The New Jerusalem

At Ruth Carter Stapleton’s retreat near Denton, her followers can partake of Inner Healing, bean sprouts, and racquetball.

The smiling, carefully coiffed former beauty queen of a hundred newspaper photos is weak fiction next to the real thing: Ruth Stapleton is tough, impatient, curt with her staff, and generally wants things done her way. Ruth Stapleton is simply too busy to be nice. Any interference with the rules that make it all work – her ministry, family, and followers, her corporation, her stiff schedule of speaking engagements – is just too much to bear.

The latest demand on Ruth Staple-ton’s energy is posed by Holovita (“whole life”), the elaborate religious retreat she is setting up on a 30-acre former working ranch just south of Denton. The grand opening will come some time this summer, and with it the prospect of regular weekend retreats. But for now, her volunteer staff of twenty or so, people from Denton, Bartonville, Argyle, Dallas and Fort Worth, are scurrying to lay out tomato plants, paint the kitchen, stock the library shelves, remodel the guest house.

Ruth Stapleton has just arrived from Houston, and she likes what she sees.

“The whole thing is going to be an expression of my philosophy. You can’t miss the message. See, everything is getting back to basics, to cotton and natural wood. Simplicity. People won’t have to drive their cars here; they can walk. And all the houses will be built for energy conservation.” She is animated as she talks, stroking the slipcover on the couch, gesturing toward the dark plank floors.

Except for the small library, with its shelves of brightly colored inspirational texts, religious symbolism is oddly absent: The sprouts growing in glass dishes on the kitchen counter say as much about Stapleton’s hopes for Holovita as the single, modest cross in the living room.

“Too many people have a tendency to go off the deep end in religion and neglect all the other facets of life. They lose their sense of balance. Well, the name of my programs will be ’A Design for Living.’ I will probably be here almost every weekend. I’ll do teaching myself about twice a month, and be here as a resource person the other times. I’ll have people from all the different fields come in. I have one woman, her field is sexual repression. And then I have a doctor, with a drug center. And a man who is very much into proper healthy diet – not a fanatical diet, but eating the right foods.’’ Everyone can come – doctors, lawyers, journalists, housewives, people who have heard her speak and want to know more. They’ll hear live evening concerts out on the lawn, eat meals prepared from Holovita’s own garden, smell the flowers from its small greenhouse, just outside her own bedroom window… Here, she implies, one can live life as it ought properly to be lived.

One bit of Holovita lore has it that Ruth Stapleton arrived at the decision to move the center of her ministry to Dallas after a long session of soul-searching, seated on the gnarled, low-lying trunk of “her tree,” a natural landmark on the property. That may well be true, but when she discusses the move, soul-searching doesn’t even come up. She chose Dallas for some of the same reasons that many companies relocate here. Dallas is just so convenient.

“The airport means everything to me. I live in airports. See, I have so many people flying from east to west. It’s just so convenient to put into Dallas. You see, I wasn’t really thinking in terms of Texas as much as access. But I wanted country. I wanted water, trees and all. Now 1 think my work will probably center on Texas and the surrounding states – New Mexico, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana.

Later, a member of her staff says that Holovita’s physical and spiritual refreshments will eventually include a “complete health and exercise center,” with tennis, handball and racquetball courts, weight room, and sauna. The guests’ fee for a weekend at this center of the Christian good life has not yet been established, but it will probably be substantial.

Holovita is the latest and most elaborate fruit of Ruth Stapleton’s personal ministry, which is called Inner Healing. A sort of Christian psychotherapy, one part each Full Gospel fundamentalism and Freudian psychology, Inner Healing is a controversial and original religious philosophy, and very much her own creation. It has won her an impressive number of followers among charismatic Christians of all denominations over the past 20 years or so, and more recently, prominence in the secular world as well. If Full Gospel is the fastest growing sector of the Christian world, as some say, it is in part because of the excitement caused by Ruth Carter Stapleton.

In the early Seventies, Stapleton established a corporate home for Inner Healing – Behold, Inc., a non-denominational, non-profit “healing corporation” in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where her family lives. Behold initially did little but mail out a free quarterly newsletter, Behold and Be Whole, to anyone who requested it.

Meanwhile, however, Stapleton was establishing herself on the evangelical lecture circuit, where religious celebrities are made. Her talks continue to be the backbone of her reputation: In March, she spoke in Texarkana, Pennsylvania, the Marin County Civic Center and Houston; over the next three months, her agent in Los Angeles has booked her for the New York Giants football stadium, a church in Caracas, Venezuela, and a tour of Israel.

Then there are her books: The Gift of Inner Healing and The Experience of Inner Healing, both published by Word Inc. of Waco. According to Word’s Russell Odell, The Gift of Inner Healing has sold just under a half million copies in 27 months; The Experience of Inner Healing, about 70,000 copies in 10 months. “Neither of her books has been listed in the Publisher’s Weekly or New York Times bestseller lists, even though they have outsold most that are listed,” snorts Odell. “Those lists ignore the evangelical world, even though the Gallup Poll says that about 40 million people out there are evangelicals.” Stapleton has hit them, though; she cracked the National Religious Bestseller List in 1976 with The Gift of Inner Healing.

Additionally, Stapleton offers a small line of cassettes featuring an introduction to Inner Healing, and her staff suggests that a line of video cassettes, for national distribution, is a possibility.

Ruth Stapleton, it seems, is a bona fide religious celebrity, of the kind only fundamentalist Christianity can produce, sustain – and tolerate.

The nature of Inner Healing is best conveyed through dramatic stories of individual healing, and Ruth Stapleton’s own story is the prototype. She’s told it countless times, till it floats, inspired and reassuring, somewhere beyond the facts. It’s a story of transcending an isolated rural upbringing, of shaking off the peculiarities of Plains, Georgia so as to face the “real world.” The official version, from The Gift of Inner Healing:

I never really learned about the outside world. Because my rather did not want me to be hurt, I was protected from many experiences that would cause suffering and pain. Although I lived on a farm in south Georgia, I never saw an animal born. Relatives passed away, but I was spared the pain of ever attending the funeral… At home I played with the black children on the farm. I never knew until I became an adult that there had been an unwritten law, spawned by centuries of prejudice, that the white children must be allowed to win all the time. So every game I ever played throughout my entire childhood, I won … I grew up believing that I was the most gifted, most loved person in the world.

And then, she says, came the shocks of adulthood: marriage at 19; the move to Fayetteville, hundreds of miles from her family; the birth of four children in eight years; a mounting sense of personal failure and inertia. In her late twenties, Ruth Stapleton had a breakdown.

She settles back into a corner of the couch and talks about having had to “break the bondage” of her childhood. “My southern conditioning was a strong guiding force in my emotional makeup. It was very traumatic. When you have a very protected childhood, as I had – one minister all my life, one church, one little tiny group of friends, one best friend, one boyfriend – it’s very hard. It was traumatic for me even to move from Plains, Georgia to North Carolina. I went home eight times the first year. The second year, when I had a little baby, I took her home almost every month. 1 would ride on the bus, 500 miles with her. My ties were so into Plains that I couldn’t break through.”

Stapleton’s ministry dates from the breakdown, and its development is intertwined with her recovery. In the years following her crisis, she recommitted to Christ, spent three years in group therapy, returned to school to do graduate work in psychology (she has degrees from Methodist College in Fayetteville and the University of North Carolina).

Stapleton’s controversial method of healing emotional trauma is called “faith imagination,” a strange process in which, under her gentle prompting, subjects close their eyes and try to visualize troubling events from the past – the funeral of a parent, for example. The point of faith imagination is not to re-live the traumatic event, however, but to transform it – to rerun it in the mind’s eye so that things go right this time. The catalyst is Christ, who is introduced into faith imagination voyages in a variety of disguises, depending on the trauma. At the crucial point in every imagining, just when things might slip away and go wrong again, Sta-pleton exhorts her subjects to go to the door, open it, and encounter the healing power of Christ.

For Mary Ann, the “sweet young housewife” whose story is told in The Gift of Inner Healing, trauma was rejection by her father. His indifference caused her most painful memories. Stapleton describes Mary Ann’s healing through faith imagination:

“Do you see your father reading the newspaper?”

“I sure do. I want to tear it out of his hand and say, ’Look at me, Daddy!’”

“Before you do anything, Mary Ann, look toward the front door. See it opening. See Jesus walking in.” As quickly as I set the scene she said, “I see him.”

“You see Jesus?”

“Yes,” she responded quickly. “He walked in and is standing over by the oil stove.”

“Let him come over to you and tell you how lovely you look.”

“Oh my soul, what a beautiful man he is.”

“Yes, he is. What does he think of you?”

“He says I’m beautiful. He says he’s very proud of me, that he would be proud to take me out.”

Tears were flowing from Mary Ann’s eyes. ’He kissed me on the forehead.”

“Now, Mary Ann, let Jesus go over to your father. See a radiant light flow from Jesus into your father.”

“Daddy’s put the paper down. He’s looking up at me.”

“If your daddy was flooded with the Spirit of Jesus, what do you think your daddy would do?”

“He’d come and tell me he loves me.”

“Let him.” Then came that moment of reconciliation and understanding I have seen so many times before, but it is always new, always sacred.

“Daddy, I forgive you,” Mary Ann said through her tears. “I know you didn’t know, but I just couldn’t help how cheated I felt.”

Mary Ann’s is, Stapleton suggests, a typical instance of Inner Healing: Through the creative exercise of the imagination, a new, more constructive reality is generated. Not a new picture of reality, mind you, but a new reality. Stapleton is adamant on this point: “Faith imagination creates an objective experience. It does not approximate or simulate one.”

If the point of faith imagination is to “reprogram the subconscious,” as Stapleton says, it also offers her subjects the possibility of religious ecstasy. Imagine: Jesus is at the door; just open it, and let him come in. Her own and others” accounts of the Inner Healing process suggest she is so skillful at it that she can lead even very large audiences to moan and sway as they remember the past, and leave them, at the end of the imagination, shaken and in tears. Transformed.

Ruth Stapleton, for one, is not articulate about her methods. “When I first began to develop [faith imagination], I took it to psychiatrists to work with me on it and check it out. I have one psychiatrist in particular. Any time I have a new meditation or a new faith imagination prayer I would go to him to have it checked out, to make sure it was medically sound, psychologically sound. I usually know about the spiritual side.” About her audiences and their traumas: “I don’t have to know the details of what they experienced. I cut through all the actual memories to the emotion. When I have an audience – I’ve had as many as 80,000 at one time – I just take them through these faith imagination prayers. And they know that something happens, but they don’t know what. When they see the result it’s usually a week or two weeks or three weeks later, when they are confronted with the same type of experience or person that causes them to react, and they don’t react. So it’s not ’Ouch, I’ve been healed!’ They don’t know, because what we’re dealing with is the unconscious.”

Others have been more to the point. Orthodox psychologists have called her a quack. Orthodox and fundamentalist clergymen have condemned her ministry as being without scriptural basis, and have labeled her methods “dangerous.” Stapleton – a Christian psychotherapist without credentials as a minister or psychologist – long stood an excellent chance of having her meetings cancelled without explanation.

However, casual newspaper attributions – “Jimmy Carter’s faith-healing sister,” for example – suggest that Stapleton has simply been mistaken for an old-time faith healer by the bulk of the population; the distinction between what she is up to and what Oral Roberts is up to has evidently been a hard one to put across. But if Ruth Stapleton is currently the hottest thing on the Full Gospel circuit – if charismatics can actually be counted upon to show up at Holovita for sprouts and racquetball – it is because her audiences are finding in her ministry something genuinely new, as well as reassuringly familiar. Stapleton is concerned with emotional problems, not with physical affliction or flaws of the spirit – the historic mainstays of old-time religion. And these emotional problems, she states with calm firmness to audiences accustomed to hearing that the ills of the world result from imperfect faith, are not their fault: Mom and Dad meant to do right by us, but they were imperfect human beings; our fears and troubles are the fallout of those imperfections.

“I feel that everybody really wants to be loving, kind, gentle. And yet we are unloving, angry, jealous, over-reacting. Well, The Gift of Inner Healing is geared for the purpose of showing a person there’s hope for them emotionally, no matter what state they’re in. No matter if it’s a strong obsession, or an addiction to alcohol or drugs, or negative hangups which cause all sorts of emotional problems. Their whole childhood can be repro-grammed. Not just with positive thinking, like a Norman Vincent Peale-type philosophy. But reprogrammed, actual healing of the negative emotions that are repressed.”

Be it the ingenuous Mary Ann or the nation’s foremost pornographer, it’s all the same to Ruth Stapleton: emotional trauma, traceable through patient questioning to a repressed incident of childhood, solvable by reliving the experience in the imagination, with the serviceable presence of Christ, proven deus ex machina, the transforming element. With her second book, a workshop in 13 chapters, she has used Inner Healing to point the way toward a kind of mass evangelical self-help; with Holovita, she seems close to creating a charismatic’s Esalen.

“She is one of a number of people who are entering into the confused state of religious need, and making a sincere attempt to answer it,” says Bishop Robert E. Terwilliger. From his vantage point in the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, light years from the spirit of Holovita and Inner Healing, he is rather interested in Ruth Stapleton. He suggests that she may be in over her head. “She strikes me as a woman of tremendous sincerity, devotion and prayer. The real question, however, is how well-grounded the lady is in anything that could be called the life of the church, whether she has the experience and knowledge to take on such a vast ministry. And I don’t mean her personal gifts. She has tremendous, temporary gifts, but those gifts are very easily exploited, even by those who don’t know they’re being exploited.

“The last thing we need is another phenomenon of revivalist religion, even if it’s in psychiatric language this time. I think all you’ll get is some very temporary, bizarre and impressive results. She’s already had one bizarre result that will be hard to handle: Larry Flynt. No one but God knows what’s going on there.

“What’s missing, of course, is the sense of belonging to an ongoing, unchanging church.” He pauses, then adds, “I mean a church that survives its own turbulence.”

Ruth Stapleton appears on the cover of the March 27th issue of New York magazine. The cover photo, which she has not yet seen, is a good choice. Her hair is mussed, the lines around her eyes are clear and deep: a woman of character, possibly sharp-tongued, but finally, tough and intelligent enough to have done what she’s done.

She hates it. “Gee, that’s awful,” she says. She returns to look at the cover photo several times, finally delivering the definitive judgment: “I can’t believe they’d put a photo like that on the cover of a magazine. I never will have another cover picture where they don’t let me approve it. I’m just so sick of the press prostituting my photo. . .”

She looks at New York’s sister publication, New West, which has covered with a story on the shooting of Larry Flynt. It bears a drawing of him at the moment of his attempted assassination. Drawn cartoon-style, Flynt looks slack and foolish, his eyes bugged out and unfocused as, in a particularly tasteless detail, the bullet bores a hole in his ample belly. “Oh . ..” she says, trailing off into silence. New York and New West have delivered a solid one-two punch.

“You would just never believe what the press has done to me. About, I mean …” She gathers herself. “They get me in front of 20 members of the press and they say, ’Why would you want to go to the hospital to see someone like that?’ And you know, after the last time they kept on like that I just burst into tears. I said, ’You just don’t understand, he’s one of my best friends.’ They can’t understand that you don’t have to see a person as what they’ve done in their whole past. No one can really see how different he is.”

Her eyes are drawn back to the New York story. The writer was out to do a hatchet job on her, she says, but couldn’t.

“He was a very vicious type. My editor told me not to give him an interview. I checked with some other people and they said, ’Don’t do it, he’s out to do a hatchet job.’ So I thought well, if he’s like that he really needs me.” She’s laughing now; the writer didn’t worry her.

“Well, after he had come to two or three of my meetings, I asked him to go with us on our vacation. He said, ’But nobody will ask a reporter to be that close to them.’ I said, ’But I don’t have anything to hide.’ He couldn’t believe. . . he thinks everybody’s got something to hide.

“So he flew down to the beach, spent time with my children. It was just a whole new world for him, ’cause he had lived in this speedy, fast style.

“So, when he got ready to do the job on me, he couldn’t do it.

“You know, I run into so many skeptics. It’s hard for a person to accept at face value my reasons, because everyone is always looking for some ulterior motive. I get the question, ’Why would you talk to Larry Flynt?’ ’Why would you do this or that?’ ” Her voice is doing wonderful things with the “why’s.”

“Well, a person who’s been through trauma in their life understands. A person who hasn’t would never understand.”

Bishop Terwilliger’s impression of the role Texas plays in the Christian world suggests it is the right place for Inner Healing. “There’s a religious excitement about Texas that is terribly attractive, because all the [Christian] voices are encountering each other more here than anywhere else. There’s a tremendous amount of opportunity. Texas is becoming a place in which something of the religious future of America is being decided.”

Ruth Stapleton will have some voice in the decision. She has proven she can draw as well here as anywhere else, and the local papers have accepted her as a legitimate religious figure. Volunteers from the small communities surrounding Holovita have turned out to help get the retreat ready; amazingly, Stapleton needs only one paid staff member.

The volunteers genuinely surprise her sometimes. “Yesterday there was a woman washing windows. I was working in the greenhouse and she came up and started talking to me. She says. ’My husband’s over at the college.’ I said, ’Oh, is he a student over there?’ And she says, ’No. he’s the head of the department.’ I found out later she has her Ph.D. But she comes out here every day and washes windows, and she gets along fine. They just come in. Others just go to their typewriters and start typing away and at the end of the day they go on home.

“People often say that in a business you cannot use volunteers – that it’s much better to have a regular staff. But I don’t find this is true. If you find out what they like to do and what they can do best – even washing windows, if that’s what they choose to do.”

The people just keep coming, to work for her. to hear her speak, to learn. Ruth Stapleton is a woman who simply draws others to her, for reasons neither they nor she can quite put into words.


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