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Charmed Life

Old New Age

Michelle Gienow

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 4/11/2001

To hear him tell it, Mark Friedman came to the Theosophical Society almost by accident.

"One day I was on Charles Street at the old Louie's Bookstore and I saw the sign right across the street. I thought it was one of those historical anachronisms"--a relic sign, like the vote against prohibition mural in Fells Point.

Countless others have seen those gold-lettered windows at 523 N. Charles, assumed the same thing, and moved on. But Friedman was intrigued. He knew a bit about Theosophy; he'd studied the works and life of Indian-born philosopher J. Krishnamurti, who early in life was groomed by Theosophists to be a spiritual leader on the order of the Buddha or Jesus. (Krishnamurti ultimately parted ways with Theoso-phy.) So Friedman began attending weekly lectures at the Maryland Lodge, as the Charles Street office is called.

Twelve years later, Friedman is often the guy giving the lecture; the role gets passed around among society members and invited guests. On recent Friday nights, the former city and state housing official has addressed "Reincarnation and Rebirth" and "The Mystery Religions: Archetypes of Christianity?" Other speakers have talked about cutting-edge physics, the Jewish mystical philosophy Kabala, meditation, and work of poet and Theosophist William Butler Yeats. On April 1, the program was a video called Our Relationship to the Universe as a Whole. This Friday, April 13, it's an open discussion on "Sacrifice and Renewal."

Connect the dots and you get a rough idea of what Theosophy is about: the pursuit of cosmic and spiritual questions through all sorts of disciplines, including philosophy, psychology, science, religion, and myth. The eclectic, inclusive approach is rooted in the thinking of Madame Helene Petrovna Blavatsky, a 19th-century Russian mystic who traveled throughout Eurasia in search of ancient wisdom before setting down roots in New York. In 1875, she and a handful of like-minded Americans founded the Theosophical Society; two years later, she published her first major work, Isis Unveiled. Her magnum opus, published in 1888, is The Secret Doctrine, a treatise on cosmic and human evolution.

The Maryland Lodge was founded in 1916 and moved to its present location in 1925. Members say the place hasn't changed much since then. The walls are lined with beautiful, old wooden bookcases containing Blavatsky's works plus hundreds of other volumes, organized by subject. A photograph of Blavatsky faces the doorway, greeting those who enter with a solemn, somewhat theatrically mystical gaze. Below the portrait, a table displays a small number of books for sale, the titles reflecting Theosophic interests: Encyclopedia of Angels, The Gnostic Jung and the Seven Sermons to the Dead.

Friedman says the Baltimore group's weekly talks typically attract a dozen or so people, on rare occasions as many as twice that. Attendees sit at a round wooden table in the front room, making for cozy discussions. "I'd much rather have 50 people there, but so what?" Friedman says, chuckling. Turnout-wise, he says, the society is victimized to a certain extent by the success of ideas Theosophists have promoted for more than a century: "Historically, people interested in Eastern ideas would seek out the Theosophical Society because it was the only game in town. These things are now mainstream, so you don't have to go to the Theosophical Society to get them."

Of course, the group also rarely advertises--and if it did, one wonders how many boomers would hire baby sitters on Friday night while they step out for a chat about the nature of existence. Baltimore's Theosophists tend to be mature folks who are getting back to life's bigger questions after raising kids, retiring, and paying off the mortgage. Friedman, who now works part time as a mental- health counselor, is 67; the lodge president, Carroll Richardson, is 77, although he joined the group as a much younger man.

A Linthicum resident, Richardson says he was raised as "a Southern redneck Baptist" but came to Theosophy in the 1960s--after dec-ades of hellfire and brimstone, he found the society's lack of dogma and damnation hugely refreshing. "It really took a weight off my shoulders," he says. Another longtime Theosophical Society member is Veronica Core, a native of Ireland who declares, "My thoughts were always Theosophical." She says her stepfather is buried in the old sod of County Sligo, right next to W.B. Yeats himself.

On April 3, the Maryland Lodge hosted Joy Mills, former president of the Theosophical Society's "American Section" and director of the Krotona Institute, which Friedman describes as a sort of graduate school of Theosophy. A stately woman with permed white hair and a kindly expression, Mills spoke on "Death and the Mystery of Life." An audience of some 20 casually dressed souls listened with heads half-bowed. At one point, the speaker quoted a typically challenging line from Krishnamurti: "Attempt without effort to live with death in the timeless present." The questions after the talk ranged from the innocently earnest ("Can you repeat that quote again?") to the slightly ostentatious and the downright wacky. Mills somehow answered each affirmatively, as if to endorse each questioner's search for the truth without quibbling over doctrinal correctness. Madame Blavatsky would have approved.

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