Finding spirituality with an open heart

Apr 27, 2015 by

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The concept of a “mellow heart” is not common in everyday conversation. But with the help of a new book by siblings Donald Clymer and Sharon Clymer Landis, The Spacious Heart: Room for Spiritual Awakening, the term might become more commonplace in writings about spiritual growth.

imgresOne way to describe a mellow heart is to say that it combines the Mennonite concept of Gelassenheit (yielding) with Henri Nouwen’s concept of creating an open space within our hearts. From this comes a true Mennonite spirituality that joins a gentle approach to life with a calm openness to all things, resulting in a “willingness to experience God’s presence in all aspects of life.”

The authors relate their own journeys of spiritual growth within the everyday affairs of parenting, working and striving for justice. Not every book on spirituality is as grounded in real life and real relationships. As co-authors, it works well for them to identify their respective voices within each chapter when they speak of their own experiences and insights.

While both authors serve as spiritual directors to other people, they are also “us” in every respect: They too have experienced loss, stress, fear, cynicism, addiction and resentment. But as their stories resonate with our stories, we are carried forward toward being “gentle with ourselves,” honoring our own emotional struggles and telling our stories to God: “This process heals us, peels us, releases our bonds and blinders and helps us offer freedom to others.”

Donald writes about how spiritual disciplines of stillness and silence before God become necessary for lives that are otherwise held captive by today’s pressures to keep up with everything. “It brings us back from our ego-dominated thinking about the future and the past and makes us present to the moment.” It is here that God can make our hearts more spacious, which in turn can even make space for us to “invite our (inner) demons to tea,” lest they subtly control our lives.

Sharon speaks honestly about how spiritual maturity is not simply a matter of moving upward over time. Referencing Richard Rohr, author of Falling Upward, she notes how standing in the trenches of life, with ourselves, with others, is paradoxically the place where God widens our hearts to encounter spiritual reality. “Spiritual maturity is being aware of and present to strong emotions and thoughts, and also being aware of God’s goodness and beauty, and resting in the midst of life’s unrestful moments.”

In facing our true selves with greater calmness and composure, we begin to live with both the flowers and the weeds of our lives. Sharon describes how bindweed, the nemesis of many a gardener, has the capacity to grow up to 30 feet laterally, invading an entire garden. Similarly, we have habits that are not easy to weed out of our lives. Donald openly shares about his own “drivenness” in areas of writing and diet. He identifies the goal of the book to help us overcome being driven by our habits and to replace this life-energy with being drawn to God and to a slower, more mellow life.

While the authors excel at developing an individual’s spiritual maturity within the context of human relationships, the book fails to develop Christian formation within the context of a living church. Perhaps another book will be written to balance the biblical emphasis on the corporate formation of God’s people within the alternative community. This would also provide greater continuity with early Anabaptist writings that dealt with communal formation.

In the end, Jesus becomes the ultimate model of gelassenheit, the premier example of self-emptying. The authors creatively show this through the counter-intuitive powers of relational humility and robust humor. The book climaxes wonderfully by linking a spirituality of “letting go” with a spirituality of “getting over ourselves.” Together, this leads to the enlarging of hearts that have greater capacity to forgive others and to enjoy God through holy play and holy laughter. Is there anything better than this to ensure the health of our hearts?

Ted Lewis, of Duluth, Minn., is a restorative justice trainer, mediator and consultant. He also provides workshops in conflict transformation and restorative practices for church communities.

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