A talk with Robert Y. Ellis

A former Christian Scientist discusses why he left the church he was raised in

Boston Globe/June 22, 2008

Mary Baker Eddy was still alive when Robert Y. Ellis's mother, then a little girl, moved from Iowa to South Dakota, and it was there that her family left the Methodist Church for Christian Science, a new denomination "discovered" by Eddy that emphasized the promise of spiritual healing.

For most of the 20th century, the family's relationship with Christian Science defined much of its journey. Katherine Ellis became a Christian Science practitioner, using prayer to help ailing members of her faith. Bob Ellis for a time became a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, the newspaper Eddy had founded near the end of her life. Mother and son lived by Eddy's key work, "Science and Health."

There were always doubts. James Ellis - Katherine's husband and Bob's father - had left the faith as a young man, and was actively hostile to it throughout his adult life. There were a few occasions when the family turned to medicine - Robert was delivered by a C-section, for example - but the family stuck with the faith through a string of tragedies, most notably the murder of James Ellis in 1972.

But Bob had always had a fascination with technology - James was a failed inventor who became a carpet salesman - and when his mother was diagnosed with eye cancer, he took her for treatment to the Harvard cyclotron, a particle accelerator that at the time was being used to treat eye tumors. That experience was a turning point for Bob Ellis, but even more so was watching his mother's long, slow death from cancer four years later.

Ellis left Christian Science - the faith of his parents, his wife, his in-laws, his community. And then he spent a decade writing a memoir, "A Collision of Truths," which he is self-publishing. Ellis lives in Rockport, where for some years he and his wife worked at her family's Yankee Clipper Inn.

IDEAS: You have said that at times you felt like other people viewed your faith as ridiculous, or at least odd. How did you experience that?

ELLIS: As a little boy, I was the only Christian Scientist in the neighborhood, and nobody really understood what it was. Then, as I got into dating, none of the girls' parents wanted their children to have anything to do with me, because of my religion. And then there was just all of the publicity that we had about Christian Science, and it was very much, in my opinion at the time, very much misunderstood.

IDEAS: Your mother didn't even have a doctor, but in her 90s you brought her to a doctor to have a cancerous growth removed, and then to Harvard to have an eye tumor treated. Was there some way in which these experiences with technology caused you to leave Christian Science?

ELLIS: If we had simply prayed over the matter, my mother would have gone blind, and would have had cancer, and would have died earlier than she did. And instead, we have this incredible experience at Harvard, at the cyclotron. . . .It worked. I mean, come on.

IDEAS: Are you saying that you do not believe that prayer would have worked?

ELLIS: I do not believe it would have worked. Nope.

IDEAS: At some point in your life would you have answered that question differently?

ELLIS: Yes. When I was younger. You know, when you're very young , in your 30s and even approaching your 40s, your body works pretty well, and it's generally speaking pretty easy to heal yourself. But when your body begins to really seriously break down, then it's not so easy to pray over the matter and have a healing. And you know, that's what happened to me.

IDEAS: How did the nature of your mother's death affect your relation with Christian Science?

ELLIS: I had this picture of my mother epitomizing all of the truths, if you will, of Christian Science, including a loving God, a caring God. And I pictured my mother passing away - she was 94 at this point - passing away peacefully. She was always sitting in her chair - she had an easy chair - she was always sitting in it, and she often would have her "Science and Health" and her Bible with her, and I would often find her there, just sort of staring off into space, thinking about things, what have you. And I pictured her just passing away, in that condition.

And, instead, she went through this six months of hell, and it just didn't make any sense. And I became incensed from two perspectives. Number one, why would any god, of any religion, allow this sort of thing to happen? But, most importantly, why did this happen to my mother? And that ended it for me.

IDEAS: One thing that struck me was that you and your mother both, even while seeing physicians, continued to quote from Christian Science, even while at the hospital.

ELLIS: Yes, and my wife and I still do today, even though we're both no longer members of the church. Absolutely it happens. How can you be raised, or how can you live several decades within a certain belief system and then just suddenly throw it all away? You can't. Nobody can. These things, these ideas, these concepts, live with you.

IDEAS: At the end of the book, you said Christian Science prepared you to experience the transcendent. What did you mean?

ELLIS: When you really, really let go of everything that's going on around you, and let intelligence, God, whatever you want to call it, operate in your consciousness - and this is really what I believe meditation is all about - you do have these experiences which are transcendent, where you are, momentarily at least, free of all care, and you begin to get answers that you didn't think you were going to be able to get. And I do think Christian Science prepared me for that.

I wouldn't be a bit surprised if other religions prepare other people as well, but in my case it was Christian Science. Christian Science is a very mental thing, and, if nothing else, it teaches you to lean very heavily, in fact, completely, on God. But that's the Christian Science God, which is divine mind and divine truth and principle and love, and that's my background, that's what I was taught, and that does stick with me.

I can't help it. I don't want it not to, actually. I'm very content with that.

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