Interview with Marcelle Martin
“Help!” “Thank you,” and “Here I am” – Core teacher Marcelle Martin talks about prayer, her spiritual life, and her teaching
As Marcelle Martin prepares to co-teach Pendle Hill’s new Saturday course, “Bringing Our Lives to Life,” she tells us what motivates her life and work.
Marcelle was a student in Pendle Hill’s Resident Program for two terms in 2005 before becoming a core teacher in Quaker Studies and Spiritual Development in 2006. Marcelle has written two Pendle Hill pamphlets, Invitation to a Deeper Communion (#366) and Holding One Another in the Light (#382) and is working on a book, “Sent By God,” which focuses on Anne Hutchinson and early Quaker women. A new interfaith video on mystical experience, “With One Voice,” features Marcelle sharing her experience and perspective as a Quaker. In this interview with Shirley Dodson, she talks about what motivates her teaching and writing, and what she hopes to share with others.
Marcelle, what was your religious background when you were growing up?
MM I was raised as a Catholic, but stopped attending mass while I was a freshman at Swarthmore College. I thought this might be the end of my spiritual life, but instead it was a sort of beginning, because I found that I needed to ask questions like: What is the meaning of life? Does God exist? In my senior year, when my boyfriend broke up with me, the questioning really began.
How did spirituality become important to you?
MM When I was in graduate school in Amherst, MA, the seeking became more important than anything else, and I began to have some mystical experiences. The big one that was really powerful came during a year of deep seeking when I discovered that the ways our culture teaches us to find meaning were not going to provide lasting meaning. I also had a friend with a terminal illness, so I was wrestling with death.
Could you describe this mystical experience?
MM One night I was walking home under the stars feeling despairing. As a child I had felt a connection with the stars. Now I knew they were millions of light years away and told myself there was no connection. Then my perception changed. I had the experience of being one with the stars; we were connected together with all things. I experienced an inner light and energy flowing through me and flowing through everything. I knew this Light had the power to heal anything. That experience answered some questions – and raised others! It led me to want to learn more and to share my experience with others. It was a turning point.
What happened after this experience?
MM I had already been seeking and it became even more intense. A housemate was also seeking, so we became spiritual companions. Having a companion with whom I could share my questions, my longing, and my experiences was so important. This is a good reason to come to Pendle Hill, where many people are seeking and providing companionship on the journey.
You are both a spiritual seeker and a teacher, someone who is expected to provide answers. As a seeker, how do you teach?
MM Partly, my approach is to share my own intimate spiritual experiences and struggles, creating space for others to share their experiences. Also I teach a variety of spiritual practices so people can find out what works for them. Creating the space and time for the inner life – even in as brief a period as a weekend – can help people connect with the Spirit. Of course, a whole year at Pendle Hill allows much more opportunity than a weekend for creating that time and space. Finally, prayer is important. When I am teaching I hold course or retreat participants in prayer. Often I work with an elder who is also doing that praying. Prayer helps us to go more vulnerably into that space where people are sharing themselves and their longings with each other. Often we come to a place that is difficult to describe in words, a place of being gathered in the Spirit.
For the first time we’re aware of, Pendle Hill will offer a course on Saturdays this winter and spring, one day a month. You and Martha Kemper are preparing to co-teach this course, called "Bringing Our Lives to Life,” starting in January. What was the vision behind this course? How did you and Martha meet, and what drew you together to plan this course?
MM Martha and I met at Quaker women’s gatherings. We got to know each other as members of the “Evergreens,” a neighborhood morning worship group that started in four houses on Evergreen Avenue in Philadelphia. The “Evergreens” was inspired by Pendle Hill’s daily morning worship. Martha and I are both interested in Joan of Arc, and we traveled to France together to learn more about her. Martha is a theater professor at Penn State Abington; she was working on a play about Joan of Arc which she has completed and will present as part of the Saturday course. Martha was facilitating a learning session at the “Evergreens” that was so full of life that we were inspired to develop a course together.
What are your hopes for the participants?
MM Our hope is that participants find and express what they’re passionate about – whatever that is. The course includes writing, movement, voice, drawing, theater, guided meditation, and prayer. We will help participants remember times in their lives when they felt most fully alive. At the end of the course, each person will share some writing or a performance, whichever medium is most vibrant for them.
The Shalem Institute is co-sponsoring the retreat that you and William Dietrich are co-leading April 23-25, 2010, called "Giving Over: Practices Supporting Contemplative Prayer.” What led you to develop a weekend designed to bring together people seeking a deeper communion with God? Why collaborate with the Shalem Institute?
MM I am also seeking a deeper communion with God, and it’s wonderful to search together with people seeking the same thing. Pendle Hill wants to collaborate with other organizations that share some of our goals. The Shalem Institute has a strong contemplative focus. Bill Dietrich is a Quaker who was director of Shalem for many years. The first course I took at Shalem was co-taught by Bill. It’s a gift that he’s able to co-teach the April retreat with me. Many prayer practices and teaching about contemplative prayer come from the Catholic tradition. We’ll share some of that, including Centering Prayer, but I want to bring in some wisdom and practices from the Quaker tradition, as well.
Marcelle, how do you pray?
MM This is fluid for me. There’s no one way. At Pendle Hill I participate in daily meeting for worship. Every summer I take two months off to devote to prayer and writing. For a period I practiced Centering Prayer. For a year I had a daily Ignatian prayer practice. In a way I’m in prayer much of the time, although not continually. I have also found yoga practice very helpful.
Someone said that there are two kinds of prayer: “Help!” and “Thank you.” I would say there are three: “Help!” “Thank you,” and “Here I am.” All of them are part of my prayer life and my practice in meeting for worship. I call the third kind “Here I am,” because that’s what the Hebrew prophets said when God called them. It’s about offering ourselves for God’s purposes. It’s about offering our whole self—not just our minds, but also our bodies, our feelings, how we live, everything.
How do other people help you in your discernment?
MM I am a member of two peer groups that use a model I’ve taught at Pendle Hill. I also have an oversight committee at my meeting, Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia, which helps me discern my leadings to minister among Friends. These groups are specifically designed to help people who have recognized a call to ministry.
If someone wants help with discernment, what are some options?
MM There are many ways that people can support each other, including through clearness committees, in Quaker meetings and in other settings. How people can support each other in discernment is a theme in the January three-week intensive, “Faithful Transitions: Spiritual Discernment in a Time of Change,” which will be offered both in 2010 and in 2011. We also practice methods of discernment in the Resident Program termlong course, “Discerning Our Calls.”
In your teaching at PH, what do you most want to share with people in your class? What do you most want them to discover for themselves?
MM I want to create the space for people to explore, within themselves, their own connection with God, with Spirit, and to find what’s deeply meaningful in their lives. I share a lot of different practices, both because they let you express a lot of different things, and because some work better than others for different people. I want all of those I teach to find out what’s true for them, what gives them passion, and what they may be led to do in their lives.
Marcelle shares more about her spiritual experiences in a video on mysticism titled “With One Voice.” (Buy now with a 10% discount. Pendle Hill receives a donation for every copy sold.) She writes more about what motivates her teaching in a Friends Journal article, “Deep, Tall, and Wide.”