Mother. Mystic. Mennonite. Misfit. A Conversation with Christiana N. Peterson
Christiana N. Peterson is the author of Mystics and Misfits. Meeting God through St. Francis and Other Unlikely Saints. In this, her recently published memoir, she tells the story of how she and her family traded the hustle and bustle of life in Washington D.C., for the simple and bucolic life of an intentional community in rural Illinois run by Mennonites.
Beautifully structured and eloquently written, Mystics and Misfits is an endearing memoir that will draw you in and keep you engaged as Christiana shares the triumphs and disappointments that her family experiences drawing parallels between her personal journey of faith and those of Saint Francis and other unlikely saints, mystics and misfits. The beauty of the book lies in the way that the author skillfully addresses complex issues with astounding simplicity and relaxing spiritual energy.
Christiana very graciously agreed to have a conversation with me about her book.
JN: Hello Christiana! Thank you for taking the time to speak with me and congratulations on the book. May I say what an amazingly inspiring read it is. As a fellow mom and writer, I cannot resist starting our conversation with this two-part question: how do you find the time to write and how long did it take you to write the book?
CP: Hi Jola! Thank you so much and I’m honored to be speaking with you! To answer your question, it took me about nine months to write the first draft and around two years from contract to publication. In the middle of writing, I found out I was pregnant with my fourth child, my father’s health declined and the community where we were living was imploding; so you can imagine that the book I began to write ended entirely differently than I expected because I was writing as I was living it. My oldest two children were in school and I put my book advance toward childcare three mornings a week for my third child. I spent those hours in a library study room writing and bawling my eyes out. Really, the writing of the book was therapeutic for me: it helped me begin to articulate how I felt about our experiences and it helped me begin to heal.
JN: There is a part in the book where you articulate something that myself and a lot of other Christians struggle with, when you write: “the daily discipline of loving my neighbor is often ugly and painful.” Could you tell me a little bit about how you came to that profound realization and how your experience living as part of an intentional community has changed the way you love your neighbor.
CP: Well, because we lived in such close proximity with our neighbors who were also our church members—and for my husband, co-workers—there was really no escape. This was both extremely taxing and also so uniquely beautiful. There were members of our church who had no family to care for them when they got old or sick. And the community became their family, they cared for them like a son or daughter would. In many traditional churches, we simply cannot do this for one another because we are scattered across the city or live in another town. We have our jobs, our schedules, our kid’s ball games, and our own families. We gather on Sundays and don’t really share our lives together as intentionally. And because of this, it’s easier to hide the ugly parts of ourselves or avoid the people we find unpleasant. But when you truly encounter people day after day, having to work through every part of your life together—whether it’s who is supposed to mow the lawn, who is supposed to take on that work task or who will lead worship—you end up not only seeing the best and the worst in other people but the best and worst parts of ourselves are also exposed. So loving others in this close proximity can be very painful because we encounter their suffering as well as our own. And, generally, we resist leaning in to suffering.
JN: One of the best parts of the book for me were the letters that you wrote to Saint Francis and the other unlikely saints in the book. What made you decide to use that epistolary format and would you say that there was something cathartic about expressing yourself in this way?
CP: I wrote the first letter, The Skirt of God, as a stand alone piece, before I knew it would actually be in the book. It was a sort of mystical writing exercise for me that became very thematic for the rest of the book. That was the easiest letter to write because I wasn’t planning on writing it: it just flowed out of me. And once I realized that this letter would be a part of the book, it became obvious that I would also write a letter to each mystic that I studied. Some of the other letters were painful to write because they mapped out what was going on internally in these moments I was experiencing in the narrative of my story. In that way, they were cathartic and they allowed me to do what I was writing about: lean into the challenges and the painful moments of my story.
JN: What do you hope that readers of the book will take away from your story?
CP: I hope that those who have felt like misfits in the church will know that they are seen and feel less alone. I hope they will see that they have so much to offer to the church, that we need the prophetic voices on the edges to speak to us. I hope that those who are wary of mystics or misfits will be more open to listening to these voices and I hope that all of us will seek a more mystical faith: one that is marked by (but not limited to) simplicity, hospitality, community, contemplation, and an awareness of suffering in ourselves and in others.
JN: Wise and powerful words. To end our conversation, what books would you say have influenced your writing and what book are you currently reading?
CP: Well, Madeleine L’Engle influences most of my writing but it was the writing of Richard Rohr that first inspired me to re-visit the mystics. Jon Sweeney’s body of work on St. Francis (Sweeney wrote my foreword) really made St. Francis accessible to me. I’m reading Joan Chittister’s Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today and as I’m usually reading a YA novel, my current one is Tamora Pierce’s newest called Tempests and Slaughter.
JN: Thank you so much for taking the time off your busy schedule to speak with me and all the best with the book.
To find out more about Christiana and her writing, visit her website or follow her on Twitter: @ChristianNPete
I recommend Mystics and Misfits to anyone who wants to find out more about what life is like in an intentional community, is intrigued by misfits and mystics or who needs to immerse themselves in a good wholesome story. The lessons from Mystics and Misfits will reside in your heart for a long time and will certainly enhance your spiritual journey. I have two signed copies of the book to give away. To enter, simply send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org by May 15, 2018 with a few sentences explaining whether you consider yourself a mystic or a misfit. You have to be resident in the US to be able to participate.