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.

Posted in All of Life is Sacred, Facing Life with Faith, Stories that Heal | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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

Faithfulness Groups

Participating in an ongoing Faithfulness Group helps me sense more clearly God’s call on my life.  We offer each other a form of prayerful attention and companionship that helps us remember, again and again, that God is always present, ready to guide each and all of us. It’s a crucial spiritual practice.

My group currently includes six members and meets once a month. This month we met at my house. After a simple potluck supper together, we settled into my living room. Then we devoted one hour each to two people in the group. During that hour, a person talks for fifteen minutes about some area of life in which he or she is seeking to sense divine guidance more clearly and respond faithfully. After the presentation, the group asks questions to help the presenter look more closely at how the Spirit has been at work internally and in the events of their lives. Over time, our group has learned not to hurry with our questions and not to engage in mental analysis of the situation, but to prayerfully wait for the questions that rise from the Spirit among us. After each question, we hold the person in prayer as they look within for the deep knowing that resides in the heart.


Usually when my group settles to engage in the Faithfulness Group process, I find myself moved to a deeper place of inward calm, a place of reverence. My busy mind slows down. Then I’m better able to attend to a subtle awareness of the divine Presence among us. When I hear stories of the particular ways that others have experienced the Spirit at work, my faith is strengthened. When friends share their longing to be of true service and their deep desire to know how God is guiding them, I find that same longing and desire strengthened in me.

It is a blessing both to witness the faithfulness of others and to share my own journey honestly. Something in my heart relaxes and opens wider when people listen lovingly as I speak about the simple and glorious ways I sense God teaching and leading me. Trust has grown over time, and gradually my ability to be deeply honest has increased. It is freeing to be able to speak the truth I know in my heart that contradicts the norms of society. And revealing my secret fears, hurts, and places of resistance has helped me to allow God to heal those things.  When I speak to others about my intimate walk with the Spirit, the truth of it becomes revealed to me in new ways. Sometimes during a Faithfulness Group meeting, I can feel the light within me shine more brightly.  I see it happen in my companions, too. Gathering with our Faithfulness Group each month is a practice that helps all of us remember our faith and find the firm ground of God’s steadfast love.We meet about once a month, with two people having the focus of the group, one at a time. Each person has the group’s attention about four times a year. It’s like having an ongoing spiritual support group and clearness committee at the same time. But a Faithfulness Group adds another dimension. Because we accompany each other over a long period of time, we get to know each other’s inner, spiritual lives in an intimate way. We can help each other notice the ways that we resist God’s leadings and call. Through prayer, deep listening, questions, and loving support, we help each other overcome the hidden internal barriers to a life of faithfulness.  A clearness committee helps a person discern a leading; a faithfulness group helps discern each small step along the path, and find the way back after a misstep or distraction.

Each month, our group rotates the role of convenor, whose primary task is to keep time so that everyone has a fair share of attention, and so that we finish punctually. Sometimes, when we veer into problem-solving, advice-giving, or telling our own stories, the convenor also needs to gently remind us of the guidelines for our group. Our intention is to provide “holy accompaniment” to each other and to let the Spirit guide our sessions.

I first encountered the format of these groups while enrolled in the Shalem Institute program on Spiritual Guidance, a program designed for people who spend time listening to others explore their spiritual lives. My teachers in the Shalem program—Gerald May, Tilden Edwards, and Rosemary Dougherty–emphasized the importance of having peer support while engaging in spiritual guidance of others. To be faithful to the call to that particular form of ministry, they said, it was very useful to meet with other spiritual guides and spiritual directors with whom one could share the workings of the Spirit and reveal the inward challenges, resistances, and blocks that were coming up. For nine years, I was part of a group of Quaker spiritual nurturers meeting monthly to provide this wonderful kind of peer support to each other.

At some point during those years, another Friend and I realized that this format could be opened up so that people could provide companionship to each other for many forms of faithfulness—following a leading, living out a call, engaging in service or some sort of ministry, or being faithful in one’s job or family commitments. When we seek to hear God’s guidance and respond faithfully in any of these areas of our lives, participation in an ongoing faithfulness group can be a great blessing.

In 2005, with permission from Shalem Institute, we revised the peer group guidelines for wider use; then we called together a group of friends who were seeking to be faithful to calls to various forms of ministry, including the ministry of eldering. The first group we formed continues to meet, though some of the original members have moved away and other Friends have joined us. Initially the group was called a peer group. As other groups formed, some took different names, including “mutual spiritual accountability groups.”  Recently we’ve adopted the name “Faithfulness Groups,” to describe our intention and practice. I have participated in several Faithfulness Groups. One, which lasted for five years, was of vital importance in my ability to grow into my call as a speaker, teacher, and writer about the spiritual life. In the groups I’ve been involved in, we’ve supported each other in faithfully participating in meeting committees, engaging in environmental and political activism, serving as a chaplain, working against racism, doing prison ministry, discerning a call to marriage, being a parent, creating theater performances, facilitating workshops, leading groups, and much more.

The ideal number for Faithfulness Groups is 4-6 members, although 3 participants is sometimes sufficient. Members can be drawn from your faith community. It’s also possible for people of different faiths to join together in this way, if there’s a common desire to respond to God’s leadings and to support each other’s discernment in respectful ways. It is not necessary to share a meal together; in fact the two-hour format is intended to make it easy for busy people to fit a monthly Faithfulness Group session into their schedules. The current guidelines for Faithfulness Groups are available HERE.

Many Friends feel that their faith communities do not provide all the spiritual intimacy and support that they need to live faithful lives. I’ve been blessed to have received a great deal of holy accompaniment in my life. Participation in Faithfulness Groups has been key.

© 2018 Marcelle Martin            photo of two women @ Leigh Ruddick Tolton

Marcelle’s book, Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey, is available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook.  It describes ten elements of the spiritual journey of faithfulness, as experienced by the first Quakers and by Friends in our time.  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 the spiritual journey.  A Guide to Faithfulness Groups is forthcoming in summer 2019.

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

Posted in Facing Life with Faith, Quaker Faith Today, Radical Christianity, spiritual practices | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

The Best of A Whole Heart

In celebration of five years of writing A Whole Heart, I’ve looked at my WordPress statistics that show which blog posts have been most popular. The blog was created in November 2012, in a burst of intense inspiration, just before the presidential election. That creative energy opened my heart. Over 400 people took a look on the first full day. By the end of 2012, I had published 10 pages and posts. One of them, Ten Elements of the Quaker Spiritual Journey was a brief overview of the material that later became my book Our Life is Love. Each year since then, at least 730 viewers have gone to see that blog post, and it’s been viewed more than 4,500 times. It is, by far, the most popular post I’ve written overall.

This year, however, a new blog post drew the most viewers. Opening to Divine Guidance has been viewed more than 1000 times. Posted at the end of 2016, it contains a link to a twenty-two minute guided meditation, “A Meditation to Heal and Reveal,” my own variation on the Experiment with Light meditations. 556 times someone has clicked on the link to hear or download it. A few people have told me that using that meditation has become a regular spiritual practice, and someone asked me to make a five-minute version, a project that is now on my long To Do list.

Some other popular blog posts were also rough drafts of material later published in Our Life is Love, including The Refiner’s Fire and Following Leadings Today. Two popular posts that did not become part of my book were The New Birth (on early Quaker ideas of spiritual rebirth) and The End of Life and After, which tells about accompanying my father as he was dying, and explores ideas about what happens after death.

Statistics aren’t the only way to measure the best writing on A Whole Heart. My hope in writing the blog is to offer evocative words, information, ideas, experiences, stories, connections, prayers, and visions that can contribute to the shift of heart and mind needed in our world today. Writing each post has had a heart-opening effect on me.

The one I may have most enjoyed writing, with my whole heart, was A Movement of Love, for Life, about the 2016 Women’s March; I especially loved including photos of the creative signs and energized people I saw at the march in Philadelphia. It was important to me to testify to the loving motivation for the march and to identify the largest movement for life in the world today.

My latest blog post may have required the most courage. At the very least, it required overcoming huge inner resistance ingrained in me by decades of living in a patriarchal culture. My husband, who is the first editor of my blog posts, says it’s the most powerful one I’ve written so far. In Hidden Stories of Christmas, it was liberating to write about divine Wisdom (Sophia). For over a thousand years, divine Wisdom has been largely deprived of her rightful place in Christianity and the Bible–and, more importantly, in our hearts and minds.

As I mentioned, I have a long list of topics I’d like to write about in A Whole Heart. I have tried to be true to the intention of the blog, however, which is to write from the heart, from spiritual inspiration rather than from even my best mental ideas. So when I find myself pushing to write something, I set it aside. I wait for words and ideas that seem to flow from the heart as well as from the head. Sometimes I feel a powerful creative energy, like a fire inside, that wants to be expressed in words.  It’s not always easy, of course, to discern divine inspiration from my own enthusiasm about something. I have made a rule to first check my blog posts with an editor, almost always Terry, who is a discerning reader. Then I wait at least one night before finishing and publishing a post. Usually I find many more things to revise when I look at it fresh the next day. Sometimes a blog post waits many days or months before it feels finished.  In writing one, I often feel my heart is being stretched open, like a bow, and that the blog post is the arrow that flies from my heart when I finally press “publish.”

Once this summer, when publishing Looking at the Shadow That Blocks The Light, I did not follow my own rule. I went to bed on the evening of August 20, 2017 with no idea of writing a blog post about the Shadow (though I have given a lot of attention to that subject both in my inner work and in my book.) When I woke up on August 21st, however, a message was waiting for me to write it down. A total eclipse of the sun would soon pass over the USA, from coast to coast. I drafted it in a couple of hours. Terry looked it over. I revised it and then sent it out quickly, in time to get to a friend’s house to watch the eclipse. Of all the blog posts written in 2017, it’s the one that has been viewed most often.

When I named the blog “A Whole Heart,” I was expressing my aspiration for the kind of whole-heartedness that allows us to see God. Writing it has been a joyful experience that has helped me become more whole-hearted, and also helped me to sense the ongoing guidance and loving, creative energies of divine Wisdom, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. I hope I’ve been faithful, and that this blog serves God’s purpose.

I have the sense that in the coming year I’ll keep moving into a wider field. In the beginning, I focused a lot on the experiences of the first Quakers, to find guidance about being Spirit-filled and faithful today. Now my focus is on whatever truth-filled knowledge and stories can help us face the realities of our time and allow us to co-create, with love, the best possible future that can emerge if we follow divine guidance.

By the standards of the most popular blogs on the web today, A Whole Heart has a tiny readership. I’ve been heartened, however, by the people who have read and commented, either online or in person. WordPress tells me that people in 87 countries have viewed my blog this year. In the past five years, A Whole Heart has been viewed from 141 countries. To those who have been readers, whoever you are and wherever you live, my heart goes out to you with love and gratitude. Thank you!

The Best of A Whole Heart: Do you have a favorite blog post, piece of information, or story from A Whole Heart?

For information about other upcoming courses and workshops with Marcelle, go to Teaching and Upcoming Workshops.

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, Learning from Early Friends, meditation, Quaker Faith Today, Radical Christianity, spiritual practices | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Hidden Stories of Christmas

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.  (John 1:9 NRSV)

On the winter solstice, a friend sent me a link to a web page about Reindeer legends of northern lands. I had known that the story of Santa Claus is a modern version of the story of St. Nicholas, a holy fourth-century bishop known for his secret gift-giving. What I was astonished to learn is that Santa’s costume and his sleigh pulled by reindeer are a retelling of earlier stories of the Mother Reindeer who was celebrated at winter solstice in Norse and Slavic cultures, and in Lapland. Reindeer are the only members of the deer family whose females have horns. It turns out that male reindeer lose their antlers in late fall or early winter, while females retain theirs until they give birth in the spring. In winter, females lead the reindeer herds.

In cultures that depended upon the reindeer for pulling their sleighs, for food, for clothing, and more, Mother Reindeer came to be a revered symbol of fertility. In far northern places, winter nights are very long and days are very short. Not surprisingly, many northern cultures worshiped a Sun Goddess; she flew through the sky on the Winter Solstice in a sleigh pulled by a horned reindeer, a sacred event that heralded the return of the sun, day by longer day. The goddesses who presided in those cultures ate special red-and-white mushrooms as part of their religious ritual, and their ceremonial red and green costumes included red hats with white fur.

It’s natural for myths to change over time, but it’s sad to see how myths and cultural legends that once celebrated women, as well as female reindeer, were replaced by a man and a lead reindeer named Rudolph.

When it comes to stories of Light coming into the world, there’s a far more important story that’s been hidden for many centuries.

At the time Jesus was teaching his disciples, the Wisdom tradition was popular. In various scripture passages, divine Wisdom is depicted as the first creation of God, or sometimes as an aspect of God. She is associated with Light. Brighter than any light visible to human eyes, she is the divine Light out of which every created thing was created. “Yahweh created me when his purpose first unfolded, before the oldest of his works…. When he laid down the foundations of the earth, I was by his side, a master craftsman, delighting him day after day, ever at play in his presence, at play everywhere in his world…. (Proverbs 8: 22, 30-31 NRSV)

Hokhmah and Sophia (Hebrew and Greek for wisdom) are both feminine nouns. In the Bible, divine Wisdom is often depicted as a woman. Wisdom is eager and ready to teach human beings all they need to know to prosper. She prepares a feast of bread and wine and calls everyone to her table. “All the words I say are right, nothing twisted in them, nothing false, all straightforward to him who understands, honest to those who know what knowledge means. Accept my discipline rather than silver, knowledge in preference to pure gold. For wisdom is more precious than pearls, and nothing else is so worthy of desire.” (Proverbs 8: 8-11) Most human beings, however, do not want to follow the discipline of cultivating divine Wisdom within themselves. Few come to her table to partake of her feast.

Wisdom 7:22-30 (NRSV) gives perhaps the most complete description of divine Wisdom:

She is so pure, she pervades and permeates all things. She is a breath of the power of God, pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; hence nothing impure can find a way into her. She is a reflection of the eternal light, untarnished mirror of God’s active power,/ image of his goodness. Although alone, she can do all; herself unchanging, she makes all things new. In each generation she passes into holy souls, she makes them friends of God and prophets; for God loves only the man who lives with Wisdom. She is indeed more splendid than the sun, she outshines all the constellations; compared with light, she takes first place, for light must yield to night, but over Wisdom evil can never triumph.

The Book of Wisdom, along with many others, has been removed from some Bibles, classified as part of the Apocrypha (which means Hidden). But the Book of Wisdom (also called The Wisdom of Solomon), along with other books that speak of Wisdom, was not hidden in the time of Jesus.

Jesus referred to Wisdom when speaking of himself. For example, in Luke 7:34-35, Jesus tells how he is being criticized for the unconventional things he is doing, then says, “Nonetheless, Wisdom is vindicated in all her children.” In the similar passage in Matthew 11:19-20, when speaking of the miracles he had performed (which he calls “deeds of power”), Jesus said, “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

After his death, the disciples, apostles, and followers of Jesus, trying to make sense of who Jesus was and of his relationship to God, thought of him in relation to the stories of the expected Messiah (a human person as described in the Hebrew tradition), but also as an incarnation of divine Wisdom. Paul spoke of Jesus as “the power of God and the wisdom (Sophia) of God.” (I Corinthians 1:24)

In the time of Jesus, the opening of the gospel of John would have been understood as referring to divine Wisdom:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. …  (John 1: 1-5 NRSV)

John chose to use the masculine word Logos (which can be translated in many ways, including as Word or Reason).  The use of the masculine pronouns in the opening of John’s gospel is therefore fuzzy—it’s not clear when he is referring to Logos and when he begins to refer to Jesus. If John had used the feminine word, Sophia (Wisdom), instead, it would have been more clear:

In the beginning was Wisdom, and Wisdom was with God, and Wisdom was God. She was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through her, and without her not one thing came into being. What has come into being in her was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Through John’s choice of the word Logos instead of Sophia, as in many other Christian texts, feminine references to God’s and God’s emanations become hidden.

From the beginning of Quakerism, Quakers have placed importance on John 1:9, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” (NRSV), translated in the King James Bible as: “That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” They have noted that the same divine Light and Wisdom that Jesus incarnated is available in some measure within every person, available to teach and guide in the path of God’s Truth.

There has been a terrible cost to humanity and the earth for hiding the Light of divine Wisdom and the story of how She comes into the world. It’s time now for the Wisdom of God to shine in all, in the fullness of God’s power.

Hidden Stories of Christmas: What stories of the divine Light and Wisdom experienced within yourself have you kept hidden?

© 2017 Marcelle Martin

To learn more about the subjects in this blog post, check out the following links:

For more about Reindeer legends:  Doe, a Deer, a Female Reindeer, The Spirit of Mother Christmas and The Reindeer Goddess by Judith Shaw.

There are many books of Biblical scholarship that speak about the relationship of Jesus and divine Wisdom. One that has been of great importance to me is: Wisdom’s Feast: Sophia in Study and Celebration 1995 edition by Susan Cole,‎ Marian Ronan,‎ and Hal Taussig. A twentieth anniversary edition was issued in 2015: Wisdom’s Feast: Sophia in Study and Celebration 2015 edition by Susan Cole,‎ Marian Ronan,‎ and Hal Taussig. One of the co-authors, Catholic theologian Marion Ronan, professor at New York Theological Seminary, wrote a blog post called The Sophia Wars, in which she tells of the controversy that was occasioned in the Methodist Church at the time the book was first released.

For information about other upcoming courses and workshops with Marcelle, go to Teaching and Upcoming Workshops.

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.  Quakers emphasize the importance of inward experience of the divine Light which is directly available within each person.  If followed, it leads to a powerful process of inward and outward transformation.

Posted in All of Life is Sacred, Learning from Early Friends, Radical Christianity | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Hiking Naked

Every year in the days before my birthday, I make time to remember why I was born. I’ll take a walk in the woods, perhaps a long bath, and spend some hours writing in my journal, seeking to sense more strongly the larger purpose for my life. I try to tune in more clearly to the specific leading of the Spirit I may be following at the moment. I ask myself, am I called to something more or different than what I’m doing now? Am I distracted and drifting off course? Has the link to the larger purpose become faint? I pay attention more closely, inwardly. I open up to a fresh infusion of the Spirit. Sometimes I get in touch with something that’s constraining, distracting or burdening me, and I receive inward and sometimes outward help in letting go and moving into more freedom. Sometimes I remember more clearly how I’m blessed by the relationships in my life, and I allow love to flow more abundantly. Whatever comes, it’s like a birthday present from Life.

Of course, it’s valuable to take some time every day to reconnect in some way with our life purpose and the divine Love that created us and that is always moving us toward a more abundant life. There come times in our lives, however, when something more than our regular daily, weekly, or annual routines of spiritual practice are needed, turning points in life when we are called to devote a larger period of time to look at where we have been and where we are called to go. At such times we usually need to strip away a lot of what fills our time and pulls our attention outward. The process of letting go of what we have been can make us feel naked.  In that nakedness, we wait to hear what we’re now called to become.

A lovely new book by Quaker Iris Graville, Hiking Naked, describes time her family spent on a remote island. For all of them – husband, wife, and teenage twins – but especially for her, it was a time to check the inner compass, reconnect with what is most important, and reorient to a new stage in life.

Graville had worked for a long time as a public health nurse, then as a supervisor of public health services. She had followed a calling into service that had been meaningful, though challenging, for a long time. In her forties, however, she recognized that she was experiencing burnout and that something needed to change. The first sign that her life was about to blossom in an unexpected way was the impulse to change her name to Iris.

She and her husband had been taking an annual summer vacation in a remote village, while their children visited grandparents. Then the whole family added an annual winter vacation there. For years they had been fantasizing about finding a way to spend a whole year living in the tiny village. That fantasy had never seemed practical.

But when burnout came, Graville received what Quakers refer to as a leading: a still, small, inner voice guiding her and her family to take a time apart from the busy-ness of the world, to live in Stehekin, WA, a little village at the end of a 55-mile-long lake. She felt this leading during a three-hour drive home over the mountains in Washington State. When the radio signals were blocked by mountains on either side, she was driving alone in silence. The thoughts in her mind about her family spending a year living in Stehekin then took on a different quality than the familiar fantasy:

My heart rate quickened and my mind raced with ideas about making Stehekin our home for at least a year. I imagined quitting my job and renting our house out. Even as I thought to myself, this is crazy, I felt a presence, urging me along, stripping away obstacles. It wasn’t that I heard a booming, God-like voice speaking to me, but I sensed a wisdom there with me, opening me to a vision of how things could be. The energy that was compelling me seemed to be coming from a different level of awareness than my usual decision-making approach listing pros and cons, obstacles and opportunities. Another Quaker term, leadings, conveys that awareness of being urged by God to take some action, and that night I was feeling led as surely as the highway was routing me over the mountain pass.

When her husband and children expressed openness to the adventure, they explored the practical details that would make the year away a real possibility – a leave of absence from work, new school, housing, temporary jobs, familial and financial arrangements. Iris and her husband, Jerry, met with some fellow Quakers for a clearness committee meeting, to test if this was a real leading of the Spirit. The committee members asked them questions, listened prayerfully to their answers, and agreed that they were clear.

The family saved money, moved to Stehekin, and settled in to a new way of life. At three-thirty am, Iris rode her bicycle in the dark to the village bakery, where she learned how to bake breads and pastries. Her husband drove a bus. Their teenage twins flourished in a one-room schoolhouse. Together the family encountered wildfire, flood, deep snow, power outages, bears, and the deaths of some people they loved. They also enjoyed hikes in the wilderness and family time in their small cabin, including visits with extended family and friends from home. When the bakery closed for the winter, Iris had lots of time for solitude. Taking long walks and sitting with her journal, she listened for guidance about the long-term changes she sensed she needed to make. She had been called to service in the public health field for a long time, but now new calling was seeking to emerge. The time in Stehekin helped all the members of the family discover more about who they were and what they loved most. Eventually, the Inner Guide led them to a new life they didn’t imagine before.

This book, Hiking Naked: A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance, is the third that Iris Graville has written since her family followed the leading to live in Stehekin. It’s a sparkling account of a woman listening to the voice of her soul, and a family healthy enough to welcome unexpected adventure. We need more stories like this, that reveal how we all can be guided by holy wisdom from within, if we take the time to listen and have the courage to follow where it leads.

A book review of Hiking Naked, published by Friends Journal, includes a link to order the book online.

Image result for hiking naked book review friend journal

Hiking Naked: Have there been times in your life when you followed a leading to take a time apart and listen more deeply for new direction?

© 2017 Marcelle Martin

For information about other upcoming courses and workshops with Marcelle, go to Teaching and Upcoming Workshops.

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 | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments