In preschool I had an imaginary friend named Kim. She was a character in The Care Bears Movie, and though I’d outgrown her by the time I started elementary school, people tease me about her to this day. But recently I received some unexpected news: Kim could have been an angel.

“I’d like to see more parents be open to that, instead of saying, ‘That’s your imaginary friend,'” says Cecily Channer, a former event planner who teaches classes on angels in and around Chicago. “It wasn’t easy for me, coming from a corporate environment, to let people know about this side of me. It’s not like you can come in on Monday morning and tell the boss, ‘Oh, all these angels visited me over the weekend.'”

Channer says she first came in contact with the spiritual realm a few months after 9/11, when she awoke to find a colorful sparkling orb with white wings hovering beside her bed. “This energy burst open, and I saw hundreds and hundreds of angels smiling down on me,” she says. Two days later, she thought she felt a muscle spasm in her toe and looked down to find another angel perched by her foot: “It was surprising when it happened, but very calming and beautiful.”

After these experiences Channer attended a reading by Doreen Virtue, the creator of a practice she calls Angel Therapy. Formerly an eating disorder therapist, Virtue is now arguably the most famous member of the angel community and has written more than 20 books on the subject. For years, she claims, she’d received unwanted advice on her career and relationships from an angel she routinely ignored. One night on the way to a church meeting, the angel told Virtue to put up the top of her convertible. She didn’t listen. An hour later, two armed men accosted her as she was parking. When the angel urged her to scream, she did. Startled, the men fled.

Virtue had an epiphany. Believing that everyone has a primary angel watching over them–along with other less vocal guardian angels–she started a private practice to help people make their own connections. It became so successful that her services were booked years in advance, so she started conducting workshops to train other people to do what she does. Today thousands of Angel Therapy Practioners, or ATPs, conduct their own workshops around the world. Channer is one of three in Chicago who have led “angel camps” at Ruby Room, a Wicker Park spa that also offers numerotherapy, auratherapy, and pet healing services.

At the camp I attend there are four other women enrolled: Vivian, a young Reiki practitioner with red-rimmed glasses; Jenny, a 26-year-old with a nose ring; Elizabeth, a wide-eyed blond hospice worker in a flannel shirt; and Elaine, an African-American woman who declares her love for Chanel and Versace lipsticks.

Each woman explains what brought her to angel therapy. Elaine, for instance, recently lost 101 pounds and is going through a period of purification. Jenny works at the Ruby Room, and took the job in part because she was intrigued by the “pet healing” advertised on the spa’s Web site.

Channer writes tips for communicating with angels on a dry-erase board: “Cleanse and purify your thoughts. Ask them to come closer. Listen to angelic music.” She tells us to visualize our guardian angels and ask their names: “Send out some love when you call them in.” Channer says we can ask angels for help with anything, from finding keys to finding boyfriends. Vivian chimes in that they help her find parking spots.

Channer says angels can communicate through numbers by causing us to notice certain combinations on clocks or license plates. If you see 555, for instance, it indicates that a major life change will occur soon; 777 means you’re on the right track and your wishes are about to come true. “I need to get a digital clock,” Elizabeth jokes. We also learn that angels speak in archaic language. “They’re not going to say, ‘Hey dude, you really should be exercising,'” Channer says. “You’d be more likely to get a ‘Hey dude’ from a fairy. They’re more playful.”

Between the group discussions, the participants break off into pairs to talk about their prior connections with the angelic realm. Vivian first tried to connect when she was laid off from her job a few years ago, and then again after two acquaintances committed suicide. “I knew that there was something more, and I wondered how I could have helped them,” she says. “I was really kind of crying out and searching for like-minded people.”

Toward the end of the session, the discussion dissolves into girl talk. Channer says she was unattached when she first discovered her angels, and wondered if a guy could see the bond as something more than a fascination with Tinkerbell. She knew she had found her soul mate 30 minutes after she met him because he embraced her spirituality. “They’re not going to cheat me of a love life because of this,” she says. “He doesn’t know a lot about it, but that’s OK. I don’t need him to accept all of my beliefs at this point.”

Several times Channer mentions that Virtue’s angel oracle cards–which feature Victorian-style angel pictures accompanied by a “positive, healing message”–are available at the spa’s gift shop, along with an array of crystals designed to raise vibrations and cleanse energy. Some are as cheap as $4 but the truly committed might consider those in the $2,000 range.

I paid $75 for angel camp, but not a single spirit speaks to me. I keep glancing across the table at Jenny, the only person who doesn’t seem totally convinced that some sort of fluttering character will appear. Later I ask if she received a visit. “You know how when you have your eyes closed and stare into the sun, you see those little color patterns?” she replies. “That’s what I saw.”

But on a trip to Michigan about a week later, Jenny got lost in foggy weather and decided it might be a good time to consult the angels. She doesn’t know if it was a coincidence, but after she drove a short distance farther, the fog grew thinner and she found her way. “I can’t rule it out,” she says.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Merideth.