Deeper SpiritualityBy Andre Gingerich Stoner
In the mid-1980s, Dawn Ruth Nelson was part of a group of young mission workers trying to live out the Mennonite values of community, discipleship and nonviolence amid “the troubles” of Northern Ireland. When the communal living experiment ended explosively a few years later, she came to the painful awareness that her spiritual resources were not enough to sustain the ideals she was trying to practice. This led to a “desperate need for a more meaningful prayer life, a deeper spirituality, a closer connection to God” and her first silent retreat at a Catholic monastery.
When she returned to the U.S. she also began to explore the spiritual practices that had sustained Mennonites of earlier generations. She interviewed her grandmother, Susan Alderfer Ruth, born in 1909 into a plain Mennonite community in Pennsylvania. Susan raised five children on the farm and with her husband, Henry, helped start a mission church. For years she was active in refugee resettlement and foster care. Nelson wondered: How did her grandmother pray? What kept her going through hardship and struggle? What was important to her?
Nelson records what she learned in A Mennonite Woman: Exploring Spiritual Life and Identity (Cascadia, 2010). She reflects on her own experience in light of her grandmother’s faith and ponders how faith is caught, nurtured and sustained among Mennonites today.
Unlike her grandmother, Nelson didn’t grow up on a farm. She has moved frequently, lives in a city and doesn’t maintain distinctive garb or language.
The values and practices that shaped Grandma Susan were often not articulated but simply built into the very fabric of life in a tight-knit, “separate” church community. In new settings today, Nelson concludes, we must be much more intentional and explicit about how we nurture a life of Christian faith.
In her closing chapter, Nelson highlights spiritual practices for inwardly and outwardly becoming like Christ. They connect to her grandmother’s experience but have now been transposed into a new key.
Catholic brothers and sisters have helped her “transpose,” as she has learned about monthly retreats, meditative Scripture reading, silence and spiritual direction. This is true for other Mennonites too. In July, Mennonites and Catholics met through the Bridgefolk movement at a women’s Benedictine monastery to share ways of being nourished by Scripture.
Some are drawn to explore what we can learn from Pentecostal brothers and sisters. For nearly seven years, Mennonite Church USA has cultivated a relationship with the Church of God (Cleveland). At the end of July, Ervin Stutzman, Virgil Vogt and I spent several days as guests at their general assembly. I was personally challenged to cultivate a posture of deeper attentiveness to the healing and renewing Spirit of God, ready to act in powerful and surprising ways at any time.
In a changing context, we have things to learn from both Catholics and Pentecostals, to help us deepen our bonds to Christ so that we can be faithful and joyful disciples. In these encounters, we want to be discerning, but we don’t have to be afraid of learning from Christians who are different from us.
In these relationships, we are constantly reminded that we also have beautiful and important gifts to nurture and share with other Christians. Together we are being built into the body of Christ with a vital, living faith that will sustain us for witness in new times and new places.
Andre Gingerich Stoner is director of interchurch relations and director of holistic witness for Mennonite Church USA.
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