Take a writer with a gentle sensibility, probing curiosity, and fierce intelligence with, say, a PhD in Creative Writing and a passion for the Christian Mystics, place her, her husband and children in an intentional Mennonite community in rural Ohio full of idealistic vigor, then knead, proof, bake, and cool.
This gives some sense of the territory of Christiana N. Peterson’s book Mystics and Misfits, a reflection on, well, life itself. For the mystic, the contemplative, this is a must-read. There isn’t another book quite like it.
It’s not an overview of the lives of the mystics; it’s not a spiritual formation book with personal tidbits thrown in. It’s an honest, emotional, authentic, at times painful examination of spirituality, community, and family, of joy and pain, playing out against the backdrop of an attempt at the mystical life. In the book's interludes, Peterson renders some aspect of the life of a mystic to illustrate and contextualize her own story; in its exquisite richness and texture, it's a sweet and melodious contrapuntal.
The through-line of the book is Peterson’s family decision to move to Plow Creek Farm, an intentional community (not a commune!) in rural Ohio, and moves from the initial experience of excitement, simple values, community life, midwives ushering newborns into the world in a teepee outside the front window, to loss, fires, decades-old trauma, and dwindling financial stability of the community.
Peterson explores the trajectory of her family’s move to intentional community and the resulting movement in her interior life in five parts: Simplicity, Hospitality, Contemplation, Church, and Death. This provides a rough framework for Peterson to explore and reflect on her experience both external and internal - how might your family react if you chose to make a radical move off the grid into intentional Mennonite farming community with your family? In the interludes between the sections there are deep dives into the lives of the mystics: Francis of Assisi, Simone Weil, Dorothy Day.
The territory is clear: Peterson is wrestling with the realities of contemplation and action, of lived ideals, of the tensions and deeper waters this kind of life guides us into, of what happens to us along the way.
And then there’s the prose. There’s a contemplative mode to the writing itself, a relaxed, confident, fluid style. One thinks of Madeleine L’Engle’s reflections like A Circle of Quiet. I’ve enjoyed Peterson’s writing for Image Journal for years now. There is always a combination of spiritual sustenance and new questions that open up.
In a light, unexpected touch, the book is also strewn with letters to the Saints whose lives she explores throughout. This helps bring playfulness and levity along with probing, intelligent questions and self-revelation. You can almost hear the writing teacher in her stirring: take 30 minutes to write a letter to a Christian Mystic. OK, go!
What comes through in these pages is this central paradox of the spiritual life in general and the contemplative life in particular: we want freedom; call it healing, wholeness, balance, shalom. And yet our human condition is such that we are incarnate, insecure, fumbling and fallible, inevitably subject to disappointment and pain both individual and communal.
When we look at the saints with their radiant tonsured heads, their visions and stigmata and penchant for the profound, we naturally want to emulate that example. We fail. We keep trying. The saints failed, too, and kept trying, refining and becoming refined in the process.
In one of the low points during her time, Peterson’s five year old is bitten in the face by a dog and she frantically drives her to the hospital as the blood begins to pool then trickle down her face (an experience I recently had with my own five year old): “Neva recovered from the trauma and the ten stitches a lot quicker than I did. A week after she was bitten I began to experience anxiety and panic attacks for the first time. The stress of community and farm tensions on my marriage and Neva’s trauma had begun to exhume unarticulated fears, imaginings, and my own failings. Anxiety and depression sent me reeling into an even harsher winter. The weather was tough but my interior landscape became a cold wilderness that seemed to blend into the white frozen horizon with no end.” There is dread. There is a sense of shame when we can’t capture the peace we claim to have in Christ or through our prayer practice.
Peterson traces the thread to its end: the community dissolves as she travels back and forth to Texas while her Dad succumbs to cancer. She turns again and again to the mystics for guidance.
Finally, after their time in the community is over and the grief is still fresh, there is new life, and her husband is installed as a pastor in a new community. Peterson reflects “Maybe I will never have the unsettling and euphoric visions of the mystics. But I have found the stirrings of a mystical faith in striving for simplicity, in the ways of contemplation, in showing hospitality, in living in community and entering into the suffering of others, and in facing the darkest and most painful parts of being human: sin, suffering, and death.”
Peterson’s book serves as a fresh reminder of the values and lessons on the contemplative path, both in sorrow and in a tentative, trembling joy. Here and there in her writing, Peterson refers to herself as a failing mystic. In our honest, fumbling, self-relinquishment, may we all fail just as well.
Christiana N. Peterson's personal blog
Mystics And Misfits: Meeting God Through St. Francis And Other Unlikely Saints on Amazon
An excerpt from the book in Image Journal
Our ongoing course Living Sacraments: The Christian Mystics and The Inner Journey To God