Until recently, I thought channeling was what my five-year-old did to the TV on Saturday mornings looking for the Smurfs. But I was wrong. Really wrong. As wrong as the guy who listened to the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and heard “the girl with colitis goes by.”

But I digress. Thanks to Shirley MacLaine and all the books she’s dished out on soul food, terms like channeling, astral travel, the like vibration, and past-life regression have become the lingua franca for the terminally informed.

I’m not sure why, but I couldn’t resist the invitation to a “trance circle” that popped up in my mail a few weeks ago, announcing that — through the medium Trina Kamp — Dr. Duran would be making an appearance at the Palmer House. How could I not go? According to the announcement, “Dr. Duran last lived in the physical body 600 years ago in England.” I read on. The Reverend Kamp would leave her body for the astral dimension, and Dr. Duran, “the spirit teacher of God,” would enter her body and demonstrate “that their [sic] is no death and there are no dead.” His main purpose for coming to teach on the earth plane, the notice said, was “to bring balance to human lives.”

Hey, we can all use a little balance, I thought. Why not try to catch the Reverend before she split for the other side and find out a little more about this spiritual camp she was running with her husband in Mesa, Arizona. I also wanted to know about Trance International (the name at the top of the announcement), as well as the “mediumship” training program she runs and the sports mail-order business that “caters to the Chicago Cub fans.” Alas, when I called, the Reverend wasn’t talking. She’d been burned before, she said.

“Look, I don’t talk to you people. I never got anything positive from a newspaper and if you want to know more, go talk to Shirley and all the rest of them who like publicity. I don’t need it,” she said.

Yeah, but what does Dr. Duran have to say about this? I wanted to ask. But didn’t.

There were three of us. Three infidels who decided to blow 30 bucks apiece to find out whether or not Aunt Bertha or Charlie had a message from the other side. We arrived a couple minutes before eight o’clock, and filed into a small, stuffy conference room filled with about 30 devotees. Reverend Trina, as she was called, sat before a semicircle of chairs fielding questions and talking about “what a wonderful guy Dr. D is” and how every now and then “he does something really funny like pop up at a party.”

“What’s it like when you go to the astral plane?” someone was dying to know.

“Oh, I hang out, or go see my mom,” said the Reverend, shrugging her shoulders with nonchalance. “I know the other side as well as I know this one,” she laughed, her voice husky and her figure bulky and Buddhalike. She explained that her kind of trance was a dead trance and different from channeling because “my spirit leaves the body.” (In channeling, the spirit is set aside to allow new knowledge to flow in.) It was also exhausting, because during a trance, “I put out about a ton of ectoplasm.”

That handy piece of information delivered, the Reverend announced she wanted to start. “OK, are we ready for Dr. D?” It was about five after eight, and the well-dressed, mostly white-bread gathering mumbled its affirmation. We were told to uncross our legs, relax, and get ready to sing a couple songs. If anyone wanted to leave, Dr. Duran’s permission needed to be obtained first. One of my cohorts groaned audibly when someone killed the lights and began a feeble rendition of “Amazing Grace.” We were barely finished with the second song (“Zip-a-dee-doo-dah”) when Dr. Duran interrupted with a “good evening,” speaking in a voice somewhere between Vincent Price and Mercedes McCambridge.

“Are you afraid?” There were murmurs in the audience. “You are afraid because this is not natural to you.” He had a point, I thought. If he’d lived 639 years ago, as I’d found out earlier, that would place Dr. D around 1348. He was right, it wasn’t natural. His accent was all off. It wasn’t even Chaucerian English with a slight southwestern drawl.

Rather than sermonize, Dr. D said he was in the mood to answer questions. “Why is there a heaven and a hell in organized religion?” a voice asked in the dark.

“Because,” said Dr. D, pausing, “when there is good, there is not-so-good.”

“Do you believe in hell?” the voice wanted to know.

“I do not believe in anything.”

A woman asked whether her career should be the priority in her life; to this Dr. D responded, “When there is pressure, the spirit voice is lacking. You must call for divine guidance for your womanness. You need to cry more.”

Somebody from the audience named George introduced himself. “Hi, George. Do you get high?” Dr. D asked.

“Yes,” the man admitted. “But is getting high bad for you?”

“It is false, it does not last. But when you learn to get out of your body, you’ll be as high as you can get. The more you’re around them [other spirits], the more ectoplasm there is. Ectoplasm is the life-giving force that grows only in fat cells.”

I got an elbow and a snicker from my companions on that one.

After 30 minutes or so of questions, and answers framed in the “Do you understand, children?” and “Is it not so?” mode, Dr. D called for a break. In a matter of seconds, Reverend Trina landed from the astral plane and went off to the ladies’ room.

“How do you feel when you’re there?” someone wanted to know when she was back in her chair. “What’s the goal?”

“Well, hon, there’s no Snicker Bar at the end of the drugstore. But I do feel flashes of indescribable peace. If you’re not experiencing God in the grocery store, you’re on the wrong planet.”

I’m on the wrong planet, I thought.

Reverend Trina went on talking to no one in particular. “You know, I’ve seen people cry on the other side when babies are born.”

Shortly past nine, it was time for Dr. D to return. The lights went out and we were told to start singing “The First Noel” — “a song given to this planet to represent Christ’s conscience.” On that one, I got another elbow and a whispered reference to sheep, particularly when we got to the line about “the poor shepherds.” Mentally I toted tip the number of sweltering souls crammed into the room and multiplied the figure by 30 bucks a head. There was one shepherd at the Palmer House who wasn’t doing too badly for a Friday night.

“Dr. D, are there negative forces in the universe?” The woman asking the question sounded frightened.

“Only in your mind,” was the answer. “Unless you think of Ronald and Nancy Reagan.” That brought a few titters from the audience.

“Dr. D, how do you find a purpose in this life?”

“By serving others before yourself. The more you give, the more God will work on this planet. You are the Godhead. Zip-a-dee-doo-dah!”

He continued. “Ectoplasm is the living force. I teach balance. The only purpose in life is to serve others.”

“Dr. D, why is there so much war?”

“Because people are serving themselves. They’re children. They will never destroy themselves. There will never be a nuclear problem because they are too seared to push the button. Do you see what I’m saying, children?”

The audience murmured that they did.

“Dr. D, I want to know about my sister who died. Is there a reason she died when she did?”

It had been the first question all night about a departed relative, and the audience was hungry for some communication. Just as Dr. D spoke, he was drowned out by a vacuum cleaner outside in the hallway. The frustration level was palpable, but Dr. D continued unfazed. “It is because they have concluded the like vibration,” he said, still referring to the departed sister.

“What’s the like vibration?”

“The like vibration is the other part of yourself. It is your soul mate. Ask God for it. Everyone has a like vibration.”

“Dr. D, is time travel available on the astral plane?”

“I came before Duran Duran, didn’t I? Sure it is. There are groups that deal with the future. Usually you go forward. You know about deja vu? It is precognitive astral travel.”

“Dr. D, is it bad to receive payment in serving God?” The woman asking the question sounded really worried. She had every reason.

“No, it is not. Money is God in circulation.” On that one, I even heard a snicker behind me — the first sign of disloyalty outside of our own little elbowing party.

Close to ten o’clock, and right on schedule, Dr. D said he was growing tired but answered a couple more questions on past lives (“You were a short man in China”). He concluded with, “It is best to let happen happen. It is good to have vision. If you eat rocks all day and regurgitate them, you know not to eat rocks. It is the same with God. I love you. God bless you. We’ll be coming back to this ramblin’ town.”

The lights flashed on and eyes all over the room squinted from the sudden assault. A member of the Reverend’s entourage stood to thank us for coming and reminded us that the weekend package for $200 was still available. A Dr. D tape was on sale for $10 outside in the hallway.

We rode down the elevator, a study in smirks. On the street, my sculptor friend confessed to feeling pretty worried about something.

“Remember what Dr. D said about continuing what we do here in the next life — that we take everything with us?” We nodded. He had a look of anguish on his face.

“Does that mean I’m still going to be drywalling?”