Mary Ann Brussat: Everyday Sacred Renaissance
Syndicated from, May 05, 2024

44 minute read


This conversation took place in March 2024.

Guest: Mary Ann Brussat
Host: Janessa Gans Wilder
Moderator: Charles Gibbs

Janessa: Welcome, everyone. My name is Janessa, and I will be hosting today's Awakin call. Thank you for joining us from wherever you happen to be in the world and here from sunny California. The intention behind these calls is to plant seeds of awareness and transformation within ourselves and our communities through conversations with individuals whose journey and work inspire us.

Awakin Calls is an initiative of ServiceSpace, a distributed, global, all-volunteer community committed to the principle that by changing ourselves, we change the world. Behind each of these calls is an entire ServiceSpace team whose invisible work allows us to hold this space.

In a few minutes, our moderator Charles will begin by engaging in an initial dialogue with our speaker Mary Ann Brussat, and by the top of the hour we'll open into a circle of sharing where we will draw upon reflections and questions from you, our listeners. At any time during the call, please submit your comments or questions via the webcast form on our livestream page, or you can email us. Whether you're tuning in live or listening to the recording later, we're grateful for your presence in co-creating and deepening the collective energy of this conversation. And a friendly reminder that if there is a technological glitch or other issue for any of the speakers, please hang in there while our team works quickly to bring the speakers back on.

Let us start with a minute of silence to anchor ourselves into this space.


Thank you for that, and welcome again. Our moderator for the conversation today with Mary Ann Brussat is Charles Gibbs. I will read a short bio of Charles, who is a dear friend and mentor to me.

The Reverend Canon Charles Gibbs, an Episcopal priest and Sufi by adoption, has dedicated his life to serving the sacred in the world, especially through interreligious and intercultural engagement for peace, justice, and healing. Founding Executive Director Emeritus of the United Religions Initiative, and senior partner and poet in residence for Catalyst for Peace, he's an internationally respected spiritual leader, interfaith activist, speaker, and writer.

He's currently working on a new volume of poems, Thin Poems, mindful of the abundant blessings that come even through life's biggest challenges. He seeks to live each moment in gratitude. And something precious about Charles is he always has the perfect poem to add to the moment, to deepen it, to bring a spiritual perspective.

And so, without his permission, I've tracked down one of his poems that I'd like to open with today because it ties into the work that Mary Ann does in seeing the sacred in everything. So this poem by Charles is called "New Day Awakening".

New Day Awakening

I am not
different from everything
or anything else
that is and yet
I’m not the same.

The rising sun
turns the ribbed clouds
into an inviting canyon
stretched in unfathomable
depth across the dawn sky.

The wind tousles
the tops of the towering
poplars and pines
swaying as I am
entranced by the beauty
of this new day
awakening. I feel
an invitation
from the clouds, the sun,
the amber washed across
the sky, the breeze,
the trees, the damp grass
under my feet and
the tiny random daisies –
release, they say, forget
and remember.

Be more than
only an observer
in your own life
in the great life
we share. We are
not different.
We are not.

We are.

Okay. With that I'll turn it over to you, Charles, to introduce our guests.

Charles: Thank you, Janessa. My goodness. That was unexpected, and I'm grateful to hear that poem. I'd like to also welcome everyone to this gathering. It feels to me we have a precious opportunity to gather from an ocean of extraordinary living, working, reflecting, offering that Mary Ann, in partnership with her husband Fred, have been carrying on for decades. From this ocean, in this time, my prayer is we get a lovely glass of water because we can't begin to include the whole ocean.

Mary Ann is a trailblazer, a pathfinder, a spiritual and social prophet, who has given a life to building bridges and making meaning and sharing graciously and abundantly. Woven through her life are lovely names like Vermillion and Karachi, and even Appleton. Not to mention Claremont.

She thought she knew where she was going until, in her words, love intervened. Boy, isn't that a gift in our lives when love intervenes? And she found a soulmate and a life partner, her husband Fred, and together for over half a century — I'm guessing there are quite a few people on this call for whom life on earth in this incarnation hasn't even lasted half a century. Half a century they have been like spring each year renewing, like fall harvesting; planting, harvesting, resting, and deeply reflecting. So much that they have offered to the world and received from the world: a circle of reciprocity that we get to step into for this precious time together.

We'll touch on a lot more specifics, but I'd like to share this lovely tribute that was offered by a mutual friend of ours, a poet and wise human being, Mark Nepo. Mark said of Mary Ann and Fred's work: “During the middle ages, the monks were the ones who kept literacy alive. And the Brussats are the wisdom-keepers of our age, who are keeping spiritual literacy alive. Through their devotion and diligence, they have created an unprecedented wisdom archive, and, in a very real sense, this is a living archive because it encourages people to take this wisdom in all its forms into their lives.”

It is far from academic, it's not dead material. It's very alive and relevant. The Brussats and their team have created a spiritual practices database, an alphabet of spiritual literacy, a spiritual literacy DVD series, and a spiritual practice toolkit. They have also created a series of e-courses, as well as a Living Spiritual Teachers project, which gathers the wisdom and practices of over 140 elders from all traditions. All traditions.

And I have to say: and bear witness. That quietly, steadily, humbly, and with great integrity, the Brussats have added to the legacy of the world's knowledge centers. In a world that's so far-reaching and lightning fast, we need centers of depth to ground us -- in both spiritual practicality, but also in the mystery of life that has always been our fuel and our source.

I encourage you to drink from the wellspring of this wisdom to use its abundance of practices and to support this enormous resource in any way you can.”

Mary Ann, it is a joy and a privilege to welcome you to this time and this conversation where we can paddle around together in that ocean of abundant wisdom. Welcome.

Mary Ann: Thank you. And, thank you for sharing Mark's words as well. We have always been so grateful for that tribute. So, I want to say good morning, good afternoon, and good evening to our listeners, wherever you are in the world. I am sure there are all kinds of different time zones. I am happy to be here. I am in Southern California. We had rain last night, so we're happy.

Charles: Mary Ann, as I was reflecting on your life and all you have offered, and all you continue to offer, Khalil Gibran's masterwork The Prophet came to mind. And I love the way that book unfolds through a series of invitations. Tell us about– and, I think a lot of the ‘tell us abouts’ will be connected to the alphabet of spiritual literacy– which we'll get to in a little bit. But I'd like to start that way. Would you tell us about Vermilion, South Dakota, and what that meant to you?

Mary Ann: Well, Vermilion is a small town in the corner of South Dakota, near Iowa. And, my father taught in a medical school there. We're talking about a town of maybe 5,000 people, plus the college students. It's a university town. So, I spent a lot of time just riding my bicycle around, going to the swimming pool, jumping on a pogo stick. Just a lot of different activities that you can do in a small town like that. And I think it was important that the rest of my life I lived in really big places, big cities, but I still have that hook to what it's like to pretty much know all your neighbors and know what different people are interested in.

Charles:  And, what did that place do in the early years of your spiritual formation?

Mary Ann: Well, I think my early years were pretty traditional. My family was Methodist, and we went to church every Sunday, and we went to Sunday school, and we went to confirmation classes, and so forth. Actually, my Methodist roots go way back to John Wesley, the founder of the denomination, because I had a relative, an ancestor who used to sneak out with her maid and listen to John Wesley preach. So, I've always kind of had a fondness for him. But I think what I really took from Methodism was the famous line about Wesley himself, where he talked about a moment in his life in which he felt his heart strangely warmed. And it's that experience of a spiritual presence that I have sought, and experienced, and I hope other people can experience; that idea that your heart can be warmed by your experiences.

Charles:  And do you have a memory of the first time you had that experience?

Mary Ann: Not one time in particular. I think I looked for it all the time, but I wasn't one of those kids who had those experiences but I knew it existed, yes.

Charles: We will no doubt touch on a few of those moments as we go along. Would you speak to us about Karachi, Pakistan, and the gifts it gave you?

Mary Ann: Okay, well, that was wonderful; when I was 14 until 17, my family lived in Karachi. My dad, as I said, was a doctor and he taught, he was teaching in a medical school associated with Jenna Hospital in Karachi. And we went with a US-AID program to Karachi. Now I went to an American school. There were lots of Americans there at that time. We did have interactions with some of our neighbors, some of our people that went to our interdenominational church. And, my mother did a lot of wandering around the bazaars and even out into the villages with another woman from our project who was collecting art items for a museum actually. So, we did get that, and our house had a wall around it, and on the other side of the wall, there was actually a community of Pathans from the northwest part of Pakistan who were doing construction in Karachi. So, we could listen to them chatting away and smell their hookahs and so forth from our yard. It was really a true cross-cultural experience.

And I think what I learned was that we used to say, and I think I put this in the profile, that every time we left our home in Karachi, we could expect to see something that we had never seen before. And, that's been a practice that I have continued wherever I have lived. I mean, in New York City, you could say the same thing. I lived there for 46 years and you could always expect to see something that you had never seen before. And so, Karachi taught me that quality of attention. I didn't want to miss anything. I knew we were only going to be there for a short while, and I wanted to get the most out of that experience. So, attention and just the learning about how people live in different parts of the world was really wonderful for me. And it opened my mind and my heart to people from different traditions and different religions, and different ways of life. It was a wonderful experience to have that.

Charles: Oh, thank you, and speaking of different traditions and knowing that the majority faith in Pakistan is Islam, I would like to take this opportunity to wish Ramadan Mubarak to the Muslim people who may be on this call.

I love the notion of seeing something you've never seen before. And it strikes me that that could be as true walking down the street you walk down every day as going to a different place, that quality of attention. And I am wondering, I think of growing up in a small town, did you feel the beginnings of that learning to pay attention even as a little girl? Or where do you feel that started to take root?

Mary Ann: I think in Karachi, I think in Vermillion, I was just like any other little Midwestern kid. I didn't expect things to be very different. But of course, you go to another country and you know it's different. And so, then you have to say, well, why is it different? How is it different? And, now when I came back to the States after that experience, then everything about the states seemed different. I mean, I couldn't believe, for instance, that when you went to the drug store, when I left, there were two kinds of hairspray. And when I came home, there was an entire shelf of different kinds of hairspray and I thought, wow, this is really weird. But in three years, even things had kind of exploded.

So, I think that the experience of living in another country and then coming back to your own country with different eyes is important. And that's, I think what has really informed my spirituality over the years. I'm pretty sure that it's St. Chrysostom who said, be sober and clear-eyed with a thousand eyes in every direction, something like that. But it's the idea that spiritual life enables you to look in all directions and see what you can see. And at the same time most of the religions, at least the ones that I've embraced and gotten to know really well, will say that every place you turn, you see the face of God. And so that of course is what we call spiritual literacy.

Charles: Let's fast forward just in a biographical sense a little bit. We'll take a jump. You're back in the US for high school and college set on a career in international relations. And boom, love happens, you find a soulmate and a life partner and end up moving to New York City and beginning an extraordinary journey. I'd love for you to share with us a little bit about that move into New York City and how you got going, what that was like.

Mary Ann: Well, it was kind of interesting. My husband is a minister and he had been a chaplain at Cornell University and had started writing reviews of books and movies for the other chaplains who he found didn't have time to go to movies or to read books because they had a meeting every night of the week.

At the same time, Dan Berrigan, the great peace worker, was Catholic chaplain at Cornell. One day he said to Fred, we're doing politics, we're doing all kinds of stuff up here at Cornell, if you're so interested in the arts and the media, you should go to New York City. So, we did [laughs]. We didn't have jobs. I could type, so I knew I could always get a job. He had connections with one of the denominations. But mostly we just decided to start writing a review service, start writing reviews. We got one of the churches to send it out to youth ministers. Then we got some grants to start actually publishing it.

So, we kind of made up this career that we would be writing book reviews, writing film reviews. We actually covered art, art museums and theater and a lot of other New York things for a while. But it settled really down on television, film and books. We found that, for instance, we loved to ask questions when we wrote reviews. And so, we started writing discussion guides and ended up writing a lot of discussion guides for television shows that were being promoted by the networks as good for the community. It kind of unfolded and we got some people interested in it, got some grants, and got some subscribers, and it just kept going. When the internet came along, which was just such a blessing, if you review films because it's instant. You don't have to mail your review. We worked with a magazine at that point and then in 2006 we took everything we had written before and consolidated and put it into

Then we just continued on from there, expanding. Along in the middle of all of that we wrote the book Spiritual Literacy. It's just been a real blessing. Sometimes I think, how did we do that? We just came to New York, we didn't have any money, we didn't have jobs, but I think it was meant to be, at least it certainly worked out okay.

Charles: If I have my years right. You arrived in New York in 1969.

Mary Ann: Yes. Right.

Charles: Which actually was the year I arrived in New York. And my recollection of those times where they were incredibly turbulent. There was so much division in this country, speaking of the US, over America's war in Vietnam, the trust in institutions seemed to be crumbling. And when you created a cultural information service to carry the work you were talking about one of the descriptions, maybe this in current vernacular would be the tagline, “relating the living word to the happening world.”

Mary Ann: Yes.

Charles: So, this connection, always building a bridge between spiritual wisdom and the regular life ongoingly. So a division that often occurs in religion between the sacred on one side of the wall and the profane on the other. That didn't seem to be an issue for you two, you opened doors in that wall, built bridges over it. I wonder if you could just say a little bit about the value of taking those two things that are often held separately and having them in robust dialogue.

Mary Ann: Well, I think one of our goals was always to reach people where they were living. One of the stories, say you look in the Bible and you look in the stories about Jesus, when Jesus wanted to talk to shepherds, he talked about lost sheep. And when he talked to a housewife, he talked about a coin being lost. So, we said, where are people living in the early seventies? Well, they're watching a lot of television. They're going to movies and they're reading books, often novels. So, we said, what we need to do is show how those things can be opportunities or catalysts for thinking about the meaning and purpose of your life, which is one definition of spirituality.

So, we started out with pop culture. We did a lot of work in the seventies and eighties with television, movies, and miniseries because that's what people were living. They were watching that. And when, of course the internet came along, we went to the internet and said, okay, people are here. How can we reach them through the internet? It's the idea that you want to honor the fact that people are spending their time in these ways and that they're meaningful ways to spend their time. They're not entertainment or fluffing off or something like that.

There's a meaning in all of this. And so, our goal was to say, here's what we see in this, and hope you see it too. But if you don't, come up with your own understanding and meaning of it.

Charles: Wonderful. Well, I think this is a great moment to dive into the ocean of spiritual literacy. And to lead us into that, I would invite our wizard Rohit to please share the alphabet of spiritual literacy.

Spiritual Literacy Alphabet

pay Attention, walk with beauty
Being present, live your day
show Compassion, build Connections
in Devotion, make your praise
love Enthusiasm and Faith
grant Forgiveness, share God's Grace
live with Gratitude and
share the Hope that binds the human race.
Hospitality is needed.
Imagination brings us home.
in your Joy, come seeking Justice
for each one, not just for some
display Kindness as you listen
Love with love that never ends.
search for Meaning as you Nurture
Openness makes strangers, friends
foster Peace and learn by Playing
as you Quest, may you Revere.
welcome Shadow, welcome Silence,
Teachers bring transformation near.
work for Unity with Vision,
Wonder at the mystery
Yearn and follow your desires
live God’s Spirit Zealously.

Charles: I'd love to invite us just to have a moment of silence, just to let that magnificent song, the images, the words, settle into a deep place. Let's just pause for a moment….
Mary Ann, please speak to us of spiritual literacy.

Mary Ann: Okay. Spiritual literacy is, we define that as the ability to recognize the presence of the sacred all around us. And we did a book called Spiritual Literacy, in which we collected about 600 examples of spiritual takes, spiritual visions of everyday life from experiences with animals and nature and creativity and service.

And in doing that, we decided that we needed some markers of the spiritual life that would be signals or evidence of spiritual literacy. And that's how this alphabet emerged. We found that the passages we were choosing were often about attention or about practicing forgiveness or experiencing grace.

And we made a list of them and have found that this is a way to identify how everything that is around you and everything that you do has spiritual significance. So, it's that idea of everywhere you look, you see the divine. Everything is a piece of the divine. A sample of the divine; could be a metaphor of the divine, but all of these are evidence, illustrations of the presence of something greater than ourselves. And you could call that God, you could call that the divine, you could call it meaning; you could call it purpose with a capital P.

But the point is that this is all around us, and you just have to have the eyes to see and make a point of seeing it. So, what we did once we established this alphabet, and there's 37 of these, we call them practices. You could also call them qualities of heart and mind. I like that definition as well, to think that enthusiasm is a quality of the heart, or play is a quality of the heart.

Once we discovered this, we began to look for everything as illustrations. So spiritual literacy is one of those things that you learn by illustration, by reading illustrations, by noticing illustrations of it, and then also by practice. So, we've identified many practices, everyday practices that you can do that will increase your capacity to be spiritually literate.

We also have found that the alphabet is a bridge. As you mentioned very early today: we have aspired to be bridge builders. And one of the things is we notice these qualities, these practices in the alphabet are bridges between the traditions because all the traditions, if you look at them, have practices and ways to practice transformation meaning, you know, the transformative path. They're also bridges to the people that would not necessarily affiliate with a particular religion, but consider themselves to be spiritual. So, the spiritual but not religious, say. And there you look at many of the practices are done by this group as well. Gratitude, for instance, is a huge practice. Compassion is something that is embraced by people, whether or not they're with a particular tradition.

We've found that we did a big project on democracy, finding practices to enhance the democracy. We found the alphabet was a way to bridge divides between people because no matter where you were on a political spectrum, you still had love in your life, you still sought beauty. And then we also have used it for years, since the very beginning. We've used it to identify the meaning in popular culture. Every movie that we review, we will identify which of these practices from the alphabet it illustrates.

I think that what I'm now beginning to see and think about more and more, and this may be because of my exposure to ServiceSpace, is that these practices are catalysts to service. If you look at almost all of them, there is some way in which if you truly embrace compassion, for instance, then you want to be of service. If you embrace forgiveness, you have freed yourself up to be of service to others because you're not hung up on your own stuff.

Transformation, of course, is a catalyst for any service activity. I'm looking at this as almost a fifth bridge between the alphabet and into service because look at, think about vision. Now you've run a nonprofit and we run a nonprofit, and you're always coming up with the vision, the mission. What is the vision of the organization? And that's one of these alphabet practices. And once you figure out your vision, of course you have to figure out what is it you're going to do with that vision. So, I'm increasingly seeing that when we talk about encouraging people to be of service in the world, which of course ServiceSpace does in many, many ways, but in doing that, these practices are foundationally supportive.  I'm just really excited about how we can move forward with that concept as well.

Charles: That's wonderful. ... -- there is a treasure trove of resources if anyone on this call wants to take a deeper dive into any dimension of this. There is so much wisdom that draws from all over and invites it to be lived.

Mary Ann: We do have sections of the website for each one of the 37 practices. We also have a training program for people that want to explore them, a certificate program. But if I can I'd like to give you an example using one of them?

Charles: Please.

Mary Ann: We actually are very fond of the practice of reverence, and we have an entire project that we just singled out to do the reverence project. When we define reverence as a spiritual practice, we mean the practice of having radical respect, having courtesy, having civility, and also awe and wonder.

So it's a very broad practice, but what I've seen happen with reverence is, and you can think back to Albert Schweitzer and the 'Reverence for Life', for instance as a life philosophy. If you think about it, if you have reverence for say the Earth, then you're not going to be trashing the Earth. You're going to be trying to take care of the earth. If you have reverence for animals, you are going to be supporting animal shelters and support systems, but you're also probably going to be working to avoid factory farms and the cruelty that often happens in those places.

Of course, if you have reverence for people, you have to try to avoid war and poverty. So, reverence becomes a catalyst there for serving people. But there's also self-reverence, self-regard, and of course there's a lot of talk about how you can't serve others unless you've also taken care of your own needs and your own concerns and have reverence for yourself.

So, it's like we curated a whole series of practices for reverence, for nature, reverence for animals, reverence for things. We started our book, "Spiritual Literacy" with the first chapter on ‘things’ and I think we're kind of into things. For instance, I've always named all of my computers and my typewriters. This computer's named Voyager. I have a tricycle and its name is Yala, meaning, “let's go”. The idea of it is that if you do treasure things, then again, you're not throwing them away when they don't need to be thrown away. You're not adding to the junk in the world. You are sharing them with other people.  Reverence, I would say is a very catalytic practice. It really does help you relate differently to the world.

Charles: That's a wonderful expansion of a particular one, and it shows how we might go about practicing. I'd like to maybe extend that a little bit. Going back to the notion of the Living Word in the Happening World. The Happening World we're in right now is a challenging one, but also one with significant promise. I'm curious how this life body of exploration, of articulation, of practice, how does that inform this moment in time where we seem in so many ways to be on a razor's edge of catastrophe, and yet our vision and imagination and maybe our deep faith call us to see potential promise? Where do you find yourselves in this moment?

Mary Ann: Well, that is a really good question, and I think it's one we all reflect upon almost every day when we're reading the news or looking at it.

I think that one of the things that we have tried is in the way we describe our practices; we've tried not to set up kind of either-or situations and dualisms.

Our world is now full of what we call dueling dualisms. They're just everywhere. So, what you want to do is be able to look at what's happening with the eye of your heart, with an open mind, recognizing that even someone that you consider to be an enemy, for want of a better word, still has an essence that is sacred. That's a tough one to live with. What it does is, that you're not spending a lot of time racking up complaints like "did you hear what he did today? Or what he said?" Instead of doing that, you look at them and again, picking up a ServiceSpace phrase "Where is the Daily Good? Where is something wonderful happening? Where is something that you could hold onto? Where is the hope?"

I think what the difference now is, that you can't have hope without also acknowledging the reasons for despair. Otherwise, I mean, you're really being naive if you don't see the whole picture. I think our spirituality needs to both see the shadow - see the difficult things - as well as the hope behind it. When we did this project called the 'Practicing Democracy Project' (the material is all on the website) a lot of times we found that what was really important was to re-vision some of these things we take for granted and put them in spiritual terms. For instance, we did a piece on the National Parks in the United States and we did a Visio Divina practice where we asked people to look at pictures from the parks and recognize the beauty that it was offering and be grateful for that. That kind of an exercise reminded us of what's beautiful, what's possible, what's available and what we can be grateful for. So, there's different things like that which can be done to counter the despair - like gratitude and so forth.

Charles: Well, that's great. You anticipated my question, which is, "what does this have to offer in a time when it's so easy to have despair that’s kind of overwhelming?" I heard some of that in what you just said. If there's anything more you'd like to offer, feel free. If you feel that was enough, that's fine.

Mary Ann: I would simply add that I think one of the things that people are trying to develop or increase their capacity for is empathy. To be able to recognize and to walk in someone else's shoes. There's this film that just won the ‘Academy Award’ in 2024 for ‘Best Documentary’ called '20 Days in Mariupol’, that puts you on the ground in this Ukrainian city as it is being destroyed by bombing. You really can feel tremendous empathy for the people, but at the same time, compassion is something that's a little different.

Compassion is where you move towards someone to see if there is a way that you can be of help. So not only do you recognize your feelings for someone, but you try to figure out, is there something here that I can do? Or perhaps as the Serenity Prayer goes, there are some things that you can't do, that aren't yours to do. I think there's constantly all of these practices that ask you, "Is this for me? How can I apply it?" Maybe it's not the one. Maybe you can't do all 37, that's quite a challenge. But to pick out one or two and really work with it, I think is important.

Charles: I love that journey from empathy to compassion. That was beautifully framed. Thank you. Another dimension of our time and it is part of what makes ServiceSpace possible is the rapidly evolving technology. There are so many gifts that (technology) gives the world, and yet it also has people often spend much more time relating to screens than they might be, we might be, I might be - to the living, breathing world in all of its different expressions. I wonder what spiritual literacy might offer in terms of finding a healthy balance between the wonder and gifts of technology and the wonder and gifts of the living, breathing world?

Mary Ann: I don't think that we would make a big distinction there.

Charles: Okay.

Mary Ann: Now, maybe that's because we've been working with screens or the written word for so long. We used to irritate friends that did a lot of traveling by saying, "oh yeah, it's nice that you got to see those lions out in Tanzania, but we just watched this wonderful documentary about them and we got even closer. And then they're going, oh no". So, it's not that much. It's that technology has broadened our field of vision and knowledge and it's amazing what that means in terms of where you feel you fit into the world.  I have to give a shout out again to ServiceSpace because ServiceSpace created an AI for Spirituality and Practice. So, we have the Spirituality and Practice Bot. You ask it a question and it goes through the 65,000 pages of content on our website and comes up with an answer. And it's been fascinating to us, because we created all this content, but it's been fascinating to watch the AI put it together in interesting new ways.

And sometimes we hadn't even noticed that about what we were doing. So, I think there, I think that I'm going to be pretty positive about technology. I do think that it's important that people be aware of what the technology people themselves have said, particularly about social media and some of the warnings that they're giving about AI. But that I don't actually see as one of those things that's ours to do. I think it's theirs to do.

Charles: Alright, well maybe one last question before, I hand this back over to Janessa to field questions from the field. And it's this, Mary Ann, would you speak to us about life as a sacred adventure?

Mary Ann: Oh, that's the first line of our book and yes, I think life is a sacred adventure because if you believe, as I do, that everything that you do and everything that you encounter in a day or a week or a month has spiritual significance, or is, or can be a spiritual practice for you, then life becomes an adventure.

Everything is an adventure of expressing that. And I'll give you an example. We are in the process of doing a redesign on the website. And one of the new areas we are adding is going to be called passions and pastimes. What we're doing is we are looking at the kinds of things that people are passionate about that have spiritual significance to them.

An example might be, animal care. We have these two wonderful cats and my husband says that his first spiritual practice of the day is cleaning the cat litter. Taking care of these animals is a spiritual practice for him. And at the same time, their affection, their response, the fact that they are living beings that have their own personalities and that are different from us - that is fascinating to watch. And so, everything can have a fascinating, or wonder-filled wonderful, quality to it. If you're looking at it and saying, ah, this is where my spirituality is being expressed: somebody that knits, somebody that plays golf, somebody that works with children.

Where do you come alive? That's what we mean by the passions and pastimes. We're going to be saying yes, spirituality is often expressed through prayer and devotional practices. It may be expressed by your relationship to nature, but it's also expressed through these passions that you have, these pastimes where you spend your time, there's a reason you spend your time that way. And that's because it's making you feel alive and feel that life is an adventure. How's that?

Charles: Wonderful. Thank you. Thank you, Janessa.

Janessa: Thank you, Charles. Thank you both.

Mary Ann: Thank you, Charles.

Janessa: Thank you both for the conversation. We'll get him back here in, a half hour or so to close this out. But I'm delighted to engage in this conversation with you, Mary Ann.

I actually want to start with a question on my own. You will not remember this, but I first met you at a fundraising course that Lynn Twist was doing somewhere in the Redwoods, at this beautiful place. And I didn't know who you were, but she said, “oh my goodness, we have a celebrity in our course.”

And she brought you up to the front of the room and she pulled out this dog-eared copy of Spiritual Literacy. And she said, "this book has been foundational to my spiritual understanding. I refer to it every day. I love this book. I love this woman". And, she sang your praises. And I wanted to know, did you know that she was such a fan of yours before you took this course. I think it was called 'Fundraising from the Heart'. And, so I wanted to know how that, and then if you would, since ServiceSpace is all volunteer, there's no fundraising, but how do you see spiritual literacy even in something -you know, the Bible says money calls, money the profane- even in something as profane and secular and worldly as money, how would you, do you see that through a spiritual lens? And then a little bit about your connection with Lynn Twist.

Mary Ann: Okay. Well, with Lynn... Well, we knew of Lynn because we knew her book The Soul of Money. We also knew that she is on the Board of Directors of the Fetzer Institute and we have received funding from the Fetzer Institute. They funded, for instance, that Reverence project that's on the website and some other things, the Democracy Project. So, we knew that Lynn knew of our work and I went to - I think it was Wisdom 2.0 or some conference in which she was speaking.

And the woman from Fetzer introduced me to Lynn and she said, "oh, I love your book. I read it every day". And so, I was really thrilled, but when I went to the workshop, I didn't know she'd introduce me like that, I was totally stunned when she walked into the room with a copy of Spiritual Literacy and she'd post it all over the place and then she read it as the opening and then she made a video for us to use, which I think is linked off the review of the book on the website.

So, I think that she's an example of someone that discovered in the book this kind of universal spirituality that is not necessarily tied to any one tradition, but it embraces all of the traditions. And, so I think she just saw it as value like that. And in terms of fundraising, which we do need to do, we actually asked the AI that ServiceSpace made for us, “What are some good reasons to donate to spirituality in practice?” And it was fascinating; it came up with five reasons that I hadn't necessarily ever put my finger on.

The idea is, that what you hope with fundraising is that people will see what you are doing is something they also embrace; that they support; that they want to see done in the world. So, in our case, this idea of spreading the value of spiritual practice and even broadening the definition of what is spiritual. To say that you can be spiritual if you sing in a choir and that's where you come alive, or you can be spiritual when you're volunteering at your child's school. That may be your practice.

With fundraising, I think what we need is for people to say, “This is a need that's being fulfilled by this organization that I want to support.” That I hope they see the value of.

For instance, really nobody else is reviewing movies as consistently as we are, from a spiritual perspective. I mean, there are people who review movies, and they look for spiritual figures, or something. But we're talking about all the Hollywood movies and what you can see as an example of transformation or of love. So, we're hoping that people will recognize that this is unique work, and that it's a way for them to express- money is a way that you express your commitments. And so, money is your vehicle of being in service. If you can't do something yourself, you can at least support those who are doing something.

I know for me personally, at this point, supporting Doctors Without Borders, or the International Rescue Committee for all the work they are doing with all the people that are suffering in the world; that's a way of me being spiritual when I send a check, that check is a spiritual gift.

Janessa:  So instead of seeing it as a profane, filthy, worldly thing, almost imbuing even money with spiritual significance, seeing it through that spiritual lens?

Mary Ann: Oh, definitely. It's a way to extend the reach of what you can personally do, because, by supporting an organization, you are helping them reach more people. So, we have, we do run online courses and so forth, but we have at least 60,000 pages of free content, and we're building it all the time. That's something that somebody can support, they can say: “Well, I want people all over the world who understand, for instance, understand a movie as having something to teach them about how to live a spiritual life.”

Our current favorite movie of the year is a movie called “Perfect Days”, and it's about a man who cleans public toilets in Tokyo. It just follows his day.

And you think: “Who is this person?”

But you just love him because he is incredibly present to every moment of his day. He goes to lunch in a park. He takes a picture of the glistening leaves in a favorite tree. He's kind to people. He goes to the bath club, and it's a bathhouse, and it's obviously hot. An old man has fallen asleep, and he reaches over and fans him.

Now see, that's kindness and beauty. He sees beauty all through his day. So, we identified about six or seven of our practices in this one character.

Now, I would hope that people will see the value of having a movie reframed in spiritual terms. Because once they see that, this character can recognize… You know, he walks out of his house every morning and he looks up at the sky and smiles a Buddha-like smile.  And you think: “I want to live like that. I want to bring that to my day.” So that's the point. If you believe this is an important way of looking at the world, then help the people that are trying to do that who only have so many resources. So, they need more.

Janessa: Right. So many ways to support and help that work.  Thank you! And for the movie recommendation!

This is a question from a listener in the Midwest. She says: “I understand that as a high schooler in the 1960’s, you wrote an award-winning magazine essay on Vinoba, Gandhi’s spiritual successor. (Vinayak Narahari "Vinoba" Bhave was an Indian advocate of nonviolence and human rights. Often called Acharya, he is best known for the Bhoodan Movement. He is considered as a National Teacher of India and the spiritual successor of Mahatma Gandhi.)

Can you say more about that? What inspired you about Bhave and any relevance today as you reflect on that?”

Mary Ann: Oh, that's wonderful. Well, you know, I must have. Unfortunately, I don't know where that essay is. It must be someplace in all the memorabilia of my life. What happened was there was a contest with the Atlantic Monthly for essays, and I was taking a writing class, and my teacher submitted it, and it won an award.

But I know that what I liked, was, of course, that Bhave was pretty much the successor to Gandhi.  But it was his courage and his determination to just go out there and walk all over the country in India and say to landowners:

 “Hey, consider me another son and give me a piece of your property, and then I'll give it to the poor.” And it sounds like a great idea, but just think of the courage it took to do that! And to get- I forget what the total number is of what he did.

Some of our greatest spiritual teachers throughout history have been courageous.

Gandhi was courageous.

Martin Luther King was courageous.

Bhave was courageous.

And so they model that quality, that stance in life. And then we are encouraged by them, to have courage in our own life.

So, I think that is what drew me to him; certainly draws me to him now. I am not quite sure what I wrote as a 17-year-old, but it must be-

Janessa: Wow. Wouldn’t you like to get your hands on that?

Mary Ann: Yeah.

Janessa: But how interesting that even in high school, you were drawn to spiritual leaders and spiritual giants like that.

Mary Ann: Yes. See, that was after Karachi. That was after living there, and I was fascinated by the history of the subcontinent and had taken some classes on that; so, I'm sure that's how I discovered him.

Janessa: So, we have some great questions, and I'll remind our listeners too that you can still ask and submit your questions.

This is from Susan: “How do you, Mary Ann, see how spiritual literacy is enhanced by direct contact with trees or different kinds of plants and different types of sentient creatures besides humans, creatures outside of domesticated settings?”

Mary Ann: Well, I would say I love trees, so that's going to be easy.

Janessa: Do you have a favorite tree?

Mary Ann: We have California Oak right outside our window. A really big one full of squirrels at the moment. Although, we also have some coyotes wandering around, so I hope the squirrels are safe.

Let's just say that when we say: “Everywhere you turn, you see the face of God.” That isn't just people that you see the divine in. You see the divine in trees. I see the Divine in things. I see the divine in flowers and the sky. It's the idea that everything is a part of sacred. The theological term would be panentheism. Saying that everything is in God and God is in everything.  But you could also see it as Thich Nhat Hanh’s wonderful concept of inter being:

“That everything is interbeing with everything else.  The tree is interbeing with us because the tree is providing the ingredients that we need for our breathing. And everything is connected. And when you start with that basic concept of connection and everything is in everything, then all the beings and not just sentient ones, I don't know why they say non-sentient beings. As I said, rocks are sentient.“

How do we determine what a rock is to me? It is. And I think of that, and that's part of what I've actually learned from Sufism, from being part of a Sufi order, is that, you'll notice for instance, that Sufi musicians will ask permission of their instrument before they play it.  And, you'll see them acknowledge it.

And, as you finish your prayers you would kiss your prayer rug in gratitude for its part in your prayers.  And for everything there is a relationship with every aspect, sentient or non-sentient. It's important to not make spirituality just about just the human thing. It's not a human thing, it's an everything thing.

I hope that answers that.

Janessa:  Goes back to your reverence idea.  Reverence in everything in our lives. Marie Kondo, you know that book, Spark Joy. She says we should be surrounded with things that give joy because they want to be admired and appreciated. They want to give us joy and we also, in turn, want to be appreciated. Even the non-sentient.  I love that.

Mary Ann:  I had an experience when we were writing our book.  I had an experience of feeling like some of my wedding presents that had been put in a cabinet and never been used: I felt as if they were crying out to me saying use me, use me. And it made a point to me,

Janessa:  don't lock me up in a cabinet.

Mary Ann: Yes. Right.

Janessa:  And did you bring them out?

Mary Ann:  I did.  And when we moved, I made sure that I brought some that had never gotten used. They didn't just go to Goodwill; they came with me so that I could give them a chance.

Janessa: That's great. I bet they were thrilled.  Let's keep going on down the list here. Here is a question from a caller about, please share with us how you came to be a Christian Sufi and how that enriches your life?

Mary Ann: It's an interesting story about what you need in your spiritual life.  Frederick and I are members of a church in New York City, in Greenwich Village called Judson Memorial.  And Judson is very devoted to the social justice movements, to the prophetic ministry, the gay rights movements started there. They recently have been doing a lot of work with the sanctuary movement for immigrants. There we even had a minister who used to go around Times Square and offer cookies to the prostitutes so that he could talk to them about their human rights. There is this whole history in this one church of being socially active for justice. But they didn't have much about spirituality. They didn't talk about it. They didn't have meditation classes. They didn't have, we had prayer of course, but they didn't really have any kind of emphasis upon the contemplative life or the spiritual life.

And after we wrote about spiritual literacy, we found a lot of people came to us to talk about spirituality, because the ministers weren't doing that. And at that time, we discovered Rumi. And for a person who had been a political science major, I never understood poetry until I found Rumi. And then it just totally touched my heart. I got it, I understood what he was saying.  Kabir and Camille Kaminski were offering a workshop at the Omega Institute in New York.  Kabir is the Sheikh for the Mevlevi order that was founded by Rumi. And they have both translated a lot of Rumi's poetry. I went to the workshop, and I just had a real deep connection to the two of them. In Sufism you talk about a teacher's barica, meaning their grace, that they are feeling.  It would be similar to say a Hindu teacher who gives Darshan say. And I just felt like there was something there for me that I really wanted to know more about the path I was interested in.

All of Sufism has an enormous emphasis upon what they call “adab”, which means courtesy practices. And there's an adab for everything. There's an adab for your relationship with your teacher, with your fellow circle members, but also with things and I loved that. So I went to the teacher, I went to Kabir and I said, well, here's the thing. I've got this long history of Christianity. My husband is a Christian minister, but I really would like to study this more deeply. I love the practices. I want to do them regularly. And what did he think about it? And he said that Rumi, the peer of the order, had followers who were Christian, who were Jewish, who were Zoroastrian, and he never asked them to convert to Islam, although Rumi was obviously a Muslim.

And Kabir said, I would never ask you to convert. Rumi would not ask you to convert. He said, I practice surrender as a Muslim, but you can practice surrender as a Christian, in the way of Jesus. And it was possible with his blessing to adapt, to bring what I knew about the transformational path of Christianity that was taught by Jesus and see that it was also expressed in the transformational path of Sufism. That is how I ended up practicing two religions.

Janessa:  So inclusive and non-judgmental, and it's beautiful. Just a quick follow up from a caller, Carol. She asked if the spiritual alphabet is similar to the 99 names of Islam? Have you matched the sacred names to the alphabet?

Mary Ann:  We haven't, but you're right. It is probably a direct match. I'd have to go through and do that though. But certainly, things like gratitude and love and beauty and generosity. I love this phrase, and I identified with this immediately when I really began to explore Sufism more deeply. There is this phrase about doing the beautiful, you want to do the beautiful, and beauty is an important practice for me. I love the idea that your practice is to do the beautiful.

Janessa: Earlier, Mary Ann, you mentioned that at this time we can't just sweep the shadow under the rug. We have to acknowledge the shadow and then look for hope. Where has the shadow come up for you, in this work? And what has gotten you through those challenging times or experiences?

Mary Ann: I think the hardest part is that we live in an intentional community and a retirement community. And most of the people that live here, have had lives of service. That was part of the qualification to come here. You had to demonstrate commitment to a cause and so we have people a lot of ministers and professors from various universities and seminaries, but we also have somebody from the Heifer International, the founder or one of the lead people like that, or other nonprofits. And typically... I hesitate to say "typically" but this group is pretty progressive politically and also pretty worried at the moment. And so, consequently there tends to be... We have a shared lunch every day and we get assigned our seating differently – it’s computer generated -- so we don't end up with the same people every day. And it seems as if there are just some tables... Sometimes you get a table and all they can do is talk about the last president. I'll follow this example and not mention him by name. And the thing is that there is so much animosity going on there. And I find that to be a shadow element.

Whatever you give attention to grows and if you're constantly giving attention to how much you hate someone, you're not going to see what the alternative could be or see how you can cope should that person end up in power again. So, I think for me, the shadow would be this tendency to create enemies and to hold people as enemies.

There's a wonderful Sufi teacher, Jamal Rahman, who talks about the fact that you have to make a distinction between someone's actions and someone's essence. And everyone has the essence of the sacred, of the divine.

I think that's a shadow element that we have to deal with because you can just get incredibly stressed if you're constantly finding reasons to hate someone. I think that's an important shadow element. Yeah.

Janessa: I'm going to try to squeeze in one more question before our final one. Here's from a caller:  "You've been with your husband for 50 years. Can you speak a bit about relationships as a spiritual practice? Or what are some important lessons you can share?" And you've worked with him, so that's pretty amazing.

Mary Ann: Yes. We've worked with each other from the beginning. Well, we are complimentary in terms of our talents and our gifts. We laughed and said we were able to come to New York because he could read fast and I could type fast.

And in a sense, learning to recognize what your unique gifts are and how they interact, how they inter-mesh with the other person is important. Now, it may be that you're just twins, that you have the same skills and then that's great. Then you can help each other and support each other in whatever your gifts are.

But there were times when I was kind of frustrated because he's a very high energy person and I have a button that says "slow is beautiful." [Laughs] And so I'm kind of like, "Oh, I can't keep up with him." And yet I realized that I fed off his energy. And so rather than seeing it as something that would make me feel bad about myself, I just turned it around and I said, "Oh, I can feed off his energy." And at the same time, he feeds off my attention to detail, which he's too fast sometimes to take care of. So, I think the main thing is really learning who you are and how you are different and how you are alike that makes a long-term relationship work.

Janessa: Beautiful. Thank you. That's beautiful. And congratulations on 50 years together in marriage.

Mary Ann: Yes.

Janessa: That's an inspiration.

Mary Ann: Thank you.

Janessa: I've got one final question which we ask all of our guests. How can we, in the Awakin Calls community and the broader ServiceSpace ecosystem support your vision and work in the world? I know we're already doing some of that but let's invite you into an even greater possibility. What comes to you?

Mary Ann: Well, I think one of the things that's been difficult in the growth of our organization is that we are so small. There's Frederick and myself. We have a couple of editors, an office manager and an arts person. But this whole enterprise has always been done by less than five people and that's difficult. And so, for instance, in our new redesign, we're planning to have a video portal where we have little videos of, for instance, people talking about their passion.

We would love to send some of the students from the nearby colleges into LA to talk to the skateboarding community and find out – why are they passionate about skateboarding? Because skateboarders see the city entirely differently than the rest of us. They look for different things. So, we're fascinated by that and we'd love to have a little video about that.

I think for us, what we're hoping is that one, people will let people know about the website, will spread the word, will sign up for our newsletter and tell people about all these resources. But also, as we look for ways to engage with people -- I think that's our big challenge -- even getting some volunteers to help with, say, this video portal or collecting stories.

We have a wonderful blog of young people who have written essays. But even getting teaching stories from different communities. You know, what are the stories that convey your spiritual life and what are the story lessons that you have? We can put those into a piece on teaching stories, for instance. So, we are open to people submitting content ideas.

We're just starting an interfaith book discussion group that people might want to join. It actually grew out of that 21-day compassion interfaith thing in the fall. We had so many of our people enjoy that, they wanted to have an ongoing discussion group. So, we're starting that.

I guess it's just -- if you can think of ways to just let us know what's happening in your part of the world. Where are people's passions and pastimes? Where are they showing up? What do you think is really interesting about... Is it going to a concert? Then why? You know, that kind of thing. I guess that would be it.

And of course, obviously we could always use donations. But I'm mostly looking for donations of ideas and time. I think we'd like to see a way to engage with more people than our little staff.

Janessa: Mm-Hmm. Wonderful. And tend to those many ripples of the seeds that you've already planted.

Mary Ann: Yes.

Janessa: I'm going to invite Charles back on here. We're at closing time. I want to end with specific gratitude and then invite Charles to say a few words as well.

Mary Ann, I just want to say how incredibly safe it feels in your presence. I love that you've repeated so many times that you meet people where they are, even if that's binging on Netflix, you know. It's just that you can find the spiritual, wherever they may be. And that just feels so safe and inclusive and nonjudgmental. And thank you so much for bringing that to our society and meeting people where they are, wherever they are, and seeing even in wherever they are, is the divine and is the face of God.

And Charles, I wonder if you would like to also say a few words in closing.

Charles: Thank you, Janessa. And thank you to everyone who's been part of this -- breathing in, breathing out and sharing your energy in this. And Mary Ann, I continue to be just in awe, wonder and profound gratitude for the decades of service, for the decades of reinvention that has continuity to it.  It's not that you're one thing today and another tomorrow. It's -- "How does this ‘find home’ in a particular time in the world?" And in doing that, I think you've not only created a body of wisdom that is a huge treasure trove, but a model for what it means to live in a rapidly evolving world. And our world is evolving more and more rapidly. And to keep our eye on the wonder, the beauty, the sacred that is present everywhere all the time, simply inviting us to pay attention. Thank you for helping us remember to pay attention.

Mary Ann: Well, thank you all. It's been such a joy. Everyone from people that just reached out to me and the people that wrote the profile and just lots of... What a wonderful, wonderful community to be associated with. So, thank you.

Janessa: Thank you, Mary Ann, thank you so much. Thank you, Charles. We'll close our call in the same way that we opened it with a moment of collective silence. This time in gratitude to honor all that was offered today, as well as the invisible causes and conditions that brought us together and to all of our volunteers. Thank you. Let's close with silence.


Mary Ann Brussett is an interfaith minister, co-architect behind (S&P). More about her here.

Audio and video recordings of the conversation are available on the Awakin Calls website. This transcript, as with all aspects of Awakin Calls, was created as a labor of love by an all-volunteer team located around the world. It is a collective offering, born from a shared practice of deep listening and service. Diverse and spontaneous teams emerge week to week to create and offer each call.