I recently encountered Christiana Peterson and her words in Grand Rapids at the 2018 Festival of Faith & Writing. I knew immediately that she would be a friend to the Anam Cara community, and since my return from Michigan I’ve been eager to share her work with you. She has a new book out, Mystics & Misfits: Meeting God Through St. Francis and Other Unlikely Saints, which I highly recommend you pick up. Also, if you comment on this post, you’ll be entered to win your very own copy. You can also share this post on social media (and come back to let us know!) for more entries. We’ll draw a winner on May 1.
I love this excerpt from the chapter called Winter, in no small part because it snowed here in Colorado yesterday, and it’s hard for me to remember the gifts of that season when all I want is Spring. I encourage you to take her words in deeply, to ruminate, to reflect, and notice what dread might be doing in your own life.
In the middle of February, my craving for the healing warmth of soil under my fingernails saw me starting my seeds inside the house too early. Flimsy black plastic trays lined the edges of my sliding glass doors. Their roots would be long enough to need more room before the soil in my garden was warm enough to transplant them. But I didn’t care. If I could just see something grow, I could believe that spring was possible. I could believe that the tracks in the snow—ones that marked my anxiety-filled trips to feed the chickens—were melting into the dirt, providing the moisture it needed for another year of growth. I needed to see the snow melting and the sun rising.
And I did. And just as my fingers were aching to grow something tangible in the soil, life was taking root inside my body as well: I discovered I was pregnant with our third child. Even though this was unexpected, we were excited to tell the kids. We knew Neva and Jude would take to their older sibling duties with gusto.
My belly expanded into the warmth of those summer months in the sixth growing season, healing parts of me. But true healing isn’t linear; it happens in fits and starts. Sometimes the tracks in the snow melt into the earth. And sometimes the snow covers them again and more are made.
Our lives had become waves of celebration and tension. Matthew and I realized that we could map out the farm seasons not by how well the farm had done or the health of the crops but by which major drama had occurred each year. The stress of five years in such an unsettled place began to catch up with both of us. Each winter, with the shorter days and so much more time to think, we wondered whether we should keep sticking it out for another farm season. It began to feel as though there were a fifth time of year: the season of dread.
In his book Contemplative Prayer, twentieth-century Cistercian monk and mystic Thomas Merton writes of the necessity of dread—dread leads you deeper. He says of a monk who is deep in monastic prayer:
The Word of God which is his comfort is also his distress. The liturgy, which is his joy and which reveals to him the glory of God, cannot fill a heart that has not previously been humbled and emptied by dread. Alleluia is the song of the desert.
The monk who is truly a man of prayer and who seriously faces the challenge of his vocation in all its depth is by that very fact exposed to existential dread. . . . The monk confronts his own humanity and that of his world at the deepest and most central point where the void seems to open out into black despair.
As I plunged more deeply into motherhood, I wondered what dread meant for a woman—one who, with her duties, couldn’t be a monk in the practical ways of life. Maybe she was a mother and a wife, working in the naptime hours or caring for others, or maybe she was single and working outside the home. Maybe she had a loving husband who craved her body and emotional strength, or babies who needed her body to live, who needed her emotional strength to be healthy. She was tapped out, her needs forsaken not because her husband and children were at fault but because she idolized her marriage, she attached to the idea that motherhood was a calling. Instead of insisting on her need for the things that gave her life, she was afraid that her needs were the idols.
She needed to grow in her spirit. But sometimes it felt as though I didn’t have the space to feel God’s presence. The mystics seemed to dwell in places of constant search, marked by times of quietness and times of agony, periods that lead them into a deeper relationship with God. Many of them monastics and nuns, they all appear to live in extremities of solitude, silence, and prayer, where distractions are mostly internal.
Clearly they didn’t have three young children. My solitude was extreme only in its absence.
Did I take a pass on mysticism when I became a mother and not a nun? Distractions abounded, and solitude took so much energy. And what was left for myself? What was left for God?
As I reached my mid-thirties, my hormones changing in normal ways, I was overcome by my own existential dread. Not from hours spent in solitary prayer—that was hardly ever a possibility—but from anxiety and depression. Were those anxious thoughts my prayers? Was this the kind of dread that should be my friend?
Maybe. Maybe dread was the only thing that made me desperate enough to ask God for help.
(Quotes are from Contemplative Prayer by Thomas Merton)
“Excerpted from Christiana N. Peterson’s new book, Mystics and Misfits: Meeting God through St. Francis and Other Unlikely Saints. (Herald Press, 2018) All rights reserved. Used with permission. www.HeraldPress.com
Christiana N. Peterson has written at places like Christianity Today, Christian Century, SheLoves, and Art House America about farm life, fairytales, community life, and grief. She lives with her husband and their kids in Ohio where she spends her time writing, wrangling four children, reading YA novels, leading worship, and trying to figure out how to live a mystical faith.