The Myth of Safe Spaces

This post was originally published at Incredibly True Stories of Christian Science Healing on Tuesday, May 12, 2016. It is reprinted here with permission.

There just isn’t a safe place to process Christian Science.

The first time I shared any of my CS stuff with my minister, there was one paragraph that I repeatedly deleted and then rewrote, trying to explain why it’s terrifying to complain about Christian Science. There’s no way to capture the work of the Committee on Publications. I worried there might be a UU rule that I had to be friendly to my religion of origin.

Our congregation offered “Owning your religious past,” a weekend workshop. I had some trepidation about it, but mostly, I was excited to attend. Maybe I’d be able to set down some of the CS baggage I’ve been hauling around. Integrate it, move more fully into UU. Settle into a spiritual home.

There was one friend who suggested I postpone. “Do you think it might be smart to avoid unearthing this stuff while your therapist is out of town?” I saw her point, but I also thought it might be helpful to have a deeply connecting experience, something soul-sustaining in her absence. I could lean on my church during my time of need, and this workshop might help me do that on a deeper level.

Before I’d even settled on a seat, a woman set off all my alarm bells. Not safe! My brain screamed. She looked like an amalgam of all the female Sunday School teachers I had, every practitioner who patted my head after a bee sting at sleep-away camp. There’s a look prevalent among Christian Scientists: well-groomed, attractive, white, upper-middle-class woman with a smile intended to comfort that fails. There’s an expected element of attractiveness.*

Sunday School Teacher Amalgam (SSTA) and I wound up in the same small group, despite my attempts to dance out of her space. I decided to enter into the conversation honestly anyway. Being authentic was what I wanted. This was my spiritual home. I wouldn’t let a gut level reaction to a likely pleasant woman derail me.

“I grew up in Christian Science.”

She offered a smile and motioned toward a book she was holding.

“Over the past year, I’ve been realizing how damaging it was,” I trudged onward, trying not to look at her, aware of her eyes on me. “I left it thinking the doctrine was true, I just wasn’t good at it, but now I’m seeing that no one could be good at it; it’s impossible.”

“I imagine it was your branch church, don’t you think?” she interjected. Her face was less warm, still smiling. “I mean, it’s so open to interpretation. It just depends on how it’s practiced.” Never have I ever heard a Christian Scientist describe it as “open to interpretation.” She held out a book toward me. “This is something I’ve been reading.”

I flipped open and read this sentence: “Pain, sickness, poverty, old age, and death cannot master me, for they are not real.” I recognized the name. Another New Thought author. Someone who studied Christian Science. I forced a smile and handed it back to her. I know, she wasn’t trying to get me to practice radical reliance. She might be horrified at the idea of allowing a child to die unnecessarily. She found her book soothing, and she might even read it in a doctor’s waiting room without experiencing cognitive dissonance.
She continued. “I guess that why I’m here at UU, because I can believe this.” She patted the book’s cover and held it close.  “I can believe anything here, and I can study it on my own but still have community. I can study Lessons in Truth.” (I do get frustrated with the idea that you can believe anything and be UU, but that’s another post, maybe a different blog.)
I shut up. Suddenly every Sunday School teacher was sitting next to me, listening to my protests, correcting me. “Now, Hester, you know that’s not Science. We love you so much! You are God’s Perfect Child, don’t let error drive like that!” I crumbled inward. “When you smile, you’re reflecting Divine Love.” They were probably right, I thought. I shouldn’t be at UU. I shouldn’t be saying these things to strangers. I wasn’t reflecting Love, I was being hateful. Letting error win.
This wasn’t a safe space. Divine Love is everywhere. How can you escape omnipresence?
As we were packing up to go home, my minister stopped in front of me and asked how I was doing. I gave her my patented blow off: a smile, wave and a “oh gosh, how are you?” I’m unaccustomed to its failure, but when I looked up a few seconds later, she was still standing there, eyebrows raised. “Are you waiting for me to answer?” I was flabbergasted. It hadn’t worked. I couldn’t really name anything other than the sense of overwhelm, but her insistence on waiting was anchoring. I knew she was safe.
The next day we did a guided visualization that ended with us entering our childhood churches. It has been years since I’ve felt the crunchy red velvet cushions while counting the screws on the seats in front of me, decades since I’ve wiggled on the organ bench to reach the foot pedals, filling in for the vacant organist. (I later found out he needed surgery, so they asked him to resign) Our instructions were to recreate the floor plan.
My drawing was deliberately sketchy. I didn’t want anyone to be able to recognize my church, or me. We broke into new small groups, I wasn’t with SSTA. I marveled at how different Christian Science was from all the other churches. No cookies. No social gatherings, no pot lucks, no weddings, no funerals, no rituals of human connection. No activities that reinforce the material existence. No candles, no kneeling, no stained glass windows, or crosses. No Christmas Eve or Easter special services. Christian Science churches are adorned with words and thoughts. There’s no there there.
We took a break, and someone stopped me in the kitchen.  “You grew up in Christian Science?” he enthused. “I know someone who was really good at Christian Science.”
“Well,” I sighed, mustered up a smile not quite worthy of Divine Love, “if that someone is local, I imagine I know them. It’s a small church.”
“Her name is Eliza Schuyler?** She was studying to be one of those, what do you call them? The higher ups?”
“Practitioners.” I nodded. “I know her well. I spent summers at her house. I dated her son.”
“Oh, he was a good Christian Scientist too. Philip? He wrote about Christian Science, right?” He did. I’ve read his sentinel articles, including the one published after his death.  I nodded. His voice hushed and he leaned toward me. “He died though.”
“Yes,” I nodded. “he did.” He died. How good could he have been at Christian Science? I skirted out of the room as quickly as I could without being rude. Thoughts of Philip, and related, thoughts of my failure in Christian Science, flooded me. I tried to slow my breathing, allowing my gaze to rest on the pulpit, on the chalice, on the front window. Tears came, despite my best efforts. I was breaking so many rules, being there, and breaking rules lets error in, and error is sin, disease and death.
Our next exercise was to write a letter to someone who impacted our religious life. We could write where we are now, how we chose to be here. We could write their response, if we wanted, and we could respond. I sat in our sanctuary and wept while I wrote two letters.

Dear Phillip:
Fuck you.
I go years without thinking of you, without feeling how inadequate I was when with you, and then I get slammed with it again. Go the fuck away. I thought I had a safe place to talk about Christian Science and I’m hearing about you and your mother and how great you were. Do you know why I’m not a good Christian Scientist? Do you want to know? Because it’s impossible. It’s like some giant mind fuck game that I will never, ever win. I can’t be what you wanted, because what you wanted is an illusion.

My other letter was to the practitioner who gave me absent treatment through both my breast lump and break-up with Phillip. Two times we failed to demonstrated the omnipotence of Truth.

Dear Sandra:
When a teenager calls you with a lump in her breast, the appropriate thing to do is to tell her parents to take her to a fucking doctor. God’s Perfect Child is an impossibility. She doesn’t exist. Not here. Not at Prin. Not in Boston. So because I’m never going to be perfect and I know I’m always going to have something toxic growing inside me, the only conclusion I can draw is that I will never be worthy of the love I’m seeking.

I swallowed my fear and read the letter to Sandra out loud when the time came. Speaking truth.  I wanted to be brave. I wanted to feel safe. I didn’t.
I’ve had a hard time writing about this workshop, and it’s interesting to me because usually if I feel strong emotions, the words just flow. If they don’t, it’s because there’s something I’m not letting out. I couldn’t figure out where my stuck place was until last night, then I saw it clearly. It’s anger.
Anger has been choking off my writing. I went to this workshop hoping for a safe place to lay my Christian Science angst to rest, and I didn’t find it. It’s possible that outside of other ex-Christian Scientists, there isn’t a safe place. It’s so hard to explain, so hard to understand. People nod and smile, extend a hug, but I spend my time certain they believe I’m overreacting, worried that maybe I am overreacting. I can’t tell if I’m misreading the room because I spent my entire childhood and early adulthood stifling any doubts or negative feelings, or if I really am overreacting.
To be clear: Christian Science isn’t a reframe of the mind-body connection, it DOESN’T BELIEVE THE BODY EXISTS. There’s no mind-body connection involved. Just mind. It isn’t a sweet, empowering religion full of love and girl power. It’s toxic and dangerous, if you’re practicing it right. If you’re not practicing radical reliance, if you’re more of a dabbler, it’s just sort of dumb, which I suppose is fine, if that’s your thing.
I wish I could be saved. I want a church that wraps me in her arms and apologizes for the harm done to me in the name of religion. I want solace. I want safety. I want an escape from the omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent force of Divine Love that taught me to stifle my inner wisdom, to ignore the sensations of my body and any emotions that didn’t result in a benign smile. I want to be rid of the religion that made it impossible to name neglect and abuse as anything other than Love, since Love is all.
It’s possible that this is what’s happening between me and Unitarian Universalism, but it doesn’t come with the emotional reassurances of an altar call; it’s long and arduous and filled with messiness and uncertainty.
*Legend has it, Mary Baker Eddy overcame aging, and because of that, looked beautiful her entire life. “The deformities and infirmities said to be the inevitable results of age, under the opposite mental impressions, disappear,” she told readers of the Christian Science Journal in 1884.
**lolz. Couldn’t help myself. They were the only names that came to me.
Addendum: I want to say something about finding a spiritual home, and I’m not sure I can capture it properly. Part of it is flat out asking my minister “am I overreacting?” and believing her when she said no. Reality testing– it’s so simple, easy, and super powerful. That there’s no room for it in Christian Science is the salt on the egg.
The other part is I had a moment yesterday that could only be defined as joy, and it’s been a while since I’ve felt that emotion. It felt awesome, and it was a result of hope surrounding my experience at UU.  Having a spiritual home where I can be myself, where I can question things, change my mind, muddle around in a mess, and still be loved, feels like what it’s all about.