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How I Recovered My Passion for God

An unlikely mentor helped Eugene Peterson rediscover the heart of ministry.
How I Recovered My Passion for God

I was in crisis and went looking for a priest, a pastor, a guide—someone who could help me work out my calling in a most uncongenial setting. I felt beleaguered. I needed help.

I made several attempts at finding a mentor among the living, without success. Then I found Fyodor Dostoevsky. I cannot now remember how I hit upon him, for I had no previous acquaintance. An inspired hunch, maybe.

I took my appointments calendar and wrote in two-hour meetings with "FD" three afternoons a week. Over the next seven months, from three to five o'clock on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, I met with FD in my study and had leisurely conversations through Crime and Punishment, Letters from the Underworld, The Idiot, A Raw Youth, The Devils, The Brothers Karamazov. All winter long, through the spring, and a month or two into the summer, I spent those afternoons with a man for whom God and passion were integral-and integrated.

My crisis had come when I realized that I was living in a place where God and passion were only marginal, and I sensed subtle but insistent pressures to displace them in myself. But if God and passion became marginal, I would not be myself; I would not be a pastor, a vocational identity that had been formed by God and passion.

The crisis took place in a Maryland cornfield fast being overlaid with asphalt: classic American suburbia. Sent there to organize a new church, I found to my surprise that God and passion, far from being assets in parish ministry, as I had naively supposed, were impediments.

Organizing a new congregation, I felt pressure to get a lot of people together as quickly as possible so they would provide the financial resources to build an adequate sanctuary for the worship of God. I found that gathering a religious crowd was pretty easy, provided I didn't get too involved with God. My ecclesiastical superiors sent me to workshops that showed me how to do it. I observed the success of other pastors who did it. Religious consumers, like all other consumers, respond to packaging and bargains. But I also knew that to follow this route I would have to abandon the very thing that gave the life of a pastor its worth: a passion for God.

And then the crisis was over. Thanks to Dostoevsky, God and passion would never again be at risk, at least vocationally. The God-passionate lives of Sonja, Prince Myshkin, Alyosha, and Father Zossima furnished my imagination with living images.

Idiot Saviors

My first real find in Dostoevsky was Prince Myshkin, "The Idiot." At the time I was looking for something I later would name "vocational holiness," and the Prince enlarged my imagination to grasp what it might be.

How do I make a difference? The world is a mess, in need of massive overhaul. People are living in spiritual impoverishment and moral squalor and material confusion. Somebody has to do something. I have to do something. Where do I start?

What does it mean to represent the Kingdom of God in a culture devoted to the Kingdom of Self? How do delicate, vulnerable, fragile words survive in competition with money and guns and bulldozers? How do pastors, who don't make tangible things happen, maintain a robust identity in a society that pays its top dollar to country singers, drug lords, oil barons? All around me I saw men and women finding vocational identity from models provided by the "principalities and powers." The models all were strong on power (making things happen) and image (appearing important). But none seemed congruent with my budding sense of call. What form should my vocation take? Prince Myshkin was Dostoevsky's contribution to my quest.

In The Idiot, Prince Myshkin strikes everyone as simple and naive. He appears not to know how the world works. People assume he has no experience of the complexities of society. He is innocent of the "real world." An idiot.

The St. Petersburg society he enters, as portrayed by Dostoevsky, is trivial and superficial. Pretense and pose are epidemic among these people, who rate each other by how much money they possess, what kind of family they come from, or who they know. They are "empty-headed people who, in their smugness, did not realize that much of their excellence was just a veneer, for which they were not responsible, for they acquired it unconsciously and by inheritance."

The Prince is admitted into their drawing rooms, cautiously, only because of the possibility that he might be connected with nobility. But he is suspect from the start. Ignorant of the importance of names and station, he obviously doesn't fit.

And then, without anyone knowing quite how it happens, the Prince becomes the central person for these empty-headed lives, mad for recognition or sex or money. Although he associates easily with them, he stays curiously free of their obsessions. Various characters latch on to him in order to use him. But he is not "usable." He simply is. He is not good for anything; he is simply good.

Gradually, he emerges as one who is significant simply in his humanity. People find themselves approaching him for counsel, attracted to this strange man, hardly knowing why they are pulled to him like filings to a magnet. They have no vocabulary for the phenomenon.

The silent source of the Prince's detachment and attraction is that he has no personal agenda. The strongest emotional figure in the novel, Nastasya Fillipovna, excites dark and powerful emotions, ranging from vituperative scorn to animalistic lust, in all who meet her. All except Prince Myshkin. He simply loves her, respects her, maybe even understands her. His own needs don't clog the relationship. Nastasya, a Mary Magdalene figure, is a devil-afflicted, society-exploited woman who gets a chance at love and salvation through the person of Prince Myshkin. She doesn't, in the end, embrace it. But she has her chance, and even in rejecting she is accepted and loved by the Prince.

I began to realize what Dostoevsky was doing. The society in which Dostoevsky lived was superficial, its values shaped by pettiness and social obsession. None of these people did real work; they were parasites on the vast peasantry who worked the fields. On the edge were small pockets of intellectuals seething with energies for reform—young radicals who wanted to tear down the rotten structure of czar and bureaucracy and church and build a pure and just society. The rebels, comprising both anarchists and socialists, disagreed on methods but were united in the conviction that God was best left out, and that any means, even murder, was justified in order to achieve the new order.

For anyone sickened by the complacent, corrupt society of 19th-century Russia, the attraction of the revolutionaries was powerful. Dostoevsky himself had been attracted. He dabbled with their ideas; he joined their groups. Finally, he was arrested and sent to Siberian exile.

The labor camp, which should have radicalized him forever, did not. Or rather, it radicalized him in a counter-radical way. In the early days of imprisonment, he was visited by a remarkable woman, Natalya Fonvizina, who made the sign of the cross over him and gave him a New Testament. Dostoevsky spoke later of having read and reread the New Testament: "It lay under my pillow for four years during penal servitude. I read it sometimes, and read it to others. With it, I taught one convict to read." Instead of pursuing the anarchist and socialist utopias that were all the rage, he dug to the root, to the cross of Christ.

He returned from 10 years of Siberian exile and, instead of pouring himself into social-engineering endeavors, spent the rest of his life creating characters who would enter society and change it by means of holiness.

For anyone disgusted with society and wanting to do something about it, the vocational question centers on means—how do I go about it, with guns or grace? Dostoevsky created a series of characters, fools for Christ-like Prince Myshkin and Alyosha (of The Brothers Karamazov)—who chose grace.

Being Good or Doing Right?

The power of Prince Myshkin and Alyosha has little to do with morality—doing and saying what is right. It has to do with beauty and goodness. True beauty, true goodness cannot be known in abstraction; they occur only in living, loving persons. They cannot be observed, only encountered. The Prince provides encounter.

For most of us, the desire for beauty and good proves infinitely frustrating, for we are mainly aware of what we are not. When we do things well, we get satisfaction. When we are well (holy), we are unconscious of it and get no satisfaction, at least no ego gratification. And since mostly we are not well (unholy), we live with a deep sense of inadequacy. The only reason we continue to aspire to do well (holiness) is that the alternative is so insipid.

A few people in every generation are prepared to enter into society with the intent of healing or reforming or instructing. I certainly thought I was. I came out of a faith that encouraged this approach. I worked from a text that promised all things could be made new, and that introduced such life-altering words as repent, be baptized, and take up your cross.

As a young pastor, I had little patience with pietism—fussy devotional practices that separated practitioners into conclaves of self-righteousness. I was bored with moralism-bromidic Readers' Digest counsel on how to live safe and sound.

But what vocational shape should these energies take on? All the models I had were either managerial or messianic. Prince Myshkin offered a different model. Such a vocation equips us not so much for getting things done as for submitting to reality. "You know," said Prince Myshkin, "in my opinion, it's sometimes quite a good thing to be absurd. Indeed, it's much better; it makes it so much easier to forgive each other and to humble ourselves. One can't start straight with perfection! To attain perfection, one must first of all be able not to understand many things. For if we understand things too quickly, we may perhaps fail to understand them well enough."

I now reflect: Who are the people who have made a difference in my life? Answer: the ones who weren't trying to make a difference. Prince Myshkin alerted me to notice other persons who communicated a love, a beauty, a holiness. In their presence it would occur to me, "That's the way I want to live. I wonder if it might be possible to be that kind of person? And I wonder if this could be worked out not only personally, but vocationally?"

For me, being a writer and being a pastor are virtually the same thing: an entrance into chaos, into the mess of things, and then the slow mysterious work of making something out of it, something good, something blessed-poem, prayer, conversation, sermon, a sighting of grace, a recognition of love, a shaping of virtue. This is the yeshua of the Hebrew faithful, the soteria of the Greek Christians. Salvation. The recovery by creation and re-creation of the image of God. Writing is not a literary act but spiritual. And pastoring is not managing a religious business but a spiritual quest.

Prayer, the intensity of spirit in attention before God, lies at the heart of both writing and pastoring. In writing, I work with words; in pastoring, I work with people. But not mere words or mere people, but words and people as carriers of spirit/Spirit. The moment words are used prayerlessly and people are treated prayerlessly, something essential begins to leak out of life. It was this realization of a slow leakage, a spirit-loss, that had produced my sense of crisis. And Dostoevsky is nothing if not spirited: God-intoxicated and word-drunk

Soul, Not Self

When I met Dostoevsky (the decade of the 60s), the world was redolent with narcissism. The story of Narcissus has long endured as a warning against the dangers of self-absorption. But something different was happening here: Narcissus, instead of being used to warn, was being held up as patron. Human potential was hot; spiritual confessionals were bestsellers in the bookstores. Self was front and center.

On one level, this seemed right. The human-potential aspirations mirrored the Christian aspiration to the abundant life. As for confession, hadn't confession always been a Christian staple? Making it a literary genre didn't seem that far out of line. But something was wrong. I felt confused. Dostoevsky unconfused me.

He helped me discern that this new enthusiasm for the Self was not the same as the historic Christian concern for the Soul. Self, in fact, was a devilish distortion. Self was similar to Soul, but with all the God-hunger, the righteousness-thirst excised. Dostoevsky showed me the difference not by arguing, but by creating characters who demonstrated the dehumanized desiccation of an unGodded life and, in contrast and comparison, the terrible beauties of a pursuit after God.

Stavrogin (in The Devils) was not a man who could be dissuaded from his evil life and educated into salvation with a newly revised church school curriculum. Alyosha did not become holy by attending a therapy group.

The modern zeal to explain human nature, to eliminate suffering and discontent, to make us comfortable in the world—this obsessive self-interest—was dismissed by Dostoevsky as "Euclidian," something that could be accounted for by lines and angles, measurements and numbers. It eliminated Mystery. Human beings, those mysterious creatures with raging thirsts for God and insatiable hungers for holiness, were reduced to predictable explanations. "Man is not an arithmetical expression; he is a mysterious and puzzling being, and his nature is extreme and contradictory all through."

I began copying out these Soul-recovering sentences from Letters from the Underworld:

"People are people and not the keys of a piano."

"Man's whole business is to prove to himself that he is a man and not a cog-wheel."

"For 2 and 2 make 4 is not a part of life but the beginning of death."

In his Russia and in my America, interest in God had been elbowed to the sidelines by a pushy interest in the Self. Writer after writer and pastor after pastor were engaged in the titillating business of unpacking emotional suitcases and holding up the various items for view. It was bra-and-panty voyeurism: guilt and innocence, anger and affection, lust and love—the undergarments of the soul—all handled and exclaimed over, but with no passion for God himself, no Peniel embrace in the night-long struggle for identity through suffering and prayer with the God who suffers and prays with and for us in Christ.

Dostoevsky's large-spirited, extravagant, and reckless immersion in the depths of evil and suffering, love and redemption, recovered God and passion for me.

Mystery, Not Program

Unlike his great contemporary, Tolstoy, who was forever drawing up educational programs and reform plans to eliminate poverty and suffering and injustice, Dostoevsky entered into the sufferings, into the mysterious crucible of faith and doubt, and looked around for the miracle, the rising from the dead. He would have nothing to do with a future in which people were made good and comfortable at the expense of their freedom, at the cost of God.

But I was finding the vocational culture of the pastor definitely Tolstoyan. The so-called "spiritual" leaders of my time were putting enormous pressure upon people to conform, adjust, fit in-to submit to explanations and be reduced to functions.

"Program" was the chief vehicle of ministry. My own denomination had what was called a "program agency" that published a "program calendar."

I remember being startled by a statement from a pastor whose reputation was high in those years. His athletic energy was topped off with a magnificent smile, which he used to great effect. After serving one congregation for five years, he was moving to another, three times its size. In my na‹vet‚ I asked why he was leaving so soon.

"I have accomplished what I came to do," he said. "I have my program in place and working."

Program? What has program got to do with spirituality? Programs are fine for Euclidian minds and spirits, I suppose. They are useful for peripheral matters. But at the center? Program?

Our temptation, as pastors, is discovering a workable program and repeating it in congregation after congregation to the immense satisfaction of ourselves, and of our parishioners. The church members can be religious without praying or dealing with God.

I reached for another Dostoevsky novel, and found Dostoevsky's response to the programmatic mind that had once attracted him. The zealous revolutionaries had such convincing visions of a new Russia, but the more their program developed, the more cruel and impersonal it became. In The Devils, he shows the waste and desolation this depersonalized vision produces: the noblest ideals in murderous ruins, the tenderest relationships violated. In the character Shatov, he gives witness to God in the midst of it all.

In 50 years, the novel was a prophecy-come-true of Russian politics. I thought I discerned a prophecy-coming-true in the program-oriented religion around me. I read The Devils as a prophylactic against the Program mentality with its shady reformist ancestry and settled in with Shatov to endure Mystery.

Persons, Not Pawns

My most frightening encounter came with Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov had selected a socially worthless person for an experiment: murder. It could matter to no one whether the man was dead or alive. He had absolutely no usefulness. Raskolnikov killed him. And then, to his great surprise, he was shaken to the core of his existence: it did matter. This worthless old man had a spiritual power simply by being human. Bare human existence contains enough glory to stagger any one of us into bewildered awe. Raskolnikov was awakened to spiritual heights and depths he had never dreamed of.

Suddenly, with a shock of recognition, I saw myself as Raskolnikov. Not murdering, exactly, but experimenting with parishioners, manipulating them to see what I could make happen. Reducing people to the value of their pledge or their administrative ability or their teaching skill. Facility with words (as a writer) and facility with people (as a pastor) carry a common danger: the hubris of contemptuous disrespect. One of Raskolnikov's successors, Joseph Stalin, once said, "Paper will put up with anything written on it." So will many congregations.

I retraced my steps. How had I arrived in the world of Raskolnikov? How had I come to think so irreverently of these people around me?

I was living in classic suburbia, and not liking it very much. The cornfield into which I had moved was daily being covered over with tract homes and asphalt. The people who gathered there for worship were rootless and shallow, only marginally Christian. They didn't read books. They didn't discuss ideas. All spirit seemed to have leaked out of their lives, replaced by a garage sale clutter of clich‚s and stereotypes, securities and fashions. Dostoevsky's description hit the bull's eye: the "people seem to be watered down ... darting and rushing about before us every day, but in a sort of diluted state."

This scene was new to me. I had grown up in a small Montana town, where virtually everyone had a three-dimensional character around which anecdotes clustered like barnacles. I went to schools in the seaport cities of Seattle, New York, and Baltimore, where I encountered the cross-cultural fertilization of Orientals, Europeans, Africans. But in soggy suburbia, everyone was, or was fast becoming, the same. No fiery spirits to excite. I was 30 years old and had never experienced this blandness, this willingness to be homogenized into passive consumerism.

I had no idea that an entire society could be shaped by the images of advertising. They were conditioned to respond to the stimulus of the sale price quite apart from need, as effectively as Pavlov's dogs were trained to salivate at the bell's signal quite apart from hunger. These were the people for whom I was pastor, these people whose spirits had taken early retirement. In the flatness and boredom, I lost respect for these anemic lives. Suburbia lobotomized spirituality, I reasoned. These people who assembled in worship with me each week had such puny ideas of themselves. Hanging around them all week long, I was in danger of reducing my idea of them to their self-concepts.

And then Dostoevsky, living in an almost identical society, rebuked me. While showing the greatest aversion to the culture itself, he refused to take the evidence the people presented of themselves as the truth. He dove beneath the surface of their lives; he discovered in the depths fire and passion and God.

Dostoevsky made them appear large again, vast in their aspirations, their sins, their glories. The Karamazovs for instance—so large, so Russian. He showed me how to look long and carefully at these families until I saw Karamazovs in every home. He trained my antennae to pick up the suppressed signals of spirituality in the denatured language of their conversations. I discovered tragic plots and comic episodes, works-in-progress all around me. I was living in a world rife with spirituality. There were no ordinary people.

My task now was to pray, to preach, and to write, aware of these torrential energies and capabilities among the people who were unaware of them in themselves. I had been tricked into taking these people's version of themselves as the true version. But it was not true. Their lives had been leveled and overlaid with asphalt, graded and platted along with the recently green and rolling hills.

That visible surface was a two-inch-thick lie. If I worked on the surface of what they showed me, I would end up committing Raskolnikovian crimes. My ignorant disrespect would lead to pushing programs on these glorious beings who had been created in the image of God. I was sobered and became repentant.

Now when I come across dull people, I wonder, What would Dostoevsky make of them? The deeper dimensions come into view: the eternal hungers and thirsts-and, in the background, God. I started finding Mozartian creativity in adolescents and Sophoclean tragedies in the middle-aged.

Hilda, at 35 years of age, was until two years ago indistinguishable from her culture-well-married, expensively groomed, socially pleasant, the requisite two children, good looking, self-confident. Then her husband's discontent with his job developed into something painful, followed by her father's death by cancer. She completely lost her inner poise. Outwardly she was the same as ever, except she showed up at church only once every two or three weeks, slipping away quickly during the last hymn so no one ever met her.

Then she came back, every Sunday. Quite by chance a personal conversation opened up, and the story poured out: "I can't believe this large, joyous world that I am inhabiting! I'm reading the Gospels. I'm praying the Psalms. I can't wait to worship on Sundays. Every relationship I have is changed, I've never had such energy. Why was I so stupid about Jesus all those years?"

What I would not have guessed was her shyness. She is totally unpracticed in dealing with intimacies, with interior matters. Right now I am the only one who knows the biggest fact in her life, the details of her awakening to God and grace and sacrifice. I got the story only because of the privileged access that pastors sometimes get to the inner life.

The Hilda story is ecstatic right now—Mozartian. Others in the congregation are dominated by pain, courageously praying; others are practicing indefatigable and inventive kindnesses in unappreciative surroundings.

The stories go unnoticed, not because they are kept secret but because the people around are blind to God. So many eyes, glazed by television, don't see the God stories being enacted right before them, sometimes in their own homes. It is my pastoral task, I have decided, to see, to listen.

The banality is a cover. If I look hard and long enough, there is drama enough in this vanishing cornfield to carry me for a lifetime.

Putting the Mystery Together

Dostoevsky had the good fortune, which becomes an inherited good fortune for all who read him, of getting it all together in his final novel, The Brothers Karamazov. By no means a polished work—nothing Dostoevsky either wrote or lived was polished—it is, nevertheless, exuberant with the largeness of the soul.

Frederick Buechner, writer and minister, called it "that great seething bouillabaisse of a book. It's digressive and sprawling, many too many characters in it, much too long, and yet it's a book which, just because Dostoevsky leaves room in it for whatever comes up to enter, is entered here and there by maybe nothing less than the Holy Spirit itself, thereby becoming, as far as I'm concerned ... a novel less about the religious experience than a novel the reading of which is a religious experience: of God, both in his subterranean presence and in his appalling absence."

There is a shining moment in this valedictory book when Alyosha experiences a kind of integrating benediction:

"His soul, overflowing with rapture was craving for freedom and unlimited space. The vault of heaven, studded with softly shining stars, stretched wide and vast over him. From the zenith of the horizon the Milky Way stretched its two arms dimly across the sky. The fresh, motionless still night enfolded the earth. The white towers and golden domes of the cathedral gleamed against the sapphire sky. The gorgeous autumn flowers in the beds near the house went to sleep till morning. The silence of the earth seemed to merge into the silence of the heavens. The mystery of the earth came into contact with the mystery of the stars.

"Alyosha stood, gazed and suddenly he threw himself down upon the earth. He did not know why he was embracing it. He could not have explained to himself why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss it all, but he kissed it weeping, sobbing, and drenching it with his tears and vowed frenziedly to love it, to love it forever and ever. 'Water the earth with the tears of your gladness and love those tears,' it rang in his soul.

"What was he weeping over? Oh, he was weeping in a rapture even more over those stars which were shining for him from the abyss of space and he was not ashamed of that ecstasy. It was as though the threads from all those innumerable worlds of God met all at once in his soul and it was trembling all over as it came in contact with other worlds."

To anyone who has moved through an apprenticeship in all those earlier novels, each of them seeking but not quite arriving at this sense of God's integration, Alyosha's blessing puts together what the Devil puts asunder. But even a short apprenticeship in ministry, in the Word—trying to address people reverently—is sufficient qualification to appreciate the rapture.

Dostoevsky had intended to write a sequel. He planned to develop the life of Alyosha, Prince Myshkin's successor in the "fool for Christ" line, through an adulthood of vocational holiness. But he didn't write it. He died two months after completing Brothers. Maybe it is just as well. This kind of work is never complete. At best, we plant seeds.

And die.

And wait for resurrection.

The epigraph to The Brothers Karamazov is, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit" (John 12:24).

Seed-planting Dostoevsky: six seed-novels sit on a shelf in my study, all that is left of his life still making a difference in my life. God and passion. He spurned the trivial and went for the jugular. He didn't fit. He made a mess of his marriage and was tortured in his love. He gambled compulsively. His epilepsy crippled his writing. But he created. He lived immersed in passion. He lived expectant of God. And he did this vocationally, making a calling out of passion and God.

His writing continues to do its work by returning me to the soil of my vocation-to my writing table as I try to put one word after the other honestly, to my parish rounds as I determine to prayerfully set one foot after the other.

Eugene Peterson served as pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland, for 29 years. He is the translator of The Message.

This essay is one of a series written by a group of 20 Christian writers, known as the Chrysostom Society, on how classic writers have influenced their work. The essays, also including Philip Yancey's reflection on John Donne and Virginia Stem Owen's encounter with Soren Kierkegaard, were published in a book, Reality and the Vision (Word, 1990).

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