A new book written by siblings Don Clymer and Sharon Clymer Landis, The Spacious Heart: Room for Spiritual Awakening, is launching September 1, 2014. Twenty years ago, this brother/sister pair would not have dreamed of writing a book together. It was not that they were estranged; they simply “barely knew that each other existed.” You’ll find out why below. What follows is a chat with Don and Sharon.
Q: When and how did you first decide to write a book together?
Don: Sometime in my mid-fifties, I began picking up on some chatter at family reunions from my sister Sharon about taking courses on spiritual formation/direction at some “Kairos” place in Pennsylvania. I had begun taking similar courses at Eastern Mennonite Seminary’s Summer Institute. After years of barely knowing that each other existed, we began to share our discoveries with each other.
My journal shows that I began 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 in this book. I was so taken by it that I started a small group of college students who met to practice the “four nonnegotiable essentials of a healthy Christian spirituality.”
It was the one essential, mellowness of heart, that kept jumping out at me as unusual in most writings on spiritual formation. I thought a lot about what this concept meant and gave a number of devotionals on the subject. I decided that there was enough material in this “nonnegotiable essential” concept for a book.
I probably approached Sharon during our family Christmas gathering after the New Year in 2010. I thought her experience 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. That’s where it all began for me.
Sharon: I read Rolheiser’s book while a student at Kairos: School of Spiritual Formation and was intrigued when Don began sharing with me his delving into the mellowness of heart concept. When he first asked about writing a book together, though, I was hesitant. I wondered how I could do this being so physically drained from six months of chemo treatments for lymphoma while finishing my spiritual direction training. I wanted life with no pressure. My mind usually resists while my heart draws, so eventually I was drawn into the possibility of writing and trusting our partnering.
Q: Who is this book for? Why did you want to write a book like this?
Don: I teach a course in Eastern Mennonite University’s general education called “Dealing with Suffering and Loss.” It is a senior seminar and I have had an average of 45–50 students in this class each year over the past seven years. I am deeply moved by the amount of brokenness I have seen in this class over the years. Added to the brokenness are 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.”
Sharon: I wrote for all spiritual seekers who are longing for emotional and spiritual intimacy with themselves, others and God. I wrote to encourage understanding that gaining self-knowledge is not narcissistic but actually helps one know the Source of life and love. Stories help us know from where we came and where we desire 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.
Q. Did your roles in your family come into play as you worked together on the manuscript?
Don and Sharon Clymer as kids–a group of 11 siblings. Don is third from left and Sharon is fourth from right.
Don: As we write in the book, we essentially came from two different families in spite of being brother and sister. I grew up in the first half, Sharon in the second half. We really didn’t have much of a relationship before our middle age, and working on this project helped me develop a deep respect and love for my sister. We had no serious conflicts over our manuscript.
Sharon: Family roles only came into play in my initial fear of not being able to keep up with what I perceived as a more productive brother! Don was gentle and gracious; I loved working on this project with him, reading his stories, and understanding his concept of family and faith. I can easily say that I have also developed a deep respect and love for him that goes beyond family ties.
Q. When did you first get involved in spiritual direction?
Don: I began receiving spiritual direction after I returned from Mexico in 1989. Eastern Mennonite Seminary’s Summer Institute for Spiritual Formation was where I was trained as a spiritual director. I began the summer of 2003 and have been giving spiritual direction ever since.
Sharon: I tentatively explored receiving spiritual direction as a student at Kairos–and wrote one of my favorite stories in The Spacious Heart book about my fears of it all. Turns out, my director’s companioning me and her deep listening, mirrored love to me. This allowied me to heal and grow in intimate, close relationships with others and with God. I had no plans to become a spiritual director myself, but the Spirit and my own heart kept drawing me. I enrolled in training at Kairos in 2008, began seeing people in 2009, and continue to experience joy in walking with people on the path to greater intimacy with God and life.
Q: What was the original concept and title for the book as you envisioned it?
Don: The title we used to submit our manuscript to Herald Press was Mellowness of Heart: Balancing Our Spirituality. The idea for the title came directly from Rolheiser’s book The Holy Longing. “Mellowness of Heart” was that elusive “nonnegotiable essential of a healthy spirituality” that Rolheiser proposed. The word mellowness immediately raised red flags to our eventual publisher. I was simply trying to be faithful to Rolheiser and hoped that by doing so, we would receive an endorsement from him. Not to be the case.
Sharon: Don explains our original concept well. I was not quite as attached to remaining faithful to Rolheiser, although the word mellow still appeals to me. That said, I totally love the spacious heart title as it says exactly what I desire. I want my heart to be spacious and my soul to keep spiritually awakening.
Q: How did the final title come about?
Don: There were a number of titles proposed before we came up with the one now on the cover of the book. Neither Sharon or I were really happy with the proposed titles, so we did a survey on Facebook with the “MennoNerds” group. There was a lot of serious discussion, alternative titles, as well some humorous interchange. Harvey Yoder came up with the idea of The Spacious Heart. It pleased all interested parties.
Sharon: Nothing more to add except I feared we’d never find a title that everyone liked. My amusement usually comes after fearing; I’m so grateful that Don’s sense of humor is contagious!
Q: What is your desire for the book and for those who read it?
Don: I hope the book reaches a wider audience than those in the constituent Mennonite Church. I hope it is picked up as a textbook for classes on spiritual formation and other classes. I hope that through reading this book, people can avoid many of the pitfalls I experienced in my life. Above all, I hope it deepens the reader’s relationship with God.
Sharon: My desire is for seekers of all faiths, seeders of an authentic life, to find the courage to tell their own truths, their stories. Every story of an individual’s experiences of God shows the world another face of Divine Love. We’ve kept secrets, repressed emotions, feared real intimacy and vulnerability too long; our churches, our faith, our ability to listen and love deeply, our very awakening rests on finding the courage to risk knowing ourselves and thus knowing God, the Source of life itself.
Recreating the “sibling stairsteps:” this time Sharon is fourth from left, and Don is third from right.
Q: What is your family saying about the book?
Don: Our family seems to be quite excited about the book. By reading it, they will hear new perspectives on family lore and learn some things about us that they never imagined.
Sharon: Perfectly stated, Don!
Q: What are some of your first speaking engagements about the book?
Don: I am speaking at Staunton Mennonite Church on Sunday morning, September 28, on the subject “Letting My Soul Catch Up with the Rest of Me.” This is the title of chapter 12 in the book.
Sharon: I am speaking at a Soul Tenders retreat on September 13 on the subject “Tending Self-Compassion.” I plan to tell one or two of the stories in our book.
Don and Sharon’s stories are personal and compelling, and some are gut
wrenching. You can buy the book at pre-launch discount of 30 % off until Sept.1. Now $12.75 and regular price is $16.99.
Sharon and Don are both happy to consider any and all speaking, retreat, and book signing invitations. Contact us at [email protected] for their direct email addresses.