Sunday, February 19, 2012

A Tale of Two Ladies: Part I – The Christian Science Center

For this excursion, I planned on hitting the life’s work of two prominent women of the late 19th-early 20th century: Mary Baker Eddy and Isabella Stewart Gardner. Eddy’s Christian Science Center, which is comprised of a reflecting pool, the Christian Science “Mother Church,” and a Library holding the Hall of Ideas and the Mapparium was to be the day’s first stop.
Riding there on a bike from Roslindale, I looked forward to a day mostly in doors, as the sky revealed all the colors of dirty snow and was spitting at me unmercifully.
On arrival, I entered the Mary Baker Eddy Library and I was greeted by a very plainly dressed, attractive, pleasant, and direct woman. I told her I’d like to go to the Mapparium, and she sold me a $6 ticket to go inside. I needed to check my bag quickly, as the tour started in less than a minute.
The Mapparium
Following my bag check, I walked into the “Hall of Ideas,” where I was instructed to wait. There was a video introduction of Mary Baker Eddy just ending as I walked in, and our guide – an equally plainly dressed, attractive, pleasant, and direct person – instructed me and a couple from New York to follow him.
I was surprised and pleased to be in such a small group as I followed the young man. At the doors of the Mapparium, he gave a brief overview of what we were about to see and what the format would be like. He introduced the architect of the Mapparium, a man named Chester Lindsay Churchill, and explained that the map might look a bit strange because it was the borders of a world that no longer existed – that of 1935.

Entering the Mapparium is initially a bit underwhelming. Something about the photos I’ve seen of it, reinforced by the reality that, in total, it is three stories tall from top to bottom, always gave me the impression of a much larger globe. In truth, three stories is not that much when you’re walking in the middle of it. A bridge that goes through the globe instead gives you the impression of a room with a high, arched ceiling and a drop that is difficult to sense the true depth of.

It’s size notwithstanding, the Mapparium is a beautiful exhibit, full of predominantly blue, green, red, and orange stained glass. The continents, our guide explained, are properly proportional. This reinforces the idea of Americans being brought up with a western-centric map, as particularly Africa appears huge in the Mapparium.
The acoustics are also predictably amazing. Standing at one entrance, the guide spoke. It was difficult to hear him while standing in the middle of the walk, but moving to the opposite entrance, even a whisper was completely audible. Standing in the middle of the room, if you spoke, even your faintest sounds sounded like they were being pumped in via Dolby Digital.
There was a brief multimedia display, featuring feel-good quotes from world leaders of the past such as MLK and Gandhi, all of which ended with something pretty unmemorable by Eddy herself. The room was then turned over to the group to talk in and experience the majesty of its acoustics.
In total, the Mapparium experience lasted 20 minutes. The room itself is pretty impressive, though the guide seemed a bit unnecessary. It was a welcome surprise though that as of yet, nobody had tried to hawk Christian Science to me.
The Hall of Ideas
Following my exit from the Mapparium, I was released into the entrance lobby. I had to double back to get back to the Hall of Ideas – a neoclassical room comprised mostly of Italian and Vermont granite. There, I was able to watch the brief introductory video of Mary Baker Eddy. I should clarify: I knew absolutely nothing about Eddy previous to this trip. Thus, all of the following impressions about her came from my experience at her religious center.
Eddy, the video purported, was sickly and had bad luck with men. She “lost her child to foster care,” and tended toward miracle cures and fad health. After taking a rather terrible fall, she was told by a doctor that she’d die, and allegedly healed herself through the power of prayer.

In my incredibly limited experiences with Christianity, this didn’t sound much out of the ordinary. Jesus, if the bible is to be believed, was a big healer, and didn’t most Catholic saints have to conduct some kind of miracles, often involving spontaneous healing?
Eddy wrote a book about her ideas on spiritual healing and became a religious guru with a lot of followers. One became her husband, and though the video doesn’t explain how, he died suddenly in 1882.
All in all, the video doesn’t make Eddy look terribly appealing. Surrounded by death and illness, she preached (and sold books on) spiritual healing to a clamoring public and took on criticism from the press head-on. Her personal qualities seemed most important to the dissemination of her ideas – an opinion backed by the serious decline in practicing Christian Scientists over the past century. Frankly, between the new age spin on religion and the reliance on more modern writings and non-medical healing, it was hard not to see why Christian Science is so frequently confused with Scientology.
The rest of the Hall of Ideas was a collection of words being projected on walls, floors, and in fountains from inspiring, positive people. Thomas Paine was in there, as were some other founding fathers. Eddy was mixed in as well.
The second floor, which is arrived at via an old, immaculately wood-detailed elevator, holds a series of plaques depicting Eddy’s fight against the press and her rise in popularity. Through a set of doors is an exhibit called “Quest,” which recounts Ms. Eddy’s life and those of other Christian Scientists. It capped off an already unimpressive experience that, in retrospect, should have ended after the Mapparium.

On to the Churches
After departing from the Library building, I walked over toward the church complex. The collection of religious buildings surround what is normally a beautiful reflecting pool, but what is currently an empty cement basin. Even without the pool, the plaza is daunting and impressive. It is, after all, the Vatican of Christian Science. The beautiful, imposing building ran the gamut of architectural styles, ranging from renaissance to Roman, from neo-Byzantine to new and Brutalist. The Mother Church itself was offering tours, and I took them up on it.
My guide was a nice middle-aged woman, who I guessed was originally from the Phillipines. I was willing to accept being completely wrong about that. I was the only person there for the tour, though another group of special needs teenagers had gone in right before me. The woman led me into the main body of the church and explained its Renaissance and Byzantine influences, it’s massive capacity of thousands, and the significance of the churches mammoth organ. She encouraged taking pictures and maintained direct eye contact throughout.

After briefly explaining the architecture, she turned to the religion. It’s a tour of a church, so this wasn’t surprising, but it definitely had a feel of recruitment that I had been happy not to feel up until that point. Her lecture on faith healing seemed fantastical and remarkably unspecific, and throughout she made a point to insist that Christian Science is not the same as Scientology. This reinforced my feeling that Christian Science was sort of a late-19th/early-20th century fad religion, much like I understand Scientology to be a late-20th/early-21st century fad religion. That said, at least Eddy seemed like she wanted to help people, whereas everything I’ve ever read about L. Ron Hubbard has led me to believe that he was in the business of robbing people.
I was hopeful that the tour was over when it was revealed that the church I was in wasn’t the original church! As it turns out, this structure was built in 1904 after the burgeoning new religious order outgrew its original digs. The original 1896 structure (Roman influenced architecture) was through a door and a few halls.
At this point, my party of one was merged with the other group. This was something my guide seemed to be trying to avoid, as being in a large group of special needs youth is difficult. I appreciated the effort, but it was fine for the rest of the trip.
In the old church, I was addressed with the rest of the crowd by a middle-aged blonde woman who reminded me very much of Ann Romney. She explained the stained glass of the church as “opal essence.” It was very pretty, and the window of Lazarus rising from the dead was particularly striking.

The example of Lazarus was used by my new guide (both guides had “tour guide” name tags on, but neither had names on them) to explain more about Christian Science healing. In a tone that I felt was talking down to the special needs kids, she explained that Christian Science could heal and resurrect the dead. This wasn’t explained as an eventual result, but rather a thing that almost easily occurred. It was uncomfortable.
The tour finally ended after almost 40 minutes, and my original guide walked me out. She offered free literature (though she asked that I leave a donation if I took Eddy’s book) which I politely declined. She told me she hoped to see me at services, and I politely avoided committing.
As I left the church, the clouds broke, shining sunlight on a previously dark religious plaza. The sun warmed me, begging me to stay outside. I happily accepted the offer to ride away in good weather, anxious to get away from Eddy’s life’s work. It’s a lovely plaza to walk through, but unless you’re going inside a globe, I don’t recommend stopping there.
Experience Rankings 1-5
New Experience: 4 – I have been to the Christian Science Plaza before, but never inside any of the buildings.
Can Others Do It: 5 – The Library and Church both have extensive public hours, and everything except the Mapparium is free.
Enjoyable: 2 – The Mapparium was fun enough, though it only took 20 minutes. Frankly, even that seemed kind of long. The rest of it is nice to look at. The churches are open to the public without a guide. I recommend doing it that way if you’re interested in architecture. If you’re just in it to see something pretty, walk through the plaza on a sunny spring or summer day and continue on to something a bit more worth your hours.
Photos of the Mapparium and Hall of Ideas are from Photos of the church and plaza are from my cell phone.

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