VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - Driving north from the tourist beaches on U.S. 60, the streetscape turns suburban. Houses keep the ocean out of view. On the higher ground to the left, you come to a starkly modern building that could pass for a university research library. To its side and up the hill is a big-veranda structure that, in a previous life, was a 1920s hospital/sanitarium.

It is now a school of massage and day spa offering massage, facials and more.

It's all the world headquarters and offshoots of Edgar Cayce's Association for Research and Enlightenment, and whether you spend a few minutes or days here hinges on your view of Cayce (pronounced "Casey").

Dead for decades, the former Sunday school teacher has morphed into a godfather of all things new age - reincarnation, astrology, Atlantis, crypto-Egyptology, holistic/alternative medicine, ESP and more.

Was he indeed "The Sleeping Prophet" whose trance-induced utterances unveiled a long-lost past and predicted the future? Or merely an American oddity whose ramblings appeal to those who find meaning in supermarket tabloids?

The association, which claims thousands of adherents worldwide, tries to reconcile a mixed bag of metaphysics with hard science. It searches for data that dovetails with Cayce's "channelings," transcriptions of what he said during years of trancelike nap sessions. Bound volumes of these readings line several walls in the A.R.E. library.

Cayce on film

Shortly before 2 p.m., the staffer at the lobby's front desk says the 30-minute biographical film, "Edgar Cayce Legacy," is about to begin in the auditorium behind her.

It relates how, in 1900, the 23-year-old insurance salesman lost his voice due to severe laryngitis. When it wouldn't return, Cayce became a photographer's apprentice in his hometown of Hopkinsville, Ky. The following year, a traveling hypnotist got Cayce onstage at the local opera house and while in a trance, the young man said his affliction was due to psychological paralysis . . . and could be cured if more blood flowed to his voice box. The hypnotist asked Cayce to pump it up and when he awakened, he had his speech back.

Later, the intrigued hypnotist put Cayce again in a trance and asked him to comment on the performer's own medical situation. What Cayce said impressed the hypnotist, who suggested Cayce use his clairvoyant talents professionally.

Cayce was loath to do this. He was religious in a conventional way, and this all seemed like fortune-telling. His trance voice mentioned past lives - something not covered in Christianity. Moreover, Cayce's diagnoses and predictions weren't 100 percent accurate.

He nonetheless offered his services to sick and troubled people who sought him out. (A.R.E. says Cayce diagnoses were 80 percent accurate).

Starting in 1923, he had a secretary write down what his unconscious mind said during nap sessions. The A.R.E. film notes that the awakened Cayce wasn't sure what to make of things he said in his sleep. Some who met Cayce clearly had other ideas. Benefactors helped make possible what Cayce said in one reading: Move to Virginia Beach and open a nontraditional hospital.

Yoga, reincarnation

and more

The shelves in the A.R.E. bookstore reflect the many aspects of Cayce's readings and teachings. Magazines include Vegetarian News, Nexus, Sedona and Fate. There are books on yoga, alternative diets and medicine, reincarnation, the lost continents of Atlantis and Mu. CDs and videos, too.

The A.R.E. tour begins in the lobby after the movie. The young man tells us what awaits us on the upper two stories. And before we go up the stairs, he lifts a bowl from the information desk and holds it out. It's filled with slips of paper that are rolled up and tied with ribbon.

They are snippets from Cayce readings. Mine unrolls to this: "Let no day then pass that ye do not speak a cheery and an encouraging word to someone!" EC Reading 1754-1.

We first stop at the Meditation Room, where visitors may join the A.R.E. staff in contemplation from noon to 12:30 p.m. weekdays. Cayce said, "There are many roads to God," and you'll see a Torah, a portrait of Jesus and a painting that includes Buddha in the room.

On an outside balcony is a small rock garden framed in concrete; it holds a praying angel. From its far wall, you can glimpse the Atlantic. The tour group of perhaps 20 sits quietly for maybe five minutes.

As the guide ushers us out, he reminds us to try the Reflexology Walk out on the grounds. It's a short stone path the guide says was inspired by and emulates a stretch of the Bimini Road. You're encouraged to walk it barefoot - to get the benefits of reflexology (foot-massage) therapy.

We go down to the second floor, where several exhibit cases outside the A.R.E. library are singled out.

At a tour conclusion, visitors are invited to attend a free lecture. The daily topic tends to deal with metaphysics - from meditation to dreams, astrology to ancient Egyptian mysticism - all based on or tied to Cayce readings. *