About eight years ago, Christiana Peterson, her husband and daughter moved from urban Washington, D.C., to an intentional Christian community in rural north-central Illinois. Their motives were many: adventure, romantic notions of farm life, the pursuit of healthy local food, “something vague and noble, adventurous and beautiful.”
Mostly, they desired community. They had friends and a loving church family, yet Peterson writes, “I knew there was something there that we’d been longing for, some deeper connection and intimacy.”
In Mystics and Misfits: Meeting God Through St. Francis and Other Unlikely Saints, Peterson recounts her eight years at Plow Creek Fellowship, an intentional community, farm and church affiliated with Mennonite Church USA, where she and her family lived and developed the kind of intimate community life that most of us will never experience.
As a memoir, however, Mystics and Misfits is unique because, interwoven with her personal story, Peterson interacts with a variety of saints from history. In short “interlude” chapters, Peterson gives us brief biographical summaries of the saints’ lives and their ministries. Peterson also includes letters that she writes to the saints. These letters are personal responses to the saints’ teachings and legacies.
The immediate connection between saints like Francis of Assisi and a Mennonite intentional community is the rejection of mainstream, “normal” life. Francis walked away from money and social position to embrace Lady Poverty and life on the fringes of society. Clare of Assisi also rejected family wealth, spending her years secluded with other women, the Poor Ladies, in a convent.
Dorothy Day, “a practical mystic,” also came from a well-to-do family. As an adult, she turned her back on a typical early 20th-century wife/mother existence and instead chose poverty and communal life.
However, Peterson takes us deeper than the obvious or the cliché. She is interested in what makes us more holy, more like Christ. This is something every Christian desires, not only those interested or willing to live in intentional community.
Peterson writes, “My emotional winters were leading me to the mystics . . . pushing me toward the Christ who came to Margery Kempe in her deepest distress.” But Peterson finds drawing closer to God does not always lead to a warm, cuddly lap. This is something the life of the saints and mystics evidence in abundance.
One example comes from Thomas Merton, a 20th-century monk and mystic. Peterson quotes Merton: “The monk confronts his own humanity and that of his world at the deepest and most central point where the void seems to open out into black despair.” The monk is “exposed to existential dread.”
Merton is specifically talking about a monk’s vocation, which is in some ways quite different from a lay Christian’s. But still, who hasn’t come up against existential dread? That moment when you howl into the bitter wind of your pathetic humanity, “What is the point?”
Yet Merton promises that the heart that is humbled and emptied by dread will have the song of Alleluia.
Peterson honestly shares about her own existential dread in the form of anxiety and depression. “Were those anxious thoughts my prayers? Was this the kind of dread that should be my friend?” She concludes: “Maybe. Maybe dread was the only thing that made me desperate enough to ask God for help.”
This isn’t a fun place to be, yet one that every person, entrapped by their humanity, knows.
I like that Peterson identifies Dorothy Day as a “practical mystic,” because mystics tend to be extremely unpractical. They live lives that the vast majority of us would never consider emulating. Few people are going about in scratchy robes or living on the hillside blessing animals. Clearly the attraction to the vow of celibacy is waning in our world. Our enlightened notion of simple living generally means taking unwanted clothes to the thrift shop.
Peterson does a lovely job of making the connections between the “lunacy of God’s love for us” and the actions of the saints. When Francis literally strips off his clothes, he is opening up “a nudity of the heart . . . bared and raw, open to the elements, open to the sacred wounding that Christ endured.”
One practical thing the saints do is literally identify with and take on the suffering of others — the real and present suffering of hunger, physical pain and societal judgment — by living in poverty, hurting their physical bodies via hair shirts or wandering the streets in anguish over visions of demons, as Margery Kempe did.
We aren’t all called to this behavior. But, as Peterson writes in her letter to Clare of Assisi, “Our strength comes when we are barren, naked, suffering and sad . . . when we are willing to look upon and lean into the suffering of others. For when we do that, we are truly seeing Christ on the cross.”
Perhaps most profoundly, Peterson writes, “We cannot love without wounds.”
Mystics and Misfits contains a tale of the eccentricities of life on a communal farm, with all its awkward and amusing realities. But the book is much more than a memoir. It is an inspiring testimony of a quest to fully know the divine — to be Christlike.
In her anxiety, dread, and through her wounds, Peterson faithfully loves her children, husband, community and the earth. She sits through painful community decision-making meetings. Each week she shows up for, even helps to lead, worship services that vacillate between transcendent and quirky to the point of pathetic. She walks with her family through the death of her father and the dissolution of Plow Creek.
Like the mystics and misfits, she lives her life in the lunacy of God’s love. The book doesn’t always read warm and cuddly, but it certainly touches the divine.
Sarah Kehrberg lives in Swannanoa, N.C., and attends Asheville Mennonite Church.