A Mennonite Woman: Exploring Life and Identity
Dawn Ruth Nelson. Telford, PA: Cascadia, 2010. 183 pages.
This book, an exploration of Mennonite spirituality, draws on several perspectives: the author’s personal experience, her grandmother’s story, and research done for a thesis on Mennonite spirituality. The thesis and book grew out of a question asked of Nelson by an Irish Catholic spiritual director while she was on retreat during a twelve-year missionary presence in Ireland that spanned the 1980s. He asked, “What is Mennonite spirituality?”—a question she couldn’t answer at the time.
Nelson turned to her grandmother, a woman she knew had lived out a life of faithful, if implicit, Mennonite spirituality. Susan Ruth’s life was very much shaped by a sense of place. She was born on a farm in eastern Pennsylvania and lived there her whole life among extended family. The farm created a space separate from the world. It generated a spirituality that was “very earthy, needing to be embodied in the physical” (49). In that setting, Ruth’s spiritual life was formed by observing and copying the lives of others.
Nelson draws out sixteen spiritual themes from her grandmother’s life. Some of these are traditionally devotional in nature, such as Bible reading, hymn singing, and believer’s baptism. Others are more cultural in nature, such as plain dress, food hospitality and visiting, and structured gender roles. A third category is related to lifestyle choices such as Gelassenheit or “yieldedness,” a sense of self-sacrifice, and living close to the rhythms of nature on the farm.
Because most Mennonites no longer live on farms or in close-knit communities, many of the themes that formed a context for Nelson’s grandmother’s spiritual life no longer serve to define a viable spirituality. As a case in point, Nelson surveys her own life to see what can be salvaged or translated from Susan’s spirituality to her own. Nelson moved several times during her growing up years and now spends much of her time commuting from one event to another. Therefore her spirituality (and that of many in her and later generations) is marked not by residency in a place but by changing environments, fragmentation, and frantic activity.
Drawing on Robert Wuthnow, she describes this shift as a moving from “an implicit spirituality to an explicit spirituality—one that can be explained to newcomers . . . from a spirituality of ‘dwelling’ to a spirituality of ‘seeking,’ from a spirituality of ‘place’ to a spirituality of ‘pilgrimage’ ” (88).
Nelson defines spirituality as “synonymous with lived faith” (93). In fleshing out that definition, she adds such terms as “spiritual formation,” “practices,” “contemplation” or “contemplative prayer,” and Gelassenheit. Mennonites, she says, are now experiencing spirituality in much the same way as other Christians, yet they are missing a connecting bridge to their historical roots. They are “experiencing a stripping away of their previous experience of God, a loss of their customary communal/agricultural forms of knowing God, and are searching for new patterns and practices” (100).
Thinking back to her time as a student at Goshen Biblical Seminary in the 1970s, Nelson remembers a few professors who addressed spiritual concerns in their classes, or who prayed before class, but no courses on spirituality. In general, she remembers instead an emphasis on the ethical teachings of Jesus and on community accountability. Individualistic and purely vertical dimensions of faith understood as “me and God” were to be avoided. Yet when she got to Ireland, she found these outward and communal emphases did not prepare her for the difficulties she faced. “As our intentional community broke down, I lost my access to God, because that access had been too purely communal” (106).
In the late 1980s she began to hear of courses in “Mennonite spirituality” in seminaries in the United States. She describes the development of these courses through the life experiences of four professors who started the spirituality programs. All of them shared stories of mission work from which they began to feel the stress of embracing a spirituality that did not provide resources for their work.
Having traced these stories, from her grandmother through her own life and those of her professors, Nelson lays out some foundations for a current Mennonite spirituality. “Mennonites now have to be more intentional,” she says, “more explicitly person-oriented and inner-oriented in their spiritual formation of people” (122). Within this “Mennonite spirituality for the twenty-first century” she delineates six themes: “an everyday embodied sacramentality; nonconformity; community service; Gelassenheit or meekness; and the person of Jesus and the Bible” (126). One can see in these delineations what she has gleaned from the spirituality of her grandmother, and under each heading she includes practical subheadings and one “suggestion” for action. She does this because “I still believe a group of Mennonites of various ethnicities and ages and experiences should look at these themes and tell me if I got the six key ones down rightly and suggest their own ways of living them out” (126).
This book offers an important perspective on Mennonite spirituality. Nelson admits from the outset that it reflects an eastern Pennsylvanian, Swiss-German Mennonite experience, but also asserts that Mennonites from other areas and denominations have resonated with her experience and findings. The narrative method is admirable and instructive. However, these strengths also include several weaknesses. The development of a “Mennonite” spirituality from so small a people sample and so short a historical time frame may limit too severely the necessary ingredients of that spirituality. Since I do not share either that rural heritage or that ethnicity, my perspective and those of others from the majority of the world’s Mennonites today are not represented here. While the title and cover art pay tribute to Susan Ruth, they may serve to limit the breadth of the possible audience for this book. Further, though she acknowledges the contribution of Catholic spirituality to her understanding, it seems she wants to distil an exclusively “Mennonite” spirituality. I wish instead that she had framed her effort as part of a larger conversation among the many Christian groups. In that conversation, Mennonites do have a particular voice and a valuable perspective, but not an exclusive one. That said, Nelson makes an early and brave contribution to a timely conversation.