An Ancient Forest and the Ground of Being

We had waited a long time to walk among those ancient trees. Finally we rented a cabin in Cook Forest State Park, and there we were, walking between towering pines and hemlocks. Some are as old as Quakerism, having gotten their start in the mid seventeenth-century, after a forest fire. Then centuries later, in the midst of a logging boom, three generations of the Cook family preserved what they called “The Forest Cathedral.”  The tallest trees rise 160 feet or more, their canopy of green crowns higher than the naves of man-made cathedrals. My husband, Terry, and I looked up at them in astonishment.

We were eager to visit Cook Forest after hearing Dr. Joan Maloof, a professor of biology and environmental studies, speak about old-growth forests, ones that have never been logged. Scientific studies show that such forests have an incredible diversity not equaled by any woodlands ever cut or managed by human beings. The tallest trees of various species are found in such forests, whether they be redwoods on the West Coast or tulip poplars and white pines in the East. After hearing Maloof’s talk, I was eager to read her book Nature’s Temples: The Complex World of Old-Growth Forests, in which she describes the astoundingly fertile way that trees, plants, fungi, insects, birds, humus, water, air, and sunlight interact in cycles of birth, growth, death, and mutuality in old-growth forests. She tells how the ancient trees within such forests sequester far more carbon from our atmosphere than younger trees or previously logged woods, even second growth forests that have been untouched for more than a century.

At her talk, Maloof showed pictures of the devastating, rapid destruction of the ancient forests that used to cover most of North America. In many areas of the U.S. today, only small pockets of old-growth forest remain, much of it on land too rocky and hilly to have been profitably farmed or forested. In Among the Ancients: Adventures in the Eastern Old-Growth Forests, Maloof describes visits she made to old-growth forests in each of the eastern states, from Maine to Florida and from Delaware to Wisconsin and Kentucky. Since reading it, I have been eager to make my own visits, especially to Cook Forest in Pennsylvania, the largest old-growth forest in the eastern United States.

We had a beautiful day for a long walk in the woods and were awed by the tall white pines and hemlocks in the old-growth part of the forest, some of them as old as three or four hundred years. Of course, not all the trees are huge and old. Young saplings and sinewy middle-aged trees have their place, too. And all around, feeding them, are the moldering remains of huge trees that have fallen, some recently to wind and tornadoes, some a very long time ago. We were also struck by seeing trees growing out of huge rocks. It helped us understand how trees and other plants transform rock into soil over time.

In the 19th century, the Cook family operated an extensive logging and sawmill business in the woods around what is now Cook Forest State Park. John Cook purchased hundreds of acres in 1836 and decided to preserve some sections. In 1910 Major Israel McCreight, a friend of the Lakota people in his youth, visited the forest. He was led by John Cook’s grandson, A.W. Cook, into an area called the “Forest Cathedral,” a place that sometimes moved visitors to tears. Deeply affected by the grandeur of the forest, McCreight began to lobby the State of Pennsylvania to protect it.  Local folks were afraid of losing logging jobs; while others correctly argued that the resulting tourism would compensate for that loss. It required sixteen years of lobbying and fund-raising before Cook Forest was established as a national landmark and state park. Many hundreds of acres remain that have never been cut. Other areas, now untouched for more than a century, are slowly regaining some of the distinctive characteristics of old-growth forest.

The cabin where we stayed while we were in Cook Forest was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). At that time, the great chestnut trees that had flourished in the eastern states were dying of blight, so chestnut logs were used to construct the cabins.

Like an earlier visit I had made to an old-growth forest of towering Redwoods in California, walking in Cook State Forest was an awe-inspiring experience. During the short time we were there, we just began to slow down enough to truly savor the experience of a primeval forest. It was enough time, however, to see more clearly how human beings in Western culture are dangerously cut off from the natural world which is our home. We live almost entirely in man-made environments. Even our rural fields are lands shorn by men, and our local parks are highly managed. The disconnect affects us on all levels, far more than we know: physically, energetically, emotionally, and spiritually. For generations we have largely separated ourselves from wild places and the real requirements of sustainable living on planet Earth. Our misuse of resources has created catastrophic changes to our ecology and climate, whose effects we are seeing in rising temperatures, melting ice caps, more destructive wildfires, stronger hurricanes, and many other disasters.

What could cause people to understand and care enough to change our consumption patterns and stop our misuse of resources? What will motivate us to halt the rate of climate change and preserve a future for our species?  How will we discover our true place in the natural world? In one of her books, Joan Maloof quotes an ecologist who advised her, “Spend as much time as you can in the wildest places you can find.” We all need ways to reconnect with the natural world.

However, as important as it is to connect with wild places outdoors, doing so will not be sufficient to mitigate or reverse climate change if we do not also reconnect with the untamed wholeness of our being and the deepest spiritual level from which life springs.

Over the years, during moments of great stillness in morning meeting for worship at Pendle Hill Retreat Center, I have sometimes had an inner impression of being in a primeval forest. To the core of my being, I felt surrounded, supported and sustained, inwardly connected to the source of life itself. Deep interior silence was accompanied by a feeling of holy power and great fertility, of unlimited possibilities. Long ago the ground on which Pendle Hill stands was unspoiled forest, inhabited by Lenni Lenape tribes who recognized the sacredness of the land. But what I sensed in those meetings for worship existed prior to human beings, and even prior to the physical world. My experience contained more than a message about reconnecting with the natural world. The impression of a holy, original forest was a metaphor for the Ground of Being, the fertile matrix of all life that we call God. I was being opened to a pure state of consciousness, undisturbed by fear, greed, alienation, or attachment.

Recalling that experience helps me connect to a sacred state of oneness, with God and with all things, a state that contains unlimited potential. I believe that spending time both in nature and in deep worship helps us reconnect with the Ground of Being. Great, fertile healing power is available to us if we learn to be gathered together in that state of awareness. Only a conscious, collective connection with the reality we call God can help us face our future with a hope founded in reality.

© 2018 Marcelle Martin

Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey, by Marcelle Martin, is available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook. (An excerpt and a study guide are also available on that website.) The book was designed to be a resource for both individuals and groups to explore their own experiences of ten elements of the spiritual journey, as experienced by the first Quakers in the seventeenth century and by Friends in our time, a journey that leads deeply inward to a direct connection with God and then outward to lives of faithfulness.

Resources to Get Involved in Helping to Preserve Wild Places and Protect the Earth

Old-Growth Forest Network

Earth Quaker Action Team

Sierra Club

Resources to connect with the Ground of Being

Find a Quaker Meeting near you: Quaker Finder

Resources for the practice of Centering Prayer: Contemplative Outreach

Shalem Institute

Posted in All of Life is Sacred, Contemplative spirituality, Quaker Faith Today, Radical Christianity, spiritual practices | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

The Overstory: a Novel

I‘ve read many of the best novels ever written. The Overstory, by Richard Powers, may be the most eye-opening of all.

In the first section of the book, in eight short stories, Powers creates diverse, interesting characters who are all impacted by encounters with trees. A banyan tree saves a soldier who falls out of a burning helicopter; a woman wraps her car around a linden while reading a love letter; a boy who loves computers falls from an oak tree and cracks his spine. When a beautiful but self-destructive young woman returns to life in the midst of dying, she is changed into someone with a mission, a Joan of Arc whom others are eager to follow. It turns out that the trees have been mysteriously drawing these people into startling actions and commitments. By the middle of the book, three of them are camped on a ledge built high in a huge, ancient redwood tree slated to be cut down for timber. The quirky, wonderful characters and the intricate plot draw us in, but the art is all in service to a much larger Story.

The book continuously serves interesting, cutting-edge facts about trees and the ecology of the earth. It paints a picture of a natural world which is startlingly alive. Though a gradual weaving of story and scientific information, we learn that if human beings want to have a future on this planet, we need to keep our remaining old growth forests alive. Large old trees sequester huge amounts of carbon in their bodies. When they are cut down, they not only stop absorbing greenhouse gases, they release what they have stored. The more large trees are cut, the faster climate change accelerates. In addition, after a forest is decimated, planting new trees does not restore the intricate ecology upon which so many different species and life-giving processes depend. It is suicidal for the human race to choose short term timber profits over the crucial benefits of keeping our old trees alive and our forests intact. This knowledge motivates some of the characters to engage in radical protest against cutting down old forests. When their nonviolent actions are met with futility and police brutality, some engage in protests that involve significant property damage. The consequences alter their lives forever. Other characters choose different paths—studying trees and saving seeds, letting their yards grow wild, creating virtual realities.

Richard Powers may be the best novelist I’ve never heard of before. One of his novels won the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Literary critics note that he is skillful in all the elements that make for good novels: plot, characters, and use of language. He includes scientific information in a poetic way, gently opening the reader to a new understanding of the awesome nature of trees.  But The Overstory is more than a compelling, informative novel. Like gorgeous spring blossoms, the characters‘ stories entice us, but their ultimate purpose is not entertainment, or even information, but a transformation of awareness. They draw our attention to a view of our earthly reality that we desperately need to see: the self-destructive nature of our consumer way of life. For the sake of temporary conveniences and sterile comforts, we are rapidly, recklessly destroying vital necessities upon which human existence depends. By the end of the novel, we can see how saving our remaining forests is an urgent pro-life issue for our whole species, and many other species, as well.

Several wonderful love stories tug at readers’ hearts. Although the characters do not engage in organized religion, the book is also deeply spiritual, showing what can happen when people awaken to their place in a profoundly sacred world. We watch the gradual transformation that occurs when self-centeredness is replaced by purpose, and how the vitality that springs up when people begin living for the sake of something larger and more whole than themselves alone. The book provokes the reader to consider the nature of life, death, healing, and enlightenment.

The Overstory offers only a slender hope that humanity will survive our destructive progress. Yet at the same time, it leads us toward the kind of awareness necessary to make the life-giving choices that are still possible and reveals powerful truths about the intelligent fertility in which we are immersed. In the way it celebrates life and the power of love, it’s a heart-breakingly hopeful book

© 2018 Marcelle Martin

Photo by Johannes Plenio on

In the same week that a report recently released by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, concluded that governments around the world must undertake “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” in order to avoid catastrophic levels of global warming, some members of Congress are actively working to cut down more ancient trees in our largest remaining old growth forest. Senator Lisa Murkowski and others are trying to reverse earlier legislation in order to permit new roads and more old-growth logging in the Tongass National Forest, the largest national forest in the USA. For more information, see a brief summary on the Alaska Wilderness League’s blog or read a Guardian article subtitled: “Tongass is the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest, with trees more than 1,000 years old. But a pro-logging effort could uproot them.” It details the climate change dangers of increasing the amount of old growth logging in contrast to the very short-term benefits that would be gained from cutting trees hundreds of years old, all for the sake of preserving jobs at a lumber mill whose saws are only sized for huge trunks.

The Sierra Club writes that the trees in Tongass Forest hold more than 10% of the carbon stored by all national forests combined. It is home to, “an astonishing breadth of wildlife: brown bears, bald eagles, humpback whales and sea lions.If this new legislation is passed into law, the Sierra Club promises to contest it in court and asks for donations to help increase their “legal and legislative teams and [organize] allies in other states where similar deals would imperil forests and wildlife.

Twenty-one young people have sued the U.S. government and the current administration to advocate for their constitutional right to a safe future. Their case, Juliana v U.S., alleges that the U.S. government has knowingly contributed to climate change for fifty years. The trial will begin on October 29th in Oregon, and rallies all over the country are being organized for October 28 and 29th. It’s being called the Trial of the Century.

Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey, by Marcelle Martin, is available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook. (An excerpt and a study guide are also available on that website.) The book was designed to be a resource for both individuals and groups to explore their spiritual experiences. It describes the journey of faithfulness that leads people to actively engage in God’s work of making this world a better place for all.

Posted in All of Life is Sacred, Facing Life with Faith, Stories that Heal | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Red Alert for the Earth

Divine light shines in us all and sustains Creation, as well. But we have lost connection with this fundamental reality, and western civilization has dominated our environment in a way that is catastrophically altering our climate and threatening the survival of our species (and many other species, as well).

About a decade ago I learned that climate change would be slow until the oceans and forests absorbed as much atmospheric carbon as they could.  After full saturation, the rate of climate change would accelerate alarmingly. As the temperatures rise, forests burn and glaciers melt, releasing carbon that was previously kept out of the atmosphere, causing even hotter temperatures. The melting of glaciers and polar caps causes the ocean levels to rise, threatening to drown island nations and coastal cities. Weather patterns are changing, bringing drought to some areas and excess water to others, causing more and more people to become refugees.

Photo by Nathan Cowley on

In 1962 the publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, focusing on pesticide use, signaled a yellow alert about environmental problems caused by humans and identified the denial of those problems by vested business interests. She warned of the dangers of not halting the destruction of our natural ecology. In 1988 NASA climate scientist James Hansen issued a more serious warningan orange alertwhen he testified before Congress that climate change was indeed happening and that it was the result of human behavior. He predicted three scenarios of possible changes, depending upon the level of emissions. In June 2018 he reported that we are close to his predictions for scenario “B,” with a global rise in temperatures of 1.8 degrees in the past thirty years. During that time, annual emissions have risen from 20bn tons of carbon dioxide in 1988 to 32bn tons in 2017.

Collectively, our culture has not heeded the early warnings. Because climate change has been very slow for decades, we have been able to ignore and deny it for a long time. Now that the change is accelerating, some are paying more attention, but those with vested business interests are still denying that the change has human causes and are even rolling back regulations intended to limit our emissions.

In the meantime, sixteen of the seventeen hottest years on record have been since 2001. This summer’s out-of control wildfires have been more intense than usual and have even been burning around the Arctic Circle.  In July the temperature in Ouargla, Algeria rose to 124.3 degrees, the hottest temperature ever recorded in Africa.

Photo by Pixabay on

Our situation now is the equivalent of a Red Alert: extreme danger.

It is absolutely urgent that we curb the way we burn fossil fuels for our transportation, business, food production, and energy use. Every person, every company, every town and every nation has a part to play in changing the way we live.  This is a right-to-life issue of incredible magnitude.  If we don’t reverse climate change, then the lives of future generations of human beings are in terrible peril.

Recently I participated in a Quaker climate encampment on an organic farm in New Hampshire. A group of Friends in New England, deeply concerned by the dangers of climate change, have been listening together for how God may be leading them to take prophetic action. Last summer they participated in a climate march in New Hampshire from Schiller Station (a biomass and coal plant) to Merrimack Station (the only coal-fired power plant left in New England without a shut-down date). This July, they mourned at the gates of the Salem Methane Power Plant in Massachusetts. At the encampment in August, the group considered how to address the spiritual and cultural forces that perpetuate practices that are leading toward extinction for the human race. We spent a few hours every morning working in the fields, and many slept in tents at night, reflecting our intention to be closer to the Earth as we listened for divine guidance about how to help turn around the self-destructive progress that has been leading to global warming.

We asked ourselves whether we were ready, collectively, to commit to giving up practices that perpetuate global warming. What were we ready to commit to? Would we stop flying in airplanes, driving cars, eating meat? Would we live collectively, take public transportation, and use only renewable energy to heat and power our homes? Some individuals and couples in the group had already made some of these commitments, while others were slowly changing these practices. Yet others were agonizing over the difficulty of change and the culpability of maintaining the status quo. There was no sense of the meeting about a collective commitment. This caused great sadness and disappointment among some of the participants.

Later that night, after we recognized our inability, in the moment, to collectively commit to a significant change, I had a brief vision. As I lay down in my tent to go to sleep, I saw a black crepe armband tied around somebody’s arm, a traditional symbol of mourning. I remembered that the tasks of the prophets are two-fold. On the one hand, the prophet must mourn and critique the destructive nature of the status quo, and on the other hand must remind people of God’s steadfast love and desire to guide humanity toward a hopeful future. As I lay in my tent, I saw the color red.  I wondered why.

After I shared this vision with the group in the morning, some of us felt a leading to wear armbands, as symbols and reminders of the dangers we face, and of the hope that exists.

During my bus ride home, I began to visualize a red armband with a gold ribbon around it, topped by an image of our beautiful Earth.

Red to symbolize a Red Alert (a warning of the highest level of emergency, extreme danger).

Red to symbolize the intense heat of global warming.

Red for the forest fires that are raging.

Red for STOP! Stop extracting and burning fossil fuels; STOP the culture of materialism that is oppressing the earth and all of her inhabitants.

A Gold ribbon to symbolize the Presence of God in the midst of all of this, ready to teach and guide us directly.

A Gold ribbon for the Inward Light shining in everyone and in all of God’s Creation.

Gold for the possibility of a hopeful future if we change our ways.

I have sewed a prototype of the armband I envisioned and have begun to wear it. I wear it first of all as an ever-present reminder to myself. Next, as an opening to conversation with others. The other night when guests came over, it was easy to explain what the armband was about for me. Now I have begun to wear it outside the house and because of it have engaged in talking with people about climate change and about the availability of God’s guidance.  Though it might not be easy, I feel that it’s a leading of the Spirit for me to do so. To wear this ever-present reminder, and to tell others what it stands for. To tell you, who are reading this blog post.

Red Alert for the Earth: What helps you keep in mind both the dangers we face and God’s readiness to show us a better way?

© 2018 Marcelle Martin

September 8, 2018 is a global Day of Action demanding real climate leadership. Rise for Climate is planning thousands of rallies in cities and towns around the world to demand that local leaders everywhere put life, people and justice ahead of profits for the fossil fuel industry. Click HERE to find a Rise for Climate, Jobs and Justice rally near you. Reversing climate change is the biggest right-to-life issue on the planet.

Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey, by Marcelle Martin, is available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook. An excerpt and a study guide are also available on that website. Reviewed by Friends Journal, the book was designed to be a resource for both individuals and groups to explore their own experiences of ten elements of the Quaker spiritual journey of faithfulness.

Posted in All of Life is Sacred, Facing Life with Faith, Quaker Faith Today, Radical Christianity, Stories that Heal | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Beckoned by Trees

The first tree that beckoned me, long ago, was a sapling on the far side of my grandmother’s lawn. Sensing that it was silently calling me, I went to investigate and discovered that it was being strangled by an orange plastic band encircling its trunk. The sapling had probably been purchased at a local nursery, with a label and price tag attached to the band. My grandmother had neglected to remove it. The trunk of the tree, now grown, was being choked by the now tight plastic ring. When I cut it off, I may have merely imagined the tree’s relief. I felt certain, however, that the tree had been sending out a signal of distress, which I had somehow sensed.

About a year ago, another tree called to me. It was much older and the call was different kind of call. I was nearly home from my morning walk. One block ahead of me, on the edge of the local park, a large, beautiful tree I had never noticed before drew me toward it. During my walk I’d been praying about a conversation that was scheduled soon. With others, I was planning a new program and had been encouraged to let myself “think outside the box.” I wanted to be faithful and really hear what God’s plan might be.

The tree invited me to come near. I left the heat of that late August morning and entered into its welcoming shade. The trunk split into many tall, gracefully curved branches, their shiny green leaves high over my head and all around me.

I leaned back against the trunk and imagined roots deep in the ground.  I resumed my prayer for guidance and divine inspiration. As I rested against the tree, a new idea came, something “outside the box,” along with a surge of energy and excitement. I brought this new possibility into the conversation I had soon after, and it grew into something wonderful. It felt like a gift–not from the tree, exactly, but received because I had connected with the tree that way.

In the months that followed, I felt invited to become well acquainted with the tree, its graceful spreading canopy, its dark oval leaves edged with tiny serrations, the bark grey-brown and ridged.

Friends more knowledgeable than I have identified it as an American Elm. I noticed that the roots had thrown up a couple of old paving stones; it had outgrown once tidy borders. It had likely been planted nearly a hundred years ago, at the edge of a park established on what had been a Quaker farm, not far from where William Penn landed in 1682, in what had then been a mostly Swedish settlement. The land on which the tree was growing, near Ridley Creek, had long been inhabited by the Ockehocking Tribe.

Again and again, at many different times of day, and during different seasons, I’ve returned to that beautiful tree; it lives less than two blocks from me.

Gradually I realized that unconsciously I have been thinking of myself as somehow bigger, more important than the tree. It has taken a while to notice my human prejudices. The issue of size is indisputable. Physically, the tree is immensely larger than I. When I lean against the trunk and look up into its branches, they rise perhaps sixty or seventy feet over my head, with a span more than half that wide. 

Slowly, I have recognized my prejudice that I, a human being, am worth more than a tree. I now question this view.

I discovered another blind spot when I invited my husband to come meet “my” tree. My beautiful Elm stands beside another tree that is taller. The neighbor is farther into the park and gets more sun.

“It has a friend!” my husband exclaimed, when he saw the two trees side by side.

Suddenly I recognized that I had been viewing the other tree as a rival for the sun. His comment enabled me to see that, in fact, the two are companions. They help shelter each other from the wind, and, no doubt, their roots are intertwined. Soon after, I looked around and realized that the pair are part of a whole community of trees, a community that knows no borders and includes not only trees in the park but also the ones on the nearby streets, including a towering Sycamore a block away.

I know I have a lot more to learn from these living trees. They are more than beautiful. They purify the air and provide oxygen that my neighbors and I breathe. Surely they also give many more gifts.

I wonder, will I also discover that this large, beautiful tree not only invited me to learn from it, but also, like the little sapling on my grandmother’s lawn, called to me because it is in distress? This community of trees is no doubt disturbed–and in the long term endangered–by urban sprawl, toxins, and climate change.

I look forward to what else I will learn from being in relationship with living trees.

Beckoned by Trees  © 2018 Marcelle Martin

September 8, 2018 is a global Day of Action demanding real climate leadership.  Rise for Climate is planning thousands of rallies in cities and towns around the world to demand that local leaders everywhere put life, people and justice ahead of profits for the fossil fuel industry.  Click HERE to find a Rise for Climate, Jobs and Justice rally near you.   Reversing climate change is the biggest right-to-life issue on the planet.

Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey, by Marcelle Martin, is available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook. An excerpt and a study guide are also available on that website. Reviewed by Friends Journal, the book was designed to be a resource for both individuals and groups to explore their own experiences of ten elements of the Quaker spiritual journey of faithfulness.

Posted in All of Life is Sacred, Stories that Heal | Tagged , , , | 22 Comments

Theater of Witness: The Healing Power of Telling and Witnessing True Stories

Recently I had the privilege of attending a workshop with Teya Sepinuck, the creator of Theater of Witness, in which she guided us to share intimate truths: about ourselves, our ancestors, and life itself. We uncovered stories that needed to be told, but that had, in many cases, been kept buried a long time. On the first night we told about one of our ancestors. I shared the story of my grandmother Mickey, describing the hardships she experienced, the strength she showed, and the love she found and gave. Hearing about each other’s remarkable ancestors gave us a vibrant sense of the varied human beings who have shaped the world in which we live now, the challenges they confronted, and the wisdom they passed on.

In subsequent days, we worked with our own stories. Each participant found the courage to reveal heart stories, including anguishing loss, illness, suffering, and encounters with death, as well as love, spiritual power, and vision. Each story helped us to move more fully into the territory of raw truth, the place where intimacy and healing live. Teya’s work incorporates a wide variety of modalities, including movement, writing, and drawing. An exercise in which we discovered and then shared gestures and short phrases to express deep truths was especially powerful. What emerged from me is still reverberating, guiding my work going forward.

Sepinuck explained the amazing art form she has created, called Theater of Witness. Originally a dancer, choreographer, and dance professor at Swarthmore College, she found a deeper passion when she explored aging by creating a theater piece. An ad placed in the paper brought six “fabulously interesting” old men and women to work with her for a few months. Out of their heart-felt experiences, metaphors, images, and words, a theater piece took shape in which the old folks told their own stories. The audiences who witnessed the performance were moved to tears, and Sepinuck realized that the type of performance they had created together was more powerful than any dance she had choreographed. She experienced a calling to dedicate her life to this new form; after two more productions, she took a leap of faith, left her teaching position, and started the non-profit company, TOVA, “Artistic Projects For Social Change.”

Since 1991, Sepinuck has been meeting with people who have experienced many kinds of challenges. She interviews each person individually, deeply and intimately drawing out their stories, and then brings them together to collaborate in creating performances in which they tell their own stories. She creates the script out of words and stories she has heard from them. Over more than twenty-five years, she has worked with people who have been homeless, refugees and immigrants, prisoners, the families of prisoners, runaways, and those who have been engaged in or impacted by terrorism, domestic violence, inner-city violence, war, and more. Many of her pieces draw together those who have experienced these challenges from very diverse perspectives. For instance, one piece brought together those who had perpetuated domestic abuse along with survivors, and her work in Northern Ireland included those who committed terrorist acts as well as family members of those who died in the violence. The stories help audiences understand what shaped the lives people have led, and what has been the learning and growth in the aftermath of suffering. In working with people to draw out their deepest truths, Sepinuck seeks to find the “medicine” in their stories, the places were transformation, redemption, and healing happen. Again and again, by working together in telling about their suffering, anguish, and hope, participants in Theater of Witness who have been enemies have found compassion and understanding for one another. Audiences, too, have found their hearts opened to include people they might have previously condemned and shut out.

Sepinuck‘s book, Theatre of Witness: Finding the Medicine in Stories of Suffering, Transformation, and Peace, tells about her work with many different groups of people, from around the world. Some of the stories are hard to forget, including the account of a young girl who survived the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia by living in a hole in the ground, breathing through a hollow bamboo tube for a year and a half. Carlos and Sofia participated in several Theater of Witness pieces and helped to create performances based on their heartbreaking but ultimately healing stories of nearly dying in the desert, being homeless, and then suffering and finally overcoming domestic abuse.

In Theatre of Witness, Sepinuck shares the “Twelve Guiding Principles of Theatre of Witness.” The first is to start from a place of “Not Knowing,” with one’s mind and heart open to see things afresh, without judgment, trusting that the stories people tell of their experience will reveal what needs to be known. The stance of Not Knowing assumes that deep listening will reveal the next step to take or words to use. The second principle is to “Bear Witness,” to compassionately open oneself to the stories people tell, even those that are heartbreaking, without trying to control or change them. The third principle is to “Find the Medicine,” to draw out the story in a way that reveals the place of healing, to walk with someone through his or her wounds until the place of strength, redemption, or transcendence reveals itself.” In working with people who have experienced all kinds of suffering and trauma, Sepinuck has discovered that it is possible to find “The Blessing at the Center of the Wound,” the fourth principle.

Theater of Witness performances give the audience the very particular experiences of real human beings; at the same time, they reveal a great deal about the cultural context which shaped those experiences. Audiences often hear much about their own deepest suffering, hope, and truth expressed in the stories that are shared. Together everyone witnesses the healing that can happen when raw and painful truths are shared communally with the intention of transformation and reconciliation.

The newest piece from Theater of Witness, “Walk in My Shoes,” brings together police with community members, some of whom have spent time in prison for committing violent crime. On her website she describes the performance this way: “The tremendous wounds of our society are in full reveal. What are the Stories that need to be heard? In this time of fear, turmoil and anger, Theater of Witness brings people together across divides of difference to bear witness to the beauty of meaningful engagement, cultivate empathy and truly listen to the stories of people we’ve never heard before. This is the time for a new story. One that taps into the spirit of love and connection between us all.

‘Walk in My Shoes’ Performance Film

Friday November 9th, 2018 at 7pm at Jefferson University
1020 Locust Street
Philadelphia Free admission – donations accepted.

A two minute trailer exists for Walk in My Shoes. At the workshop I attended, we saw some clips from the show. In one, a man tells the wrenching story of the racist abuse he suffered as a teen, the bitter rage that compelled him to commit violent crimes, and the spiritual growth that has happened after spending much of his life in prison. Now he has come to a place of remorse and the desire to help others. The wisdom that comes through him is powerful medicine for the viewer.

There will be a free screening of Walk in my Shoes on November 9th at 7pm at Jefferson University – Alumni Hall 1020 Locust Street. For more information, write to 

The Theater of Witness website invites support of many kinds, including financial donations, volunteer work, and invitations to have a full showing of “Walk in My Shoes” in your location.  Or ask for “The Soul of Story,” a multi-media performance and talk by Teya Sepinuck.

After attending the workshop, reading the book, and watching several clips from Theater of Witness performances, I’m struck by the power of speaking and hearing truthful stories of our deepest suffering. Doing so makes us vulnerable, which is why so much of our culture is geared to avoidance and denial of painful realities. We divert a great deal of our time and attention into entertainment and distraction. But the lesson of Theater of Witness is that healing involves facing painful truths, in an open, nonjudgmental, and compassionate way. In doing so, we find a commonality in our humanity and connect with a spiritual power that knows the way to healing and can lead us there.

Theater of Witness: The Healing Power of Telling and Witnessing True Stories         © 2018 Marcelle Martin

Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey, by Marcelle Martin, is available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook. An excerpt and a study guide are also available on that website. Reviewed by Friends Journal, the book was designed to be a resource for both individuals and groups to explore their own experiences of ten elements of the Quaker spiritual journey of faithfulness.

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The Offering of Emptiness

Perhaps the easiest prayer is the prayer of gratitude. It is often an undercurrent of my life, rising up at moments throughout my daily activities. In the evening, when I take time to review my day, I notice that blessings come as frequently as every breath I take, and I give thanks.

It is nearly as easy to pray for what I want. In childhood I began the habit of silently, inwardly, expressing my needs and desires to God, including my desire for the well-being of my family members. Later in life, as I grew in faith, I began to accompany these kinds of prayers with an acknowledgment that the divine plan is beyond my ability to completely understand and might not include the particular thing or event I desired. “If it be your will” has become an amendment to the prayer of asking.

Gradually it became clear that my truest desire is to live in accordance with the divine purpose, and now the prayer that seems most important involves the offering of emptiness. In this prayer I let go of my hold on a separate will and identity and withdraw my attention from the incessant thinking that perpetuates separateness. This allows me to surrender in empty openness to God, usually for only a brief moment, sometimes for longer. This happens in inward silence. In the Christian tradition this inward silent openness to God and Christ has been called “contemplative prayer.” Quakers learn to practice this corporately in our meetings for worship. Although simple, it is not usually easy. Our thinking minds like to be perpetually busy. More than that, there is something in us which desires control and does not want to open up and give over to the Spirit of God.

This prayer is something I practice on my own every day. On some days, my mind jumps onto one train of thought after another. Each time, when I notice what has happened, I remember my intention–my desire to open to the presence of God–and let go. It can be a big help to do this practice alongside others who intend also to open themselves to the divine Presence. During the hour of meeting for worship with other Friends on a Sunday morning, I sometimes feel that our mutual prayer and worship helps lift me out of myself into openness and a larger sense of Being. My thoughts do not completely cease, but they slow down and I let go of them more easily, allowing me to sense more clearly the divine Presence that is with and among us always and everywhere. Several times a year, on a Saturday, I meet for a whole morning of unprogrammed worship with fellow Friends. In these extended meetings for worship, we sometimes feel deeply gathered in the Spirit. The offering of emptiness then feels easy. In individual and corporate prayer, God has, at times, filled this emptiness with experiences of a greater Life, of Love, of divine energy. My sense of who I am shifts, and I feel my unity with what God is.

This practice, this way of worshiping God–over weeks, years, and decades–has allowed God to bring about a slow but profound transformation in my consciousness, in my relationships, and in my participation in the world. There have been times of great creativity and much outward activity. There have also been times when it has felt imperative to withdraw from outward activity as much as possible to allow a greater opening–or emptiness-for God to fill. When I refuse to make the necessary space for God’s activity within, I become burned-out and sometimes experience ill health. Seeking a better way, I’ve been learning to create times for retreat, including the periodic Saturdays for extended worship with others. Once or twice a year, I have also arranged silent retreats alone for several days, a week, or even longer. And I also participate in mostly-silent retreats in the company of others.

In a recent retreat of a week’s duration at Bethany Retreat Center in Frenchville, PA, I struggled at first, as I usually do, with the fear that taking time apart may be merely self-indulgence, an escape from important work or witness I should be doing instead. As I settled into the silence, however, it became clear that this voice is the same one that wants to draw me into distraction whenever I take time for inward attention, meditation, and prayer. As the silence settled within, my discernment clarified. I saw that some of the activities and thinking patterns in which I engage have been too full of my small self. Some have exhausted me and created a distraction from focusing on what matters most.

The particular retreat I just attended was organized on the model established by Contemplative Outreach. The days involved a rhythm of group silent Centering Prayer (an hour before each of the three daily silent meals), walking in wide green spaces, contemplation of short videotaped teachings by Father Thomas Keating, rest, private prayer, corporate liturgy, a couple of short, helpful conversations with the retreat leaders, and simple openness to life.

On the night of the new moon, I walked outside under a dark sky filled with stars. The wide band of the Milky Way flowed overhead. Awed by the sight of so many stars (most of which are invisible in proximity to cities), I glimpsing more clearly the vastness of Creation and the smallness of myself. In a similar way, during the week of silence I began to better sense how I live within the vastness of eternity and to perceive that God–the Eternal Being, in which I exist–has different priorities, an infinitely larger view, and a greater purpose. I am invited to participate in God’s grand design, though I cannot comprehend the fullness of it.

In future blog posts I hope to describe my experience at some other retreats, and the fruits that have been given when I have dedicated days or longer to the offering of emptiness. I pray that this post may serve as an invitation for you to also take the silence and space needed to be as open as possible to the powerful divine Presence that alone is able to lead humanity to the hopeful future we desire.

© 2018 Marcelle Martin


An upcoming July 26-29 retreat at Pendle Hill called Kairos: Silence, Contemplation, and Scripture will be an opportunity to explore many ways to approach contemplative living and prayer, in the company of others. It will be facilitated by Francisco Burgos, the Director of Education at Pendle Hill, a Quaker who spent ten years of his life as a De La Salle Christian Brother serving in Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and Costa Rica.

Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey, by Marcelle Martin, is available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook. An excerpt and a study guide are also available on that website. Reviewed by Friends Journal, the book was designed to be a resource for both individuals and groups to explore their own experiences of ten elements of the Quaker spiritual journey of faithfulness.

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The Light That Shines in the Darkness

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:5

When the shape of our current political, social, and environmental landscape triggers fear and anger, I remind myself that visible realities spring from invisible depths, and that genuine transformation comes only by healing root causes. Becoming aware of the deepest causes requires opening our inner senses and paying attention to things that cause discomfort. We may have been born with open hearts, exquisitely sensitive to spiritual, energetic, and interpersonal realities, but most of us quickly learned to shut off certain kinds of perception and to erect protective barriers over our hearts. Taught that we have only five senses, we come to believe that the totality of reality can be known—perhaps with the help of instruments—solely through sight, sound, smell, taste and touch, and through mentally pondering what these five senses reveal.

My father, a physicist, taught me to challenge conventional notions of reality. When I was a child he read aloud Mr. Tompkins Explores the Atom. The book declares that atoms and molecules are real, even though you can’t see them, and that inside atoms you find very little matter. In other words, my father explained, even though material things look and feel solid, they are mostly empty space. That fact stayed with me.

One sunny afternoon when I was a teenager, standing on my family’s grassy lawn in Mystic, Connecticut, I looked into the blue sky, and contemplated the vastness of the universe. So huge! Then I imagined the possibility that our whole solar system might fit into a shoebox on a shelf in a forgotten closet of the cosmos. This thought made me dizzy. During moments of desolation, I sometimes walked outside at night, looked up at the stars, and felt they had abandoned me. I never examined the feeling that there had once been a connection, a relationship with the stars.

As a freshman in college, after studying the French Existentialists, I stopped attending church services, joining my father as an agnostic. For many years I was satisfied to pursue intellectual knowledge and sensory experience of this wonderful manifest world and its creatures. Then, in graduate school, a doctor thought I might have cancer and someone I loved was convinced he had a terminal illness. Suddenly, understanding reality and the nature of consciousness took on utmost importance.

I had no hope that my graduate studies at the University of Massachusetts could reveal the true nature of reality to me. My professors were earnestly imparting what they knew, but they didn’t seem to have a clue about ultimate truth. I started reading all the spiritual books I could find in the local library. The studies and stories I read suggested there are methods of perception that do not involve the usual mental cognition; they also suggested that those who choose to heed their inner senses are not believed by society at large.

For many months, I walked the hilly streets of Amherst at night with my big questions. Between graduate class assignments, I spent hours writing in my journal, becoming aware of painful parts of my psyche: hidden habits of fear, inhibition, and self-loathing. I needed to know: does consciousness end at death? Who are we, really? I wouldn’t have called my questions prayers. Nonetheless, I was whole-heartedly seeking to know God.

One dark night, as I walked home on Lincoln Ave., I remembered my teenage sense of a connection with the stars and looked up into the sky. I told myself there was no possible relation between me and the stars that were light years away. I felt alone in an impersonal universe, the random result of chemistry, biology, and physics. I gave up hope of attaining greater understanding through my own efforts.

That’s when divine reality became visible. Suddenly, an inner eye opened. I “saw” that the stars and I are intimately connected in a larger Oneness. I experienced a divine Light flowing through all things, including me and those far-away lights. They were in me, and I was in them. I felt this Light flowing up my legs and through my heart and arms, out my fingertips into the world. I became aware of an invisible Power great enough to heal any problem on Earth. I discovered my true existence in this vast, radiant wholeness. It was more cosmic than any notion of God I had been given in my religious upbringing, and more powerful. The experience altered my awareness and re-oriented my life forever. It was years, however, before I was able to use the word God for the awesome, all-pervading Mystery I had glimpsed.

That moment of revelation was a call upon my life, a call to learn to become a pure channel for the divine Power that is ready—if we will open to it—to heal the human world and our planet. Other “openings” followed, along with the unfolding of new kinds of perception and inner abilities. I sought out a teacher who taught methods to invite the Light to show me the hidden habits and beliefs that work contrary to the power of God, and that gradually dissolves those inner barriers. I learned a variety of spiritual practices, ways to participate in the Spirit-led inner unfolding that over time has helped me increasingly trust divine reality. Eventually I experienced a call to help others open to that same transforming spiritual power.

Thirty-five years after that dark, starry night in Amherst, it is still a challenge to see the underlying wholeness of reality in a steady way. Regular spiritual practices have been essential in the process of re-orienting to the truth. I have been fortunate to have found a community—Quakers—that has supported me in following direct divine guidance. I have had the benefit of collective Quaker practices for opening to spiritual reality, for discerning God’s leadings, and for living a faithful life. I have witnessed how we can help each other strip away layers of conditioning and allow our true selves to emerge, help each other gradually become who we really are and what we were created to be. I have witnessed healings and transformations of many kinds, and I have seen the power of the Spirit move through a group, creating heart-felt unity where there has been deep division. I have seen people empowered to take up courageous and prophetic tasks, and have been part of communities energized to engage in the movement of the Spirit.

In 2018 my nation stubbornly continues its non-sustainable extraction and use of resources. We continue to disrupt our environment and put at risk the lives of all future generations. Scientists have been explaining for decades that if we would not curb our carbon emissions, climate change would develop slowly, then suddenly accelerate in catastrophic ways. Collectively, however, we have looked the other way, distracting ourselves and refusing to soberly commit to a sustainable and healing way forward. Likewise, we are struggling to acknowledge a multitude of other serious challenges.

We are called to courageously address the physical, social, economic, and political dimensions of our problems, and to learn to live in sustainable ways. We are also called to address these challenges on the deepest level of causality. Our problems are inter-related and fundamentally grow out of an unwillingness or inability to open our inner senses and place our trust in the divine reality which gives life to everything and which connects us all. We are called to look into the darkness and to see the Light that shines in everything. We need to walk with our feet in both visible and invisible realities. When we do, then the divine Light will be able to move through us and heal even the greatest problems on earth.

The Light That Shines in the Darkness: Have you glimpsed the sacred wholeness that gives life to all worlds? What spiritual practices help you open to divine Reality?

© 2018 Marcelle Martin

Marcelle will be facilitating an April 15-19, 2018 short course at Pendle Hill entitled Nurturing Faithfulness. Participants in this course will learn the Faithfulness Group process and explore spiritual practices to support themselves and others in noticing the movements of the Spirit and responding with an open heart.

Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey, by Marcelle Martin, is available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook. An excerpt and a study guide are also available on that website. Reviewed by Friends Journal, the book was designed to be a resource for both individuals and groups to explore their own experiences of ten elements of the Quaker spiritual journey of faithfulness.

Posted in All of Life is Sacred, Contemplative spirituality, Facing Life with Faith, Mysticism, Quaker Faith Today, Radical Christianity, spiritual practices | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments