A Mennonite Woman: Exploring Spiritual Life and Identity

Andrew C. Martin

The Conrad Grebel Review 28, no. 3 (Fall 2010)

Dawn Ruth Nelson. A Mennonite Woman: Exploring Spiritual Life and Identity. Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2010.

“Mennonites have a problem” writes Dawn Ruth Nelson as she sifts through the past and present of her own Mennonite heritage, all the while asking the question, What is Mennonite spirituality? Through an interview with her ninety-plus-year-old grandmother, Nelson appreciatively tells the story of Mennonite spirituality in America at a time when Mennonites were rural, agrarian, and essentially communal. Against this earlier spirituality, the author examines her own cosmopolitan life, formed on the fringes of the Mennonite community and through researching the development of a spiritual formation curriculum in the 1980s at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary.

A pivotal event in the author’s life was a spiritual-emotional burnout in Ireland, while on a peace mission, that led her to realize the inadequacy of an overemphasis on ethics at the expense of inner piety – and to approach the brink of the Mennonite “problem.” The problem is that “many are not recognizing that we have a new spiritual situation: The communities many of our forebears, and often we ourselves grew up in, no longer exist in the same way” (86). In this book the author allows us to join her search for what is central to the Christian life and what will sustain that life.

The first two chapters tell Grandmother Ruth’s story and identify the significant themes that informed and sustained her spirituality. Fifteen areas are identified, including the ordinary, daily functions of eating, family interaction, farm work, gender roles, rhythms of nature, and the German language. Other things such as music, Gelassenheit (interpreted here as “letting go”), church discipline, baptism, Bible reading, plain clothes, daily discipleship, self-sacrifice, community, and mutual aid are also recognized. This was an earthy spirituality of place mediated in large part by community life.

Chapters three and four briefly name the influences on the author’s spiritual life, including her introduction to monastic spirituality, and conclude that Mennonite formation today no longer happens in closeknit communities through everyday activities. This is where the need for intentional contemplative and communal practices are identified.

The next two chapters introduce some important terms and outline the development of spiritual formation at the Mennonite seminary in the 1980s. The last chapter is the most constructive, identifying six key elements of an intentional spirituality for Mennonite community today, including “an everyday, embodied sacramentality; nonconformity; community; service; Gelassenheit or meekness; and the person of Jesus and the Bible” (126).

This book has helped me identify spiritual strengths of an earlier Mennonite community that was similar to the conservative Mennonite church in which I grew up and that today continues to reject the theological and sociological modernization of the progressive Mennonite church. At times, however, the narrative may be overly optimistic in its assessment of the theology and spirituality of this earlier American Mennonite way that was distinctively influenced and shaped by Protestant-evangelical theology while retaining its unique Mennonite ethos.

There is no discussion of earlier Mennonite transitions in North America, and this brings into question what the authentically Mennonite spiritual traits really are. Although this story is geographically restricted to a few specific communities, I suspect its relevance will be understood by many other North American and even European Mennonite communities.

The book’s focus is pastoral; however, a more theological and historical analysis would help give depth and breadth to the proposed spirituality. Readers interested in more reflection on some critical issues, such as Mennonites and Pietism, will want to consult the author’s dissertation: “How Do We Become Like Christ? American Mennonite Spiritual Formation Through One Woman’s Life and One Seminary, 1909- 2003” (Lancaster Theological Seminary, 2004).

I recommend A Mennonite Woman for anyone interested in recent developments in Mennonite spirituality or anyone desiring Christian formation. This book will assist pastors and congregations in facilitating conversations and group discussions. Dawn Ruth Nelson brings us back to the heart of Anabaptist spirituality and Christian ethics, a relationship with God mediated through Christ. “Mennonite spirituality is something we do (ethics), together (community) . . . . It is a way of life in a group, an everyday sacramentality, based on Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection” (148). I trust that themes identified in this book will lead to much reflection, discussion, and deepening of spiritual life.

Andrew C. Martin, Th.D. student, Regis College, Toronto School of Theology