Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.
Guru Ma's got troubles. Lots of them.
At the age of 59, she has both a preschool child and Alzheimer's disease.
All four of her adult children have turned their back on the Church Universal and Triumphant, the institution she spent almost 40 years building. Three of them have publicly criticized her church and the way she ran it. One even calls it a "dangerous cult."
Her fourth marriage has crumbled.
By summer, she'll be out of a $96,000-a-year job, although church officials have agreed to pay her a $67,000 annual retirement package.
A judge must decide who will make her legal, financial and business decisions in the future. Another judge may have to decide whether she retains partial custody of her fifth child, 4-year-old Seth.
And the world isn't out of hot water yet. Though she has choked back the alarmist tone of statements she made 10 years ago, her recent prophecies said that apocalypse still could be just around the corner. It all depends on how people behave.
"The coming age, the Aquarian Age, can be a time of turmoil, war and even cataclysm," Elizabeth Clare Prophet said last November, three days before doctors told her of the Alzheimer's disease. "Or it can be a time of tremendous spiritual and technological progress."
She says she has lived hundreds of lifetimes. "I believe that my preparations for my life's call had been ongoing for a number of embodiments and that this lifetime was to be the culmination of my soul's tutoring in the universal mysteries of Christ," Prophet said in a church promotional brochure.
Born Elizabeth Clare Wulf on April 8, 1939, in Long Branch, N.J., to a World War I German U-boat captain and his Swiss wife, Prophet grew up being called Betty. She says she had her first metaphysical experience as a small child; while playing in a sandbox, she suddenly remembered doing the same thing thousands of years earlier along the banks of the Nile.
Though she denied it for years, she now admits she has suffered most of her life from epileptic seizures, a condition that has worsened in recent years. She told her followers about her Alzheimer's disease on New Year's Day, at a conference in Miami. A few weeks later, she announced plans to retire this summer.
Her first marriage, at the age of 20, was to Dag Ytreburg, a Norwegian-born lawyer. It ended a year later, after she met Mark Prophet, a former traveling salesman 19 years her senior, married and the founder of what was then called The Summit Lighthouse. Within two years, Mark Prophet, too, divorced, leaving behind his five children by his first wife, and he married Elizabeth on March 16, 1963.
They had met before, Elizabeth says, in Arthurian Camelot. She was Guinevere and Mark was Lancelot.
The union produced four children; Sean, now 34 and a video producer in Los Angeles; Erin, 33, a writer in Bozeman, Mont.; Moira, 30, a marketing executive in Los Angeles; and Tatiana, 27, a graduate student in Georgia.
Mark taught Elizabeth to take "dictations': Dozens of Ascended Masters ranging from Buddha to Jesus to K 17 (head of the "cosmic secret service') have spoken through her mouth on subjects ranging from reincarnation to global politics.
The Ascended Masters, she says, are "extensions of God." They speak only through her, according to CUT doctrine, and they have done so more than 2,000 times. She sometimes closes her eyes during a dictation, or looks serenely at the crowd before her, often with her hands to her temples, bent slightly at the waist. Her voice raises in pitch and takes on a nasal tone. "The energy ... is stupendous," she told an interviewer in 1989. "It is exhilarating."
After living in Washington, D.C., for several years, the Prophets moved their growing church to Colorado Springs, Colo., where Mark died suddenly of a stroke in 1973. According to the church, he is now considered an Ascended Master called Lanello, a combination of the names Lancelot and Longfellow, two of his previous lives.
Prophet's followers call her Mother or Guru Ma. Her other titles include Vicar of Christ, Messenger, Mother of the Flame.
A few months after Mark's death, Prophet married an aide, the former Randall Kosp, who had changed his name to King. The church grew rapidly in the 1970s and moved to Santa Barbara, and then Malibu, where it purchased a former private college that church members renamed Camelot.
The marriage to King ended in a bitter 1980 divorce. King has said he no longer follows the church's teachings but he believes that Prophet believes in them. "She honestly thinks she's doing it for the greater good of mankind," King said in 1990.
Prophet married Ed Francis, 11 years her junior, in 1981. In 1994, when Prophet was 55 years old, she bore a son, Seth Thomas Francis. Prophet and Francis divorced in 1998 and the child spends time with both parents.
Many CUT members remain devoted to her every word and credit her with bringing them spiritual enlightenment, taking them closer to God, showing them the pathway to ascension. They believe she has the power to tell people who they were in past lives, and they compare her to biblical prophets of the Old Testament. Others, including her daughter Moira, are less kind. They say she's a hypocrite, a megalomaniac and a manipulator.
Among some, distrust runs so deep that they scoff when she says she has Alzheimer's.
"I don't buy it," said former member Peter Arnone, adding that it could be a stunt designed to keep her from testifying in potential lawsuits filed by ex-members. Her doctors and family members say that Arnone's assertions couldn't be further from the sad truth. People close to her say the disease is in its moderate stage.
"In any conversation of length, you realize that there's something lacking," said one associate.
A Montana judge has been asked to decide soon who will become her guardian. Church vice president Murray Steinman is Prophet's choice. Sean, Erin and Moira Prophet, however, are fighting that move in court, saying Steinman has a conflict of interest and that they can do a better job.
The disease may have been worsening for the last five years, according to the Prophet children. The Alzheimer's diagnosis "helped to explain some of the difficulties we have had in our relationships in the 1990s," Sean, Erin and Moira Prophet wrote in an open letter to church members earlier this year.