Emma Morehart | Staff Writer
Lucia Greenhouse grew up in a loving and affectionate family. Her parents made Christmas and birthdays special, and they doted on their children in times of wellness and unwellness. But they never took her to the doctor when she had chickenpox or sprained her ankle, because Christian Science taught them that illness did not exist.
But the Christian Science church does not demand that followers refuse medical care. The church provides the spiritual option of prayer, but it is not a church doctrine that it is God’s will to suffer or die, especially if the death is preventable, said Paul Hannesson, a spokesperson for the Christian Science Committee on Publication for New York State. Most Christian Scientists choose prayer over medical care because it has worked for them before, he said.
“The church is not dictatorial about that issue, and one should have the freedom and the interest in their well-being … to provide the best solution for them under the circumstances,” Hannesson said.
Growing up, Greenhouse constantly was reminded by friends and family that she was perfect. She learned in Sunday School that Jesus, the son of God, came to Earth to show mankind that they were made in God’s perfect image. Because of this perfection, they could not be injured or ill, and death actually was the spirit passing on “to a higher plane of existence,” words that her father used to explain to his young children the death of a kitten.
There actually were a lot of areas of theology that were the same for young Greenhouse and all other Christian kids in Sunday School classes — the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments — but other children could go to doctors when they broke their pinky finger. More than 20 years after Greenhouse broke her pinky and let it heal on its own, the finger is slightly bent and shorter than its left-hand counterpart.
These “healings” drive the faith behind Christian Science. But even to a child’s mind, it did not make sense that anyone would need healing if they were not ill to begin with, Greenhouse said in her memoir fathermothergod: My Journey Out of Christian Science.
Greenhouse will read from and discuss her book at 2:30 p.m. today in Smith Memorial Library and will read a short passage at the Writing Center’s open mic at 5 p.m. Sunday in the Literary Arts Center in Alumni Hall.
Greenhouse has been trying to bring her family to visit her parents-in-law, Don and Kathy Greenhouse, at Chautauqua for years. Ironically, plans kept falling through for medical reasons.
Now that she’s here, Don and Kathy, who are yearround Chautauquans, see a mutual benefit in her visit. Greenhouse can learn about and experience a community that welcomes open discussion and a variety of religions, and Chautauquans can learn more about Christian Science, Don said.
When Don and Kathy received an advanced copy of fathermothergod, they took it to Sherra Babcock, director of the Department of Education, to make sure it fit within the education and religion pillars of the Institution. After this meeting, Babcock worked with the Greenhouses to arrange presentations at Chautauqua.
Babcock said she sees more in the book than just religious conflict.
“I really see it as a coming-of-age story that just happens to be set in one religion, and in fact, I hope that it isn’t taken as a slam at a particular religion,” Babcock said. “I hope (the audience) will get an understanding of what it means to form one’s own path — and how liberating and how painful that can be.”
The strength and appeal of Christian Science is in its expression of love and faith, Hannesson said. Many people join the Christian Science church because they need a solution to a spiritual or physical challenge that doctors cannot find. Others are attracted to unselfish expression of love and healing through faith.
“The decision to use Christian Science treatment is not made lightly and certainly not out of blind faith or religious zeal,” Hannesson said. “(Christian Science) does not practice martyrdom, nor does it teach that God’s will is anything other than to bring health, wholeness and harmony to one’s life.”
Mary Baker Eddy founded the Church of Christ, Scientist, the first Christian Science church, in 1879 after she miraculously was healed of a severe injury by way of prayer and Scripture reading. Eddy then wrote Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, the Christian Science textbook that is read during each service.
When Greenhouse’s mother fell permanently ill, only a few years after Greenhouse had graduated from college, the Ewing children were thrown into what Greenhouse calls her “worst nightmare.”
“It basically meant that she shut herself off from the outside world. My sister, brother and I were caught in this middle place where we were considered outsiders because we weren’t Christian Science, but we couldn’t be shut out completely because she was our mother,” Greenhouse said. “There was little or nothing that we could do as long as our mother did not want to (go to a doctor).”
The Christian Science concept called “mental malpractice” separated Greenhouse from her mother during this time. Malpractice was the idea that “the injurious action of one mortal mind controlling another…” could slow one’s healing process, Greenhouse wrote in her book. Disbelief in Christian Science and its abilities is one of the biggest examples of mental malpractice.
It was this same fear of mental malpractice that kept Greenhouse’s mother’s illness a secret from her side of the family, who disapproved of Christian Science, until she was admitted to the hospital. The Ewings converted to Christian Science when Greenhouse was very young, and the conversion caused years of underlying tension between Greenhouse’s mother and her side of the family.
But this tension was so subtle that Greenhouse did not even notice it as a child. Many of her mother’s relatives were doctors or surgeons. Her maternal grandmother was a devout Lutheran, and Greenhouse later found out that her grandma used to lace the kids’ applesauce with crushed aspirin when they were sick.
For eight months, Greenhouse’s mom stayed in a Christian Science Care Facility, where she waited to heal. After much persuasion by Greenhouse and her siblings, who all had decided to leave the Christian Science church years before, their sick mother was admitted to a hospital. Like her husband would some years later, Mrs. Ewing passed on in defiance of her Christian Science background.
Sickness, according to Christian Science, is nothing more than error, or the external manifestation of incorrect thinking, Greenhouse said. So in order to heal, one must believe that the sickness does not exist. Most often, this manifestation is corrected through prayer, which leads to healing.
But while sitting in the nurse’s station at school with fever and chills, Greenhouse found it difficult to believe that she could simply will away her ill. When learning of the suicide of her childhood sweetheart or the death of her grandfather, she found it difficult to believe that they had not really died, especially because she would never see them again.
“The biggest dilemma for me was trying to reconcile what I saw in the secular world with what I was taught in Sunday School, and I was taught that the material world is not real, that sickness is an illusion, much like a mirage in the desert is the illusion of water,” Greenhouse said. “So on the one hand, that kind of made sense to a child’s mind, but on the other hand … it was very hard for me to accept that as truth.”
After leaving Christian Science, Greenhouse had little faith left in religion and struggled through her beliefs for many years. The book, which took Greenhouse 24 years to complete, was a story Greenhouse just had to tell. Now, she receives letters and emails from people telling their own Christian Science stories, of children with permanent hearing loss from untreated ear infections or others who died from treatable illnesses like diabetes.
But there is one thing Greenhouse said she hopes readers take away from her memoir.
“Behind the façade of The Christian Science Monitor and the Christian Science reading rooms that you see on Main Street, USA, and very affluent communities … there is a really dark, scary church (and) a very controlling religion that is anachronistic,” Greenhouse said.