Navajo, perform smudging ceremonies by setting fire to bundles of herbs, extinguishing the flames and then using smoke to purify the space. Buddhists also attach a certain amount of importance to rituals designed to spiritually cleanse a house.
York, schooled in the sciences and raised in a Catholic home, was referred to Lida Saeedian, a woman who performs 10 to 12 "space consecrations" a year. Saeedian was born into a Jewish family in Iran but moved to the United States 30 years ago. She now lives in Northern Virginia and is studying Sufism, a type of Islamic mysticism.
Saeedian recalls basic rituals that were performed in her childhood home as a matter of course. "In Iran, everybody does it," she said. "We used to do simple procedures to get rid of terrible energy that somebody might have brought in."
Maharagama Dhammasiri is a Buddhist monk, originally from Sri Lanka, who now serves the Washington Buddhist Vihara on 16th Street NW. Dhammasiri has been in the United States since 1987 and goes by the shortened name of "Siri." Siri learned how to do house blessings as part of his 10-year curriculum as a monk in training.
In his experience, he said, house blessings are often needed because the home's previous owners aren't ready to let go. "Sometimes in houses, people have died with attachments, and they can make trouble," he said.
Current-day house blessing ceremonies typically honor and borrow from rituals and traditions that have been around since the world's great religions were forged. The mezuza, a spiritual guardian that adorns the door jamb of many Jewish homes, contains passages from Deuteronomy.
Other types of blessings claim ancient roots, too. "They're part of every religion and are usually co-created with the homeowners to imbue a space with a sense of the sacred," said Sherry Marts, a member of modern-day pagan clergy in Washington. Marts said she performs half a dozen house blessings a year, as well as weddings, funerals and baby blessings.
In putting together a house blessing, Marts leans on "folk traditions of Northern Europe, Celtic and pre-Christian Scandinavian rituals that were written down."
Some of the natural elements used in contemporary rituals cross sectarian lines. Salt is used in Marts's pagan ceremonies and was also used in Saeedian's childhood home to guard against the evil eye. "My mother would pour salt in our hands while she made circles over our head," Saeedian said.
Fire also shows up in different forms. Incense is often associated with the Catholic church, but Siri and his monks also use it in Buddhist house blessings. Saeedian prefers camphor, which creates an oily black smoke. (Don't worry, it doesn't stain freshly painted walls.) Flowers come into play in both Buddhist rituals and Saeedian's Sufi-influenced ceremonies, where they are used to attract good feelings.
The length of ceremonies varies. Siri's monks, who do five or six blessings a year, are usually in and out in about an hour. In addition to the offering of flowers and incense, the monks also bring in a jug of water and a length of hand-made cotton thread. During the ceremony, one end of the thread is put into the water. At the end of the ceremony, each person will drink some water from the jug and be given a cotton bracelet the monks make from the same thread.
"This connects everybody," Siri said.
One of the monks will then give a short sermon. "This helps people stay connected to the teachings of the Buddha, and the monks give advice on living a happy and loving life," Siri said.
Saeedian's ceremonies borrow traditions from several religions and can last from one to three hours depending on the size of the house. Saeedian also customizes her rituals to fit her clientele; she can pray in four languages -- English, Hebrew, Arabic and Farsi.
She likes to begin by requesting that the homeowners come up with a name for the house. Once the name has been chosen, Saeedian touches the furniture and walls, looking for "energy that gets stuck." She then washes her hands and places flowers and salt in each room. Then the noise begins.
Saeedian's repertoire of sounds includes ululating, which creates a distinctive, high pitched, back-of-the-throat sound associated with women from the Middle East. Saeedian also invites the homeowners to ring bells and clap.
"I go around and clap in different corners," she said. "Energy gets stagnant in corners."
Prices for a house blessing ceremony vary from nothing to hundreds of dollars, but most are taken care of with a donation. Siri said, "We don't charge but request that people make a donation to each monk."
When Marts performs a house blessing, she won't take any money for herself but instead recommends a donation to the Open Hearth Foundation, a local center for all things pagan. She also appreciates an invitation to another traditional event that sometimes occurs after a successful blessing. "We have a secular tradition called a house warming that usually turns into a party," she said.
Saeedian has a sliding scale of house blessing fees. Depending on square footage, the range stretches from $200 to $500.
For York, it was a small price to pay for spiritual tranquility in a house that once saw its share of pain and suffering. She "absolutely" recommends the ritual to others. After the ceremony was over, she said, "Things were fresh and clean in the house, and I was seeing white linen in my mind."