Dear Saint Francis,
I imagined I saw you today out of the upstairs window. Your cowl had slipped off your head, and you were fighting uselessly with the wind to put it back up again. The recently fallen leaves around your feet likely understood the inevitability of your struggle.
Your habit, patched and torn and patched again, was the same dull grey as the maple tree under which you stood. I almost missed you, but your stigmata were bright red flares that caught my eye. I wanted to ask you so many things, but I decided not to come, to stay inside, and I can’t take it back. So here is a letter for you, tucked into the hollow of our maple tree, in case you return and I’m not here. I’ll leave it just above the place that you were standing, where a few red leaves cling to the flaking tree bark like the wounds on your hands.
Seeing you out there on such a day, when fall is about to concede defeat to winter and the wind howls like the coyotes in our woods, reminds me of a longing I’ve been feeling. Longing seems to be an active, unarticulated sort of restlessness. Maybe melancholy is the gloominess of a long-term, unfulfilled longing.
When I was a twentysomething and in grad school in Scotland, I took a road trip to the northeast tip of the country with my flatmate, Jen. We met our painter friend Genevieve at a castle near Wick, right on the North Sea. Genevieve’s oil paintings were hanging all over the cottage where we stayed: haunting, otherworldly pictures of rooms with trees growing out of the middle of them. It was as if her canvases were precise renderings of the feelings this place had evoked in me from the moment I stepped into it. I’m not sure if I felt melancholy then or if it was just a youthful longing. Perhaps both. Maybe the woefulness of my younger years in Scotland was like a town on the volatile North Sea: bleak and lovely, home to some eccentrics and hearty folk, haunted by the terror of the people it drove to madness.
Sometimes this feeling seemed like the wind at Genevieve’s little castle, a persistent, unending tone somewhere between a wheezing and a whistle. A patch of yellow daffodils between the castle and the sea only made the place feel sadder, like the effect of bright flowers in a cemetery, emphasizing the contrast of life and death more painfully.
I’m not sure why I speak to you of this longing, Francis. Maybe it’s because I’ve been suffering recently from these swirling, anxious thoughts. So, in desperation, I began practicing centering prayer, and that led me to mystics like you.
How did you know what to do, Francis? Was it when you heard the voice of God the first time that you decided it was time to let go of the things that bound you? They’re about your encounter with Christ, I think, those mystical experiences. Can you show me how to be a mystic? Because contemplative prayer is troubling to me. I don’t think it is working.
I’ve always thought that the experience of God should feel mystical. That it should take me out of my ordinary and into fantasy—that God should speak out of light, thunder, a dramatic stage or song. Or maybe an angel could show me how beautiful wings really are: dreams of fairy sightings made real.
That’s what I want from my “God experience”: a fulfillment of this longing for something strange, for something intangible, fantastical, mystical, this longing for something beautiful. Isn’t that how the ancient mystics encountered God? My experience of God seems to take a different form.
When I practice these prayers, I try to focus on being in the presence of God. But the darkness swirls behind my eyelids into psychedelic shapes of animals and concentric circles. When my alarm goes off to free me, I don’t feel mystical at all. Only sad.
Is this what is meant to happen when I sit in God’s presence? Am I meant to feel more uneasy, more confused, and more sad? Am I meant to cry and wish for something a little more lovely? I mean, why can’t I be like the mystic Teresa of Ávila and see my soul as a castle? Do you think it could be a fairy castle?
Now that I’m thinking of it, the longing I described in those paintings and in the visits to the North Sea—somehow it feels like the longing of a young girl. One who is just discovering that her old belief system isn’t quite her own yet. One who longs to jump into a beautiful painting or be a part of a great romance or fairytale.
I’m older now, and I still haven’t outrun the longing. It’s here in my heart, but now it’s not a niggling discomfort—one that leads me into the melancholy of a night by the North Sea. This aching slashes at me now. I sometimes feel it like a clawing inside, scratching to get out and find purchase. Sometimes it feels as though it will burst through my skin and show itself on my flesh.
Do you understand, Francis? I watched you outside; you held your arms out to our maple tree, like the first tree hugger, before “tree hugger” became a derogatory term thrown at left-wing hippies. And you did something curious. After you hugged the tree, you put your fingers in the holes where my husband taps the tree each year for syrup and then you wiped your hands on the bark. It was a childlike gesture, one that reminded me of the way a child wipes his hands down his mother’s skirt after a meal. He can’t wait to remove the foreign substance as much as he can’t wait to feel the tender strength of his mother, the one who keeps him alive, the one he treats the best and worst.
When I went outside, you were gone, of course. But I still approached the place you’d been. I touched the spot on the grass. There was a disturbance there, but it was slight enough to be imagined.
But there, there on the tree where your hands had run up and down the grey bark, were two red streaks, dark, almost black as blood.
Did it hurt or heal to feel the bark scratch those deep rankling wounds? Or was it that longing you felt, aching to get out, that tore you inside until it broke through your skin? Is that why you rubbed your hands against the tree, because it makes you feel close to the skirt of God?
It seems that you and I have switched places, Francis: I am longing for joy and you are stuck in sorrow. Though I suspect you have a glimpse of what it means to live with both.
I want to know so much, Francis. Please, come back, another time. I think I’ll make a better choice on your next visit. I’ll come out to greet you and ask for a dance.
Your friend and failing mystic,
Excerpted from Christiana N. Peterson’s new book released today: Mystics and Misfits: Meeting God Through St. Francis and Other Unlikely Saints (Herald Press, 2018). All rights reserved. Used with permission. www.HeraldPress.com
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Christiana Peterson
Christiana N. Peterson is the author of Mystics and Misfits: Meeting God Through St. Francis and Other Unlikely Saints (Herald Press, 2018). She grew up in Texas and received a PhD in Creative Writing from St. Andrews University in Scotland. She has published pieces on death, fairytales, and farm life at Art House America, her.meneutics, and cordella. Christiana lives with her family in the rural Midwest where she is learning the joys and challenges of church and farm life. You can find more of Christiana’s writing on her blog at christiananpeterson.com and follow her on Twitter.