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How my Christian Science roots help me face pandemic anxiety

Christian Scientists lived through two pandemics since the religion was formed in 1879. And they used the power of thought to overcome fear of disease in both of them.
Christian Scientists felt a similar call to action during the 1918 pandemic. Records showed how Christian Scientists entered quarantine camps wrought with confirmed influenza cases to help those inside overcome fear of the illness.
Christian Scientists felt a similar call to action during the 1918 pandemic. Records showed how Christian Scientists entered quarantine camps wrought with confirmed influenza cases to help those inside overcome fear of the illness.TODAY Illusttration / Getty Images
/ Source: TMRW

When I was a child, I often found it difficult to fall asleep as thoughts or fears flooded my mind in the darkness. My solace became a cassette tape my mom gave me from our Christian Science church where children shared their experiences overcoming their fears, sadness and even illness. I played the tape night after night until thoughts of love and warmth finally replaced angst.

While I no longer adhere to any one religion, I recently began thinking about the strength those recorded "healings" once provided. Amid a state of global uncertainty, I was inspired to explore my religious roots. I spoke with Christian Scientists around the country — a musician, space engineer, architect and a member of the Christian Science Committee of Publication — to learn how they battle fear during a global pandemic.

But first, a little history. At 58, Mary Baker Eddy became one of the only women to establish a branch of Christianity. A prestigious scholar, teacher and devout Christian, Eddy spent much of her life researching a cure for a chronic illness she'd suffered throughout childhood. According to the National Women's History Museum, Eddy experimented with alternative medicine and sought advice from holistic healers who were progressive for the 19th century.

Mary Baker Eddy founded the Christian Science faith in 1879 after she experienced healing through prayer after doctors told her she was terminally ill.Bettmann Archive

In 1866, Eddy slipped on an icy sidewalk and doctors told her she would die. Though bedridden for months, Eddy refused to be defeated and spent her time reading the King James Bible and studying the the many documented healings Jesus performed. She examined the mental aspects of sickness and applied the power of thought and love, as exemplified by Jesus, to her own terminal fate. To the shock of her doctors, Eddy fully recovered.

Not long after, Eddy wrote her most important work, "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," and prefaced it with Shakespeare's famous line: "Nothing is either good or bad, only thinking makes it so." By 1879, she established the Massachusetts Metaphysical College where she taught others about the Bible and her interpretation of it. People were drawn to Eddy’s scientific, love-based philosophy that God is good, that there is no original sin or hell and that the power of thought can create modern healing. Followers congregated and Christian Science evolved into its own religion, one that continues to thrive around the world today. Eddy also created the Christian Church to give men and women equal responsibilities within the congregation, unprecedented for the time, and by worshipping a "Father-Mother" God. Though she never identified as being a suffragette, her work was instrumental to women’s rights.

Nitya Thomas, a New York-based vocalist and musician from Bangalore, India, was raised in a Protestant home and wanted to learn more about Christian Science after witnessing a sense of deep peace in a family she knew who practiced it. As she studied the religion over the years, she found its teachings to be "natural and intuitive," saw healings in her own life and eventually converted.

"Thanks to my understanding of Christian Science, I have felt a great sense of protection and security throughout this period," Thomas said of her experiences this year, in which her music career shifted to being fully virtual. "There has been no sense of fear in my thought, and I have instead been able to use my energy in serving the community through our church services, in praying for the world and in continuing to develop my own sense of purpose."

The Bible quote, "God is love," appears near the front of almost every sanctuary in Christian Science churches, including in The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston, the headquarters for the denomination.The First Church of Christ, Scientist

Despite the barrage of anxiety-inducing news about everything from coronavirus to politics, Thomas strives to overcome fear by looking beyond “the surface” and at deeper meanings offered by the Bible.

“No matter what it might look like on the surface of things, we can know that God, good, is always in complete control of His universe. This spiritual understanding and knowing is powerful and, in my experience, brings healing to every situation," Thomas told TMRW.

Carlos Machado is an architect in Houston who converted to Christian Science in 2001 during his freshman year of college.

“I loved its practical approach to spirituality from the beginning. Over the years it has helped me gain a deeper sense of what existence is — the divine Life, Truth and Love, which are biblical synonyms for God in Christian Science — and of my spiritual identity as the reflection of that existence,” Machado told TMRW. “We are not mortal beings praying to a God somewhere else in the cosmos and waiting for answers. In the highest sense, we are all how God makes Himself known.”

Machado is a volunteer chaplain (the Christian Science Church has no preachers, ministers or clergy, but volunteers from the congregation who lead), for a group of prison inmates with interest in the religion. He encourages them to use what they learn from their daily prayers and watch how those prayers affect their life for the better in tangible ways. Machado said this religion is like any science, and the understanding of God must be “accompanied by application and demonstration.” This daily practice helps Machado overcome negative thoughts.

Christian Scientists study the Bible alongside "The Science Health" by its founder, Mary Baker Eddy.Scott Shivers

"The mortal mind, or the 'carnal mind' as the apostle Paul called it in the Bible, refers to fearful or materially based thinking. So, I try to watch my thought to make sure I’m not fearful, but that I’m trusting in God to care for each one of us," Machado said. "At the core of the current situation there is a view of humanity as vulnerable, separated from the omnipotence of God and ultimately at the mercy of chance and disease. This is not the picture of God’s creation I have learned from Christian Science and have demonstrated in my own life."

Machado personally felt like the pandemic was a call to action to be part of the solution — a sentiment expressed by every Christian Scientist I spoke to. Each person applied their prayers for the world at large into their daily lives. This manifested in different ways, from participating in more church meetings to allaying fear by being a good community member and respecting the Centers for Disease Control’s guidelines.

Scott Shivers, who works for the Christian Science Committee on Publication, used his thoughts to overcome fear of disease and thus was able to help local families who had to self-isolate for various reasons. Beginning in March, Shivers visited the grocery store week after week, month after month, stocking two grocery carts full of items for up to five families at a time and delivering them.

"Selfless love is a vital part of my prayer and thinking about how I can love my neighbors, help to calm fears, serve others and express more grace, strength and patience and in turn bring blessings to my family, friends and community is my present goal,” Shivers told TMRW. “And I can’t help but think that’s really not that different from any follower of Christ Jesus, today or 100 years ago.”

According to research from the Mary Baker Eddy Library, Christian Scientists felt a similar call to action during the 1918 pandemic when the religion itself was just four decades old. Records showed how Christian Scientists entered quarantine camps wrought with confirmed influenza cases to help those inside overcome fear of the illness.

“Eliminating fear is an important step in healing,” lifelong Christian Scientist William Whittenbury told TMRW.

Whittenbury graduated from Northwestern University in the midst of the pandemic and is now working as an engineer in rocket science in the Los Angeles area. While still in Boston, he led a Christian Science group on campus and has continued to attend church meetings and volunteer whenever possible to help be part of the solution to the pandemic.

During church services and meetings, members often share testimonies about experiences applying prayer to daily life and healing — like the ones I’d listen to on my cassette tapes as a child. When Whittenbury attended the virtual Annual Meeting of the Mother Church earlier this year, he heard one such testimony from a Christian Scientist who had lived through the 1918 outbreak of Spanish flu.

“Her mother was healed through Christian Science of an influenza case that had been judged terminal by the medical professionals attending the case," Whittenbury told TMRW. "The testifier shared how this experience gave her inspiration to pray about the present pandemic. In much the same way, we've been drawing inspiration from the past to guide us in the present."

A photograph of a family in front of the fountain at The First Church of Christ, Science Mother Church in Boston.Getty Images

Personally, I identify with Whittenbury’s perspective — with Shiver, Machado, Thomas and the woman who shared her century-old experience with strangers around the world. Though I feel my own sense of spirituality in a mix of ways, my perspective that "everything is and always will be OK" was undoubtedly shaped by Christian Science. I love that Christian Science has seven synonyms for God (Life, Truth, Mind, Spirit, Soul, Principle and, of course, Love) and I often use these words in place of “God” when I meditate or pray.

Eddy created "The Science and Health" as an interpretation of the Bible — a way to empower her faith's established teachings with science, love and the power of thought. I think if we can look to the ways devout Christian Scientists can overcome fear, then we too can be offered some solace to overcome this difficulty and heal together.

On Thursday morning, I was consumed by “mortal mind” after finding my family’s elderly dog had passed away in the night. I called my 89-year-old grandmother, a lifelong Christian Scientist who is the reason for my ingrained sense of divine love and understanding of Eddy’s teachings.

She got on the phone and spoke without hesitation before I told her anything. Her voice was gravelly and quiet but still powerful.

"Just keep loving,” she said. “If life's a struggle, if it's hard, you just put your hands in your pockets and keep on walking. Just keep loving."