Reflections on silence, my mother, and being a Mennonite woman

Guest post from…Pamela Dintaman is a hospice chaplain in Tucson AZ, and served as pastor at Southside Fellowship (Elkhart, Indiana) and Community Mennonite Church (Lancaster, Pennsylvania.) She has enjoyed reading the blog entries on the Femonite, identifying with the vibrancy and thought process of younger Mennonite women—a little surprised to find herself in a later stage of life. She likes the challenge of trying to articulate how Mennonite culture and theology impact her now.

This is the fifth post in a series of posts reflecting on what it means to be a Mennonite Woman.

As a pastor I worked out of a framework I call “spacious Christianity”: holding the ever-expanding theological continuum present in the congregation and in myself. Many congregants had a negative history with the institutional church and the usual Christian words no longer held much meaning. I struggled to be authentic in what I brought and I liked working in this setting. I continually wrestled with whether and how I represented the theology of the denomination that ordained me, where and how to be “at variance” with it, and how to be a pastor while growing and changing.

I remember processing how to be publicly welcoming to people of various sexual orientations when the denomination was drawing firmer lines. I feel a certain degree of freedom in my work and my life: pushing some boundaries and breaking open new understandings, and yet I keep finding places where I am bound up and silent.

I find silence and voice to be a continual challenge as a woman, particularly as a Mennonite woman. Hidden voices from my culture murmur inside: if you stray too far from your original beliefs, keep quiet about it. Or, if you become too different from those around you, just be ‘the quiet in the land,’ an interesting distortion of one description of earlier Anabaptists.

As I become aware of these dampening voices, my counter-approach is to observe myself, note when I become quiet, and try to bring whatever is there to voice or at least to an awareness that I am choosing silence.

I incrementally approach my fear: will people accept me if they know what I’m thinking, believing, feeling? I become more willing to accept people’s judgments.

This summer I turn 59: the age of my mother when she died unexpectedly in 1973. Astounding that my young adult children never

Salina Christner at age 18

met this woman so important to me. Twenty years after her death, I uncovered a “wealth” of silence: the pain she never spoke about. The first step was as simple as going to the LaGrange County (IN) courthouse and opening a record book, having heard that my grandpa had been in jail. The story was there, and then developed more in conversations I had with her siblings.

I discovered my mother had been Amish as a child, unmentioned in our household. I never got to hear from her how she healed from a childhood rape, being blamed at age 8, having her father in prison and then paroled from a life sentence to come back into their home when she was a teenager. I can only make guesses. It would be amazing to hear her thoughts and feelings about going on to birth and raise six children… She carried all of that history silently.

While caring for her children, my mother taught a children’s Sunday School class and summer Vacation Bible School, led a girls’ group and a neighborhood children’s club. I wonder if these efforts had similarities to her brother’s choice to become an elementary school principal. “I wanted to give something back to children,” Rufus explained to me. “Because of what your father did?” He answered unhesitatingly, “Yes.”

I inherited her patience: both the real and the false kind. I have some of her groundedness, equilibrium, comfort with being alone, quietness. In my father’s high school autograph book among other girls writing Roses are red, violets are blue… I find my mother’s handwriting: Make room for silence in your life; it is the dwelling place of the Most High. –Salina Christner. It is one of my clues about her life and how she coped with difficult things.

I love to be in silence. I reveled in solitude for a month during a 2008 clergy sabbatical, waking with joy each morning in a desert wilderness setting. Silence is integral to who I am and the spirituality within which I grow. But these days, I’m exploring the downside of silence: my temptation to curl up within myself and not bring my thoughts and feelings to speech, along with housing the illusion that I am transparent to others.

Mother and Daughter together

This underbelly of silence is part of my inheritance too. My mother was raised in an Amish culture where there was not much “stock” put into bringing thoughts and feelings to speech. When I interviewed her siblings, none of them had ever talked about this family tragedy, not even with each other. My aunt wondered aloud, “What good would come from talking about it?,” yet each shared generously and readily with me, filling in missing pieces, difficult and positive things my mother could never acknowledge because of the pain that accompanied the memories. As I hid behind her skirts as a child, what did I learn about being quiet and staying safe? This mode of keeping silent has a larger influence in my life than I ever had guessed.

Silence comes from more than family history. I am bumping up against the constraints that often come within a religious culture; it is the air I have breathed most of my life. I come to the struggle with silence and voice legitimately, plenty of reasons for it, and I am not content to remain in that space.

Poet Audre Lorde writes, I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood… And, of course, I am afraid—you can hear it in my voice—because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation and that always seems fraught with danger. But my daughter, when I told her of our topic and my difficulty with it, said, “tell them about how you’re never really a whole person if you remain silent, because there’s always that one little piece inside of you that wants to be spoken out, and if you keep ignoring it, it gets madder and madder and hotter and hotter, and if you don’t speak it out one day it will just up and punch you in the mouth.”

As I approach my 59th birthday, I am exercising new habits, breaking through silence, speaking about ways I am changing. I am delighting in what I call interfaith and beyond faith work as a chaplain. My spacious Christianity keeps breaking apart, and falling open to bigger and bigger spaces.

Heresy! I hear the voices say.

There are barely any lines or boxes anymore—although some pop up in surprising ways. I’m often caught in dualistic thinking without

Cascabel Hermitage, the author’s favorite place of solitude

realizing I’m engaging in either/or questions. Am I a Christian? Am I a Mennonite woman? I occasionally glimpse that it is both/and; I am a Christian and I am not. Both. I am a Mennonite woman and I am not. Both. I am on a pilgrimage where the walls of Christianity have fallen apart, and the whole earth has become the lap of God—almost literally.

Heresy. I can hear the voices calling out: pantheist, nature pagan, echoing a voice I heard earlier when I was excited about liberation theology, this isn’t Anabaptist, he said… or one who labeled me Unitarian. (Gasp.)

Somewhere along the way an inner barometer said: better keep quiet. Perhaps it wasn’t safe to think aloud.   

In my hospice work I am around people who are ill and dying at all ages. I am learning that life isn’t long enough to keep quiet. And from those same people I learn that transformation can happen at any time. The voices from my childhood culture that caution me from integrating new ways or acknowledging feelings need to go now. Not needed. I continue to live out of a silence and solitude that I thrive in, but will keep watching for those places where I fall silent—in search of letting the whole person come out.

Christian Wiman, poet: I am convinced that the same God that might call me to sing of God at one time might call me at another to sing of godlessness. Sometimes when I think of all this energy that’s going on, all of these different people trying to find some way of naming and sharing their belief — I think it may be the case that God calls some people to unbelief in order that faith can take new forms.

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