A Visit to a Thin Place: Belfast, Maine
By the Rev. Dr. DUNCAN NEWCOMER
We sadly left behind one of America’s most famous spiritual Thin Places—New Harmony, Indiana—when we moved to our new hometown in Maine. Then, we discovered that we may have landed in an even thinner place. Let me show you around our small town, Belfast, Maine (population 6,668).
This is mid-coastal Maine where we hear a bell from Paul Revere’s forge still ringing over the small harbor from the First Church steeple, where the time is kept by a clock built by another New England craftsman: Phineas Quimby. All things Revere remind us of his famous “midnight ride” heralding the transformation of the American Revolution. Quimby’s American revolution, a transformation in mind and spirit, also began with a desperate horse ride through the countryside here. (For more on his life, you’ll enjoy this profile and also this reflection on Quimby’s personality.)
If you tour this part of the United States, you may assume that little has changed in these historic towns. The truth is: New England was and is a cradle of change. Consider this: Lobsters, in Quimby’s time, used to be fed to prisoners, the poor and to children. Around 1850, someone in Maine invented a better lobster trap, the market for lobsters changed and, with it, our taste for these crustaceans nationwide.
Quimby changed our assumptions about mind, body and spirit. His raw materials were some philosophical notions that had been around for centuries, and some healing practices, like hypnosis, that had been around in France for a few years.
More than a century later, we may not appreciate the daring in Quimby’s innovation. But in the 19th century here in Belfast, Maine, that was not the case—nor most likely where you live either. Mind, body and spirit were firmly in the grasp of professionals. Ministers, even in the Great Awakening, were separating the sheep from the goats in terms of eternal salvation. Doctors were doing “heroic” things like putting leaches on people’s private parts, and not washing their hands in between delivering one baby after another. (Boston poet and Harvard medical school instructor Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes revolutionized birthing with that new practice.) Civil War doctors as a whole did not believe in germs, and so, off with their limbs without a moment’s concern for infection!
Here in Belfast, today, my wife and I now divide our Sunday worship time between the First Church, sitting under Quimby’s clock, now digitalized and owned by the town (church and state always a little closer in Puritan New England) and the Unitarian church, and the Buddhist meditation circle. We have friends at the Quaker meeting, the Baptist church, the Catholic church, the Episcopal church and even some who play golf, we think. But none of us expects the minister to have the authority in our lives that they did in Quimby’s time. We do not expect our doctor to rule our health.
Here are some victory stories, history after Quimby. Let’s start with religion.
The other day at the Unitarian church the minister in his sermon led us through a visualization that helped us learn how to short-circuit our minds when we get hooked into negative reactions. He talked of the Buddhist idea of “shenpa.” We expect to think better, to do better, to feel better, to be better, thanks to this positive idea of how to think about our feelings.
At First Church we pray for each other and we pray for a list of people whose names we share in worship. We believe that we are made better by this and that there is some good being done to those for whom we pray. Sermons often are aimed at helping us to change our attitudes. We believe a better attitude goes with faith and that God is a part of that.
In Buddhist meditation we believe that our thoughts themselves can be changed.
In Quimby’s era, his minister surely did not preach these ideas.
Let’s turn to medicine.
I see three different doctors, locally, for different body parts. But all my records and tests are on one hospital computer. The doctors download and print out reports that formerly were confidential for Doctor’s Eyes Only. I can see these reports—and they’re not in Latin. All my doctors expect me to be a partner in my own health and that my attitude should make a difference.
Quimby’s doctors did not think that. Quimby changed his thoughts one day, and then he worked with the implications of that change. He worked with the implications in the ways he had learned from his religion that Christ and a Christ-like person would. He believed he was doing what Jesus would have done. He would charge one or five dollars a session, and he would readily give back the money if the person was not pleased.
He not only challenged clergy and doctors—he challenged Capitalism and medicine-for-profit. He developed a role of what he thought our humanistic and Enlightenment traditions defined for a good doctor or healer. He healed by observation. He, a former jeweler and clockmaker, knew how to sit and watch and think about what he saw in front of him. He did not heal by a diagnosis he could not prove, nor by practices that were not pragmatic and verifiable. His use of thoughts and words, not potions and implements, challenged his professional competition.
Quimby, we are told in Horowitz’s book, had foretold a “science of health and happiness.” We assume that science and health and happiness are a positive trinity working in our favor. When Ronald Reagan was the master of ceremonies for a television show in the 1950’s sponsored by General Electric he would famously call us to remember: “At General Electric, progress is our most important product.” He kept to that mantra as President, without the brand name.
The materialization of progress has been, for Americans, axiomatic. The spiritualization of progress is becoming an axiom, especially as the limits, consequences and obstacles of material science and wealth now loom larger. This makes more relevant the spiritual breakthrough of Phineas Quimby and all the scores of fellow travelers, men and especially woman, who have followed in the sweep of his idea.
For him the idea is: “I found I was the very idea I was looking for.” He was not a believer in the idea that God, much less the doctor, will provide. He did believe that the chemicals in the brain were what changed with his thoughts. Like that other great healer and thinker Carl Jung, he was a spiritual empiricist. After all, as Belfast’s former blacksmith, Quimby began, like the ancient alchemists that Jung studied, watching iron turn to fluid—and transform into useful new shapes.
Care to read more from Duncan Newcomer?
Duncan Newcomer is best known to ReadTheSpirit regulars as an expert on Lincoln and, currently, he is working on a new book about Lincoln’s legacy in American culture through his deep values and spiritual wisdom. You can sample some of his writing via links in our extensive Abraham Lincoln Resource Page. One of Duncan’s most popular collaborations was a look at what Lincoln might have said about sociologist Wayne Baker’s 10 core American values. Duncan also is the author of Desperately Seeking Mary. As a poet, psychotherapist and minister, Duncan wrote this book welcoming men to join with women in a spiritual search to recover the sacred feminine.