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Angels in Community Service

TIMES STAFF WRITER

I learned long ago that to be a good columnist, you have to be willing to make a fool of yourself every now and then.

That’s how I came to be sitting the other night in a candle-lit room at the oh-so-organic Inn of the Seventh Ray in Topanga Canyon, eyes closed, hands clasped as if in prayer, with a pink crystal pressed between my palms. A woman I didn’t know was whispering in my ear, “I bless you. I love you. I have faith in you.”

Good, I thought. I’m glad you have faith in me . . . because if any of my friends were to see me right now, they’d take this as proof positive that I have finally, predictably, gone over the edge.

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They call themselves “Earth Angels,” and when I encountered them they were clad in white and engaged in a “bonding” ritual perfectly suited to their Topanga venue, with its New Age ambience and menu offering meals to “raise your body’s light vibration.”

A few of the angels were seated on chairs, eyes closed, faces blank. The others surrounded them, caressing their arms and shoulders, massaging their hands and feet, stroking their hair.

This went on for several minutes, until a tall, blond woman leaned toward each chair and whispered something, then directed the others to stand in a circle. Then they all commenced to bowing and bending, fluttering their fingers and waving their arms in a motion that I could only describe as a New Age version of the stadium “wave.”

Well, I thought, we’re certainly not in Chatsworth anymore!

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I’d been lured here by Caitlin Philips, a West Los Angeles massage therapist, to cover a dinner meeting of the fledgling Doula Assn. of Southern California. Caitlin is a doula, a woman trained to assist pregnant women by offering the kind of emotional and physical support that makes labor and childbirth easier to endure.

She is also one of the founders of Earth Angels. And that night, she invited her angel partners to visit her doula partners, to conduct a ceremony that would bless the doulas “with the kind of love they’re always giving” to expectant mothers, she said.

The angels met privately first, where they spent hours conducting the bonding ritual I witnessed to “get into an angelic mode,” Caitlin said.

“We have to bond together first, so we can carry that serenity into the room with us” during the “angeling,” explained psychotherapist Myrna Hartley. “Part of our gift is the calm we bring.”

The doulas’ angeling ceremony would be similar to the bonding ritual, she said, but without all the touching. “We want them to feel safe.”

“It’s all about love . . . about unconditional love,” Caitlin told me later. “Who in life gets to sit for 40 minutes and just be given to? Maybe when you’re an infant, but as adults we don’t get that kind of attention anymore.”

The ceremony would be a surprise for the doulas, and a spectacle for me.

I planned to sit and watch . . . and try not to laugh. But when the angels filed in and ordered us all to close our eyes, I surprised myself and complied.

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Caitlin and Myrna, the Earth Angels’ creators, met through the Sage Experience, a series of est-like “self-growth and awareness” seminars that were held regularly up and down the California coast in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Myrna was a facilitator, Caitlin a guest. The two became friends, and when the seminars ended three years ago, they began their mission to spread the blessing rituals they’d learned beyond the typical New Age set.

“Our vision was to heal whatever wounds people may have,” Myrna explained. “What we try to do is just provide our presence so that they can get whatever they need from it. . . . We see it as community service, giving something special to people who get very little nurturing from the world.”

The doulas seemed to enjoy the experience, as far as I could tell. . . . Which isn’t saying much because we were forbidden to open our eyes during the “angeling.” But at least I didn’t hear any snickering, just the sound of Cait- lin’s voice leading us back to our inner childhood, where everything was new and fresh and we could trust and let go.

As long as we didn’t peek. “Resist the urge to open your eyes,” Caitlin warned. “If you need anything--a Kleenex or something--just raise your hand and an angel will get it for you.”

It suddenly occurred to me that I’d left my purse unattended under a table across the room. So that’s why they didn’t want us to open our eyes! They’re probably rifling through my wallet right now!, I thought.

I listened for rustling, but all I could hear was the purring of Caitlin’s voice, the tinkly sound of New Age music and the grumbling of waiters in the kitchen behind us, complaining about the small tip left by a couple on the patio.

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We were given items to taste--a slice of apple, a cashew, a bit of chocolate. A feather was brushed along our arms. Imagine, Caitlin purred, you’re feeling this for the first time.

Focus, she said, on the sounds you hear. Someone tapping a triangle, banging a block of wood, squeezing water into a bucket to simulate the sound of a waterfall. Get into a peaceful place inside the sounds. Think about what they make you feel.

I tried, as an angel sponged my hands and the waterfall ran, to get inside those sounds. But all I could feel was that I should have gone to the bathroom before this whole thing started.

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There are about 18 Earth Angels, and the group is growing. They meet every six weeks at Myrna’s Woodland Hills home, where they practice their rituals and talk about ways to spread the spirit.

The group includes a paramedic, an engineer, a couple of schoolteachers and more than a few massage therapists, including Myrna’s husband. Recruitment is mostly through word of mouth, although fliers are left in places like the Science of Mind Church in North Hollywood, where one of the angels is a practitioner in the pet prayer ministry.

They’re a kind of holdover from the New Age movement, with their focus on crystals and inner children and healing psychic wounds. But they’re also riding the crest of a wave of phenomenal interest in all things angelic.

In the past few years, there have been hundreds of books written about the influence of angels, from “The Angels Little Diet Book” to scholarly tomes with biblical references. There are magazines devoted to angels, shops that sell nothing but angel paraphernalia, angel artists, angel scholars, angel Internet sites and, of course, that hit TV show about angels.

Still, it’s been hard finding takers for Earth Angels’ particular kind of heavenly love. They envisioned taking their ceremony on the road, to people in need of love--at battered women’s shelters, drug treatment centers, retirement homes.

“When I call them to say we want to come give them unconditional love . . . well, it’s not always easy to make them understand,” Myrna said.

“People say, ‘But what does that mean?’ I say we do little taste treats, little sounds that are in harmony with nature, little touch items. . . . But we don’t touch your body until we get to a certain part of the ceremony!

“Then either they say, ‘Oh, yes!’ or they say, ‘That doesn’t sound quite right.’ Either they get it, or they don’t.”

So far, most everybody has said, “That doesn’t sound quite right.”

“We’ve been rehearsing for a year at Myrna’s house, waiting for someone to say yes to us,” lamented Caitlin. “I don’t know why. . . . We’d be perfect for a 12-step group, and there are 12-step groups for everything these days. But we keep getting turned down.”

But the session with the doulas has restored their enthusiasm. “It’s just so much fun to watch people’s faces, the radiance that comes out when we do it,” Myrna said.

“It makes you feel that you really are an angel.”

As for me, I’m not ready to join up, but I’m not laughing behind my hand anymore. They seem like awfully nice people, and I wish them the best.

You might even say I bless them. I love them. I have faith in them.


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