Eugene Peterson, who died recently, was widely known in the English speaking world as the author of a vernacular translation of the Bible, The Message. He also authored more than thirty books, all relating the teaching of the Scriptures to the Jesus-following life. For thirty years he was a pastor of a suburban Presbyterian congregation on the east coast of the United States. The Message, which would eventually sell many millions of copies, began as an attempt to make the mid-week Bible study more engaging for that congregation.
But none of that was what came to mind when I learned this week of Eugene’s death at the age of 85. Instead I thought back to early in the year 2008. My husband Seán and I were planning a holiday in the US state of Montana, thanks to the invitation of some friends who have family living there. The kind offer of accommodation and the chance to explore the American West was hard to resist. It was to be the holiday of a lifetime.
I knew Eugene Peterson lived in Montana, but was not sure exactly where. My friend mentioned that she thought it was in a town called Lakeside. I tried searching online and though there were a few Eugene Petersons in Montana there was only one with a PO Box number in Lakeside. I told Seán that I was going to write to him to see if he would meet us for a cup of coffee. Seán smiled, clearly thinking I was wasting my time. However, I thought it was worth a try – nothing to lose. So I wrote to him, telling him a little about our lives, about Seán’s recent experiences on the Camino de Santiago, and about how helpful his book "Eat this Book" had been when I was writing my dissertation.
Some weeks later a hand written letter arrived with a Montana postmark. “Dear Ana and Seán “ it began “Welcome to Montana!” The letter went on to say that he and his wife would be delighted to meet us, gave me their address and phone number and at the end he added: "Maybe the beginning of a friendship.” It was.
Sadly, as the time for our holiday drew near Sean’s father became seriously ill and subsequently died. Our holidays were cancelled and I wrote to Eugene to tell him what had happened and he kindly sent us a card.
Time passed and though we were not able to make our trip to Montana the occasional letter writing continued. Eugene to me, became my pastor by correspondence. I would write to him with lots of different questions. They ranged from how to age wisely, to family life, children, accuracy in Bible translations etc. His replies always made me feel that I was being taken seriously and being listened to.
Eugene had a very high regard for words and he used them well and carefully. He always wrote a short introduction in his letters and then he would get to the point of what I had asked about. I always felt reassured and encouraged by what he wrote; he conveyed a deep sense of closeness to God's activity in the everyday. He also had a great sense of humour. One time, when I told him that I was going to train as a spiritual director, his reply was funny but extremely helpful. I had mentioned the group I was going to train with and he wrote: "Yes, they have a handle on spiritual direction but you mustn't forget that you have your whole life in Christ. The main thing in spiritual direction is this: Show up and shut up". I laughed a good bit about the advice but I haven't forgotten it! Eugene also had a great regard for women; he didn't feel intimidated by them and humbly acknowledged the gifting of any person, man or woman.
Seven years late in 2015 we finally made it to Montana and to Lakeside and to Eugene and Jan’s home on the beautiful shores of Flathead Lake. Their home is on a plot of land purchased many decades ago by Eugene’s father, a Swedish immigrant, who had been a butcher in a nearby town. We were warmly received by Eugene and his wonderful wife Jan.
They showed us around their place and we chatted. He was very interested in Third Space, the social enterprise we had helped start in Dublin. He was intrigued by the whole idea and asked many questions. In his reply to one of my letters he referred to our customers as "your congregation." For Eugene, the fact that Third Space was not overtly religious didn’t matter. All of life, work, home, city, countryside was sacred, God, he believed is active everywhere, our challenge being to cooperate with Him in that activity.
During our stay with them Eugene was keen to show us "around the neighbourhood" as he put it. The neighbourhood turned out to be Glacier National Park in the magnificent Rocky mountains, where he had hiked and camped, both as a lad and throughout his adult life, returning there each summer when they lived back East. He was a man of few words, but he had stories to tell and when he spoke, you listened.
As we reflected on our time with the Petersons the word that came to mind was one that Eugene loved: "congruence." The word means “a coming together,” “agreement,” “harmony.” The books that we had read and the life that we briefly observed were a perfect match. There were not two Eugene Petersons, the author and the man, but the one who obediently followed his Master in all of life. He was not interested in how famous he may have been - Jan pointed out to us a collection of awards that he had received which were hidden away in a little cupboard-like room. He was concerned with what he could do to help others, especially pastors, to be shaped by the reality of the Kingdom of God rather than by the culture that surrounds us.
At the beginning of September, I finished reading Eugene's last book: "As kingfisher's catch fire." As I closed it I had a deep sense of gratitude. As I had read, my heart, my mind and my imagination had been taken to higher places, well beyond Smithfield, Dublin and Ireland. My love for the Scriptures and for Jesus has gone deeper, the roots of my life had reached nourishing soil, and for that I was extremely grateful.
As I write this, I am preparing for a workshop called: "How people change." I am sure that were I to write to Eugene about it, he would say that people change by "a long obedience in the same direction". That is the life he lived, and it showed.
Ana Mullan is from Argentina but has lived in Ireland for 35 years, the last 18 in Dublin. She is an artist, a spiritual director and an enthusiastic grandmother.
A beautiful 18-minute film shot in 2016, directed by Dublin-based Greg Fromholz and filmed by Tiny Ark, gives us a rare glimpse of Eugene Peterson.