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"Falling For A Miracle," by Adria Vasil

This article originally appeared in Now Magazine (Toronto, Canada), January 5, 2006

I love a good miracle as much as the next girl. But there’s a point at which unusual occurances start to exit Feel-good-land and enter the freakish terrain of Sideshowville. Think Mother Teresa-shaped cheese puffs or those nutty whack-’em-and-heal-’em Benny Hinn-style evangelists. Naturally, when one such miracle worker came to town recently, I signed up for the show.

As I enter the narrow lecture hall at the Convention Centre, the man at the front, Douglas James Cottrell, is talking in a hushed monotone to a room not half-full. Maybe it’s the stringy comb-over, or the Johnny Cash black he sports from head to toe, but Cottrell seems more like an awkward funeral director than a fire-and-brimstone type.

Then his arms reach for the heavens and he tells us he’s asked “God Almighty and all the angels to assist us here tonight.” When he calls three volunteers to the front, eight rush up. Arms start to float up around me, assuming the hallelujah position.

A few people start frantically rubbing their palms together. They must be regulars.

Then Cottrell’s fingers start trembling. “See the energy move my hands.”

I blink and someone has already hit the floor.

The flyer promised some fainting or falling from the shock of his touch, but, damn, that was quick. I wish he’d speak up so I can follow this better.

Cottrell asks each volunteer what he or she wants him to heal (cancer, gallstones, resentment). He then presses his quivering hands to head, chest or belly and, bam, another two fall within seconds. I barely have time to take notes. Although I do jot down his insistance that there’s no pushing involved.

But the next one isn’t going down easy. Cottrell keeps seemingly nudging her on the chest, and she keeps resisting. “What are you doing?” he laughs. “I don’t know,” she answers. How ’bout not being pushed over?

This is definitely awkward.

Still, resisters are fairly rare. The majority slump quickly and easily into the arms of two official catchers and stay splayed across the front of the conference room for quite some time before going back to their seats.

“I’m warm. Are you warm?” It’s one of the catchphrases Cottrell utters when everyone’s falling smoothly. When they’re not, he tells us our energy is cooling down, making it harder for him to work.

But for now he’s on fire.

“Who else wants to come up?” It’s like someone yelled “sale” at Wal-Mart. Three-quarters of the room rushes to the centre aisle.

An assistant cues the stereo and angelic hymns fill the air. Someone behind me gasps. Bodies are piling up quickly at the front. One of the downed wipes away tears, another sobs loudly for what feels like an hour. Most look asleep or high.

“You can do this, too,” exclaims Cottrell. He says he himself once asked God for healing powers, and a small cross appeared in his hand. Next thing he knew, the former Toronto Star press operator was curing his relative of a cancerous lump simply by touching it.

He tells us financial poverty is an illness, that those who suffer from it should pray for plenty. Dude, you think billions of starving people around the world haven’t tried that already?

When he gets to the part about not being judgmental, I swear he’s looking straight at me. What can I say? I’m guilty. There must be dozens of accredited natural modalities featured upstairs at the Whole Life Expo that these people could turn to for help. Instead, they get 10 seconds with Cottrell’s magic hand for the price of a $15 lecture pass. Some might call it a steal.

One of the touched ’n’ toppled is getting up. The preacher snaps his fingers in the poor guy’s ears, asking him if he can hear any better now.

“Uh, I think so.”

“Are you better or not?”

No answer. Within seconds, Cottrell has him on the ground again.

As the line starts to recede, I decide to test the man’s powers first-hand. I figure the worst that can happen is I get a strained neck.

The closer I get to the man in black, the more I reconsider the whole idea. I feel like I’m in some weird movie where you suddenly realize that the shadowy priest is wearing an upside-down cross and there’s a decapitated chicken in the corner.

I’m next. I step over some bodies and lean into the dark suit. What do I want? Well, let’s see, I pee way too often; is there some way he can help me with that? He puts his hand over my belly with an almost imperceptible nudge. The thing is, I’ve tested this at home, if you’re willing to fall (and there’s a bed or a person behind you), even the slightest pressure can knock you over. Especially if your eyes are closed and your feet stay planted together.

He presses a little harder. Should I just fall for the sake of the show? I lock my knees. I’m not going down that easily.

“Can you feel the warmth?” he asks. I nod. His hands are hot, but so are mine when I eat too much salt. And there’s definitely no glittery cloud, no shock of energy, as he’s suggested.

He gives me one final trembling jog. Nothing. Suddenly I’m whisked away. Back at my seat, my condition is no better than it was two minutes ago. I still need a loo, and I need it now.

The question is, would things have been different if I’d let myself fall? Would I be calling the roster of alternative healers I have on speed dial telling them I’m cured?

For the woman in green who couldn’t stop crying, perhaps falling was an opportunity, a window for emotional release.

But for all the cancer sufferers who lined up for a miracle, I do hope a wave of a hand over their livers gave them much more.

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