With untested ideals and a thirst for adventure, Christiana Peterson and her family moved to an intentional Christian farming community in the rural Midwest. It sounded like a simple and faithful way to follow Jesus, not to mention a great place to raise kids. In Mystics and Misfits, Peterson discovers that community life is never really simple and that she needs resources beyond her own to weather the anxiety and exhaustion of trying to save a dying farm and a floundering congregation. She turns to Christian mystics like Francis of Assisi, Simone Weil, and Dorothy Day to find sustenance for the everyday struggles and unique hardships of community life. With a contemplative's spirit and poet's eye, Peterson leads readers into an encounter with the God of the wild mystics and the weird misfits.
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The Vague Adventurers
An old white barn sat alone, looking ill at ease on the flat canvas of a farm field. The muddy road ahead of us led straight into the trees. Unused irrigation links were thrown in a pile, and we were blocked in by the woods on three sides.
We had just turned at the sign for Plow Creek Farm. We knew we were so close to the community we'd been seeking. But we weren't there yet.
We were lost.
My husband and I decided to move to a commune on a whim.
A commune sounded like the adventure Matthew and I longed to have together, our first as a married couple. We'd only been married a year and a half and had a six-month-old daughter. Our courtship and marriage had been certain in love and spontaneous in its speed. And almost exactly a year after our wedding, we were holding our baby girl in our arms.
But that whirlwind of spontaneity had finally gotten us stuck. We were tire-deep in the mud of a farm field in the middle of the Midwest. Our car tires groaned and spun with each punch of the accelerator, splattering mud like black buckshot. Matthew eased his foot off the pedal.
It was technically spring. In fact, it was April 1, the very day we'd met two years before. Those two years ago, I had just finished four years of grad school in Scotland and was nearly thirty, with no career ambitions except as a writer and with a deep longing to meet someone. I was living in Texas and had the job of trying to get college baseball players interested enough in World Literature to pass their class so they could play their sport. Not exactly a vocational dream.
I spent some afternoons at my friend Jessica's house imagining my future husband, wondering if he actually existed, if I'd always be single. Jessica had developed a nickname for my future spouse: "Sweater," so named not for his habit of perspiration but because she was sure he'd be a geeky professor type who wore glasses and sweaters with patches on the elbows.
A few months into my time back in Texas, Jessica sat me down and said her sister had found the guy for me. We'd gone to the same university in Texas but we'd never met because he was two years younger than I was. The only bits of information she could offer were these: in his college years, he had ridden around campus on his bike (in Texas, an unusual habit for college students, who are usually addicted to gas-guzzling pickup trucks), he had a mop of curly hair, he had an affinity for poetry, and he spoke German in his sleep.
It was not much to go on, but we already had a connection in the sleep department. My family loves to tell the story of the time when I was in elementary school and I managed to make it down the stairs in the middle of the night. My dad found me sitting in front of a blank television screen with the remote in my hand.
When we were first introduced over email, Matthew and I were separately descending from our own adventures — he from the Peace Corps in West Africa, and I from graduate school in Scotland. I hesitate to admit how I had chosen Scotland over another grad school. It reveals the romantic, emotive, and self-absorbed way I have made some major decisions in my life. That I even had a choice is a desperate sign of my privilege. But here it is: I decided to move while listening to a song by Enya on The Lord of the Rings soundtrack. The song, with its Celtic musical influence and some of its lyrics sung in the Elvish language created by Tolkien, transported me to the mysteries and magic of the bleak highlands. As I listened to the music, I was that girl who wished Middle Earth were real.
Matthew's Peace Corps adventure had begun not with a song but with an intriguing poster hanging in the hallway outside one of his classes during his senior year of college. I don't know what the poster looked like, but I picture it like the one that hangs in his office now: an action shot of four barefooted boys jumping off a cliff into a murky body of water. The caption reads: "Life is calling. How far will you go?"
Matthew and I emailed, then talked on the phone, then met for the first time on April 1 those two years ago. It only took a few days for us to begin talking of love and marriage. We were engaged after only a few weekend visits to each other's towns, and six months after our first meeting, we were married. We connected immediately because of shared wanderlust, an expanded view of the world, and even a reevaluation of our childhood church tradition.
I moved to Washington, D.C., where he was already living and working at a nonprofit for international development. D.C. seems to be a holding place for many a former Peace Corps volunteer, and my husband was no exception. As it does for many young people who move to D.C. with dreams of social justice, the sheen had soon worn off for Matthew, who spent his days in a cubicle doing paperwork and his breaks playing cribbage with other unsatisfied young do-gooders.
It wasn't long before Matthew and I both began to struggle with questions about life and vocation. Although his job was technically doing good things in the world, he was never able to see the tangible differences he made in anyone's life. After spending his day/s pushing paper, he found the most satisfaction outside of work, doing various hobbies and especially tending our plot at a community garden a mile from our house in D.C. I had recently quit my job at a local florist and was discouraged in my search for a publisher for the young adult novels that no one wanted. Even though I'd found a group of mothers to be a part of, most of them were employed, and I was lonely in a new city.
So I wasn't too surprised when Matthew came home one night after walking our puppy, Jasper, marched up to our bedroom where I was nursing our daughter, Neva, and declared, "I think we should move to a commune."
I don't know what response he expected from me. All I said was, "Okay, as long as it's Christian."
I'd heard of intentional communities and communes from my grad school flatmate, Jen, who'd lived with several other young people during a stint in the Lutheran Volunteer Corps. She'd told me of a rural Lutheran community in the mountains where they farmed and shared common work. Romantic that I was, hippies and misfits were idealized figures in my mind. For Matthew, his desire for a unique way of doing community was influenced by his time in a small village in West Africa, the farming he'd done with a local man in that community, and perhaps the caption on that Peace Corps poster. Life was calling us. Adventure was only a few thousand miles away.
When we began searching online for a commune, we were surprised to find a whole database full of them. It was rather easy to decide which communes were not on our list. These included the "adult-only" communes, in which participants were encouraged to share sexual partners, as well as those communes that were awaiting the end of civilization or the apocalypse on a specified date.
And then there was an unassuming and fairly modest little entry about Plow Creek, a simple Mennonite-affiliated community in the rural Midwest. The chaos of their website — with its ugly background the shade of an avocado that has been left in the fridge too long — might have deterred some, but in my unfettered eagerness for an adventure, I chose to see it as charming. It was clear from the pictures of folks at the community that simplicity, both in dress and in the 1980s quality of the photographs, was at least an unspoken value.
And simplicity, among other things, was what Matthew and I longed for, even though we weren't quite sure what that meant. For us, simple living was certainly about healthy, local food; we were discovering writers like Michael Pollan, Wendell Berry, and Barbara Kingsolver, who were all passionate about the need for local food and local communities. But it was about something else too. Something vague and noble, adventurous and beautiful.
In those weeks before our visit, we corresponded by email with a member of the community named Louise. I contributed questions typical of someone whose only knowledge of Mennonites was from a Christian novel I'd read in high school. As a teenager, I'd absorbed very little about their theology and a lot about how they dressed and lived: in plain clothes like the Amish, with no electricity. I wondered, Who are the Mennonites? I knew they were respectable, but what did they believe? And did I have to wear skirts and cover my head to live there?
Louise assured me that, even though some women chose to cover their heads, Plow Creek community members were not Old Order Mennonites or Amish Mennonites in the way of my childhood novels. There were no dress codes, and although the Internet was shoddy, it worked. I would learn later that the members of the community came from a diverse mix of backgrounds and that, even though the community members were affiliated through church membership in the regional Mennonite conference, they were not typically Mennonite (if there even is such a thing).
After a string of conversations with Louise, we tucked our daughter into her car seat and drove from D.C. to Illinois, stopping in Kentucky to search out the home of Matthew's favorite author, Wendell Berry, the spokesperson of idealistic, farm-loving dreamers everywhere.
As we edged closer to the Plow Creek community for the first time, I noticed that the farmland was flat and the miles stretched out on either side of the highway in a forlorn and unhidden way. Hailing from generations of Texans and having gone to college in Abilene, I knew about flatlands. I'd heard of West Texas pioneer wives going insane from the uninterrupted whistling of the wind. But I spent most of my life amid the cedar trees of the Texas Hill Country, where highways dipped and curved across the county, cutting through ancient walls of limestone. I had a fondness for trees and hills. We hadn't even arrived and I was having doubts that I could mentally withstand the bleakness of the landscape.
But a few miles from the community, the road began to descend as it followed the terrain into a valley. The community was a mile from a small village, population seven hundred, that was prettily situated in a valley of trees and hills dotted with large, old houses with wide front porches and high gabled windows. It was a no-stoplight town, with a railroad running across the edge of Main Street and two small, well-kept parks bracketing the town.
We passed through the village and saw a green sign for the community pointing out of town. We found ourselves driving parallel to the railroad tracks, and half a mile later, that weary white barn at the front of a field with a sign that said Plow Creek Farm came into view.
When I thought of moving to a Christian "commune," I liked the countercultural images it conjured in my mind: hippies who hugged trees, who tilled the earth in homemade clothes, and who loved their neighbors. But the truth is, we knew very little about what we were getting ourselves into.
Plow Creek began when a few young families arrived at the community property in the 1970s, buying the 180 acres with — I'm told — $10,000 in cash. They lived in the dilapidated farmhouse on the property and in nearby rental houses until they could build up the community — both the infrastructure and the physical buildings — with their own labor. But the word commune, which I'd pictured dreamily from our house in D.C., was a loaded term in the minds of many of the older folks at Plow Creek. It reminded them too much of the free-love communities of the 1960s and '70s, communities for which the founders of Plow Creek were trying to offer a Christian alternative during the "back to the land" movement.
So not long after we arrived, I was told in no uncertain terms that Plow Creek was not a commune. It was an intentional community. Intentional community is an umbrella term that can refer to anything from housing co-ops to communal farms to ashrams to communes. Many intentional communities are not Christian. "Intentional" is perhaps a misnomer anyway. Many communities and churches are very intentional about certain aspects of their life and worship. But what generally defines an intentional community is a focus on building relationships, sharing both the physical and emotional burdens of land or housing, coming together around shared values, and often having an egalitarian style of decision-making. Although we didn't know the precise details at the time we visited, these qualities, along with a Christian vision, described Plow Creek as well.
As we drove toward the community, we supposed that if we decided to live there for very long, we might eventually be asked to share finances with others. We weren't sure what that looked like, and indeed, those requirements had changed over the years of Plow Creek's existence. The earliest members in the 1970s had shared almost everything, from income and savings to cars and houses. They had stipends for the smaller necessities of life, but for the larger expenses, they spent meetings discussing what was appropriate to spend money on. That became too overreaching for many who arrived later in the life of the community, and the members decided to trust one another more with expenses. Eventually, few people were willing to share finances or give up their savings and assets. Levels of membership in the community's bylaws and rule of life were changed in the later decades of the community in order to reflect that.
After a few moments of our tires spinning in the mud, Matthew freed the car and reversed all the way back to the white barn in the Plow Creek Farm field and consulted our directions. A few wrong turns later, we reached the top of a hill and nearly missed the faded hand-carved community sign. Taking the sharp right-hand curve, we drove down the gravel road, passing several winters' worth of stacked firewood, and rounded a corner. There was the meadow; six simple buildings dotted the circular drive.
Our adventure — of a different sort than we expected — was about to begin.
The Simple Saint
From garden centers and big-box stores, to eBay and even gas stations, figurines of Saint Francis are everywhere. Most of these collectibles are meant to emphasize Francis's softness and saintliness. It's humorous, really. What would Francis, the man of radical poverty who slept on the ground and ate with lepers, make of his idealized likenesses placed next to our trinkets, our shelves of books, our embellished picture frames, our insignificant stuff and more stuff?
I hope he wouldn't mind my garden statue of him. The wooden figure I pilfered from my grandmother's house is cracked at the elbow. It stood outside on an uneven garden patch beside the front porch, but a windstorm knocked him over. The morning after the storm, as I ushered my children out the door for school, my daughter cried, "Oh no! Saint Francis has fallen!"
I got the children in the car, and even though we were running late, I dashed back to the door to pick him up and set him aright. Something deeper than sentimentality made me cry out when I saw that his wooden arm was split. Inside, a rod connected his forearm to his elbow. I tried to shove it back together, but there was no time.
So I carried him inside and placed him beside the couch. Now, instead of facing our maple tree, he faces my bookshelves, the disarray of living room toys, and his small porcelain likeness. Every time one of my children passes by to get to their toys, his arm falls off again.
My children have learned how to reattach his limb and the birds who won't stay notched to his footstand or good arm. I find his foot on the table behind the couch sometimes.
I like to think Francis would appreciate and encourage the crumbling of his statue.
Not long after I brought Saint Francis's garden statue to our house, the deadline for my daughter's Catholic school religion project for kindergarten approached. Since one of the options was to write a report about a saint, my daughter and I both chose him as our patron (of sorts). Francis is not only our patron but the patron saint of animals, ecology, environmentalists, and even the Humane Society. If there were a Christian Hippie Association of Farmers (we might call it CHAF, for short), I imagine Francis would be the patron saint of that too.
The miracles and life of Saint Francis, who was born in twelfth-century Italy, have filled the pages of books ever since his lifetime. Francis's simple approach to life and the gospel, his grace, and his joy attract numerous followers. And he makes a habit of baffling his companions.
Excerpted from "Mystics and Misfits"
Copyright © 2018 Christiana Peterson.
Excerpted by permission of Herald Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Author’s Note 12
Prologue: Mystics 15
Letter to Saint Francis: The Skirt of God 23
Part I: Simplicity
The Vague Adventurers 31
Interlude: The Simple Saint 39
First Impressions 43
The Simple Life 49
Interlude: The Spoiled Charmer 57
The Smell of Simplicity 62
Interlude: The Colors of Poverty 67
Interlude: Saint Francis and His Lady 76
Letter to Saint Francis: The Lunacy of Love 82
Part II: Hospitality
Strange Visitors 89
Interlude: The Do-Gooder 95
Dream Home 100
Interlude: Commune Farms 103
Frustrations and Celebrations 105
Letter to Dorothy Day: A Saint for Difficult
Part III: Contemplation
Interlude: Margery Kempe 128
Mother God 131
Interlude: Clare of Assisi 136
The News 139
Interlude: The Cloister of the World 143
Letter to Margery Kempe: Get Thee to a Mental Health Professional 148
Letter to Clare of Assisi: Mother of God 151
Part IV: Church
A New Kind of Family 159
Interlude: What Does the Lord Require? 166
Blowing Your Nose in Church 169
Interlude: Awkward Anarchist 173
Interlude: Awakening 182
Letter to Simone Weil: The Miracle of Attention 184
Part V: Death
Broken Things 191
Interlude: Between the Angel and the Lady 197
Our Sacred Cows 200
Interlude: A Broken Body 220
To Each Her Own Grief 222
Interlude: At the End 229
Death and the Landscape of Grief 232
Letter to Saint Francis: To Really Live 239
Epilogue: Misfits 244
The Author 263
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
As someone who grew up in the intentional community Peterson writes about, and thus a "misfit" myself, I found reading this book to be an intense and deeply healing, if not mystical, experience. Christiana's ability to beautifully weave together her own poignant experience-with all the joys, sorrows, and challenges-of intentional Christian living at Plow Creek Fellowship with those of saints, mystics and "misfits" powerfully ministered to me. As I read her intimate and insightful reflections, I felt that I was journeying with her as she witnessed the last chapters of our shared family (Plow Creek members) and home (Plow Creek Farm). And, despite knowing how the journey at the intentional community ended for her, I found I could not put this book down! I yearned to hear more, to find out how her journey ended, and how it all affected her in the end. I laughed and cried with her and, ultimately, found healing with her as she reflected her thoughts in the last chapter and affirmed my own experience as a "misfit" in the "normal" world.