An Interview with Spiritual Author Mary Harwell Sayler

An active poet, freelance poetry editor, and highly ecumenical Christian writer in all genres, Mary Harwell Sayler has 25 books to her credit ranging from novels for young people, a children’s picture book, inspirational romances, a 7-book series of devotionals and two life-health encyclopedias, one of which the American Library Association (ALA) honored as a nonfiction academic favorite for the year. In addition to her traditionally published books, Mary has had over 1,500 nonfiction articles, devotionals, Bible stories, or children’s stories and over 300 poems in journals, anthologies and e-zines. Her latest work is a collection of poetry, entitled Living in the Nature Poem, set to come out through the eco-publisher Hiraeth Press on June 15th. In my capacity as Co-Lead Editor for Hiraeth, I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Mary and discuss the inspiration for her upcoming work.

In preparing for my interview with Sayler—a well-known Christian writer, I found myself circling back to reflect on where my spiritual path began, which is something I have not done in some time. Raised a Catholic, the early days of my spiritual journey were spent walking the pages of the Old and New Testament—both of which are familiar topics in Sayler writings. Unfulfilled by the narrow road I was set upon by those around me, I stepped out into the wider world of spirituality. Emerging into adolescence with a strong spiritual curiosity, I started to veer away from the traditional gospels and moved into the apocryphal verse, the pinnacle of this was reached when I delved headfirst into the 1000-page text that is Nag Hammadi library, which has in recent years become the object of much speculation given that it includes the Gospel of Thomas {the only Gospel in Christianity known to have survived potentially written from the first person perspective of Yeshua [Jesus.] As the years passed, I eventually went beyond Catholicism as a whole and started the long pilgrimage into my own personal spirituality, stopping for years at a time within the villages of other world religions including: Tibetan Buddhism, Judaism, Druidry and Shamanism.

Just as I carved out my own literary identity and spiritual philosophy so, too, has Sayler. Through each one of her articles and with each book put forth into the mosaic of her work, she has shaped a unique literary voice that carries across the boundaries of form, style and subject. Firm in her beliefs but by no means narrowed by them, Mary’s spiritual insights draw readers from all walks of faith.

L.M.: Welcome Mary. Thank you for speaking with me today. Let us begin at the beginning shall we: Where did your spiritual path begin?

M.H.S.: Before I can remember, Mother taught us Bible stories and prayers, but my earliest memory is in a Sunday School Class for 3-year-old’s when we sang “Jesus Loves Me,” and I believed it!

 

 

L.M.: My first impacting spiritual experience also took place when I was child. It would seem that those simple but magical moments are the ones that become the foundation for our faith. In my experience as a spiritual author, more and more people tend to be shifting away from traditional religious doctrines, opting instead for a more personal spirituality. Have you found this to be true?

M.H.S.: Yes, definitely. Often this occurs when a local church doesn’t seem relevant because the music, homily or sermon is out of touch or out of date. Or people grow up in a denomination that does not suit them, but they’re timid about visiting elsewhere or, perhaps, think all churches are the same. They’re not – and yet they are! Various moves around the country in early years of marriage showed my husband and me that basic beliefs hold the Body of Christ together, but each denomination has its own place in that body similar to an arm or lung or heart. So even though my Christian life started in a hands-and-foot church, as an adult I began to grow more spiritually when I found an eyes-and-ears home with stained glass windows, gorgeous music and poetic liturgy. Centering prayer and books by Christian mystics nurture me spiritually too.

L.M.: Prayers of course come in many forms. Personally, I find that walking through the calm of an untouched nature place—through tall grasses or along the shore—can resonate within like a silent prayer. Your next book reflects on finding the sacred in the wildness of nature. Do you hold the belief that the Divine can be found in nature?

 M.H.S.: Yes, especially since I believe God called everything natural into being and gave every part of the body of earth permission to just naturally unfold, flourish, be blessed, and become a blessing too.

L.M.: What is the intended message of Living in the Nature Poem?

 M.H.S.: We’re part of nature. That’s where we live – in the natural poem of our own body cells, skin or exterior environment as well as the day-to-day poems of our own making. If we’re at one with ourselves, we’re apt to aim for oneness with other people, too, and maybe the whole universe.

L.M.: What inspired the book?

 M.H.S.: Actually, the publisher did. When I saw the quality and type of poetry published by Hiraeth Press, I searched my files for poems connected to nature. The individual poems came about, however, because people often seem disconnected – even dis-integrated – and uncertain of themselves or anything. The break-up of relationships in church-families, marriages, and local communities have scattered us from one another, while a heavy emphasis on physical appearance seems to make us seek some other self. Male or female, it’s like we’re trying to clone The Ideal Look to connect with everyone else when we might do well to spend time, getting to know ourselves and our natural surroundings.

L.M.: Do you write in nature or are you a “desk poet?”

 M.H.S.: I almost never sit down at my desk to stare at a blank screen. I still prefer pencil and paper to jot down the first line of a poem that catches my attention with its musicality or visual appeal. That opening phrase or first line often appears when I’m “doing nothing,” such as taking a walk in the woods or wading in the Atlantic or lounging on our deck overlooking the little lake out back or whiffing herbs to find one that smells just right for whatever happens to be in the refrigerator.

L.M.: Your current list of projects seems staggering. Atop writing your own work, which any writer can vouch is a full-time job in and of itself, you currently maintain The Poetry Editor blog and website through which you offer advice and critiques to fellow poets. How did this begin?

 M.H.S.: I delight in poets and poetry, and I like to teach, but I don’t have time to do the freebies poets frequently request (sometimes demand!) For a while I was getting calls on Sunday mornings and getting emails from around the world, asking me to give poems “a quick read,” which is impossible! I give free resources and tips on writing, revising, and editing on The Poetry Editor blog, but if poets ask me to “take a look” at their poems, I tell them I don’t do quick readings but will do thorough readings as their poetry deserves for the minimal fee found on my website. Poets who are willing to pay a bit for professional feedback usually want to learn and grow as poets. So, critiques give me a chance to encourage their strengths, correct errors and comment on specific areas that need improving. If I have a print copy, I scribble options and suggestions in the margins to help the poets recognize tendencies, revise the poems at hand and find ways to say what they want to say in their own poetic voice.

L.M.: Along with your duties as an editor, is it true that you also judge contests?

 M.H.S.: Yes, I judged a couple of poetry contests then about ten years ago began judging poems entered in the annual writing competition sponsored by Writers-Editors.com. That contest has been around for many years, and I’ve known the Director a long time too. She’s very conscientious, so the contest is well-run and entries are “blind,” which means I have no idea who enters what until winners are announced. If, however, I recognize a poem that I’ve critiqued or previously seen, it’s immediately disqualified.

L.M.: Every writer has a “favorite child”—a book from their publication history that they love more than any other. Which is yours?

 M.H.S.: This one! I’ve held on to my poems like an overprotective parent, letting them occasionally venture out into journals or e-zines but never quite able to get them together for a book even though I have enough “ready” pieces for more books than Living in the Nature Poem. As I’ve often said, I started writing poems in grade school but, as an adult, wrote everything except poetry. So I am thrilled, thrilled, thrilled to have a publisher like Hiraeth Press to whom I can entrust my poems.

L.M.: I hold on to my journals as well—dating back to childhood. A trunk under my bed is filled with my old writings; while my bookcases are filled with books that inspired me along the way. It would seem that great writers are voracious readers. To whom do you turn in your library when you need to decompress or be consoled?

 M.H.S.: Psalms and prophetic poems such as found in Isaiah console me by their spiritual affirmations and assurances. I’ve loved the Bible since I began to read, and the more I read it, the more connected and comforted I feel.

L.M.: As a spiritual writer, what do you think is the “message of the hour”—the truth that needs to be conveyed given the current challenges we face day-to-day?

 M.H.S.: I hope Christian publishers get bolder and we members of the church re-member the dis-membered Body of Christ needs our forgiveness, love and healing. We also need a clear eye and melodic voice that often comes in prayer and poetry. Look at the great poems of the past: War and his own people troubled King David into writing many of the Psalms. Society was a mess when Dante wrote The Divine Comedy. T.S. Eliot needed to come to grips with faith in God severely shaken between two world wars. We have similar conditions today, but now, even our weather is in upheaval! We’re in a tough time of economic, environmental, and political disturbances that call for poets to speak with clarity, honesty, beauty, and hope. If the titles of books, movies, and television programs – or the Mayan calendar – give us a clue, we’re also in a spiritually disturbing time when people are worrying about the after-life and wondering if the end times will come through a global disaster, collapse of the ozone, space aliens, or vampire fangs! I’d rather look for Jesus.

L.M.: What’s next? Any plans for reading events?

 M.H.S.: Thanks for asking, Leslie, and thank you for such good questions! I want to collect my Bible story-people-poems and religious poetry into at least one book and also schedule some poetry readings soon for Living in the Nature Poem.

 

 

Find out more about Mary’s forthcoming book by going to: www.hiraethpress.com. Look for Living in Nature PoemJune 15th

 

 

 

L.M. Browning grew up in a small fishing village in Connecticut where she began writing at the age of 15. A longtime student of religion, nature and philosophy these themes permeate her work. Browning is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominated author. She has written a three-title contemplative poetry series: Oak Wise: Poetry Exploring an Ecological Faith, Ruminations at Twilight: Poetry Exploring the Sacred and The Barren Plain: Poetry Exploring the Reality of the Modern Wasteland. In late 2011 she celebrated the release of her first full-length novel: The Nameless Man, which was co-authored by Marianne Browning. Browning is a partner at Hiraeth Press—an Independent Publisher of Ecological titles. She is an Associate Editor of the bi-annual e-publication, Written River: A Journal of Eco-Poetics. Founder and Executive Editor of The Wayfarer: A Journal of Contemplative Literature and Founder and Lead-Editor of Homebound Publications.

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