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Center For Spiritual Living, St. Augustine Meet-Up Pages

Free Spirits
The Ponte Vedra Recorder

St. Augustine’s Center for Spiritual Living provides a religious outlet for Ponte Vedra residents
By alex bonus | June 16, 2011
Ponte Vedra resident Paul Martin knew it since childhood. It was in his skin.
It was in his bones. It was something he couldn’t describe, but it was a truth that he needed to know.
That truth was a spiritual one, and it’s one he felt his Baptist upbringing could never provide. He tried for years to fit in with the members of church, but it became clear to both him and his wife that they needed to go elsewhere.
“It took me awhile to say it was OK to declare what my truth was,” Martin said. “I always had my eye on another church, and my wife finally agreed to try it.”
His religion goes by many names. Religious Science. Science of Mind. Centers for Spiritual Living. But though this little-known and oft-misunderstood religion may seem strange to the uninitiated, it represents a world of inclusion, freedom and understanding for its adherents.
“When we first started going, my wife would call it the Feel Good Café,” Martin said. “But my sense since I’ve been here is that I’ve found a deeper connection with spirit. It sounds kind of woo-woo, but it really isn’t.”
Martin is one of four Ponte Vedra residents who attend the St. Augustine Center for Spiritual Living — the closest center to Ponte Vedra. And though he is part of a noticeable minority, he rarely gives it a thought.
“People from other churches might be scared or frightened that we’re too far out or something,” he said. “But I don’t think about it.”
The concept of Religious Science was developed by Ernest Holmes in 1926 with the publication of his textbook, The Science of Mind. Put simply, the concept proposes a fusion of religion, philosophy and science that guides people in using prayer and meditation to create changes in the world.
Though Holmes originally envisioned Religious Science as an educational institution, his followers wished for something that more closely resembled a church. The following decades saw an expansion of Holmes’ teachings, and they are today continued through Centers for Spiritual Living.
Jim Soll was one of the founding members of the St. Augustine Center. He still remembers a time in his life when he rejected Holmes’ metaphysical teachings.
“If I couldn’t see it, hear it, touch it, smell it, feel it, it didn’t exist for me,” he said.
But in the mid-1980s, his wife started dragging him to small six- to 10-person study groups engaged in metaphysical discussions. He recalls the smell of stale beer and cigarettes that haunted the bars the groups frequented.
“It eventually became too much (and) we sought other places,” he said.
So the group collected money from interested members — which grew in number over time — to rent a new space. Eventually, the discussion group boasted more than 30 members and started meeting in the movie theater at the Ponce de Leon Mall.
“There was more seating and it was more formal,” he said. “But it still had sticky floors and smelled of stale popcorn.”
As the group grew, so did Soll’s interest in Religious Science. His preoccupation with what he could see and prove was replaced by a journey for answers he felt deep in his soul. And as he immersed himself in Holmes’ teachings, he started to see changes in himself.
“I used to be very introverted and though I wanted wisdom, the thing I didn’t want was social interaction,” he said. “It was such a struggle for me to communicate with people I barely knew, but what I wanted least was what I needed most.”
The relationships Soll built along his metaphysical journey taught him how to communicate with confidence, and his personal evolution coincided with the birth of the fledgling center in St. Augustine. The thriving discussion group invited the Rev. Elizabeth Claire from California to be the minister of the center in 1991.
“It started as a very small group of people coming together to study this philosophy,” Claire said.
With her leadership, the church bounced through two more locations until it reached its current site at 1795 Old Moultrie Road.
For Claire, the center represents a safe haven for people searching for truth in life.
“It’s a real positive path here at the center and people often feel it is a lifesaver,” she said. “They’ll feel that warmth and friendliness and whatever stage of life they’re in we say, come on in — be a part of this.”
In her words, Religious Science brings in the laws of science, the revelations of religion and the opinions of philosophy to reveal what Holmes called the “golden thread of truth” among them all. Although the tenets of the religion are numerous, she said, they do not focus on “shall nots.”
“[The principles] have nothing to do with what we’re against, for in truth we’re not against anything, but for something wonderful,” the principles state.
At their core, these principles say that God manifests through all creation and that each person and thing is a unique expression of that essence. Practicing the techniques of Religious Science provides for creative thought, the healing of ills and the spread of love and peace.
Like Soll, Claire was also reluctant to adhere to these ideas. However, once she delved into these teachings, they morphed into her passion.
“I think every single church fulfills a function,” she said. “Some people just hunger and thirst for a clearer understanding of how the universe works.”
Claire journeyed through the church ranks, first taking three years of classes to become a practitioner — who serve centers with spiritual coaching — then two more years of classes to become a minister.
“The purpose is to become a clear channel for the spirit,” she said. “You do your meditation and you do your daily affirmative prayer and you do all sorts of readings.”
Today, the center boasts about 120 members in its own building — a far cry from the six-person study groups that once fought the stale stench of local bars on their quests for personal revelation.
Center members arrive every Sunday to practice healing meditation, listen to an inspirational message from Claire and gather afterward for snacks and conversation.
Their meeting room houses a small stage and podium, flanked by rows of chairs and a space for the center’s choir. Three yellow walls surround the room, accented by a purple wall behind the stage. Paintings highlight the wall, displaying images of doves, women dancing and hearts with messages like “God as Creator” and “a peace that was meant to be.” Recording equipment sits in the back of the room, prepped for Claire’s service so that CDs of her message are available to members immediately after the closing song.
The center’s members are notably cheery for a Sunday morning. They dress casually, with some men wearing khakis and jeans while some women sport sundresses and jewelry. They mill about the room waiting for the service to begin, laughing, smiling, telling jokes and catching up on a week’s worth of events.
And when Claire takes the stage, her audience is captive.
“I’m going to be repetitive today because I want us to get it,” she said.
Her June 12 message was called “Reveal Your Self.” She opened with a story about Oprah Winfrey, who Claire said was able to become a popular talk show diva because of advice she received from her producer before her first day on air.
“He told her, ‘just go on the air and be yourself,” Claire said. “I don’t expect you to change, I just expect you to use your gift.”
Claire echoed this idea throughout the service, encouraging her listeners to thrive on their imperfections as the unique expressions of spirit they all are.
At the conclusion of the service, everyone gathered in a circle and held hands for a group song about peace. Afterward, they grouped together for snacks and conversation.
Meanwhile, Claire noted how each Sunday service at the center is different. Sometimes her message brings in scientific facts. Other times it brings in wisdom from a variety of religions, from Hinduism to Christianity.
However, this flexibility often leads to misconceptions about the center.
“I think that because it’s not your basic religion that some people could be skeptical and fearful or think we’re too free,” she said. “But in truth we’re really safe because we don’t tell people what they should do. We don’t judge them we don’t hunt them down. We want you to be here if you want to be here.”
Martin believes this is an important lesson for his Ponte Vedra neighbors.
“What I’m seeing is that people know when there is a pull toward something else,” he said. “It may not be that there’s a pull toward this group, but it may mean there is a pull to something deeper.”
Claire agrees.
“We know that this philosophy is not for everyone — it just isn’t,” she said.
“But for those people who feel the pull of looking beyond the traditional perception of religion, then they should give us a try.”
She added, “Life is about change.”

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