Eugene Peterson: A Monk Out of Habit

What spirituality has to do with place, creativity, community, and subversion.
Eugene Peterson: A Monk Out of Habit
Image: Taylor Martyn / Fuller Seminary

If Eugene H. Peterson was not a Presbyterian, he might be a monk. His best-known books, from A Long Obedience in the Same Direction to Earth and Altar, deal with the practice of Christian spirituality.

And Eugene is of a monastic demeanor. He is bearded, balding, and thin. He has a quiet, raspy voice that sounds as if it belongs to a man who has weathered many dark nights of the soul. His is the settled and serene air that comes from facing and overcoming our innate fear of silence and solitude, so that when he speaks, the hoarse, gentle words seem to rise from a genuine depth.

But monastic demeanor aside, Peterson is a thoroughgoing Protestant, enough so to be pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland. He decided early in his work never to pastor a church composed of more people than he could remember by name. He and his wife, Jan, have been at Christ Our King Church, a PCUSA congregation of some 300 members, for 23 years.

Beginning especially with the 1980 publication of A Long Obedience, Eugene has earned a widespread (if appropriately low-key) reputation as a thoughtful, articulate pastor who understands the spiritual disciplines and can communicate their practice.

He pastors and writes from a scholarly background, having mastered the biblical languages and done doctoral-level work with the magisterial William F. Albright. But none of the learning is for show. Peterson is, in fact, uncomfortable with persistent questions about his books, insisting that his identity and aim in life is merely being a dependable pastor. In a world of mounting hype and glitter, he has dedicated himself to the unsung promotion of honesty, simplicity, and substance.

Last September, I spent three days with Eugene and Jan. But not in Bel Air. Rather, I visited them at his deceased parents’ home in northwest Montana, during Eugene’s year-long sabbatical from the pastorate.

The house is situated off a bay on Flathead Lake, a blue mirror of the wide sky that stretches ten miles behind the house. The white-peaked Rockies encircle the lake. Eugene’s appreciation is obvious. One evening he stood in the kitchen, the lake’s shimmering light reflected onto the ceiling by the low sun. Hands shoved in the pockets of his jeans, he stared dreamily out the window and muttered to no one in particular, “I love the sensuality of this place.”

The Petersons stayed in Montana until last October, spending leisurely hours in prayer, hiking in the surrounding mountains, reading aloud together, skiing cross country, Eugene writing and Jan typing the successive drafts of two books. Their time alone together—precious enough for any ministerial couple—was punctuated by visits from their children, Karen, Eric, and Leif.

September was the ideal time for an interview. Eugene was refreshed from the sabbatical, geared up to return to his pastoral work, and ready to talk. We spent hours in front of a tape recorder, but also roamed the mountains near the house, with Eugene taking time to discuss geological formations, relate Indian legends about fir cones, and point out an endless succession of wildlife. But whatever turns the conversation took, it returned over and over to the themes of spirituality presented below: the importance of place, the role of creativity, the centrality of community, and the necessity of Christian subversion. Asked what draws it all together, Eugene, with a fish hawk winging across the bay at his back, quoted the last line of Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest: “Grace is everywhere.”

Spirituality and place

Your books are earthy, in the literal sense of the word. There are agricultural metaphors, titles like Earth and Altar. Although we live in a highly mobile society, you seem to have a strong sense of place, of the importance of one’s location.

I enjoy reading the poet-farmer Wendell Berry. He takes a small piece of land in Kentucky, respects it, cares for it, submits himself to it just as an artist submits himself to his materials. I read Berry, and every time he speaks of “farm” and “land,” I insert “parish.” As he talks about his farm, he talks about what I’ve tried to practice in my congregation, because one of the genius aspects of pastoral work is locality.

The pastor’s question is, “Who are these particular people, and how can I be with them in such a way that they can become what God is making them? My job is simply to be there, teaching, preaching Scripture as well as I can, and being honest with them, not doing anything to interfere with what the Spirit is shaping in them. Could God be doing something that I never even thought of? I don’t have any idea. Am I willing to be quiet for a day, a week, a year? Like Wendell Berry, am I willing to spend 50 years reclaiming this land? Am I willing to spend 10 years, 20 years, 50 years with these people?

Does this appreciation of place and of the particular people around us apply to lay persons as well as the pastor?

Oh, sure—in fact, it’s a basic element of spirituality. Christian spirituality means living into the mature wholeness of the gospel. It means taking all the elements of your life—children, spouse, job, weather, possessions, relationships—and experiencing them as an act of faith. God wants all the material of our lives. That’s as true for an engineer or truck driver as it is for a pastor.

The assumption of spirituality is that always God is doing something before I know it. So the task is to discover it and participate and take delight in it.

What does it mean to experience all the material of our lives as an act of faith?

That I’m responsible for paying attention to the Word of God right here in this locale. The assumption of spirituality is that always God is doing something before I know it. So the task is not to get God to do something I think needs to be done, but to become aware of what God is doing so that I can respond to it and participate and take delight in it.

When I immerse myself in my parish, I oftentimes come home amazed at what’s going on in people’s lives. And it’s not that they’re not sinners. They live and they sin and they rebel and do stupid things, but the courage and the grace are there almost every day. When I’m doing my work—that is, when I’m not standing off detachedly looking at what’s going on, but just dive into my own environment—I think my characteristic feeling at the end of the day is a sense of awe about what God is doing with these people.

What are some incidents that have brought that home to you?

I think of Leigh and Joe Phipps. Leigh was my youngest son’s first-grade teacher and Jan was her teacher’s aide. At one point, Jan asked her if she wanted to come to church. Leigh said she might, but she didn’t like to dress up. Sunday was blue jeans day. Jan said she could come in blue jeans.

From that point on, a kind of banter was set up. Jan would see Leigh in the grocery store and say, “Better get your blue jeans washed.” But Leigh never came. Years passed. Then our daughter, Karen, took a pottery course, and Leigh was in the class. She got to know Karen, and still nothing developed. But we were in the same community. And two years ago, something happened, after 20 years of praying and waiting. Leigh became a Christian.

That’s not the whole story. Joe Phipps was a person Leigh had gone to school with and liked from way back. They had dated off and on, but his life had gone awry. He was mixed up in drugs and was finally arrested for smuggling. He had a middle-of-life conversion, crying out for help and then coming to Leigh and saying, “I think I’m a Christian but I don’t know what it means.” She said she knew a pastor and brought him to me.

Eventually Leigh and Joe got married. They asked me to play the banjo at their wedding and sing, with Jan, “Farther Along.” Leigh and Joe and their marriage have a long way to go; he’s serving a prison sentence. But when he writes he signs his name, “Joe ‘Farther Along’ Phipps.”

As a pastor, then, you see grace in some unlikely situations.

Yes, and my job is not to solve people’s problems or make them happy, but to help them to see the grace that is operating in their lives. It’s hard to do, because our whole culture is going the other direction, saying that if you’re smart enough and get the right kind of help, you can solve all your problems. The truth is, there aren’t very many happy people in the Bible. But there are people who are experiencing joy, peace, and the meaning of Christ’s suffering in their lives.

The work of spirituality is to recognize where we are—the particular circumstances of our lives—to recognize grace and say, “Do you suppose God wants to be with me in a way that does not involve changing my spouse or getting rid of my spouse or my kids, but in changing me, and doing something in my life that maybe I could never experience without this pain and this suffering?”

Sometimes I think all I do as pastor is speak the word “God” in a situation in which it hasn’t been said before, where people haven’t recognized his presence. Joy is the capacity to hear the name and to recognize that God is here. There’s a kind of exhilaration because God is doing something and, even in a little way, it’s enough at the moment.

Spirituality and creativity

You’ve written that everyone is born to live creatively, but many of us fail to do so. Why is that?

Largely because we are lazy. Creativity is difficult. When you are being creative, you’re living by faith. You don’t know what’s next because the created, by definition, is what’s never been before. So you’re living at the edge of something in which you’re not very confident. You might fail: in fact, you almost certainly will fail a good part of the time. All the creative persons I know throw away most of the stuff they do.

It’s taxing. Nobody can keep it up all the time, and you’re always slipping back and relaxing and finding something easy to do. And then you think, “Why bother?” It’s easy simply out of fatigue to quit living creatively and do something comfortable, especially when you’re often rewarded for doing that, for pulling back and living in the norms and routines. You get better jobs that way, usually, and you certainly have more comfortable emotions.

Perhaps another reason we’re inclined not to live creatively is that we have a narrow understanding of creativity. We tend to think only artists and fiction writers are creative.

The fact is, most creativity is not conspicuous. That is, most people are not born with the bodies to be good athletes or the artistic coordination to be painters. Yet I think everybody has creativity. It’s with different materials. The challenge is finding the right medium, the material you work with.

What are some other media?

The stuff of our lives. Nobody’s life is without grace. I just read a letter Jan got from some friends in Seattle. They have a little baby who was born a year ago. Two or three weeks later they discovered their baby was blind, or very near it.

I knew Ruthie when she was a teenager, so I agonized with her. And I agonized with her husband, Dave. He is a vigorous, wise, outdoors type. He’s climbed 10,000-foot peaks on every continent in the world. There’s a deep, quiet spirituality to him.

A wonderful couple, but they have this baby they’ve waited for a long time, and she’s blind. My first reaction was an overwhelming sense of grief and tragedy—you know, “How could this happen to Dave and Ruthie?”

But I talked to Ruthie yesterday on the telephone. She called and said, “I’ve had a lot of great experiences in my life, but nothing has been as great as being a mother.” And she said we should see Dave with Cairn, the baby. Cairn is a little over a year old and she’s been on the top of mountain peaks in the Olympic Peninsula, the Cascades, the Rockies, and the Smoky Mountains. Dave takes her every time he goes mountaineering.

That baby is bringing the best out of them. Cairn in whatever condition is a gift of God. Here is a couple living creatively: they’ve taken what’s been given and brought it into the life of grace and redemption.

What about occupations other than the artistic endeavors?

I learned this year that plumbing can be an art form. Our water system was frozen and damaged in a storm, and I was angry. For three or four days I had to go down and lug water from the lake to the house. I had to keep reminding myself Isaiah wrote some pretty good stuff without running water.

We got a plumber out here to fix it. Here he was, in Kalispell, Montana, far from all the centers of action and culture. Just part of a family business. But he was an artist. The entire time he was working he was talking about how wonderful water was. I was frustrated at water, and he was marveling at how water was a great conductor and conserver of heat.

Apparently there are heat pumps that utilize this capacity of water. You dig a well and pull the water up out of the earth, extract heat from it, and keep your whole house warm with it. So he was telling me about all this and pointing to the lake, saying with wonder, “The heat is just pouring out of this lake all the time.” Some people, and he’s now one of them, quit looking at water as a problem and started looking at it as what it was. Instead of trying to manage the water, they entered into the nature of the water, and suddenly everything was fresh and new.

I see other people doing that through what looks like very ordinary jobs. They decide, “This isn’t a problem for me. This is one of the materials of my life.” And they start approaching their jobs as creators rather than fixers or complainers. One of the privileges of being a pastor is to see their artwork, because what these people do isn’t displayed in museums. You can only see it if you’re a part of their lives.

Spirituality and community

American Christians tend to focus on private as opposed to common prayer, or prayer in worship. Your writing indicates you’re not comfortable with that tendency.

I’m not. The paradigmatic prayer is not solitary but in community. The fundamental biblical context is worship. That’s why worship seems to me to be the place. It’s the only context in which we can recover the depth of the gospel.

What do you mean when you say paradigmatic or model prayer occurs in community? Does that mean we learn how to pray in community, that what we do in solitude is something we take from the community’s worship?

That’s what I mean. If somebody comes to me and says, “Teach me how to pray,” I say, “Be at this church at nine o’clock on Sunday morning.” That’s where you learn how to pray. Of course, prayer is continued and has alternate forms when you’re by yourself. But the American experience has the order reversed. In the long history of Christian spirituality, community prayer is most important, then individual prayer.

Let’s be a little more specific. What things do we learn in common prayer?

One thing we learn is to be led in prayer. I’m apt to think of prayer as my initiative. I realize I have a need or I am happy, and I pray. The emphasis is on me, and I have the sense when I pray that I started something.

But what happens if I go to church? I sit there and somebody stands before me and says, “Let us pray.” I didn’t start it: I’m responding. Which means that I am humbled. My ego is no longer prominent. Now that’s a very basic element in prayer, because prayer is answering speech.

Prayer has to be response to what God has said. The worshiping congregation—hearing the Word read and preached, and celebrating it in the sacraments—is the place where I learn how to pray and where I practice prayer. It is a center from which I pray. From it I go to my closet or to the mountains and continue to pray.

A second thing about praying in community is that, when I pray in a congregation, my feelings are not taken into account. Nobody asks me when I enter the congregation, “How do you feel today? What do you feel like praying about?”

So the congregation is a place where I’m gradually learning that prayer is not conditioned or authenticated by my feelings. Nothing is more devastating to prayer than when I begin to evaluate prayer by my feelings, and think that in order to pray I have to have a certain sense, a certain spiritual attentiveness or peace or, on the other side, anguish.

That’s virtually impossible to learn by yourself. But if I’m in a congregation, I learn over and over again that prayer will go on whether I feel like it or not, or even if I sleep through the whole thing.

Spirituality and subversion

Do American Christians too easily assume their surrounding culture is Christian?

We do. It is useful to listen to people who come into our culture from other cultures, to pay attention to what they hear and what they see. In my experience, they don’t see a Christian land. If you listen to a Solzhenitzyn or Bishop Tutu, or university students from Africa or South America, they don’t see a Christian land. They see something almost the reverse of a Christian land.

And that is?

They see a lot of greed and arrogance. And they see a Christian community that has almost none of the virtues of the biblical Christian community, which have to do with a sacrificial life and conspicuous love. Rather, they see this indulgence in feelings and emotions, and a kind of avaricious quest for gratification.

Importantly, they see past the façade of our language, the Christian language we throw up in front of all this stuff. The attractive thing about America to outsiders is the materialism, not the spirituality. It’s interesting to listen to refugees who have just gotten into the country: what they want are cars and televisions. They’re not coming after our gospel, unless they’re translating the gospel into a promise of riches and comfort.

Do you preach to your congregation about this?

Yes.

My job as a pastor is not to solve people’s problems or make them happy. The truth is, there aren’t very many happy people in the Bible.

How do you do that? I’m sure that’s not an easy thing for a pastor to handle.

Well, I’m one of them. I live in the same kind of house they do. I drive the same kind of car they do. I shop in the same stores they do. So I’m like them. We’re all in this together.

My job as a pastor is not to solve people’s problems or make them happy. The truth is, there aren’t very many happy people in the Bible.

It’s possible for a few people to break out of society and form some kind of colony, in order to challenge society as a kind of shock troop. But that’s not my calling, and I don’t find it credible to use the language of separatism in a congregation where we’ve all got jobs, where we’re trying to find our place as disciples in the society and do what we can there. If I do that, I lose credibility. I’m using one kind of language on Sunday and another on Monday.

So what I have tried to develop first of all, in myself, is the mentality of the subversive. The subversive is someone who takes on the coloration of the culture, as far as everyone else can see. If he loses the coloration he loses his effectiveness. The subversive works quietly and hiddenly, patiently. He has committed himself to Christ’s victory over culture and is willing to do those small things. No subversive ever does anything big. He is always carrying secret messages, planting suspicion that there is something beyond what the culture says is final.

What would you say are some specific acts of Christian subversion?

They’re common Christian acts. The acts of sacrificial love, justice, and hope. There’s nothing novel in any of this. Our task is that we develop a self-identity as Christians and do these things not incidentally to our lives, but centrally. By encouraging one another, by praying together, by studying Scripture together, we develop a sense that these things are in fact the very center of our lives. And we recognize they are not the center of the world’s life, however much cultural talk there is about Christianity.

If we can develop a sense that sacrificial love, justice, and hope are at the core of our identities, then go to our jobs each day, to our families each night—then we are in fact subversive. You have to understand that Christian subversion is nothing flashy. Subversives don’t win battles. All they do is prepare the ground and change the mood just a little bit towards belief and hope, so that when Christ appears there are people waiting for him.

Do we take seriously the prefix in the word subversive, the idea of coming up from under?

I think so. We’re working the depth, the heart of things. The gospel images are images of growth that comes from underneath. A seed, for example, is subsoil and subversive.

I have a friend, about 33, who is a pastor. He’s tall, good looking, a strong personality—the sort of person who could do well on television or with a famous church. But he talks about taking steps off the ladder, and he’s settled in little Victor, Montana. Maybe we need more pastors like him, and more churches that want pastors like him: the pastor who wants to be local, to take seriously a place, and the church that wants to be a community, using the simple materials of its locale.

At least that’s how I understand the pastoral life. I’ve been at Christ Our King Church for 23 years. All William Faulkner knew was two or three square miles of Mississippi, and I guess that’s what I want to do. I want to know two or three square miles of Christ Our King, just know it and keep on knowing it.

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