When I enter the Church of Christian Science, the proceedings have begun and I slip into an empty pew. I’ve seen the rare news story about a sick kid who died because his faithful parents chose not to seek medical attention. While Jehovah’s Witnesses are known to refuse blood transfusions, some devout Christian Scientists decline to see doctors. This is all fine and well for adults; for minors, the state may step in to charge parents with negligence.
The room feels more like a small court than an ordinary chapel. The pews face a raised podium that stretches almost wall to wall. Three women sit behind the podium and I imagine them in ethereal judge’s robes–though, from my perspective, I see them only from the neck up. Aside from two men, the congregants are all women. I feel as if I’ve stepped into a parallel society, some female-centric tribunal in a feminist alternative to The Handmaid’s Tale. That strange dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood I was assigned in high school haunts me still.
The wall behind the podium sports two quotes. On one side is Jesus: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” The other side is Eddy: “Divine Love always has met and always will meet every human need.” I notice that each has been given exactly 12 words, but somehow I feel Lady Justice’s scales tip ever so slightly toward Eddy.
I try to imagine what it must have been like back in Eddy’s day to be trapped in a prolonged state of suffering. No one but my closest family members willing to come near. Suddenly a stranger who everyone admires and thinks is special, this sort of celebrity, approaches me and puts his hands on my head and looks me in the eyes. Perhaps he says, “God loves you” with such gravitas that I have no choice but to believe it. How much better would I feel from that small act of kindness? I might still have my ailment, but the degree to which I believe this limits or isolates me almost certainly would be diminished.
This makes me wonder if some of Jesus’ miracles weren’t actually rooted in a very human phenomenon, the simple yet powerful gesture of connection; in my mind, this would make them no less extraordinary. Quimby recognized this aspect of Jesus’ talent and he tried to replicate the technique. He employed compassion to break through the alienation that plagues the human condition.
Suffering is the same, but the names for it change. According to Quimby, the standard diagnosis of his day, “neuralgia,” was giving way to a “new invention called spine disease.” Mary Baker Eddy suffered all of the most popular ailments including neuralgia of the stomach, nervous inflammation of the spine, and the mysterious and unpleasant-sounding “renal calculi.” She was nearly an invalid when she sought out Quimby; under his care her health improved, though the year he died, 1866, Eddy relapsed dramatically after a slip on an icy sidewalk. The attending physician predicted she would die; instead, she discovered Christian Science. Quimby taught that physical ailments could be inventions of our alienation and other anxieties. Eddy saw further that disease and death were not real at all, but illusions of our mortal minds.
Calvin, like other Protestants, explained man as a thing apart from God. Eddy understood differently: God is all that exists so man can’t be a thing apart. Calvin saw that to achieve holiness, man must struggle against his creaturely nature. Eddy understood that man, having no identity separate from God, can be nothing but eternal and perfect. The struggle is to overcome all beliefs to the contrary.
I am agape at this other-worldly destination to which this journey has brought me—no need to leave the confines of my own community. I stand with the congregation as we open our Christian Science Hymnals to one penned by Margaret Matters, head of the “Mother Church” in the mid-1900’s. Accompanied by a piano, we sing:
O Science, God sent message!
Today Christ’s precious Science
thy healing power makes plain!