Saturday, September 13, 2014

Collective Memory, Collective Unconscious

Whenever a friendship that I make with a Mexican deepens, whether rich or poor, educated or not, the question comes up: “What do you think about the USA stealing from Mexico more than half of our territory?”

We could quibble about whether the land was stolen or not, but most US Americans are blissfully unaware of the history surrounding the acquisition of most of what is currently the southwest of the US, starting with Texas and moving west and northwest to include Arizona, New Mexico, California, Utah, Nevada and most of Colorado. We seldom pause to wonder why most of these states have Spanish names, and have myriad Spanish town names within their borders.

More than eight generations have passed since the time when the US gained a large chunk of Mexican territory. No one is alive who experienced that event. Yet the event lives on in the collective memory (psyche) of the Mexican people. It was a humiliating and traumatic defeat, and any relationship a Mexican begins with a US American is shadowed by that collective memory.

I grew up an ethnic Mennonite. Our people also have a collective memory of persecution that goes back nearly 500 years. I know that this inherited memory affects how I view the world and how I act. I see it in other ethnic Mennonites who have different migratory patterns than my group and who live in varying parts of the world.
For example, the Old Colony Mennonites who live in northern Mexico signed an agreement with the Mexican government in 1920 to allow them to be exempt from military service and to allow them to be exempt from attending public schools. This agreement has never been revisited, in spite of the fact that many things have changed over the 95 years since. They are sorely afraid that making any changes will make them feel persecuted once again for their beliefs and have to leave their land; just like when they had to leave Russia and Canada.

In my own experience, I say that I am for the marginalized; that the God of the Bible is on the side of the poor and the oppressed. I write and teach that we should be “hungering and thirsting for justice” when in fact I mostly sit on my hands when it comes to doing anything. I am an example of “Die Stille im Lande,” the “quiet in the land.” I find it difficult to join marches and political protests. I, like the Old Colony Mennonites in Mexico, because of my collective memory, am afraid of being persecuted and losing what I have.

Vincent Harding, an African American Mennonite pastor who joined Martin Luther King’s movement in Atlanta while founding a Mennonite Voluntary Service unit there for MCC, eventually left the Mennonites because they displayed the same ambivalence   toward political protests as I. I am not proud of this either for me or my people, but recognize why it exists. Of course, many of my ethnic brothers and sisters around the world have been able to break out of their collective memory and work more directly for the marginalized and the oppressed. And people whom we have proselytized are not affected by the same collective memory. They reach back to the original Anabaptist movement, from which Mennonites sprang, as a reason why we must protest oppressive laws.  

With the idea of a collective memory in mind, the recent eruption of anger in Ferguson, Missouri, should come as no surprise. Our African American brothers and sisters have over 500 years of slavery, mistreatment and oppression to feed their collective memory. No matter how much progress has been made, our country is no where near healing the trauma that was caused by those years of oppression. Like my Mexican friends, my African American friends, whether rich or poor, educated or not, bring this subject up whenever we have any serious discussion.

Recent neuroscientific research has postulated that collective memory is passed on through our genes. Carl Jung has long theorized that humans are born with a collective unconscious. This collective unconscious can be both universal, i.e., shared in common by all humans, or particular, i.e. shared in common by particular groups of people. According to my unscientific observations, shared above, I believe this to be true.

Collective memory shapes us and forms us. No matter how unique we are as individuals, there are many unconscious factors that make us behave as we do. I believe that we can overcome these tendencies through contemplation, taking our nighttime dreams seriously, and getting to know people different from us to get to understand their particular collective memories. But that is a topic for another blog . . .

Friday, September 5, 2014

Herald Press publishes new book on spiritual formation Clymer brother and sister co-write

HARRISONBURG, Va., and KITCHENER, Ont.— Many people have grown tired of the pat answers that the church and religion have provided regarding questions about faith and meaning in life.

A new book addressing the deepest questions of the soul, The Spacious Heart: Room for Spiritual Awakening, was released by Herald Press in early September. The authors, siblings Donald Clymer and Sharon Clymer Landis, offer 12 keys, or insights, for unlocking the heart for spiritual growth.

Don is a spiritual director and Spanish professor who has led cross-cultural semesters at Eastern Mennonite University, in Harrisonburg; younger sister Sharon is a writer, spiritual director, and retreat leader from eastern Pennsylvania.

Twenty years ago, this brother and sister pair would not have dreamed of writing a book together. Growing up in a family with 11 children, the younger ones scarcely knew the older ones, according to Don and Sharon. So how did they decide to write a book together?

Don says he began hearing chatter at family reunions that Sharon was taking courses on spiritual formation and direction at “some Kairos” place in Pennsylvania. Don himself had begun taking similar courses at Eastern Mennonite Seminary’s Summer Institute for Spiritual Formation, so after years of “barely knowing that each other existed, we began to share our discoveries with each other,” he said.

Don was reading Ronald Rolheiser’s book The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality during the summer of 2009. “I was really taken by this book. All the things I had studied in my program at the seminary seemed to come together.” He started meeting with a small group of interested college students to practice the “four nonnegotiable essentials of a healthy Christian spirituality.” One of Rolheiser’s essentials was termed “mellowness of heart.” Don said, “I thought a lot about what this concept meant and gave a number of devotionals on the subject. I felt there was enough material on ‘mellowness of heart’ for a book.”

Don and Sharon spoke about their mutual interests during a family gathering in early 2010. Don felt that Sharon’s experiences with many people as their spiritual director and her bout with cancer gave her an unusual depth of understanding. “I also knew that she was a great writer,” said Don.

Sharon had read Rolheiser’s Holy Longing while a student at Kairos: School of Spiritual Formation, in Lancaster, Pa., and was intrigued when Don began exploring the mellowness of heart concept. “When he first asked about writing a book together, though, I was hesitant,” Sharon said. “I wondered how I could do this, being so physically drained from six months of chemo treatments while finishing my spiritual direction training.” But she began to process the idea.

Don’s experiences teaching a senior seminar at Eastern Mennonite University dealing with suffering and loss had deeply moved him as he discovered the frequency of brokenness among students. Added to the brokenness were their questions about faith and God. “I wrote the book with them in mind, hoping that I could guide them toward a deeper commitment to God and a more ‘spacious heart,’” explained Don.

Impetus for Sharon came from knowing of spiritual seekers who long for emotional and spiritual intimacy with themselves, others, and God. “I wrote to encourage more understanding that gaining self-knowledge is not narcissistic, but actually helps one know the Source of life and love,” Sharon said.

In The Spacious Heart, Sharon describes some of her fears of getting involved in spiritual direction. Eventually, she said, “my [spiritual] director’s companioning me, and her deep listening, reflected love to me. This allowed me to heal and grow in intimate, close relationships with others and with God.” Still, Sharon had no plans to become a spiritual director herself. “But the Spirit and my own heart kept drawing me,” she recalled. She enrolled in training at Kairos in 2008 and began taking on those seeking spiritual direction in 2009.

Sharon uses many stories in the book, some from her spiritual direction practice, others from her upbringing, feeling that stories help people understand where they come from and where they want to go. “I wrote to encourage all who are disillusioned with church or old faith paradigms, who long for stories of spiritual awakening, and who aren’t able to go to a spiritual director,” noted Sharon.

Don first became involved in spiritual direction as a mentee, and then took training to be a spiritual director. He has been giving spiritual direction since 2003. Both Don and Sharon also blog regularly at and, respectively.

The authors hope that the book reaches a wider audience than those in the Mennonite church, including as a possible textbook for classes on spiritual formation. Marva J. Dawn, who wrote the foreword for the book, has praised the book’s emphasis on justice and other “traditional” Mennonite issues. “Several of the traits that are usually associated with Mennonites make this one of the best books on spiritual disciplines that I have ever read,” wrote Dawn.

Mary Herr, who cofounded The Hermitage retreat center in Three Rivers, Mich. with her husband, the late Gene Herr, noted the fact that there are not a lot of Mennonite-authored books on classic spiritual disciplines. Herr said, “A book by Menno writers on spiritual disciplines is sheer gift. So grateful for the book.”

The Spacious Heart is available for $16.99 from MennoMedia at 800-245-7894 or, as well as at bookstores.