There were five of us, four men and one woman, gathered in a small circle in the middle of a large, bare room above a Morse Avenue restaurant. We were all shoeless. Ten crystals and semiprecious stones were arranged in the middle of our circle. Our hands were linked, our eyes were closed, and our minds were supposedly open. We were here to communicate with the angelic guides: Saint Germain, Saint John, Tall Pine, and anyone else who felt like showing up.

One of our group, Phil Watt, began talking in a low, friendly voice, telling us to imagine a state of peace and tranquillity and to “let our energies just flow.”

“Just feel the love and the support from the others here tonight,” he said. “Hmmm. Isn’t that warm?”

We were then directed to let loose a chant of “AHHH-OOOM.” Watt told us to imagine that we were each a pink pyramid of light, then to send copies of our pyramids into the center of the circle so they could merge into a great big pyramid, then to imagine rays of healing light coming from the great pyramid into each of us. You get the idea.

After about 15 minutes of this and a few more AHHH-OOOMs, we turned to the woman, Annie Stebbins. Her eyes were wide and she had a peculiar grin on her face, as if she knew something the rest of us didn’t. She was ready. We were about to tune in to the New Age with her as a channel.

In its broadest sense, the New Age movement includes everything from holistic healing and UFOs to fire walking and belief in the power of crystals. If you eat natural foods, meditate, or simply are intrigued by Eastern religious thought, you’re treading New Age turf.

But thanks to Shirley MacLaine, who has become something of a modern-day Saint Paul, channeling is probably the best-publicized ingredient of the New Age movement. For many people, channeling has become the prime symbol of the new age of spiritual growth that is supposedly dawning over humanity. And when the nightly news features the “harmonic convergence,” when actress Sharon Gless thanks an entity called “Lazaris” for her Emmy award, and when Doonesbury’s Boopsie becomes the voice of bug-eyed, fork-tongued spirit Hunk-Ra, you know mysticism has gone mainstream.

To believers, the New Age gives humanity an opportunity to escape war, disease, and poverty once and for all–to create a world based on the universal principles of love and justice. To scoffers, the New Age encompasses everything arcane, weird, or simply unusual.

There is no set of accepted New Age beliefs; in fact, many in the movement claim to be reacting against dogma. Nonetheless, New Agers believe essentially that each person can define the terms of his or her own existence, that people aren’t bound by fate, predestination, or anything else. They also believe that each of us has untapped spiritual potential–often referred to as “the God within”–that can help us lead better lives by “bringing our four bodies into harmony,” “balancing our energies,” “aligning ourselves with the cosmic One,” and any number of similarly high-sounding but vague concepts. (The four bodies, by the way, are the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.)

None of this is particularly new. Many New Age tenets are lifted straight from Hinduism, Taoism, and other Eastern religions; some of the mystical Christian elements have been around since the first-century Gnostics. (Still, many fundamentalists have condemned the movement as satanic.) The techniques of “consciousness expansion” were first developed by people like Werner Erhard, of est infamy, and the folks at California’s Esalen Institute. What is new is the extent to which New Age ideas have entered the mainstream, much like the Woodstock alumnus who finally got a haircut, bought a suit, and found a job down on LaSalle Street.

A stunning array of books, videotapes, cassettes, and quartz crystals are readily available to aid the faithful. If you suspect your energies are out of balance you can purchase a $29.95 diagnosis/tuneup kit at Isis Rising, a New Age emporium in Rogers Park. The kit is used to tune your body’s seven chakras, or energy vortices. It contains nine bottles of perfume, a set of colored cards, and a cassette tape. Also available are weekly classes, two- or three-day seminars, and a variety of informal groups.

Steve Prager of Isis Rising says modern communications technology was practically a prerequisite for the New Age. “It’s like Live Aid–millions of people all over the planet receiving the same image and thinking the same things,” he said, adding that Aquarius, the sign of energy, rules electricity. “Remember Out on a Limb? [It was a TV movie starring MacLaine, describing her experiences with reincarnation and channeling.] From the day that show was on the air, our business picked up dramatically.”

More personal guidance, of course, is available through a channel.

Watt and Stebbins lead a regular Tuesday night channeling group. Once a month they hold introductory sessions like the one I attended in October. Watt, a tubby, middle-aged man with a receding hairline, acts as the moderator, while Stebbins does the actual channeling. Aside from the crystals on the bare hardwood floor, it could have been a meeting of the Dickens Society or a psychology study group.

Now that New Agers are working 60 hours a week at investment firms and the like, they just don’t have time to retreat to a mountaintop to find Truth. But these are, after all, the 80s–the era of tanning parlors and gourmet frozen dinners. All kinds of help are offered. In the New Age, enlightenment is just a MasterCard away.

Two other men had paid their five bucks to get in: a tall, quietly enthusiastic man named Danny who resembled Jefferson Davis, and a shorter man who kept to himself and said little until it was his turn to ask Stebbins (or whoever she was at the moment) a question. It was an unusually small group, Watt said; on some nights as many as 30 people have shown up to rap with the Angel Spirits of the One White Light.

While waiting for Stebbins to arrive–she was held up in a traffic jam, something even the Angel Spirits are powerless to undo–we chatted about storm windows, the approach of winter, and future sessions Watt was putting together. At one point he casually mentioned that his group had been channeling Lao-tzu one evening when the founder of Taoism gave them a few pointers on t’ai chi ch’uan. He demonstrated a couple of positions. Stebbins arrived shortly thereafter.

Watt explained the importance of making sure the channeled spirits weren’t trying to deceive us or lead us down the path of darkness, so we began the session with a pledge to the One White Light of God. We then meditated as described above. Before we started chatting with the spirit guides, Watt warned us that the guides wanted to help us solve our own problems, so we shouldn’t be surprised if they asked more questions of us than we did of them.

“It’s not a runaround,” he said. “A lot of times people think they’re getting a runaround, but really it’s the opportunity to exercise your own free will.” Stebbins added: “The guides are here to help us see for ourselves, not to give us pat answers that insult our intelligence. The spirits know that we’re smarter than we think we are.”

Chief among the spirits, according to the system used by Watt, Stebbins, and many others, is one Saint Germain. He is the central figure in what the Encyclopedia of American Religions calls “I AM theology,” which was founded back in the 30s and is accepted by several New Age groups.

The exact tenets of I AM theology–God is called the Mighty I AM Presence and is said to reside inside each of us–are a little vague, but the basic idea is that a bunch of Ascended Masters, former humans who achieved such spiritual perfection that they passed to a higher stage of existence, are trying to help the rest of us do the same thing and escape the karmic cycle of death and rebirth. There’s also a lot of stuff about the violet flame of the seventh ray, the etheric octave, impending cataclysms, and so on. The main exponent of I AM is the Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT), which is headquartered on a ranch in Montana but has chapters across the country, including one on Ashland near Pratt in Rogers Park.

A few weeks before my own channeling session, I attended a videotaped lecture, or “dictation,” given by Saint Germain through CUT head Elizabeth Clare Prophet (her real name). The church stresses that dictations aren’t the same as channeled messages, although the distinction was beyond me.

Prophet’s lecture was billed as “Mystery Teachings for the Aquarian Age,” but to me it sounded more like a mingling of Hindu ideas about karma and reincarnation with the standard mystical mumbo jumbo that’s been floating around for centuries. Along with a lot of stuff about Jesus being a master alchemist and the use of the violet flame to transform ourselves and the world (the violet flame, said Prophet, can ward off radioactive fallout), I learned that Saint Germain is more than 70,000 years old and once ruled a vast empire in what is now the Sahara Desert. (Watt, who has his doubts about CUT, said Saint Germain also used to be Joseph, Jesus’s foster father.) Now that he’s been promoted to Ascended Master (along with Jesus, Sir Lancelot, someone called “Ray-O-Light,” and a host of others), Saint Germain is supposedly busy trying to lead us poor schlubs down here on earth into the realm of Higher Consciousness.

CUT theology also bears an eerie resemblance to fundamentalist Christianity. Prophet claims that “our 50 states are the reincarnation of the 12 tribes of Israel,” and the church is strongly pro-Pentagon and anticommunist.

Some charge that CUT has more in common with the Moonies than the New Age. The Chicago-based Cult Awareness Network flatly calls it a “destructive cult,” and several ex-members have complained that the church has directed “decrees,” or chanted prayers, against them. Last year the church was ordered to pay $1.5 million in damages to an ex-member who claimed it had ruined his life.

I asked one Isis Rising employee about CUT, but she didn’t seem too concerned. “I went to California once and checked ’em out,” she said. “They’re not real culty. You look in their eyes and there are real people there.”

Watt and Stebbins certainly seem to be real people. Watt, 53, became involved with channeling, psychic healing, and other New Age concepts through his work as a marriage counselor and Gestalt therapist. Stebbins, 47, works as an office temp in the Loop when she’s not channeling. They look like the kind of people you could borrow a wrench from, or put in charge of the potato salad at a block party.

After we established firm contact with Saint Germain at the channeling session (each spirit is asked to clearly identify him- or herself), I got to ask the first question. I asked Saint Germain’s opinion about the recent stock market debacle. He immediately replied, “Well, what do you think?”

We bandied metaphysics and megafinance for a few minutes, then Saint Germain/Stebbins launched into a 40-minute discourse on the true meaning of the crash. It seems the angels of the One White Light wanted to warn us about the evils of speculation and to tell us to get our economy back in balance. Among other things, they said we need to cut the budget and trade deficits, and ensure that stock prices accurately reflect the worth of their companies. I heard much the same analysis later that evening on Nightline.

The others then asked Saint Germain and other spirits more personal questions. Danny was interested in becoming a psychic healer; Saint Germain suggested that he sign up for a healing class Watt was offering in November. The old saint is no slouch when it comes to drumming up trade.

Despite such assistance, Watt said his Rainbow Reflection Light Center was just about out of cash. Saint Germain assured Watt that the center wouldn’t go bust. “We’re looking for some outside funding,” Watt remarked later, “and we’d like to set up a foundation or an educational institute to run the classes, something people could donate to.”

“Channel” is just a high-tech term for “medium”; channeling is basically an 80s update of the 19th-century spiritualist movement. Few channelers call themselves mediums, however, in part because the term conjures up an image of gypsy crones hunched over crystal balls, and in part because spiritualism has a history of fraud.

Spiritualism got its start in March 1848, at the Fox homestead in upstate New York. The Fox family was awakened late one night by mysterious rapping noises coming from the bedroom shared by John Fox’s two youngest daughters, Kate and Margaret. Mrs. Fox watched in disbelief as 12-year-old Kate snapped her fingers three times. As if in reply, three sharp knocks sounded from the nearby wall.

Neighbors were summoned to witness the phenomenon, and everyone agreed that the raps were “spirit rappings,” messages from the world of the dead. The two girls devised a code–which the spirit quickly mastered–and revealed that the spirit was the soul of a peddler who had been murdered at the farmhouse several years before. Other bizarre events soon manifested themselves: tables rose into the air, mirrors cracked, and crockery shattered, all for no apparent reason.

Within months the Fox sisters were national celebrities. Millions of people, including James Fenimore Cooper, Horace Greeley, and the governor of Wisconsin, believed that the sisters’ experiences proved the existence of an afterlife. Spiritualist groups sprang up rapidly, first in the northeast and then throughout the country. The girls became professional mediums and gave seances for which they charged $100 or more per person.

It wasn’t long before other mediums began claiming that they, too, could contact the dead. The cumbersome rapping system was soon augmented by automatic writing, trance-speaking in foreign tongues, levitation, and what the Encyclopedia of Occultism calls “materialization of spirit hands.” Luminaries such as Benjamin Franklin, Emanuel Swedenborg, Plato, and Saint Paul were heard communicating with the living.

In 1888, however, Margaret confessed that she and her sister had made up the whole thing. She said she produced the rapping sounds by cracking her toes, and declared, “I do not give a fig for spiritualism. Spiritualism is an absolute falsehood from beginning to end.”

One might think that Margaret’s admission would have brought the whole spiritualist bandwagon to a crashing halt, but it was too late. The movement had taken on a life of its own, and her confession had as much effect as the PTL scandals have had on Christianity. Spiritualism eventually petered out by the turn of the century, but various people kept the flame alive until it was stoked in the 1960s.

So, you want to get in on this fastgrowing opportunity for spiritual enlightenment and quick bucks? You want to know how to become a channel?

Glad you asked, Bunky. It’s a central tenet of New Age thought that anyone can learn to channel, read tarot cards, or tap into his or her past lives. It’s just a matter of developing latent talents. As a rune reader I met at a psychic fair put it, “Everybody is psychic, but being a psychic is like being an artist. Some people never get beyond stick people, and some people get to be Rembrandt.”

Sizable chunks of the publishing and recording industries are devoted to helping would-be New Age Rembrandts. Isis Rising has several shelves full of books and cassettes of channeled material, with titles such as Seth Speaks, Conversations With Seth (volumes 1 and 2), and Psychic Politics. The life (or lives) story of Ramtha, perhaps the most famous channeled entity, sells for $19.95, while An Earth-Dweller Returns by “Phylos the Thibetan” is only $6.95.

The basic text on turning yourself into a psychic antenna is probably Opening to Channel, by Sanaya Roman and Duane Parker–and their respective spirit guides, Orin and DaBen. Several groups around Chicago also offer channeling classes; Watt has one for $35. There’s also the Oasis Center, a self-described “human potential center” at 7463 N. Sheridan Rd. that has been offering classes and workshops on psychotherapy, spiritualism, and esoterica for 20 years. Their October-December catalog listed several courses, including “The Astral Journey,” “Altered States: Channeling Past Lives and Alternate Realities,” and the one I decided to attend in preparation for my channeling session, “The Complete Guide to Channeling: A Videotape.”

Eight other people–all of them white, upper-middle-class, and shoeless–were sitting on the floor of the video room when I arrived at Oasis. They ranged in age from their mid-20s to their late 50s. Two or three were discussing the possible consciousness of ants when someone came in to set up the VCR.

The tape featured four channels discussing their craft and offering tips for beginners. I was particularly intrigued by Jach Pursel, who claims to have exclusive rights to Lazaris, the entity mentioned by Sharon Gless in her Emmy acceptance speech. (The Tribune’s “Inc.” column, in reporting the incident, referred to Pursel as “a former insurance salesman. Seriously.”)

Pursel described the experience of channeling as very peaceful, although he also said it was like falling backward and spiraling down until he passed out, which sounds like a couple Saturday nights I’ve had and not at all peaceful. “The experience is timeless, like floating,” he said. “The next thing I know I open my eyes and I feel great.”

The interviewer on the tape then asked to speak to Lazaris. Pursel took off his glasses, closed his eyes for a minute, took a few deep breaths, and began speaking in a singsong accent that sounded vaguely like Ben Kingsley in Gandhi. “Lazaris” gave new channels some guidelines on going public with their revelations: “Is the message consistent?” “Is the personality consistent?” “Is the message helpful and uplifting?” But not “Is the message salable?” “Lazaris” also warned channels to use “White Light protection,” which confused me–were we supposed to screw in pink light bulbs, wear sunglasses, or what?

I still haven’t figured out how the entities always seem to be at the channel’s beck and call. In the old days, God spoke to his prophets when He felt like it. Matters must have progressed, since Watt assumes he can advertise “A Day With Shakespeare” or “A Day With Socrates” and be certain that Shakespeare and Socrates will show up.

Pursel has apparently done well being Lazaris’s voice. Isis Rising has a whole bookcase of Lazaris cassettes for sale at $24.95 per two-pack ($2 a day rental). The cassettes have titles such as “The Secrets of Manifesting What You Want,” “The Secrets of Spirituality (Parts I and II),” and “1987: The Year of Discovery.” A blurb on one of the tape cases states that Lazaris is “a non-physical entity who has never had a physical form” who has emerged “to love each of us and all of us as humankind. We are not the grit and grime of the Universe,” it goes on. “We are the shining lights of hope, we are the sparkling stars of the Cosmos,” and so on.

Although theoretically anyone can channel any entity, an ad for Lazaris in the New Age Journal claims “Lazaris is channeled only through Jach Pursel.” Even in the New Age, apparently, some people are more equal than others.

Lazaris must be on to something. When he assures his listeners that they’re not the grit and grime of the Universe, he’s telling them something they obviously need to hear. The Baby Boom generation has had to weather a lot of shocks in the past 25 years, and many have lost much of the faith they once had that they could change the world. For them, the New Age wisdom may fulfill two functions of traditional religion: giving its adherents something to believe in that’s greater than themselves and telling them they can make a difference. The boomers have always been a rebellious bunch, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that their most recent rebellion is quasi-religious.

Janet Messinger, a member of the Isis Rising cooperative who is an accomplished astrologer, said she hasn’t given up the ideals she marched in the streets for back in the 60s. “The goals are still the same, but my methods have changed,” she said. “I wanted to change the world. Back then it was the revolution. Now I believe you can’t change the world without changing yourself. You can’t force people to change by screaming at them, breaking windows, or acting like spoiled children.”

I asked Steve Prager about the growth of New Age thinking from a fringe movement into, if not the mainstream of society, at least a significant side current. Would channeling bring on the Age of Aquarius that LSD failed to?

“People think you need millions of people to change things, but it’s a metaphysical principle that 90 percent of change is caused by 10 percent of the people,” he replied. “Most people are asleep. When 10 percent of the population wakes up, their minds will start thinking alike, and the increase will be geometrical.”

What about the other 90 percent, who may be perfectly content with their “Old Age” beliefs?

“They’ll wake up, slowly but surely.”

Maybe so, but they’d better hang onto their wallets.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.