Standing Rock: Hope and a Call to Action

Several people I know have made the journey to Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, where thousands of Native Americans and their allies have been prayerfully endeavoring to protect the Missouri River from the dangers posed by the installation of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). From afar, I’ve been trying to follow news of what is going on there. I’ve found articles and videos from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, and other mainstream media. The reports that have most touched my heart, however, have been videos focusing on the Native people at Standing Rock, and first person accounts by other people of faith who have traveled there, including a member of my Quaker meeting. These stories have helped me piece together a picture of a courageous witness in a time when all of us need to ask: How is God calling me to act on behalf of a hopeful future?


Standing Rock Reservation, December 2016

A Christian theologian named Jonathan Hatch visited Standing Rock over Thanksgiving. In “Doing Theology at Standing Rock” he wrote, “The Oceti Sakowin camp is specifically a camp of prayer and ceremony. Life is rigorous and disciplined (you’re wakened at 6am), as well as incredibly peaceful. That’s important to stress- the spirit of peace in the camp is overwhelming.” His blog post explains the rules of the camp and tells how he was asked to spend time picking up trash.  A humbling task, but necessary to help keep the place sanitary for the 4,000 people then living there.  He reflects that, “American Christians have talked endlessly about how they want to ‘be like Jesus’. It’s central to their very self-identity. But again, conveniently, they make themselves the final arbiters of what it means to ‘be like Jesus’. But in this Advent season, as we prepare for the coming of the ‘Light of the World’, I can think of no better example of what it means to ‘be like Christ’ than to do what Christ did: … “emptied himself, by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature. He humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death —even death on a cross….” (Philipians 2:7-8).

In late November, John Bergan, associate pastor at a Mennonite Church, served as an observer. In his first-hand report from Standing Rock, he tells that he witnessed “police breaking ribs at peaceful sit-ins, repeatedly strip-searching young women, throwing elders in dog cages, destroying sacred ceremonial items (including peeing on them), dragging indigenous young people from cars, and denying medical care or needed medicine after protectors were teargassed and beaten.” He believes that “the military forces protecting DAPL intend to destroy this movement by any means necessary.” He describes a night of violence against peaceful protestors who were removing a burned-out truck from a blockade. 300 people were injured, by rubber bullets, pepper spray, tear gas, and a cannon that doused them with water on a freezing night. He believes the viciousness of the violence toward these peaceful protestors is related to “the ongoing destruction of native communities by extractive industries and state military forces around the world. It comes from a system that many of us remain complicit in, still unlearning a colonial mindset….” He urges education, prayer, and action: “We need to pray with our hearts, with our hands, and with our bodies. We live in transformative times which demand deep, grounded commitment.”

The Lakota Sioux at Standing Rock have been joined by members of hundreds of other tribes.  They see themselves not as protestors but as defenders of the waters; they and their allies have been calling themselves Water Protectors, and their nonviolent movement is fueled by prayer and love.  Mennonite Tim Nafziger, was a delegate from Christian Peacemaker Teams during a week at Standing Rock. In “Indigenous Peoples Solidarity”, he describes preparations for an action he participated in: “I was crowded with more than 100 other water protectors into a large geodesic dome in the center of Oceti with our body heat and a stove warming us from the freezing temperatures outside. … After an opening prayer, one of the indigenous organizers began to speak. His voice rose and fell as he challenged us to ground ourselves and let go of all hate towards the police and recognize them as people who were lost and in need of healing. He talked about how mother earth grieves as she watches us hate each other.”

The Native and Non-Native Water Protectors at Standing Rock have shown that there is a rising spirit of nonviolent, courageous resistance against the oppression of people and the earth. They give hope that transformation is possible. In early December, a group called Veterans Stand for Standing Rock planned for 2,000 US military vets from all branches of the US military to go offer a nonviolent defense of the demonstrators. A Quaker I know was part of a team of military chaplains who accompanied them. He reported that more than 4,000 vets actually showed up.

500 of these vets participated in a ceremony in which they asked forgiveness from the Native Americans for past actions of the US military. A statement was read by Wes Clark, Jr. acknowledging the long-time role of the US military in oppression of Native peoples: “Many of us, me particularly, are from the units that have hurt you over the many years. We came. We fought you. We took your land. We signed treaties that we broke. We stole minerals from your sacred hills. We blasted the faces of our presidents onto your sacred mountain. Then we took still more land and then we took your children and then we tried to…eliminate your language that God gave you, and the Creator gave you. We didn’t respect you, we polluted your Earth, we’ve hurt you in so many ways but we’ve come to say that we are sorry. We are at your service and we beg for your forgiveness.”  Lakota elders including Leonard Crow Dog, Faith Spotted Eagle, and Ivan Looking Dog (also a US military veteran) offered forgiveness. A Huffington Post article shows moving photos and videos of the ceremony.

For a delegation of Quakers from New England, the witness in Standing Rock revealed both the great dangers that lie ahead related to climate change and the bold faithfulness that is being called forth: “Once again we are invited, through faithfulness, to the quiet yet profound voice of Truth that whispers in our hearts and gives us courage and power to walk boldly in uncertain times. When we give ourselves over to it, we know we too can enter into this Kingdom where our hearts are clarified in purpose, where we cling less to the illusory safety of our culture, where we feel more closely the security and Love of God.”

The dangers the Dakota Access Pipeline poses to the Missouri River and the land around it are real. On December 12, a break in a pipeline just 150 miles from Standing Rock spilled 176,000 gallons of crude into a creek, contaminating it for at least six miles. The video, “Standing Rock – The Whole World is Watching,” states that there are, on average, 560 serious pipeline leaks every year.

In a press release issued on December 7, Native leaders at Standing Rock Reservation warned of arctic winter weather conditions. (For more info, go to They asked everyone to leave the camp now who is not prepared to work very hard every day to survive under such conditions.

The Lakota/Nakota/Dakota people of The Great Sioux Nation have survived in these conditions for thousands of years. If Ally Protectors cooperate with the ancient wisdom and ways of these lands, we will fare well. This movement is unlike any other—it is prayerful as well as peaceful—the consciousness we have raised here continues to resonate across the world. … Oceti Sakowin Camp remains determined—to protect our land. We have been given the obligation to do so in the treaty of 1851—we were specifically asked to protect this river. This is the way of the Standing Rock people, the Lakota people, the Hunkpapa people. All of the seven tribes of The Great Sioux Nation have gathered here again in an historic way—once as former enemies, we now stand together as brothers and sisters.

Sarah van Gelder, editor of Yes! Magazine traveled across the country to visit many places where people are uniting to advocate for health and safety. In the winter 2017 issue, she writes that this coming together as crucial to a hopeful future: “The solidarity at Standing Rock is key to local power going big. The forces that would extract the last barrel of oil, frack the last rock formation, or put at risk the water supply of millions are powerful ones. And only together can communities overcome that power and create the conditions for the regeneration of life. Only together can they weather the damage already done, and support one another in preventing more destruction.”


Awareness, education, organization, and spiritual power are needed for people to join together in hope and effective action. Where I live, a group of neighbors of diverse age, race, religious denomination, and sexual orientation has gathered to consider how we can work together for good. Six of us attended a recent training sponsored by local Quakers and The New Sanctuary Movement, an interfaith group. We saw a short news video about how Denver Quaker Meeting has provided sanctuary to a mother of two young children who is facing deportation.

Quaker author and activist Eileen Flanagan writes, “In this time of tumult, fear, and hatred, the world needs the gifts that you were born to share. You may not be sure where to use them. You may not know how to use them to greatest effect, or even if you can make a difference at all, but you know you need to do something to work for a more just and loving world. You are not alone!” She’s offering a five-week online course starting January 2nd entitled “We Were Made For This Moment.”  Each lesson of the course will blend three kinds of teaching: social change theory, spiritual discernment, and personal empowerment, to integrate “hearts, minds, and spirits for the work of creating a more just and sustainable world.”

Standing in Hope: Do you find inspiration or hope from the witness of the Water Protectors at Standing Rock? How are you being called to act, or to prepare to act?

* * * * *

Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey, by Marcelle Martin, is available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook. 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.  It is also available from QuakerBooks.

For information about Marcelle’s upcoming courses and workshops, go to Teaching and Upcoming Workshops.

© 2016 Marcelle Martin

Posted in All of Life is Sacred, Facing Life with Faith, Quaker Faith Today, Radical Christianity | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Prayer of the World

Friends Maia and Ken Tapp have created an awesome work of art called The Prayer of the World.   Maia is a gifted poet and writer, the author of several books.  Many years ago, as she awakened more fully to her connection with God, she experienced inner leadings to  visit particular places on Earth, places of wonder, places where wild creatures live.  She felt called to listen to the divine Spirit that created the world and which is always communicating with humanity through nature. In these places, she has heard a loving voice urging human beings to join in the ongoing prayer of the world.  It spoke to her in poetry, inviting us to recognize the sacred web of life and find our real place within this web.

Maia’s words have been combined with amazing nature photographs by her husband, Ken Tapp, images that reveal the incredible beauty and variety of nature, its rhythms, its sacred dance of life, both in large landscapes and in minute details.


Photo by Ken Tapp

I have witnessed the Prayer of the World in several different settings now, most recently at the 2016 summer Friends General Conference Gathering, where a showing was sponsored by the Earthcare Working Group.  Maia read the words of the Prayer of the World out loud and Ken Tapp’s images of the awesome splendor and the beautiful intricacy of the natural world were projected on a large screen.  Ken Jacobsen, with his guitar and voice, provided music.

Each time I’ve seen the Prayer of the World, I’ve felt shaken out of a certain dull habituation with this world to see more clearly God’s awesome handiwork.  Each time it has been breathtaking to  recognize more clearly the wisdom and healing power present in Creation.  The world is alive to its sacred source and it is calling us to wake up to the sacredness of our own nature and to our interconnection with Spirit and with all created things.  Its message for humanity is an urgent one, calling us to awaken.

Parts of The Prayer of the World are now available online at 


Prayer of the World: Have you experienced moments when God communicated with you through your encounter with the natural world?  Have you glimpsed the sacred nature of all things?  How are you called to join the prayer of the world?

For U.S. citizens: are you registered to vote?  Your vote can help humanity choose the path of protecting the natural world for all of us.

© 2016 Marcelle Martin

Posted in All of Life is Sacred, Contemplative spirituality, Facing Life with Faith, Quaker Faith Today | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

I See You

I was excited by the racial and ethnic diversity of my neighborhood when I moved to West Philadelphia in 1989.  My neighbors were African-American, Asian, and white.  I didn’t feel safe, however, walking alone in the city at night.  Encountering any man on the street after dusk made me feel anxious, especially dark-skinned men.  But I didn’t want to live a life of fear.  As I hurried from the trolley stop to my apartment, I would talk to myself whenever I noticed I was afraid of the person coming toward me on the sidewalk.  I would remind myself that I was encountering a human being.

In graduate school I had read a 1952 novel by Ralph Ellison called Invisible Man, the story of a black man in this country who had learned that people of the dominant culture wanted him to be invisible.  White people acted as if he was not there–except when they were harassing him.  I didn’t want to perpetuate the prejudices and injustices pervasive in my culture, or be controlled by fear.  I wanted to live with an open heart.  So instead of turning my face away when I encountered a man coming toward me on the sidewalk, I would gather my courage to look directly at each person I met and say, “Hello.”

What I was really saying is, “I see you.  I recognize your humanity.”

Usually I got a response.  A momentary eye contact, a greeting.  Sometimes the other person greeted me first, which helped melt the tension I felt.  It was a very small thing, but each time it felt like a little victory over fear, prejudice, and alienation–for both of us.  Fifteen years later, when I walk through my neighborhood, local park, or on city streets, greeting strangers and being greeted by them still feels like an opening to a more peaceful, joyful world.  It helps me to live in the Kingdom (or Kin-dom) of God, here and now.

Probably my most powerful experience of being “seen” by a stranger in a public place happened not long after the horrific attacks of September 11th, 2001.  I was one of many Americans who went out onto the streets to participate in vigils and hold signs asking my country to choose a non-violent response.  My friends and I got together and wrote letters to the President, our Senators, and Representatives in Congress, asking them not to start a war.  Sadly, at that time there was a terrible upsurge of violence against Muslims in this country.  I received an email from a peace group asking every women in this country to wear a head scarf on a certain date, as an act of solidarity with Muslim women.  That turned out to be the very date that the USA began bombing Afghanistan.

I was traveling home from Lancaster, PA that October day.  When I went to the train station in Lancaster wearing a head scarf, I was apprehensive that I would be looked at with hostility.  In fact, nobody paid much attention until I arrived home in Philadelphia.  I was the last one on the regional rail train by the time it pulled in to my station at the end of the line.  When I stood up to leave, the African-American train conductor looked directly into my face.  He saw me and understood why I was wearing the head scarf.

“Thank you!” he said.

He blessed me in an amazing way that I have never forgotten.  Quietly, we looked at each other with mutual appreciation.  That moment gave me a glimpse of what a different and much more wonderful world we could be living in if we all respected and trusted one another.

Every time we encounter another person, we choose what world we want to live in.

file0001985899817 crop of morgue file woman on city street


I See You:  What has been your experience when you move through the veil of fear and prejudice that separates us from our neighbors?

*     *     *     *     *


My new book, Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey, was recently reviewed by Friends Journal.  It’s 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 the ten elements of the Quaker spiritual journey. QuakerBooks provides discounts for books ordered in quantity.

© 2016 Marcelle Martin

Posted in Facing Life with Faith, Quaker Faith Today | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

One Second of Silence

We, the people of the USA, are in a state of grief and confusion — even those of us who are not gay, transgender, Latina, or Muslim, even those who don’t live in Florida and haven’t lost a family member to gun violence.  The tragedy in Orlando affects us all. The news reports and social media are full of opinions about what happened and why.  I hesitate to enter the conversation, but a phrase has repeated itself in my mind: “One second of silence.”  I feel drawn to look more deeply, and to reflect on causes.  And I feel called to enter into the vulnerable openness to God which is ultimately the only place of safety.

I first heard news of the tragedy last Sunday morning at Meeting when someone requested prayers.  Afterwards, my husband, Terry, and I bought newspapers, went online, listened to the radio.  Each day we learned more about the horrible murders in an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, Florida.  We also attended local gatherings, to grieve and pray.

Orlando vigil prayer a

On the day after the shooting, my husband, Terry, along with many members of my Quaker Meeting, attended an interfaith service held in a local church.  It included singing, prayers, and readings from the Bible and the Koran about being peaceable.  There was a time of silence. He and the man sitting beside him were moved to tears.

The next night we attended a meeting for prayer and worship held at Pendle Hill retreat center, convened in response to a request from Orlando Friends Meeting.  They had asked Quakers everywhere to gather that night and join in prayer for them and for everyone in Orlando needing strength and solace.  At that meeting, we heard expressions of grief and broken-heartedness.  Someone told about five decades of struggle for gay rights and mourned that the killer could find no better way to deal with confusion about his own sexuality.  We heard the voice of a Muslim woman, also broken-hearted, who said that true Islam is a religion of peace and love, not of violence.

I remembered visiting Florida Friends in Orlando meetinghouse, and in the silence of our gathering, I sensed that we were woven together spiritually in a large network of Quakers and others who were praying.  I felt how the tragedy had opened a wound in the collective heart of our nation, or even our planet.  This wound made us feel vulnerable, and at the same time it was an inner place of connection.

On the third day, Terry and I participated in a vigil held outside the courthouse in Media, Pennsylvania.  Many people attended.  We were gay, straight, and transgender.  Forty-nine volunteers lay down on the grass to symbolize the bodies of the forty-nine people killed at Pulse nightclub on Sunday.  It was a sobering sight.  The names and ages of the dead were read aloud; some were still in their teens.  A rabbi, along with many others, recited a Jewish prayer, in Hebrew.  It felt sacred.  A Methodist minister offered another prayer, then raised a large rainbow-colored kite, as a symbol of hope.  We were invited to join in forty-nine seconds of silence, one second for each of the victims.  I felt a holy hush.  Afterwards, the forty-nine volunteers stood up and a local group advocating for sensible gun control addressed the crowd.  Coming together in public with others and sharing our grief and prayer had a healing effect, bonding strangers into community.

Orlando vigil at Media court house 49 bodies b

“Fifty people died that night,” my husband said as we walked away.

It’s worth devoting at least one second of silence for the killer.  First, because he, too, was a child of God, as everybody is.  Next, because looking closely at his life could lead to some insight about the causes of this particular tragedy.  What was tormenting him, and what encouraged his violent tendencies?  Omar Mateen was an American citizen, born in this country to parents from Afghanistan.  He was troubled from childhood.  He abused his first wife, who left the marriage after a short time.  Wanting to be a police officer, he entered a training program in the Florida Department of Corrections.  He was dismissed, however, after making a joke about bringing a gun to class.  He took a job as an armed guard and was known to become enraged when he felt disrespected.  How often do Muslims in this country feel threatened and disrespected?  At various times, Mateen expressed allegiance to different Islamic groups that are in opposition to each other.  This suggests he knew little about them, but nonetheless he felt a kinship.  Although twice investigated by the F.B.I., he had no trouble buying a semi-automatic assault-style rifle and a huge quantity of bullets.  What prompts a young man to the path of terrorism, at the cost of his own life?

I feel called into the silence, to look more deeply at the causes of the violence in Orlando.

We live in a human world of gross inequities. Some people control far more than their fair share of the world’s resources, while many others have less than they need, an injustice that leads to conflict among individuals, classes, groups, and nations.  Those who are different from the mainstream are often demonized, their beliefs and cultures denigrated.

Human beings have a natural aversion to murdering one another. In all past U.S. wars, a large percentage of soldiers never fired a single bullet.  Today the United States as a whole craves dominance and glorifies violence and weaponry.  Television programs and movies acclimate viewers to watching numerous murders, at high speeds.  Certain video games were designed by the U.S. military to train soldiers to overcome their innate resistance to murdering another human being.  Today many children are addicted to this kind of video games in which they shoot and kill as fast as possible.   Hitting targets, whether on videos or on the shooting range, is a way to cope with insecurity and fear; it gives a temporary illusion of being in control, of being safe.  But ultimately watching images of violence and practicing murdering others strengthens the fear that enemies are out to get us.

Orlando vigil Gun Sense America

The root cause of violence among us goes even deeper.  We are so focused on the material world that we do not trust in non-material realities.  We fear death because we are ignorant of the spiritual nature of our true being.  Changing a culture that perpetuates fear, discrimination, and injustice requires us to look more steadily at the Great Love that holds us all.  At the deepest level of our being, we are all one, united in God in ways that are not visible to the outer eye.  To increase consciousness of this underlying unity, we need to look at all the things within us that block our awareness.  We must open our hearts in ways that make us feel vulnerable. Only by entering into undefended open­ness can we feel our connection with everything and everybody, and know our place in the Eternal Reality that is our ultimate and only true safety.

Let’s enter more deeply into the silence.

For more than one second.

All of us.

Orlando vigil crop rainbow flag

One Second of Silence: How do you experience the conflict between love and fear, peace and violence within  yourself?  Do you make time in silence to look within?  Have you found the peace of the divine Presence?

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey, by Marcelle Martin, is available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook.  The book was designed to be a resource for both individuals and groups to explore their own experiences of the ten elements of the Quaker spiritual journey. QuakerBooks provides discounts for books ordered in quantity.

 © 2016 Marcelle Martin

Posted in Facing Life with Faith, Quaker Faith Today | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Vistas From Inner Stillness

When is it fruitful to share our deepest spiritual experiences, and when is it better to keep them close, to ponder them only in our hearts?  Vistas From Inner Stillness raises the question.  In it, author Richard L.  Walker describes encountering God in some awesome natural settings, when his mind was in deep stillness.  These experiences transformed his faith in the presence of God to an experience of that divine reality. In this 1991 Pendle Hill pamphlet he took the risk to share his unusual experiences in order to encourage others “seeking answers to their life’s quest.”  His accounts reveal, however, the tender and deeply personal nature of such experiences.  Only those who have been reached in similar ways can comprehend; to others is may seem mere imagination.  Clear discernment about one’s own spiritual experiences, or the experiences of others, also comes from a deep place of inner stillness.

Richard L.  Walker was a Quaker naturalist, astronomer, and novelist, the author of articles on binary stars and satellites of the outer planets.  Starting in early childhood, he had some remarkable experiences in the natural world.   From periods alone in nature and from Quaker meeting for worship, he learned to still his mind and “listen” to what he variously refers to as God, Spirit, Light, and Light of Christ.  He found it was not easy to communicate to others the sense of the divine presence he sometimes encountered.  Few could understand.  One friend, however, offered a helpful analogy to describe the ability to perceive the divine presence: it is like finding a particular point on a radio dial that picks up a very subtle vibration:

The signal is always there, but you have to block out all external sensations to hear it.  The signal is so faint, but distinct, it seems to come from a depth inside us.  …and that’s what the Light is like too, a far distant, signal that only seems weak; yet, it is so clear and distinct when we listen with all we have. (5)

In the American Astronomical Society’s obituary for Walker, fellow astronomers noted that he was “a studious and very careful observer.” He made many thousands of measures of particular pairs of double stars.  Over the course of his career, Walker became adept at three different successive systems of astronomical technology.  In our culture, many people would readily accept the knowledge Walker acquired about distant stars and galaxies through powerful telescopes, yet some will question the cosmic awareness he gained through his spiritual perception.  In one experience, for example, high on a mountainside, he encounters an enormous cloud that seems to have a very personal presence.  Another exploration began when he obeyed a compelling inner call to drive up a particular mountain at night and fly a kite.  Under a dark, starry sky, he experienced a sweet, peaceful reassurance and a cosmic power that was in relationship with him. Was his experience that night mere imagination, or was it a gentle encounter with God?

Possibly the most remarkable mystical experience Walker recounts took place in the remote Havasu canyon at the western end of the Grand Canyon.  Walker and two Quaker friends trekked through desolate desert landscape and then six miles down into a narrow canyon.  At the bottom, they walked three more miles, past awesome waterfalls, and finally pitched a camp.  The three Quakers then sat on nearby rocks to hold a meeting for worship under the stars.  Walker describes the thunderous sound of the waterfall, the towering walls of the canyon, the cool air, the rising moon.  In the silence of the worship, in gentle “quantum steps,” he became aware of the presence of an awesome force:

As my wonderment increased, I felt I was being touched, caressed, warmed with the brush of an essence that was about me, which came from an infinite source of power and strength.  I was flooded in light, granting me an awareness that in this setting of explicit beauty, I was surrounded by a facet of the infinite force of the universe, and it was contacting me with comfort, but most of all it was contacting me with an assurance that God was there.  God is everywhere in our lives. (24)

Another person’s spiritual experiences or insight can never be convincing proof of the reality, presence, and power of God.  Everyone must open to their own direct experience.  Reading accounts such as Walker’s, however, can encourage us to trust the moments and ways when we ourselves connect with divine Reality, when we find the spot on the dial of our own perception that allows us to tune into the ever-present presence of God.

Many of Walker’s most profound spiritual experiences took place in remote natural locations.  However, he writes that a Quaker meeting for worship can likewise help people find the doorway not only to perception of God, but to receiving the divine love that wants to flow into the world through us:

In our silent meetings, Friends can tap a tremendous source, a vantage point for an extra view of the universe.  When we hold and nurture it, a mental respite brings fullness and purpose to our lives. …  Our inner silence is like a gate through which the good of the universe flows through us.  It is a good amplified in our lives that flows back leaving us reborn each time with greater love. (26-27)

Vistas From Inner Stillness: Have you ever experienced the presence of God while immersed in nature?  While engaged in a meeting for worship?

dusk sky

My new book, Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey, is available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook.  It was designed to be a resource for individuals and groups to explore ten elements of the Quaker spiritual journey. QuakerBooks provides discounts for books ordered in quantity.

© 2016 Marcelle Martin

Posted in Contemplative spirituality, Mysticism, Quaker Faith Today | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

The End of Life and After

In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. John 14:2 (KJV)

Years before his death, I began grieving the slow disappearance of the father I grew up with.  As his cognitive functions slowed down, he still maintained great physical health and strength, riding his bicycle ten to fifty miles every day, carrying heavy objects, and mowing the lawn with a hand mower.  Shortly after being diagnosed with dementia, however, he was hit by a car and suffered several broken ribs and a concussion.  For a week he didn’t recognize my mother.  Recovery was slow and partial; he lost many functions.  After a year struggling to care for him at home, my family placed him in a nursing home where he could receive the care he needed and be visited every day.  His mind and interests became more childlike; he liked to wear funny hats and hold stuffed animals.  It took him ninety minutes to eat a meal, even when someone spooned the food into his mouth.  His words became few; then he stopped speaking.

Our family grieved the departure of the father we had known.  At the same time, we loved the person he still was, glad that he smiled when he saw us, looked into our eyes, and held our hands. His losses clarified his essentially sweet, loving nature.

When my father’s health took another precipitous decline in March, however, we faced new territory.  We had been looking into the past to remember the wise, loving, funny father we had known.  Now we needed to look forward and face the mysteries of dying and life after death.  My family members and I had different experiences, ideas, and beliefs about these things.  In the week before Dad began his active dying process, when my mother and I said good-bye to him for the night, we prayed aloud together, one of us on either side of his bed.  At the end of our prayers, Mom told Dad he could go anytime he was ready.  Every day, however, I was telling him that my brother Chris would be driving up from Florida soon.  My three sisters, who lived closer, had been visiting frequently in the winter and spring months, but Chris had not seen Dad since the fall.

My mother and parishonners from St. John Bosco Roman Catholic church often prayed at Dad’s bedside.  One afternoon I was with him when a visitor sang to him the entire Divine Mercy Chaplet, using the beads on her rosary to know how many times to repeat, “For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.”  On the day the Pope had declared to be Divine Mercy Sunday, my mother and two of her friends came straight from church to recite that Chaplet at Dad’s bedside.

My own prayers during the days sitting with my father were mostly silent and spontaneous.  In my heart and mind, without words, I lifted him up to the Light of God’s endless love.  I thanked God for my father’s good life.  Aloud, I told him that I loved him, that everybody loved him.  I thanked him repeatedly for being a wonderful father, for taking good care of us all, for being kind to so many people, and for his courage to be different from the norm.  At moments I felt sadness; tears welled in my eyes.  One afternoon I told him that I regretted not accepting a particular gift he had tried to give me.  Then I thought about things my father might regret and told him he could let go of his mistakes, that God forgives everything, and that his essential nature is pure love.

At some moments, I felt inwardly nudged to stop trying to do something, even with my thoughts and prayers.  Be totally present.  When I did that, especially during his moments of wakefulness, I became more aware of how present Dad was, looking at me and everyone who came into the room.  Eating, drinking, coughing, breathing.  He was present.  In paying attention to my father’s quality of presence and his clear gaze, I became more aware of the presence of God with us.

My Quaker faith has helped me find a way to be with the living and the dying, but has not offered clear teaching about what comes after death.  Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s book of Faith and Practice advises all Friends to attend to end-of-life matters in advance, including Living Wills, Powers of Attorney, and wishes for the disposal of the body.  It also contains helpful guidance for conducting memorial services, something Quakers do in a powerfully moving, beautiful way. The Quotations sections of Faith and Practice include four passages related to dying and death.  First, a prayer for help in letting go into God when one’s death approaches, then a moving account of being with a dying child, then some advice about meeting old age with courage, and death with thankfulness.  One passage says we can learn to recognize death as “another movement of growth into the fullness of the knowledge of God.” (143)  Back issues of Friends Journal and several Pendle Hill pamphlets offer Friends’ personal experiences with approaching the end of life, being companions to the dying, and grieving the death of loved ones.

Mostly Friends have emphasized helping God to bring in the Kingdom of Heaven here, on Earth.  In A Living Faith, a contemporary Quaker theology, Wilmer Cooper describes a range of beliefs and attitudes held by Friends about life after death.  In the section entitled “Facing the Final Frontier,” he writes that rather than speculate much about death, most Friends focus on, “living, at this very moment, in the presence and power of God so that we will be sustained in whatever death brings.” (153)

Early Friends had a clear sense that there is life after death, and that salvation is available to all who turn to the Light of Christ within.  In a vision, George Fox had been taken to see into the Paradise of God.  Others described entering into eternal Reality while still walking on earth.  While being marched to the gallows in Boston, condemned to death by Puritan magistrates, Mary Dyer told onlookers she had been in Paradise for several days already, and that she was receiving indescribably wonderful “sweet incomes of the refreshing Spirit of the Lord.”  Her two companions, Marmaduke Stephenson and William Robinson, wrote letters before their deaths describing how they had already become joined with the divine Fountain of Love.

Another early Friend, Mary Penington, wrote to her children during the grave illness toward the end of her life, telling how glad she was that she had already put her affairs in order.  She described how she prayed during episodes of deep physical pain, and said she hoped and trusted in God’s mercy, guidance, and support throughout all she must yet endure.  In a Testimony she wrote after the death of her husband, she gave a remarkable account of her experience at the moment of his death, saying that she accompanied his spirit a little way into the heavenly realm:

[S]uch was the great kindness the Lord shewed me in that hour, that my spirit ascended with him in that very moment that his spirit left his body; and I saw him safe in his own mansion, and rejoiced with him, and was at that instant gladder of it, than ever I was of enjoying him in the body….  (qtd. in Gwyn, Seekers Found, 294)

Having read about the experiences of Mary Penington and many others, I wanted to be present when my father died, not only to accompany him, but also, perhaps, to glimpse into the next life.  However, after a week in Virginia, I needed to go home.  My sister from New York had already arrived, and my brother would arrive soon, after selling the car that had broken down along the way.  My mother and siblings kept vigil with Dad for the next four days, sending me news via text message and photographs.  Dad stayed alert long enough to  gaze lovingly at my brother when he arrived.  Then he turned inward as he slowly traveled out of this life.

In the weeks since his death, my prayers for my father have continued.  Perhaps his soul ascended directly into Heaven.  I believe, however, that after death souls continue to grow and to journey ever more deeply into God’s love.  For some, parts of the journey after death may be difficult.  In the first weeks, I thought that perhaps my prayers might assist Dad in his journey.  Now, a few weeks later, I have a more peaceful sense that he has been released into divine Love.  When I sit to pray or meditate, when I focus on the Inward Light, I imagine him to be joyfully merged with it, liberated in fullness.

The End of Life and After: Have you been a companion to a loved one who was dying?  How has your faith supported you in this?  What is your understanding of what happens after death?

bright Shenandoah sunrise crop*     *     *     *     *

My new book, Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey, is available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook.  It’s designed to be a resource for both individuals and groups to explore their experiences of the spiritual journey.  QuakerBooks provides discounts for books ordered in quantity.

© 2016 Marcelle Martin

Posted in Facing Life with Faith, Learning from Early Friends, Quaker Faith Today | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Shifting to the Heart

“Meeting for worship is a Quaker technology for shifting levels of consciousness,” Bill Taber sometimes explained.  A highly respected teacher of Quakerism, he would have a twinkle in his eye when he said this.  As a Conservative Friend, he often used explicitly Christian terms to describe the profound transformation that can happen in a gathered meeting for worship.  But when addressing liberal Friends, he found metaphors that spoke to the condition of his listeners.  

I first began attending morning meetings for worship at Pendle Hill retreat center while Bill was still the Quaker Studies teacher there.  As the group settled together into the silence and turned inward, the shift seemed subtle. On a few occasions when I arrived a bit late, however, I experienced the shift in consciousness as soon as I walked into the worship room.  When Friends were already gathered into the presence of the Holy Spirit, held in a palpable silence, I felt as though I were stepping into a holy light that permeated everything.  In his pamphlet “Four Doors to Meeting for Worship,” Taber writes:

I once thought worship was something I do, but for many years now it has seemed as if worship is actually a state of consciousness which I enter, so that I am immersed into a living, invisible stream of reality which has always been present throughout all history.

It was rare to experience the group being gathered that way at the Quaker meeting I attended on Sunday mornings.  Friends told me about the awesome spiritual power experienced by the first Quakers in the seventeenth century.  Many were satisfied just to recount the facts of a celebrated history.  Some Friends, however, conveyed a deep longing to know that same spiritual power in our time.  Some had dipped many times into the Eternal Stream themselves and were yearning for a faith community more on fire with divine Love and Truth.  I began to study the writing of early Friends, hoping to discover how and why the first Quakers had been blessed with such a powerful outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon them. 

I found many descriptions of awe-filled gathered meetings for worship experienced in the first years, including accounts by Francis Howgill and Edward Burrough, a pair who had traveled from the rural north of England to bring the Quaker message to the sophisticated city of London.  Spiritual seekers and skeptics alike flocked to hear these two men speak about the Light of Christ within.  Many returned and learned how to be gathered in worship in a way that radically changed them, empowering them to live their lives with God at the center.  While reading Howgill’s description of those gathered meetings, I’ve sought for clues about how they opened themselves to the transforming experience of entering into the Kingdom of Heaven day after day.  Howgill wrote:

The Lord of Heaven and earth we found to be near at hand, and, as we waited upon him in pure silence, our minds out of all things, his heavenly presence appeared in our assemblies, when there was no language, tongue, nor speech from any creature. The Kingdom of Heaven did gather us and catch us all, as in a net, and his heavenly power at one time drew many hundreds to land. We came to know a place to stand in and what to wait in; and the Lord appeared daily to us, to our astonishment, amazement and great admiration, insomuch that we often said one unto another with great joy of heart: “What, is the Kingdom of God come to be with men?

They learned “a place to stand in and what to wait in.”  They stood in their ardent faith, and waited in the expectation that the living presence of God and the Light of Christ within would become manifest among them.

It is key that they waited in “pure silence,” sometimes for hours.  This was an outward silence, with “no language, tongue nor speech” from anyone.  Equally or more important, it was also an inward silence: their minds were “out of all things.”  In his “Epistle To All People Upon The Earth,” George Fox advised everyone to be “still from your own thoughts and imaginations, and desires and counsels of your own hearts, and motions, and will.” In this inward stillness they waited to experience the indwelling presence of God. 

Patient, expectant waiting can open to a direct awareness of that divine Presence.  When that happens to a person, Fox says, “that of God manifested in him, leads his mind up to God, [and] he comes to the quiet and peaceable life and comes to retain God in his knowledge….”  In the silence, the inward Light reveals or “shows” the individual and the group their true condition.  They are led to a higher kind of knowing, another level of consciousness.  According to Fox, those who patiently practice this silent waiting, “such shall find mercy of God, when their minds are guided up unto God, and … in one half hour have more peace and satisfaction, than they have had from all other teachers of the world all their life time.” 

Such experiences, whether they occur in solitude or in a gathered meeting for worship, can have a lasting and transforming effect.  According to Fox, they show people how to “find and feel the way of peace,” and lead them “to grow up in that life the scriptures were given forth from, and the life the saints lived in.” 

In beautiful advice for finding and entering into the inward divine Presence, Isaac Penington instructs people to, “Give over thine own willing; give over thine own running; give over thine own desiring to know or to be any thing.”  When the mind and will become silent, no longer grasping for anything, then one can, “sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee, and be in thee, and breathe in thee, and act in thee….” 

Penington, Fox, and many other early Friends speak of the presence of God experienced in the heart.  In his descriptions of the powerful gathered meetings at the beginning of Quakerism, Francis Howgill tells of a spiritual fire being kindled in the heart, and of the hearts of those present becoming united with others and with God:

[H]oly resolutions were kindled in our hearts as a fire which the Life kindled in us to serve the Lord while we had a being…. And from that day forward, our hearts were knit unto the Lord and one unto another in true and fervent love, in the covenant of Life with God…

Shifting to the Heart: Have you experienced your mind becoming still and your awareness shifting to another level of consciousness?  Has a stillness of mind helped open your heart to divine love and passion? 

*     *     *     *     *

Barn at dusk tall crop

You can order Marcelle Martin’s new book, Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey, from Inner Light Books. It’s available in hardback, paperback, and ebook.  The book was designed to be a resource for both individuals and groups to explore their own experiences of the ten elements of the Quaker spiritual journey. QuakerBooks provides discounts for books ordered in quantity.

On the weekend of April 8-10, 2016, Pendle Hill is hosting a workshop on Our Life is Love to explore how the ten elements of the Quaker spiritual journey manifest in our own experience.  Together participants will practice opening more fully to the presence and teaching of God within, and encourage each other to live the truth of Love more passionately.

© 2016 Marcelle Martin

Posted in Contemplative spirituality, Learning from Early Friends, Mysticism, Quaker Faith Today, Radical Christianity | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments