“What happens through spiritual disciplines is that you notice more –- and, as you notice more –- so many other things in your life fall away. Like fears.”
(Mary Albert Darling, talking today about trying to help people see the timeless power in centuries-old disciplines in her new book, “The God of Intimacy and Action: Reconnecting Ancient Spiritual Practices, Evangelism and Justice.”)
Mary Albert Darling is a modern Mom with one foot firmly planted in ancient realms.
She’s a college professor who writes with the natural grace of a spiritual memoirist. She’s an evangelical Free Methodist, who easily could be mistaken for a devout Catholic.
She’s an unknown writer who co-authored a book that that may become a classic.
The book she co-authored with the popular evangelical activist, scholar and writer Tony Campolo was among the first books we featured here as we launched ReadTheSpirit late last year. You can jump back and read my earlier Conversation With Tony Campolo to get a fuller vision of this remarkable book they wrote together.
Actually, it was that earlier two-day piece with Tony that touched off today’s Conversation With Mary. She is associate professor of communication at Spring Arbor University, trained in spiritual direction in the Jesuit tradition — and teaches in her university’s Spiritual Formation and Leadership graduate program.
She emailed me recently to ask whether the two pieces with Tony would remain permanently on our Web site. (They will, of course.) I was curious about her request. As it turns out, she plans to assign students to read those pieces as part of an upcoming class.
We emailed back and forth and this budding conversation became an excellent excuse, on my part, to return to this wonderful book that I think 25 years from now we all will look back on as a milestone. It shows how far America’s evangelical movement is coming toward a reconnection with the timeless power of ancient Christian traditions.
No, I’m not talking about any grand merger of denominations here. In fact, I’m talking about something much more powerful — the returning waves of a 500-year cycle of Reformation, a theme we’ve often written about here at ReadTheSpirit.
So, finally, Mary and I met via telephone to prepare today’s piece. And the result was far more than a conversation about a book.
Mary is a revelation. She’s an evangelical Protestant in her own congregation, but she’s broadly ecumenical in her vocation — and I think you’ll find in reading this conversation that she is talking about spiritual principles that reverberate even beyond the boundaries of Christianity.
HERE are highlights of our Conversation … (And, oh yes, this will remain online, too, if you’ve got a class or study group that wants to assign these readings in future weeks. Plus — buy the book! Click on the cover or the title to jump to our review — and order a copy via Amazon, if you wish.)
DAVID: “I am a mystic.”
It was those four words in your half of this book that hooked me, Mary. The words are printed there in the pages of your book with the word “am” in italics to emphasize the force of that statement you are making.
You’re writing about how deeply you’re attracted to the lives of the saints and about this moment of striking clarity in which you realize that the mystical life isn’t some fantasy realm of “those supersaints I loved to read about” — so far removed from ordinary life. You realized, in you words:
“I was wrong. I now realize that to be in an intimate relationship with Jesus means I am a mystic.”
I think those four words at the end of that sentence capture the groundbreaking nature, really, of your work — and Tony’s work — in this book.
MARY: I do think we often are mistaken when we think of the lives of the supersaints.
DAVID: They’re so popular. Books and devotional guides — all sorts of signs these days show the popularity of the saints. We just reviewed James Martin’s book, “My Life With the Saints.”
MARY: I love the stories of the saints. They’re great. But, I realize that, when I first was reading those things about the saints, it was like I was living vicariously through these people and forgetting that — or, not even realizing that — this was something that could be a normal part of my life — if I noticed more.
DAVID: When you say that, it makes sense — but it’s hard to glimpse what you’re talking about, right?
MARY: Yes. I think for me it’s because, when I looked around, I hadn’t seen a lot of role models that weren’t in books.
There’s another part in the book where I talk about how I went through a spiritual re-awakening with my friend — and how we found that the people we wanted to spend time with were the saints we read about. When we were writing this book, Tony wanted me to add right there that, certainly we could have spent time with regular saints all around us. And that’s easy to say — but the truth is that I wasn’t drawn to anybody I knew, except my friend who wanted to read all about the lives of the saints with me.
DAVID: That’s what I like so much about your half of this book with Tony. When people read what we’re talking about here, they may say: Oh, that’s so obvious. But it isn’t. It isn’t! It’s hard to see the possibility of the mystical in our midst.
MARY: Whether it’s that we’ve lost this — or it always was hard to see — I’m not sure. But I led a retreat last year at my church and, when I was done, a woman said to me: “I have had mystical experiences my whole life — and I haven’t felt I could talk about them to anybody until now.”
We haven’t created a good context for people to talk about these things with others.
DAVID: Now, let’s back up a moment here, because it may sound like we’re talking about everybody becoming Pentecostal or Charismatic. That’s not what you’re talking about, right?
MARY: Some people have moved into the whole Pentecostal-Charismatic movement. That’s not where Tony and I are. Tony and I speak so much about experiences with the Holy Spirit, mystical experiences, but we don’t talk about Pentecostal or Charismatic things specifically in our book. That’s intentional.
We want people to realize that there are these mystical experiences outside those churches, too.
DAVID: You can experience the mystical elsewhere.
MARY: Right. That’s the point.
And, sometimes, we realize we’ve had these experiences only after we think about them. I may feel like I am having a moment of clarity. Then, as we think about it: If we believe in a spirit world and we talk about the Holy Spirit, then — then, this is a mystical moment.
I think too many times people are looking for a set of rules about this — and we forget that this is a dynamic, uncontrollable relationship. The spirit moves and blows where it will and we have to be ready for it.
There are lots of theological arguments wrapped up in this, of course. Tony says we can’t control the movement of the spirit, but we can work on making ourselves more receptive soil. We can live our lives so that we notice more. For example, I’ve read that when that big tsunami came, there were some animals who were seen moving up into the hills — while the people were still going on about their daily lives. The animals noticed something the people couldn’t see.
DAVID: This is what I love about reporting on emerging trends in spirituality and media. What you’re talking about here — and you get into this in your book — is what the Buddhist writer Geri Larkin talks about in “The Chocolate Cake Sutra.” And I’ve got an advance-publication galley here of Geri’s next book, “Plant Seed, Pull Weed,” which is about her most recent years of Buddhist discipline living in the very ordinary world. This is precisely what she talks about — noticing. She talks about it as mindfulness.
MARY: Oh, I’ve got to get those books. But, “Plant Seed” isn’t out yet?
DAVID: Right, but soon. “Chocolate Cake Sutra” is about her founding a Buddhist center in the heart of a run-down neighborhood in the city. Then, “Plant Seed” is about her completely leaving the monastery behind to work in a garden store in a completely different part of the country — selling plants to people and doing landscaping along with her Buddhist disciplines. It’ll be out soon. You’ll read more about it on our Web site, when we get closer to publication.
But, it’s what we’re talking about, right? The difficulty of “noticing things” — or “mindfulness.” Or even properly thinking about what’s involved in the spiritual life.
MARY: Yes, this is what we forget. Or we don’t think about spiritual disciplines in the right way.
One of the main things people don’t get about spiritual disciplines is that they are not a means to an end. People are confused about that, no matter how much we say this to people: This is not a means to an end! But, it’s so easy for people, because of the way we think about the world all the time — to think of spiritual disciplines as earning us something for ourselves.
DAVID: You’re really talking about a different way of living. A different way of seeing the world. A different way of seeing other people around us. Seeing the world around us.
MARY: Yes. And, there are good things that come from this. From spiritual disciplines, I get more appreciative for people and things around me. I question the existence of God less. I’m less afraid.
But if people think that spiritual disciplines are about going off all alone and feeling good, they’re mistaken.
This opens our eyes to a lot of things we’ve ignored. We realize that the line, “Ignorance is bliss,” really is true in a lot of ways. Because the more you notice, the more you have to decide what you’re responsible for — and then there’s more discernment you have to make about that.
The truth is: The more you notice, the more things hurt.
DAVID: That’s the story of Jesus’ followers, certainly during the final weeks with him during what we call Lent as Christians. It’s also the story of the young man who became the Buddha. You’re writing about the Christian experience of this, of course.
Well, I certainly want to read more of what you have to say about this. Sign me up for an advance copy of your next book! I want to hear more of your voice out there.
MARY: (laughing) Oh, now you’re convicting me! You’re hitting something within me here in the way we’re talking!
Because — you know the book I really want to write?
But — I don’t think I have time to write it because I don’t want to take the time away from my kids right now. They’re 14 and 16, both boys. I’m thinking that, for now, maybe I should write something next just to buy time. That’s practical. I’ve talked with my spiritual director about this. Maybe I need an in-between book.
DAVID: OK, but you haven’t told me what you really want to write. That’s what I want to read.
MARY: My total heart’s desire?
DAVID: Yes, what’s your “total heart’s desire” to write?
MARY: I want to write more about spiritual disciplines. I’m working on something I want to call, “Beyond Spiritual Disciplines.”
DAVID: And where do you want to take us?
MARY: Well, there’s this danger that spiritual disciplines can become this whole set of rules that become an end in themselves. And we need to move beyond that.
DAVID: Oh, I think I know where you’re going with this. Bonnie St. John, who we featured here in a Conversation around her book, “How Strong Women Pray” — she talks about this. But, tell me more about where your heart is taking you on this.
MARY: Richard Foster talks about this, too. He has become like a mentor from afar for me, which is why his endorsement on the cover of our book is so precious to me. I had taken an intensive week-long course under him studying spiritual disciplines and he makes this same point: These disciplines are not an end in themselves.
This just kept haunting me. It kept coming back to me. And this haunts me because I know that I’ve done that sometimes.
Recently. I’ve done it maybe even this morning, you know?
This is convicting me.
DAVID: It convicts all of us. It’s one of the great timeless temptations in this part of life. Jesus talks about it — about the problem of getting so caught up in the rules and rituals that we lose sight of the window this is waiting there to open for us.
MARY: Do you know C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters”?
DAVID: Sure. He casts the book as if a senior devil is writing to a junior devil on how to tempt people. It’s an inspirational satire.
MARY: Well, I find myself writing my own chapters of “The Screwtape Letters” in my head. I can just imagine that senior devil warning about keeping people away from the mystical. You know: “It’s dangerous when people start talking about being mystics. They might tap back into a deeper power.”
There are wonderful things in exploring the mystical.
But there’s also a real danger in it for us. And, the danger — and this is such an easy temptation, no matter how much you know about spiritual disciplines — is that, without even realizing it, we can let these disciplines sneak up on us as this whole set of rules we must follow. And the rules can become the all-important end.
What we want to do is open up.
What happens through spiritual disciplines is that you notice more –- and, as you notice more -– so many other things in your life fall away. Like fears. Before I became involved in spiritual disciplines, I tried to tackle my fears. I was fearful all my life. I had anxieties for years. And it was only after this work on spiritual disciplines that these other fears began to fall away.
That’s my heart’s desire — to write more about that.
DAVID: I love the way you’re describing this. It’s not about closing down. It’s about opening up. That runs 180-degrees counter to popular images about spiritual disciplines. What you’re describing here is the very reason that Geri Larkin moved from her monastery to go off and work in a garden shop.
MARY: It’s because this is not about narcissism. It’s not about becoming totally ingrown. This is supposed to move us outward.
In my own life, I really do believe this: What we’re developing is a mystical relationship with God that can’t be explained totally rationally — and it’s what gives us the power to do what Christ called us to do.
If you’re experiencing the power of the Holy Spirit and it’s turning into hours locked away together, isolated as a group, then that’s narcissism.
I’m not a narcissist. I’m a mystic.
DAVID: And now we’re full circle. Those four words: “I am a mystic.”
MARY: We’ve got to reclaim that word. Some people respond to me and say: “Oh, I don’t like all that mystical stuff.”
And I ask them, “Well, what don’t you like? Are you saying you don’t like anything that can’t be rationally explained? If that’s the case, then you don’t have any business being a Christian.”
We’re people who believe in a trinity, who believe in a Holy Spirit. We believe Christ is in us. That’s all very mystical! How can you explain all that rationally?
That’s what scares me most: People who think that they can explain it all rationally. That’s not our faith. Christianity is not this rational set of information that explains everything. That’s not the purpose of Christianity. The purpose is to fall in love with Jesus over and over and over again. That’s mystic.
And, when we find that, we open up the world in new ways.
COME BACK TOMORROW for more with Mary Albert Darling — a supplement to this Conversation focusing on a theme that’s very popular with readers: the Spirituality of Animals.
And, FRIDAY — Don’t miss our first-ever, semi-crazy experiment called, “Judging a Book By Its Cover.” The experiment turned out to be fascinating — and we’ve got video to prove it. That appears on Friday.
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