The Spirit Is Willing

Local churches let you get right with God without the hassle

New Year's resolutions are so passé. But for the sake of tradition, I still find myself madly scrawling my own list of to-do's and not-to-do's, à la Bridget Jones, on crumpled Christmas gift receipts three or four days before the first of January.

In recent years, I've wised up by skipping the proven failures — that is, anything having to do with dieting, working out, or, now that I've finally attained the much-vaunted significant other, “fixing” him. Instead, I choose to focus on the Cardinal Rules of Being a Nice Person:

1. Be nice (duh).

2. Be generous to the poor (and don't cheat by putting self in category).

3. Be more spiritual.

That last one is a biggie, actually. While getting your daily dose of holy seldom makes it to any resolution Top 10 lists, the majority of Americans (62.9 percent) say they believe in God or some other higher power. It's both lucky and unfortunate that by virtue of our location in this most multicultural of cities, heathens, hedonists, and members of the god squad are faced with a veritable cornucopia of choices of who, what, where, and how to worship. After all, where else can you find theosophical societies, churches devoted to the (apparently) canonized patron saint and post-bop sax legend John Coltrane, and collectives of tantric sex witches who convene on the full moon, all within a five-mile radius?

If you prefer not to stray too far from the flock and prefer reliable outposts to frothy offshoots (i.e., churches that entertain the idea of time-honored religions as viable avenues to enlightenment), there are several local alternatives that can lead you to nirvana in a bottle — or at the very least help you learn to be a nicer person in the coming year.

Beth Sholom

If you're looking for traditional Jewish liturgy with some additional fixings, try Beth Sholom, a conservative synagogue that offers Shabbat services alongside programs tailored to LGBT communities and various social justice issues. One of Beth Sholom's most innovative offerings is the meditation center, Makor Or (“source of light” in Hebrew). Taking all the cliches out of oft-regurgitated Kabbalah mysticism and providing serious students with a hefty chunk of food for thought. Rabbi Alan Lew, the founder of Makor Or and the head rabbi of Beth Sholom, infuses the center's teachings with introspective, globally heterogeneous smatterings of New Judaism. Scholars and Bible buffs take note — Beth Sholom also offers rigorous classes on the history and geography of the Talmud, Torah, and the cultural legacies of Judaism. Daily sitting meditations at Makor Or, conveniently located next door to the synagogue, precede prayer services at Beth Sholom. Study groups and classes scrutinize subjects as varied as the role of prophecy in Judaism and meditations on the Book of Psalms. Monthly weeklong retreats include alternating periods of yoga, meditation, Torah study, and prayer. 1301 Clement St. (at 14th Ave.), 221-8736,

Grace Cathedral

Erstwhile Catholics — and the rest of us — might prefer to cultivate a spiritual practice in one of the most beautiful spots in the city. Grace Cathedral is a lofty, multispired Gothic stone fortress that functions as both tourist trap and the seat of San Francisco's Episcopalian Archdiocese. Stained glass windows, a stately medieval ambience, an AIDS Chapel altarpiece by Keith Haring, and the mellifluous sound of organ music all make the prospect of an honest-to-goodness religious experience not so implausible. One of the church's main draws is its two labyrinths — the outdoor one, made of terrazzo stone, is a replica of the feted labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral in France, and the indoor one is a wool tapestry. While the centuries-old mystical tradition of wending your way around a circular path without any dead ends may not have you erupting into a litany of hallelujahs, it is supremely relaxing. Given that the congregation is fairly massive, an online magazine and podcasts all serve to keep the information-age flock involved. Meet-and-greets over wine and crackers also help clue new members into mundane church proceedings as well as the mysteries of the Holy Eucharist. Aside from the usual baptisms, weddings, and annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem, you can expect monthly sacred-space meditations, lecture series on topics such as the importance of evolution in God's plan, and the occasional ubiquitous yoga hour. 1100 California St., 749-6300,

San Francisco Zen Center

If you're a walking/talking/breathing San Franciscan, you've no doubt at least tried to meditate. Chances are, you don't know what you're doing. But breathe easy — and deep — because the San Francisco Zen Center offers a grounded alternative to practitioners daunted by the monastic forms of Buddhism. Established in 1962 by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, who was responsible for bringing Zen to the West, the Zen Center maintains the rigor and intellectual complexity of classical Zen while remaining accessible to laypeople. The Zen Center is composed of one of the largest Buddhist communities outside Asia and has three practice areas: the City Center building in San Francisco, Green Gulch Farm in Marin, and the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, just outside Big Sur. All three centers offer a rich array of meditation, retreats, practice periods, classes, workshops, and family events. While the Zen Center is ideal for laypeople (zazen meditations at the City Center on Saturday mornings are specifically tailored for beginners and fidgeters), all events are led by a fleet of experienced monks, many of whom were Suzuki Roshi's students. The Zen Center is also deeply connected to a variety of social justice causes including protecting the environment, speaking out against war, and reaching out to the homeless. The City Center is known as the Beginner's Mind Temple (after Suzuki Roshi's book of straight-shooting musings on all things Zen) and offers a wide range of talks, meditation, classes, one-on-one spiritual counseling, and residential student programs. Workshops include storytelling and mindfulness practice for children as well as how to take mindfulness into the ADD-addled world while raising a happy Zen family. 300 Page St. (at Laguna), 863-3136,

Swedenborgian Church

Love is life. The sacred can be found in your very surroundings. Everyone is responsible for determining their own beliefs and living by them. And perhaps, most astonishing of all, a good person can get into heaven, no matter what his or her religion. Might sound like common sense, but these are actual tenets of the Swedenborgian Church. Spurred by the teachings of 17th-century Swedish scientist and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, this unusual branch of Christianity tosses out the rulebook by emphasizing freedom and diversity over garbled doctrine. San Francisco's 100-year-old Swedenborgian Church, designated a National Historical Landmark in 2006, is strongly associated with the early-20th-century Arts and Crafts movement and dispenses with the grandiose flourishes of traditional churches and cathedrals, opting instead for rustic forms, natural materials, and hearthside charm. Whether you're spending Sunday mornings in the candle-lit sanctuary or engaging in meditation dubbed the “hour of peace,” this is spiritual sustenance at its simplest and most satisfying. 2107 Lyon St. (at Washington), 346-6466,

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