Mystics and Misfits:
Meeting God through St. Francis and Other Unlikely Saints
“Maybe simplicity, as it turns out,
is both boringly simple and searingly difficult.”
The first time Christiana Peterson encountered a saint or “mystic” was while cleaning out her grandmother’s house after she had been settled into assisted living. She fell in love with a worn, wooden garden statue of St. Francis carved out of a log she had spotted through the patio door.
Paired with the coloring pages of saints her daughter was bringing home from Catholic school, Christiana met other mystics, “devout human beings who lived on the edges, who longed for unity with God.” Little did she know it would bring her into an experience that would have a profound impact on her life and faith.
Mystics and Misfits: Meeting God through St. Francis and Other Unlikely Saints is not your typical book about saints you can never hope to emulate or otherworldly mystics. Mystics and Misfits feels like an unexpected, personal gift, a friend sitting you down to tell their story with complete openness, trembling but present, offering you their world-weary soul.
Christiana is a poet. She weaves sentences that break your heart with their beauty but heal it again with an intimacy that draws you closer with its immediacy. Her experience and hard-won wisdom make her instantly relatable.
She writes from within the intentional Christian community she belongs to, the Mennonite Plow Creek Fellowship in Tskilwa, Illinois, which closed in 2017. This book spans the years she and her husband, Matthew, lived in the community, worked the farm, led worship, welcomed the outsider, and preached.
Christiana uses saint and mystic interchangeably, implying a broader interpretation of who can be a saint. This constitutes the entire Body of Christ, not necessarily only those who have been canonized by the Catholic church.
Christiana writes, “Saint Francis and other Christian mystics captured me in a time of desperation. I was struggling through mental health issues and outside stressors, and I had reached the limits of an intellectual faith. I saw that in their own times of suffering, the mystics had encounters that led to unalterable transformation. I longed to be changed by God, too.”
It is precisely this desperation that speaks to us as well. We may not be able to see ourselves in the piety of these mystics who endured stigmata or ecstasies, but we can relate to their suffering, like Paul related to Jesus’ suffering: “I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings.” This fellowship extends to all of us who struggle like Francis with broken family dynamics, or like Clare who was a victim of abuse, or like Dorothy Day who was haunted by the choices she made when she was young.
Christiana writes: “Mysticism meant leaning into a deeper relationship with God, and that relationship encompassed more than just knowledge, intellectual assent, and rational belief . . . mystics have vivid experiences of God, search to know God beyond logic and doctrine, and find their lives transformed because of these encounters.”
This quote perfectly embodies the historical uneasiness with mysticism. The idea of knowing God beyond logic and doctrine is enough to make our church fathers roll over in their graves. Contrary to ecclesiastical belief, the mystics weren’t looking for ways to debunk or reject theology; they were looking for a powerful, dynamic, experiential dimension within the doctrine they adhered to. It wasn’t an either/or proposition to them; it was always both/and. They wanted both traditional theology and a broader definition of communion with God. According to Christiana, “In the early Christian church, mysticism wasn’t something apart from the church or other theological ways of thinking, but instead was understood in light of its relationship with the church’s doctrine.”
Relationship is the bedrock and motivation of these mystics’ craving for community, their longing for an ardent and profound participation with the Divine. Like Francis and Clare, Christiana and Matthew had both grown up in wealthy homes.
The couple had never encountered financial stress, inconvenience, or lack of good medical care. But they both were drawn to a life of simplicity, especially one that was poured out for others. “In moving to Plow Creek, Matthew and I were being led by the discomfort we felt with our privilege. We wanted to allow ourselves to be a little less comfortable, to be in community with those who understood what it meant to struggle, and to maybe place ourselves within that struggle a tiny bit more too.”
Community allowed them to embrace the uncomfortable, however reluctantly, while giving them the opportunity to provide comfort for others. In the midst of her father dying from cancer, postpartum depression, disquieting visitors, community conflict, and crop woes, Christiana finds solace in the lives of the saints, including their illnesses, isolation, and despair.
She finds hope there too, like in this letter to St. Francis: “All [God] asks is that we might let ourselves be overcome by the madness of a parent’s love, a love that would lead us to kiss the festering wounds of another. That would lead us to the utter lunacy of God’s love for us. And that’s worth giving up everything for.”
As they yielded themselves to that madness, God moved, and spoke, and provided. They listened in their grief and loss, knowing that God was present in their suffering as they strove to be present in the suffering of others. They learned that hospitality has an edge to it. Welcoming others into their heart and home proved precarious, it ran the risk of shattered friendship and even strained the certainty of their personal safety.
Christiana offers us an authentic perspective on the ways community, intentional or not, can give us a foothold when we’re sliding down the bank of discouragement on our way to despair. Even the inconveniences of other people’s flesh and brokenness reminds us of our own humanity, our own need for healing and wholeness, and forces us to remember it’s not all about us.
Underneath the recurring themes of suffering and struggle is a story of a woman who is yearning for a boundless connection with the God she loves. The book is divided into interludes, memoir, and letters, and every letter is filled with the language of a lover pining for her beloved, willing to be stripped naked, humbled, broken open, only to possess more of him. Christiana generously reveals her journey deeper into God’s heart, inviting us to face our own suffering while acknowledging that we, too, desire to be captivated by the utter lunacy of God’s love for us.
Tammy Perlmutter is founder and curator of The Mudroom, a collaborative blog encouraging women to speak truth, love hard, and enter in with each other, and co-founder of Deeply Rooted, a biannual worship and teaching gathering for women. Tammy is a member of Redbud Writers Guild, an urban beekeeper, and lives in an intentional Christian community in Chicago with her family.