Thomas Simmons

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir


In The Unseen Shore: Memories of a Christian Science Childhood, Thomas Simmons narrates the physical, emotional, and spiritual anguish of growing up in, and later leaving, the Christian Science Church. “Have I escaped now? Enormous question—who knows?” writes Simmons, “The obvious answer is Yes, of course I’ve escaped. I now go to doctors; I no longer lie for helpless hours in bed, writhing and trying to pray” (5). Christian Science teaches that illness and pain are illusions of an unreal material world, and that human suffering can be healed through prayer. As the founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, wrote in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, "Sin, disease, whatever seems real to material sense, is unreal in divine Science" (353). Simmons explains how this theological indoctrination distorted his view of the material world, morality, and the human body: “I remember very clearly several occasions when Sunday school teachers would warn us that medical doctors were not to be trusted because the world they believed in was not our world—it was the world of mortal mind, of disease and distress” (4). Simmons wavers uneasily between apostasy and piety, questioning if he should trust his physical, bodily senses (“mortal mind”) or the numinous promises of Divine care. As he grows up practicing Christian Science, suffering untreated ear infections and other illnesses, he struggles to maintain a posture of devotion while coping with spiritual misgivings.

These “tremors of doubt”, however, haunt Simmons beyond childhood into his adult years (106). Yet two powerful experiences draw him away from Christian Science: the study and composition of poetry and “the love of bodies” (67). In need of a different kind of spiritual direction, Simmons turns to poets whose works celebrate the beauty of the concrete world, realizing that “. . . I want the world, want its physical hardness and qualities of light and sound, the depths of its touch and soul. In the words of poets and teachers I see my own path back into that world” (129). Another key incident occurs following a bout of spiritual renewal when Simmons interviews to become a Christian Science practitioner (a kind of minister who prays for ailing Church members). Stopping to savor the beauty of the California coastline, he hopes the gorgeous expanse will reveal a divine sign affirming his spiritual ambition. He receives an altogether different omen, however, one he considers mockingly lewd, in the form of a naked man exercising on the beach below where he sits: “And yet I could not quite leave. For a few seconds I watched this man run. Far from admiring the precision of his muscles or the stillness of his torso as he moved his legs, I rejected them: they could hold no sway over me, for they were not real. But they remained interesting in their unreality” (156). (Readers might imagine this nude interloper as Vesalius’s anatomical man from De humani corporis fabrica [1555], who stretches and moves with certainty, exhibiting the magnificent brawn and sinews of the human form.) In this moment, Simmons's spiritual optimism almost vanishes, unnerved by the physically real, naked human materiality in which he will ultimately find solace and beauty.

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