Gelassenheit: A spiritual journey

Jun 23, 2017 by

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My brother-in-law recently showed some footage of a family gathering in Switzerland many years ago. In the video, I was on a reclining lawn chair, trying to be oblivious to what was going on around me. My two kids were having the time of their life cavorting with their Swiss cousins. Unfortunately, the grimace on my face revealed that I wasn’t exactly having the same delight as my children.

I was in my early 40s when this was filmed. I was working on construction during my summer off from teaching in order to pay for our trip to visit relatives in Switzerland. The weather was hot, and the work was demanding, both physically and with a language that was not my native tongue. Even though the job that awaited me back at home was better than pounding nails and driving screws, I was getting increasingly restless with it. My life seemed out of control. I was in great need of gelassenheit.

Gelassenheit is a term from the German that is often used to describe a quality of life of the Anabaptists, the radical arm of the Reformation in Europe in the 16th century. There have been numerous attempts to translate what this term means as related to the Anabaptist life and practice.

In chapter eight of our book, The Spacious Heart, I write extensively about the concept of gelassenheit. “According to the Global Anabaptist Encyclopedia Online,” I write, “these are the multiple meanings of the word: ‘self-surrender, resignation in God’s will, yieldedness to God’s will, self-abandonment, the (passive) opening to God’s willing, including the readiness to suffer for the sake of God, also peace and calmness of mind.’ ”

These definitions are all wonderful descriptions of spiritual qualities that as Christians, we would do well to emulate. However, if you look the word up in a modern English/German dictionary, you won’t find any of these definitions. The first word that normally appears is “serenity.” So perhaps for better understanding, a little parsing of the word would be helpful.

Gelassen” is the past participle of the verb “lassen,” which means “to leave [behind]” and “to let [allow].” An interesting side note: Eastern Pennsylvania, where I grew up, was preponderantly settled by German speakers. To this day, because of the influence of the German, English speakers from this area have a hard time distinguishing between “to let” and “to leave.”

Gelassen” can also be used as an adjective. As such it means: “unhurried, calm, easy-going.” I would add “laid-back.” This gets a little closer to the spiritual qualities of the Anabaptists listed above, especially self-abandonment. Adding the suffix “heit” to “gelassen” turns our adjective into a noun, like turning the English adjective “helpful” into the noun “helpfulness” by adding the suffix “ness.” The suffix here turns helpful into, “the state or quality of being helpful.”

For the purpose of this blog, I would like to define gelassenheit as “the state or quality of being easy-going or laid-back.”

Until my middle 20s, I was considered to be easy-going and carefree. In fact, I was often criticized for not taking life seriously enough. I was the book definition of gelassenheit. This all changed when I was confronted with the realities of poverty and oppression that I experienced during my years as a volunteer in Central America. I became a cynical, bitter adult, suppressing my anger at not being able to do much about the situation of my friends. Becoming a father and career responsibilities added to my becoming more “uptight” than “easy-going.” These realities caused the grimace on my face in the home video mentioned earlier.

To deal with my spiritual crisis, I did years of inner work, looking for the source of my restlessness, and finding my inner God image and likeness. Numerous forms of prayer, meditation, dream work, contemplative walking and other forms of inner work helped me to return to what God made me to be, rather than what the outer world forced on me. In our book I mentioned earlier, I write extensively about these processes.

Recently, my wife Esther and I were returning from another family visit. We had a wonderful time with her family, visiting, joking and just enjoying the moment. I innocently asked her if she noticed any change in my demeanor at such family reunions. “Absolutely,” she said without needing to think about it. “You are not nearly as uptight.” I’ve become more easy-going and laid back. I returned to the gelassenheit of my youth.

The spiritual journey I was on, however, was not an overnight victory. It took years of difficult confrontation with my inner demons. People who fail to do the necessary inner work remain angry and resentful well into their old age. It doesn’t take much effort to see the grimaces on faces you pass along the way. Unfortunately, they far outnumber the faces that reflect the image and likeness of God.

Perhaps I haven’t gained all the qualities of gelassenheit mentioned in the Global Anabaptist Encyclopedia I cited above. However, my parsing of the word, and parsing of my spiritual journey, show that I have come a remarkable way.

Don Clymer recently retired as an assistant professor in the language and literature department at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. He is a writer, spiritual director and leader of intercultural programs in Guatemala and Mexico. He blogs at Klymer Klatsch, where this originally appeared.

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  • Rainer Moeller

    Sorry, but the most fascinating question for me is:
    How does an U.S. assistant professor in his Forties get a job on construction in Switzerland? – I’d suppose that the Swiss have a lot of young “guest workers” from Italy and the Balkan, so why would they take a middle-aged intellectual? Did you show them documents that you had worked on construction before?

    • Donald R. Clymer

      Good question. The job was arranged through a brother-in-law. The employer knew that we had recently returned from a 3-year mission assignment, and wanted to help us get back on our feet financially. I was merely an instructor at the time. Believe me, my co-workers in Switzerland couldn’t believe I would stoop to do such work, but I was used to hard work; that’s how I paid my way through college.