Friday, November 10, 2017

There Goes the Neighborhood

It seemed that Mary Baker Eddy was no more than an embarrassing footnote in American religious history--and nothing to do with us.

Growing up in Lynn, Massachusetts, I would pass by the Mary Baker Eddy House on Broad Street on my way to the Girls' Club, or on my way to guitar lessons at Lou Ames' on Union Street.  I must have walked past the Mary Baker Eddy house a hundred times.  It was well-preserved, with a plaque by the door, and it stood out handsomely on a wide street that reflected the city's checkered history of economic ups and downs.
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The Mary Baker Eddy House on Broad Street, Lynn

On the way to King's Beach, I passed the First Church of Christ, Scientist (see photo below) on the corner of Kings Beach Road and Lynn Shore Drive.  I liked to walk along the top of the stone perimeter wall, holding a parent's hand.

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First Church of Christ Scientist on Lynn Shore Drive
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Mary Baker Eddy House on Paradise Road, Swampscott

When I was a teenager I lived on Paradise Road, a couple blocks away from yet another Mary Baker Eddy House, also on Paradise Road (above).

I grew up surrounded by these houses, these monuments to Mary Baker Eddy.

And yet, I managed to remain almost perfectly ignorant about Mary Baker Eddy's life.

All I knew was that she had concocted some sort of kooky religion.

Despite being a feminist of the Betty Friedan generation, my mother expressed zero interest in Mary Baker Eddy.

The ever-popular Mark Twain referred to Mary Baker Eddy as "the sordid and ignorant old purloiner of that gospel."

Mary Baker Eddy was a charlatan.

It was because of her that foolish Christian Scientists refused to have their children vaccinated. Nor would they authorize surgery or blood transfusions for themselves or their dependents.

Christian Scientists simply failed to pass the reasonable person test.  They were duped. They were had. They were played.  It wasn't their fault that they were fools, of course, but it was Mary Baker Eddy's fault that they were Christian Scientists.

That was my full set of prejudices and grievances toward Mary Baker Eddy and her darned church, based on a nearly complete lack of information, and despite having spent my formative years surrounded by her homes and institutions.

In my thirties, I could walk to the resplendent Mother Church of Christian Science in Boston from where I worked on Boylston Street.

A friend took me to see its Maporium--a planetarium-like space in which we viewed the surface of the world from the inside of a globe. It was really cool.

He was the first person I ever met who didn't have a bone to pick with Mary Baker Eddy.  Image result for christian science mother church in boston

He thought that the Mother Church was beautiful and its Maporium extraordinary.  He was impressed that she had replaced the clergy with readers.

Well, all I had to go on were my inherited prejudices, so I clung to them tenaciously.  My parents were smart people, and I generally profited from parroting them.

My friend, on the other hand, thought more independently.  He was not saddled with Ivy league parents and a posh accent like I was.  He did not have to carry those weighty pretensions around like I did. His was an original and marvelous intellect; and I, if you haven't guessed, was dazzled--and constantly trying to cover up the gaping holes in my education and my inexcusable ignorance with the hand-me-down opinions of my better educated parents. And, according to them, Mary Baker Eddy was a charlatan--cool Maporium not withstanding.

I am 52 now, and I have grown up a little since then.  I finally got curious about Mary Baker Eddy.  Because I don't usually ignore loudly recurring themes in life, and looking back, I can see that Mary Baker Eddy is one that I have for years ignored completely (as is the custom).

So, I looked into her, and I made an appalling discovery:

Mary Baker Eddy was okay. 

There was nothing terribly wrong with her.

In fact, she was extraordinary.

I think it is very interesting, in a painful kind of way, that we have managed to make so very little of her.

This is where you remind me about the vaccination/surgery/blood transfusion thing...

But listen...Do you remember from books how back in the late 1800s medicine was in its fetal stage?  It was only slightly less barbaric then than it was in the days of Henry VIII.

Nothing was clean.

There was no penicillin.

Coca Cola had cocaine in it.

Medicine in the 1800s and early 1900s was abysmal, especially for people of ordinary means, but also for the wealthy.

Death was a constant presence.

That was Mary Baker Eddy's time.

She was a sickly child who grew up to be a sickly woman.

Her favorite brother died while still a young man.

Her mother died early.

Her first husband died young, while she was pregnant with their child.

They all generally died from natural causes, because medicine was really, really terrible.

Can we blame Mary Baker Eddy for wanting to fortify herself and others against such awful fragility?

She studied homeopathic remedies.

Homeopathic medicine, by the way, is still practiced throughout Europe today.  Our exchange students from France and the Czech Republic both brought homeopathic remedies with them to the US to cure ailments such as stomach aches and sore throat.

But MBE's own complaints weren't relieved by homeopathic methods, so she continued her search.

She heard about a man, a mesmerist by the name of Quimby, who used hypnotism to heal people.  She went to him as a patient, found his treatment beneficial, and asked him to teach her his methods, which he did.

Then Quimby died, and MBE lost a friend, mentor, and the only physician who had ever successfully treated her condition.

But it occurred to MBE that maybe she didn't need Quimby, after all; perhaps she could figure out how to heal herself.  Maybe she could tap into that same inner resource through prayerful meditation.

A major turning point occurred in the home on Paradise Road in Swampscott, a couple blocks away from where I used to live (across the street from C&L Liquors).  

Mary Baker Eddy had fallen on the ice and suffered a concussion. Everyone seemed to think she was going to die, but, to their amazement, she woke up the next morning feeling fine.

MBE attributed her miraculous recovery to the holy spirit through the power of prayer.

You say potato, I say potato.  One person's hypnotism is another person's power of prayer.  I don't know what the difference is; maybe there is one; maybe there isn't.

Alcoholics Anonymous is predicated on the idea that we can't recover from addiction under our own power, but must appeal to a higher power and put ourselves in the hands of that higher power; that only through the grace of a power greater than ourselves can we prevail over this disease.

This has become a widely understood, accepted, and mainstream method for dealing with addiction of all kinds.  If addiction is a disease, then I argue that the contemporary treatment for that disease is no different from what Mary Baker Eddy prescribed for all diseases.

Her error may have been in prescribing the same method for every malady.  But remember, she practiced healing before medicine had discovered the benefits of sterilizing instruments or wounds. A patient with a compound fracture may well have fared better with prayer.

MBE grew up in a strict Calvinist household. Her father was a grim, moralizing, cheerless man.  The family believed in a God that was judgmental and bureaucratic. It has already been determined that you are going to Hell and there is nothing at all that you can do about it.

Mary Baker Eddy chose to believe in a God that was merciful, compassionate, and loving.  Her God did not want people to suffer physically, emotionally, or spiritually.   To the contrary, she believed God was a source of relief from suffering. This was the basis of her theology.  Not so terrible.

At the age of 45, from that house on Broad Street in Lynn, MBE practiced healing and began teaching others the techniques that had started with Quimby and then developed into something uniquely her own.

Her followers went out into the community and healed people. They charged for their services, and they called themselves Christian scientists.  They were allowed, in the loose regulatory environment of their day, to bill themselves as medical practitioners.

This was the 1870s. Their results were probably as good as or better than traditional medical practitioners of the day.

There are mysterious methods of healing among us today.  For example, the Masterson's Method applies an extremely light, hovering touch over key points along a horse's anatomy.  The horse indicates the site of pain with a quiver, a shake of the head, or a swish of the tail.  The hand hovers over that spot; the horse's mind focuses on the target and, somehow, wondrously fixes it.  The horse's relief is indicated by a yawn or a lowering of the head.  (This is a gross simplification of the technique, but an accurate sketch of the process.)

If Mary Baker Eddy is a charlatan, perhaps we should tell the Equestrian Olympic Team to stop using the Masterson Method, regardless of the results.  It's just too damn weird.

We should also shut down Alcoholics Anonymous and its affiliates.  Nothing scientific about it.

We should ban faith healing in every form.

We should cease and desist from employing hypnotism and the placebo effect in lieu of anesthetic or nicotine patch.

We should tell those folks in Europe to stop using homeopathy, because it's silly and we don't understand how it works. Embrace the GMOs for God's sake!  It's good food and good science.  Science is never wrong.

Pharmaceutical companies have their heart in the right place.

I'm just saying.  There was nothing wrong with Mary Baker Eddy.    

A sickly child surrounded by illness and death, she discovered a way to heal herself and set to healing others.

She grew up in a religious family that feared God, and believed contrarily that God was loving and merciful. She took the clergy out of the church and replaced it with readers.

What is so loathsome about any of this, Mr. Twain, that we should not know or appreciate this woman?  

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