In a world characterized by ideological divisiveness, one would hope that the church could provide refuge from such strife. Yet those who claim the name of Christ often war against each other with more vehemence than their secular counterparts. And while countless attempts have been made to draw together the conflicting factions of the faith, history teaches us that those who call for unity in the church ultimately do so in vain. Human nature will persist. Often, disagreement and controversy within the body of Christ only end in the death of its earthly members.
Thus, it is with notable bravery that Christiana N. Peterson invites us into her own death in Mystics and Misfits: Meeting God Through St. Francis and Other Unlikely Saints. Part memoir, part hagiography, part gut-wrenching prayer, this quirky literary amalgamation offers hope for the Christian community in a time of great need.
As a converted Mennonite intrigued by the lives of the saints, Peterson herself blurs the traditional boundaries of denominations. She reaches across faith traditions to find comfort as her own idealistic strongholds crumble in the face of hard realities. Inspired by Wendell Berry’s call to the rooted, agricultural life, Peterson recounts the decision she and her husband made to join Plow Creek—an intentional community in rural Illinois. She describes the enthusiasm with which she threw herself into radical simplicity and hospitality, dreaming of quiet farming routines and communal joys. She imagined a life of holiness and nearness to God.
Soon, however, hard truths of backbreaking labor and difficult neighbors left her feeling insufficient and wrung dry. These struggles were compounded by a sudden season of death: not only did Peterson lose family and friends, but Plow Creek threatened to close its doors as its numbers dwindled. At every turn, she was forced up against the limitations of herself and of nature. It is in this tension between a desire for holiness and the pain of reality that she first turned to the mystics.
By placing her own story in conversation with the lives of St. Francis, Dorothy Day, Simone Weil and other spiritual “misfits,” Peterson finds herself assured and challenged by these outsiders’ relationships to the world and the church. Aspiring to the same single-minded pursuit of Christ, she tried desperately to conform her attitudes and habits to their example through community life. But instead of yet another lofty meditation on unattainable ideals, this singular book unfolds with raw and naked honesty. In letters scattered between chapters, the author addresses each mystic directly, relating her own questions and frustrations as she found herself unable to mold her life to look like theirs. “But when I draw nearer to the way of Francis and, ultimately, the way of Jesus,” she writes, “I am confronted with my own inability to move and change, like a physical force that turns me back in on myself.”
In interposed sections of hagiography and biography, Peterson explores the lives of the mystics through imaginative retelling, forcing herself to become reacquainted with the mystics as failures and sufferers—as human beings. Clothed in common life, her idealized notions of sainthood are challenged. We, too, as readers are invited to interact with the newly incarnated saints. Peterson offers accounts that might seem so other in relation to our everyday lives and presents them in ordinary flesh and blood. Instead of saints who heap condemnation on our heads through the dusty pages of history, she presents fellow sinners who stand beside us, who let us lean on them, and who hold our hands.
Regarding the mystical tradition, she recognizes the aversion many will have to mumbled chanting and superstitious babble. Peterson contrasts the saints she has focused on with those of other religions whose spiritual giants use mystic practices as a way to be drawn upward and become one with God. The beauty and accessibility of Christian mysticism, she suggests, lies in the foundational mystery of the incarnation: “Christian mystics long to be in union with the God who made himself small, who came to suffer alongside his creation, who descended and entered in our world, and who called us to join him in that truly baffling kind of love.” Instead of asking us to climb up to him, the Christian deity draws us to Himself by coming down to earth. Peterson’s mystics model the example of their Savior, who made Himself small and weak on behalf of the ones He loved. The saints, she reminds us, would have never called themselves “holy.” Christianity preaches a salvation that demands brokenness and failure as a prerequisite to redemption. In this case, Peterson also succeeds in following the example of the saints in the book when she confesses her own weaknesses and tells of her own spiritual death.
She is at her most poignant as she reflects on her father’s passing. Remembering how reserved and unemotional he was in life, Peterson recalls instances in which her father demanded that no one make much of him, even to the point of rejecting his daughters’ presence at his deathbed. Yet, although his loved ones respected his wishes at that time, Peterson observes how he could not continue to control their behavior after his death. They wept, shared warm memories, and demonstrated their love with abandon at his funeral. This, Peterson claims, is the response of Christ in our death as well. The dead are powerless. They cannot strive or manipulate or hold on to strong ideologies. They are entirely at the mercy of the living.
The great triumph of Mystics and Misfits is the courage with which Peterson looks death in the face and rejoices over the Living One, full of mercy, whose position towards those dead in their trespasses is one of “mad, mad love.” The path of mysticism she travels is one that leads to experienced suffering rather than merely intellectual faith. Ultimately it is inescapable; one need not strive to put oneself in the way of pain in this world. Thus she invites us into the greatest mystery of all: life born out of death. In suffering, Peterson discovers the mystic reality of a life hid with Christ in God: “. . . the choice to live into suffering is a mystical contradiction that pushes us deeper into the heart of God’s love.” Such love overshadows all bickering, all division. Peterson confesses, “My ideals put God and God’s kingdom in such a tight box of my own making.” By offering us the death of her ideals and of her own self-image, she invites us to come alongside of her and experience the reanimation of our corpses. And when we are dead and our life is in Christ, surely all dissension between brothers and sisters must cease before a God who was pleased “to reconcile to Himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through His blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:20).
Emily Andrews is a contributing editor to FORMA. She and her husband, Ian, live in Washington state where they work for the Center for Lit.