by Sarah Fentem
It’s a building many people in Chicago recognize. Across the Chicago River from famed landmarks Marina City and the Tribune Towers, on East Wacker Drive, the 17th Church of Christ, Scientist resembles the shell of a giant tortoise, an upside-down cereal bowl or perhaps a concrete UFO.
The Christian Science faith is an institution much like the building itself-many people have walked by, but few have entered, so to speak. On March 18th, however, visitors were treated to an intimate introduction to this relatively new, American-born religion, the latest to be featured in the Council for the Parliament of World’s Religions “Sharing Sacred Spaces” project.
“Sharing Sacred Spaces” is an interreligious project focused on fostering cultural and spiritual understanding among Chicago’s faith communities. Each month, one of eight local congregations opens its doors for an afternoon to showcase its “sacred space” and unique spiritual traditions.
Upon arrival guests were ushered upstairs to the Church’s main auditorium, a large, tiered meeting space more akin to a university lecture hall than a traditional church sanctuary, save for an enormous organ whose pipes soar up to the high ceiling above the pulpit. While not overtly religious, the setting started to make sense after an introduction to the faith by congregation member Carol Hohle. Hohle began the program by sharing what her congregation had learned from the other participating “Sacred Spaces” communities.
“We’ve learned so much from previous Open Houses and found much that resonated,” she said. “To our Buddhist friends–we loved your spiritual grace and poise. And to the Presbyterians–we cherish that your faith is ‘reformed and always reforming.’ At Chicago Sinai, we were humbled by your practice of praying in a room with windows to remind you of the need to engage with humanity. At St. James, we learned about your All Saints Service and felt the power and comfort of remembering loved ones who have passed. And to our friends from Chicago Temple–we want you to know we have six hymns in our hymnal by Charles Wesley!”
A commitment to lifelong learning is one of Christian Science’s central beliefs. In fact, proponents of the faith are referred to as “Students of Christian Science.” For the faithful, God is not “distant and unknowable”. Christian Scientists believe it is possible for each individual to become intimately related to a God that is “always present and all-good.” Founded in Boston by Mary Baker Eddy in 1879, the religion has an American flair, celebrating ideals like democracy, equality, and autodidacticism, or self-teaching.
The Christian Scientists’ most distinctive belief, though, concerns the healing power of God’s love. In the words of Baker Eddy herself, “health is not a condition of matter, but of mind.” This tenet revived the lost Christian element of healing-both physical wounds as well as spiritual and emotional ones.
The practice of the religion requires only two texts: the Bible and Mary Baker Eddy’s “Science and Health with the Key to the Scriptures”. Christian Scientists are encouraged to study the texts both individually and as a congregation. A Sunday service for the Church of Christ, Scientist consists of readings from both texts by elected readers (the church has no designated minister or preacher but instead elects two lay people from the congregation to lead the service.)
The two scriptures are represented in large engravings at the front of the auditorium: on the left, from the Book of John, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” On the right, a quote from Mary Baker Eddy: “Divine love always has met and will always meet every human need.”
The auditorium (as well as the building itself) is intended to provide a “quiet oasis for prayer and study”, said Chicago architect Laura Fischer, explaining the 44-year-old building’s architecture and history to the audience. As a nod to the Church’s democratic policies, architect Harry Weiss modeled the auditorium after a Greek amphitheater, with no seat being farther than 50 feet from the readers’ podium. The four-story worship space was topped with a large cupula, or “lantern” that let the light of the bright spring day into the building. From the outside, the lantern looks a bit like a crown perched atop the seven-story building.
After Fischer’s remarks about the building and its architecture, guests broke into small groups led by members of the congregation, who talked about their personal experiences as students of Christian Science and answered questions from the “Sacred Spaces” participants.
Not surprisingly, most guests were curious about the members’ experiences with healing.
Lois Rae Carlson, a member of the congregation and a Christian Science Practitioner, is devoted full time to healing others through spirituality. She described many of her own health problems, including a broken bone in her arm and a growth in her stomach, that were healed through what she described as “a byproduct of an interaction with God.”
Experiences with healing are not only physical, however. Through proper study, emotional and spiritual wounds can be healed as well. Carlson spoke about healing a troubled relationship with her mother as well as learning to love and care for herself emotionally.
The Christian Science perspective is not unlike that of the “Sacred Spaces” project; the belief that by breaking down barriers, letting go of preconceived notions about identity and spirituality we are not only able to heal what ails us, but to thrive.
Click here to learn more about Sharing Sacred Spaces and join us at our next event!