The following guest post is a short story by Joseph Woodbury III., shared with his permission.
A frail, elderly lady, pale and birdlike, walked slowly down the busy street, quietly singing a hymn to herself, “Shepherd, show me how to go, O’er the hillside steep. How to gather, how to sow, How to feed Thy sheep”. She wore an old-fashioned two-piece costume of purple crushed velvet and a bonnet of the same material, impaled with an unusual cross-and-crown hat pin. Though it was autumn and a sunless day, she carried her customary furled parasol, which she surreptitiously used from time to time as a walking stick.
As she hobbled along Main Street — which in latter years had become a Via Dolorosa for her –she looked full into the faces of all she passed, and — defying her chronic pain –smiled sweetly. Even the most hard-boiled businessman, intent on making money, and interested in nothing else, was somehow –- through a power not of his own –- compelled to return that smile.
Miss Brewster knew – after years of beaming at total strangers – that as Love is reflected in Love, so Smile is reflected in Smile. Newcomers turned to look and comment on her quaintness and old-world charm to one another. Habitual frequenters of the street were well aware of her eccentric appearance and mannerisms and were inclined to avert their gaze. Miss Brewster was a Christian Scientist. She knew, as did every faithful adherent of the sect, that the “Science” her beloved Leader, Mrs. Eddy, had discovered in 1866 was the one true interpretation of God’s word. Mrs. Eddy had prophesied that “Science” was destined to dominate the thinking of philosophers and theologians by the end of the twentieth century.
But the twentieth century had been and gone. And, far from dominating anything, Christian Science was in its death-throes and dwindling away. The magnificent churches built in Miss Brewster’s city in the twenties, thirties and forties of the last century, had been taken over by other creeds. Or demolished, and their sites occupied by office blocks. Or –- irony of ironies –- a clinic of venereal medicine. The thought of this made Miss Brewster shudder, and she immediately mentally denied that anything of the sort had happened to her beloved “Twentieth”, whenever she had to pass that church in its new incarnation.
There was just one functioning Church of Christ, Scientist in the city now. It was to the reading room of that church, Thirteenth, that Miss Brewster was making her weary way. She was the librarian there, and spent eight hours a day, six days a week at her post. Of the six remaining members of the church, she was the most agile and the sprightliest, and the only one who could manage to climb the steep stairs in the elevator-less, fire-trap building where the reading room was housed in a small, dim office on the fourth floor.
The other tenants in the building were private detectives, clairvoyants, seedy marriage bureaux and introduction agencies.
With some effort and considerable pain –- which was denied with every step, Miss Brewster reached the fourth-floor landing. One of the other tenants had arrived just shortly before her, and was still standing outside her own door, breathing with difficulty, worn out by the stairs. She was Madam Petrula, a seventy-eight year old clairvoyante who claimed a number of famous, never-to-be-disclosed celebraties of stage, screen, radio and television as clients. . . “I read the Stars for the Stars” –- the artistically written notice in her consulting-room window announced to an uninterested world.
“Good morning, dearie,” ventured Madam Petrula. “My, we are both out of breath! And you’re looking very pale today, too, dearie.” She knew Miss Brewster always politely ignored any remarks of a personal nature, but she continued with her pleasantries, without waiting for a reply. “I have a client booked in for this afternoon. A bereaved son. In a terrible state. He could hardly speak for weeping on the phone. His mother passed over last year. Carmina. Pretty name, don’t you think? She came through to me last night. She’s told me to tell him she’s happy, she’s watching over him and he shouldn’t worry about his new relationship, because everything’s going to be alright. I’m sure he’s a gay. So business is looking up. I hope you’ll be doing a bit more trade y’self today, dearie”.
“Good morning to you, too, Miss Petrula,” said Miss Brewster, in her clipped, almost English accent – smiling, but still breathless and in discomfort. She always called the clairvoyante “Miss” for she disliked the “Madam”, which she felt had undertones of something not quite respectable. She also kept her distance from the kindly medium – on the firm instructions of her beloved Leader, who, after dabbling in spiritualism for some years prior to her miraculous discovery of Christian Science, became to thoroughly disapprove of it. “Such a lovely morning, isn’t it. Oh yes, I’m sure the reading room will be busy, busy, busy. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must go. There’s a lot of work to be done. Good-bye”
Miss Brewster mentally denied the existence of any power in spiritualism and tried for the thousandth time to see Madam Petrula as God’s perfect child, who would one day realize the error of her ways and come over whole-heartedly to Science.
She turned the key in the lock with some difficulty and entered the shabby little office. The room smelled musty. The heating had not worked for years and the landlords were reluctant to fix anything, as it was their aim to get all the tenants out as soon as their leases expired, and to sell the building for redevelopment. There were four, small, antique inlaid-mahogany tables in the crowded room, each with a Georgian chair of exquisite quality in front of it – relics from the time when the showpiece reading room of Thirteenth Church had been furnished like the library of an English country house, and had occupied a magnificent site on the smartest street downtown.
On each of the tables lay a Bible, and the denomination’s textbook, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. The title of this revered tome was hardly ever spoken by the Scientists without the addition of the name of its authoress, Mary Baker Eddy. The hushed awe in which this sacred name was enunciated certainly rivalled that afforded to the Tetragrammaton, the most holy, most secret name of God, when it was uttered in solemn assembly by the High Priest in the Temple.
It was Monday morning, and Miss Brewster set about the task, that, were she to admit it, most bothered her. Each copy of the Bible and Science and Health was to be provided with dozens of unpleasant little wire markers. These fiddly contraptions indicated the verses and lines which had been selected to be read from the two holy books for the current week, according to the edict sent throughout the world from the movement’s Mother Church in Boston. The totally unnecessary operation of fixing the markers was made immeasurably more difficult by the arthritic condition of Miss Brewster’s hands, and it would take up most of her Mondays. She always embarked on this fruitless chore with a cheerful countenance, though unhappy fingers.
The only people to have visited the reading room during the previous ten years had been lost searchers wanting a tarot reading, a private detective, a new spouse or a sexual encounter with someone of the opposite or same sex. They had all come to the wrong office. But Miss Brewster “knew” each morning that the public would be arriving in droves to imbibe at the fount of Truth that Mrs. Eddy had provided for a thirsty, benighted world living in sin, sickness and error.
Because of the concentration required to place the markers correctly, Miss Brewster found it difficult to do her “metaphysical work” at the same time. She allowed herself a ten minute break between each completed book, when she would sip a glass of warm water. Mrs. Eddy had disapproved of coffee or tea as drug-like substances. Metaphysical work is the name given to spiritual exercises done by Scientists to ensure the realisation in human thought of the Truth behind every seemingly real, but in the Absolute, false, picture that the world presents.
So, although to human thought it would appear that nobody ever visited the reading room, in reality it was a bee-hive of activity; although Miss Brewster seemed to be crippled by arthritis, she was in fact as lithe and supple as when she was a little girl running around the garden chasing butterflies.
Although Christian Science seemed to be on its last legs, it was actually the world’s strongest religion, with the greatest number of followers – and adding tens of thousands to its ranks every day.
Although Miss Brewster was indeed sick – and if Truth be told, sick and tired of all these seeming contradictions between the unreal and temporal and the Real and Eternal, she forced herself to drift along with the same thought patterns, day after day, year after year.
At one o’clock, having completed half of the book marking, Miss Brewster reluctantlly decided she would close the reading room for twenty minutes and take a little air outside. There was provision in the rules for the librarian to take an hour for lunch, but in all the years she had served there she had never once ventured out, thinking that some office worker on a lunch break might have called during her absence and found the reading room closed.
Today the false claim of mortal mind that she was feeling faint and in terrible pain would not yield to her firm metaphysical challenge. Before Miss Brewster left the reading room she “knew the Truth” about its being protected by Divine Mind during her absence, “knew” that no chemicalization could occur as a result of impure thoughts from the other unsavoury offices seeping into the mental atmosphere of the reading room, and also “knew” that any visitor reading her spidery note –- “The reading room will re-open at 1:20. Thank you for your patience.” –- would not be too inconvenienced.
She locked the door behind her and tried to pin the note to it. But she did not have the strength to push the thumb-tack in. “Oh dear”, she thought. “Perhaps I had better ask Miss Petrula”. She had never been inside the clairvoyante’s office, always refusing the many offers of hospitality. Madam Petrula had called at the reading room occasionally over the years, but she had always sensed that she wasn’t welcome, and stayed at the threshold to tell Miss Brewster of the latest developments with the landlords, and to cheerfully accept the free Christian Science literature she was given.
Miss Brewster had always thought that inviting Madam Petrula in might set a precedent, and that the spiritualist would interrupt the legitimate work of the reading room – the promotion of Christian Science to the enquiring public. Her erroneous views might also affect the healing atmosphere that Miss Brewster worked so hard to establish every day with her consecrated, uplifted Thought.
Mentally working for protection from the malign influence of spiritualism and to overcome the claim of pain, nausea and fatigue, she somehow managed to drag herself over to Madam Petrula’s door and knock timorously on it. Madam Petrula was drinking a cup of tea and reading Spirit News when she heard Miss Brewster’s taps. For a second or two she thought it might have been her spirit guide, Silver Cloud, trying to get through to her.
Then she heard Miss Brewster’s weak call, “Miss Petrula, help me please, dear.”
Madam Petrula quickly got up and opened the door. She was met by an ashen-faced Miss Brewster. “Goodness, dearie, you look awful pasty. Are you alright? Do come in and have a cup of tea.”
“No, no. Thank you very much, Miss Petrula. I would just like you to help me pin this note to the reading-room door. I’m going out for a little time, and I want visitors to know that I won’t be too long.”
“Yes, of course, dearie. Give it to me – and the thumb-tack.”
Miss Brewster, trembling uncontrollably, handed her the note. But it wasn’t the right note. It was another one she had quickly scribbled just before she came out. In her delirium she had picked up the wrong note. As Madam Petrula was pinning the note to the door, Miss Brewster collapsed and died. Madam Petrula immediately knelt down to attend to her. “Oh dearie,” she said.
The note on the door said, “God is my Life.”
I live in London, and came into CS voluntarily when I was twelve. My once-Catholic parents were unperturbed by my attending the CS Sunday school, as that was the nearest church of any denomination to our house. The church was also a magnificent example of arts and crafts design, and is frequently mentioned favourably in works on British architecture of the early twentieth century.
I have never been a member of the CS Church, but ever since Sunday school have always maintained an unhealthy interest in its vicissitudes. My interest is rather less in the religion, and more in the people who were attracted to it – especially in the early period; my two big heroines are Augusta “I can demonstrate money” Stetson, and Josephine “Virgin Mother” Woodbury. While an active and prominent member of Mrs. Eddy’s coterie in Boston, Josephine brought forth a man-child that she claimed was engendered by the power of thought, and called him the Prince of Peace. Mrs. Eddy denounced and excommunicated her from the pulpit, denominating the Boston babe an Imp of Satan. I am the spiritual heir of the Imp of Satan, hence my proud nom de plume Joseph Woodbury III
Miss Brewster in my story is a conflation of several doughty old dears I have known throughout the years. I regard them with some affection, and the story is not meant to be judgmental. If she had been a Roman Catholic, an Episcopalian, a Unitarian etc. and had struggled on as Miss Brewster did, conscious of a duty she had assigned to herself, she would have been regarded as upstanding and admirable. Because she was a Christian Scientist many would consider her obstinate and stupid. It’s all a question of semantics.