Sunday, April 13, 2014

second-shot sundays: finding God in nyc

[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, and allowing a second chance for those who missed them the first time, I reprint them here, with permission. The following was originally printed in The Forum newspaper, on April 5, 2014.]

Living Faith: God is all around, even in bustle of NYC

By Roxane B. Salonen

I’m on a high-octane bus ride from New York City with a group of 83 teenagers and reading, ironically, about the necessity of silence in discerning God’s voice.

Silence has not been a prevailing part of this spring tour with the Shanley High School choirs, an adventure that has led our group of students and parent chaperones through four packed days in the Big Apple and 50 hours of bus time.

Even so, I feel I’m leaving spiritually richer.

The book I’m reading on the bus ride home, “Atchison Blue,” is written by fellow journalist Judith Valente, who has spent most of her life immersed in a world of words and chatter.

Valente happened upon some research demonstrating how noisy our world has become. Back in 1968, my birth year, it took 15 hours of recording time to achieve one hour of undisturbed nature sounds, whereas today, it takes 2,000 for the same.

While I’m assuming those recordings didn’t happen in rural North Dakota, the findings speak volumes about why silence, and thus the hearing of God’s voice, can be so hard to find.

Valente admits she suffers from “silence deficiency.” Her visits to a monastery in Atchison, Kan., have helped her understand that a contemplative life requires cultivating “a greater esteem for silence.”

Though silence may be more plentiful in North Dakota than New York, I’d like to believe we can hear God’s voice and see his splendor no matter where in the world we are.

Valente says seeking this may well heal our weary souls better than any self-help book or therapy session.

But how does one find God’s voice amidst a constant stream of noise?

In New York, we were daily immersed in a sensory barrage – the dazzle of Times Square, two enthralling Broadway musicals, and the rush of visits to the top of Rockefeller Center, Ellis Island and the Lincoln Center.

While the smaller group in my charge enjoyed shopping during our bits of free time, I found peace in pausing to people-gaze whenever and wherever I could.

And it was in observing my fellow human beings – the woman in the black capris and purple socks walking her twin dogs, the gritty construction workers, the gray-haired man selling pretzels and hot dogs – that I felt most alive.

Though these weren’t necessarily quiet times, I saw God in the face of the chatty elevator man as we ascended Lady Liberty, the impromptu song of the Jamaican musician who tried serenading our choir director, and the unknown person at the restaurant who turned in a camera left there by one of our students.

I saw the divine hand in the sun that wooed and welcomed us our first day, and in the students’ pure and glee-filled exclamations while traversing a major metropolis, and in the colorful and delicious food.

I most definitely heard God, too, in all the music that filled us, both through the perfection of professionals and our own melody-minded youngsters.

Our crew sang with the skyline of Manhattan as a backdrop 70 stories high, as well as on the deck of the ferry, and aligning the red steps in Midtown.

They sang on hallowed ground in front of and in St. Paul’s Church and sacred space near the old World Trade Center that provided safe harbor during and survived the fatal blows of Sept. 11, 2001; and at the new and haunting 9/11 Memorial; as well as throughout Sunday Mass at St. Peter’s, a church where some of my Irish immigrant ancestors once bowed in worship.

At that latter stop, we “parent paparazzi” discovered our ability to steady a camera while tears dripped from our eyes as we watched our children creating music and memories together in a city and space beyond their normal bounds.

“More than anything,” I felt inspired to write on Facebook after witnessing all this, “I want to seek out what is good, beautiful and true about the world and share it with others.”

“New York is a great place to begin,” Mike from Connecticut responded. “All the best and all the worst of the world in one place, but the beauty and compassion are clear for eyes that see.”

“Ah, I think the best and worst are everywhere,” my cousin Elly from New Jersey added, “but they’re packed close together in New York.”

Indeed, signs of humanity are everywhere, but so are signs of God, who is ever eager to touch our hearts, in quiet or noise, if we but watch and listen.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

second-shot sundays: McConaughey Oscars speech nicely done

[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, and allowing a second chance for those who missed them the first time, I reprint them here, with permission. The following was originally printed in The Forum newspaper, on March 15, 2014.]

Faith Conversations: McConaughey Oscars speech focused on right priorities

By Roxane B. Salonen 

Earlier this month, many Americans gathered around the tube to learn who’d made the biggest splash in movies this year.

As one who mostly passes on TV time, I missed out on the Oscars, but not entirely. Soon enough I caught the highlights – the list of winners along with some of the acceptance speeches.

Of special note was Matthew McConaughey’s for Best Actor award in the film, “Dallas Buyer’s Club.”

Some of the first words to leave McConaughey’s lips upon accepting his golden trophy were: “I want to thank God because that’s who I look up to. He has graced my life with opportunities that I know are not of my hand or any other human hand.”

It takes guts to stand up in front of hundreds of peers, not to mention hundreds of thousands of television viewers, and acknowledge what many in our society are increasingly calling a mirage.

To me, all is from God, beginning with life itself. So McConaughey’s decision to pay tribute to God first in a list of things most deserving of his gratitude earns my immediate respect.

In younger days I wrestled with the idea that God deserves kudos for our accomplishments. Growing up, my mother was always pointing out the myriad “God signs” in our lives, including the things we did that shone brightly. My sister and I had a natural aptitude for music, for example. Learning the piano and playing the licorice stick came easily to me.

But how were our talents God’s doing?

Later, I reviewed the scenario and realized God could have put me in any family, but this is the one he chose for me – the one boasting a former concert pianist who used to claim a bloodline leading straight back to Bach.

Furthermore, my parents had encouraged me to sign up for lessons, which had been paid for through income from their jobs – jobs they’d worked hard to get. And yet someone had nudged them toward an education, and their health and intellect had been strong enough to get them to and through the finish line.

This tracing-back can be helpful in realizing that at bottom, all is from God. Only those lacking humility or a divinely-tuned heart would miss acknowledging “God’s hand,” as McConaughey calls it.

At any moment, our parents, or theirs before them, could have encountered obstacles preventing the blessings that inevitably flowed. Instead, in his provisions God allowed these good things to happen.

It perplexes me now when people point to themselves in extolling their achievements. Success doesn’t come from human efforts alone; not by a long shot.

Each day of our lives and every breath we take are gifts. Every good thing we have can be attributed to God. McConaughey was humble enough to know it and classy enough to name it before millions.

Still, I wanted to hear his whole speech. Imagine my shock to see an online story calling it “confounding.”

Confounding? What had McConaughey said to merit that, I wondered?

So I listened to a video replay, and all I heard were gracious words from a guy who understands his place in the world and wasn’t about to one-up his creator.

He also gave a nod to his parents, including his deceased father, whom he said was likely celebrating “with a pot of gumbo and a can of Miller Lite,” and the mother who’d taught him to respect himself.

Nevertheless, the writer of the Time Entertainment piece labeled McConaughey’s acceptance “a semi-bizarre tale about his inner life.”

I would have been completely disheartened had I not scrolled down to the comments below the article and noted how they largely defended the actor.

“Seriously, why is Hollywood so afraid of God?” one said.

Another chimed in, “That he was able to become a real actor and win the award had to be a divine intervention.”

A third called it “wonderful” that the actor would acknowledge God and his family, noting how sad it is “that so few Oscar winners acknowledge these vital forces.”

To those I’d add this: “Mr. McConaughey, if you keep going this way you might end up with fewer roles, but I’ll bet you’re going to be enjoying some mighty sweet heavenly gumbo someday.”
hing deeper and greater.”

Friday, March 21, 2014

faith & family fridays: two hearts swelling in sweden (the conversion of ulf ekman)

[Please note: I'm coming out of my blog fast temporarily once more to keep up with my monthly contribution commitment to the ever-informative and inspiring]

Somewhere in the heart of Sweden, a heart is swelling. Well, two hearts actually.
I recently learned, thanks to the daily roundup, Catholic Top Tweets by Chuck Wakelee, that an influential, non-denominational evangelical pastor in Sweden, Ulf Ekman, has announced the turning of him and his wife, Birgitta, toward Rome.

I want to tread lightly here for any non-Catholics reading this. One headline in the wake of this conversion, from Christianity Today, says the move has caused pain and disillusionment within Ekman's former fold. The pastor, after all, founded a church and movement that grew into the thousands. If the conversion were reversed, I'm sure we Catholics would feel the loss, too. So any grieving from the Protestant sector is certainly deserved.

That said, it would be unfair to deny those of us welcoming Ekman to our home, which is now his home too, a moment of celebration. Maybe we can think of it like a bride leaving her family of origin to join with her husband and family. It's not that she's turning her back on everything she's known. No, it has formed her and she will be forever grateful and remain indelibly connected, for life. But now, a new life awaits.

I think of my faith before what I call my "reversion" happened in contrast to when I began fully embracing my Catholic roots. It was an euphoric time for me. I definitely felt I'd stumbled upon a life-altering gem -- a precious stone that had been right in front of me all along, but not shining due to my lack of understanding. I still feel that way. So please allow me a momentary outburst of joy that another has discovered this beautiful treasure.

You can actually watch the pastor making the announcement to his congregation here. What I enjoyed about watching it was how gracious Ekman was, and how gracious the pastor taking over his former spot was as well (seen here on the longer version starting around minute 59).

It's very hard to argue with the journey of a soul, after all. Ekman was determined to get at the heart of things, to discover truth. He wouldn't have expected to find it in the Catholic Church, of all places, but somehow, that's exactly where he was led.

And I think what I love most of all about this story is that it happened not through studying Church documents, though he did that eventually, too, but through bumping into Catholics in his travels, and seeing something in them -- something that contradicted the world's impression -- that made him pause.

That's where this whole thing gets very personal in my mind. I see a man promising God that he will go wherever God leads him, even if it lands him in a place that will potentially bring him a fair amount of discomfort. Keep in mind, too, that this conversion did not happen overnight. It has been slowly unfolding over a period of about a decade. Ekman did not go lightly into this, not by a long shot. And that's one of the reasons he has earned my respect and why I feel such joy over his conversion. It was hard won, and I'm sure exhausting at times. But here he is now with a renewed sense of hope before him, and his wife by his side.

As mentioned in a First Things article telling of the conversion, the reasons for the transformation can be boiled down to this, according to Ekman himself:
"We have seen a great love for Jesus and a sound theology, founded on the Bible and classic dogma. We have experienced the richness of sacramental life. We have seen the logic in having a solid structure for priesthood that keeps the faith of the church and passes it on from one generation to the next. We have met an ethical and moral strength and consistency that dare to face up to the general opinion, and a kindness towards the poor and the weak. And, last but not least, we have come in contact with representatives for millions of charismatic Catholics and we have seen their living faith." 
I am sharing this as much to spread joy over this conversion as to hearten you. It can be very easy to feel beaten down about Catholicism as the world sees it. Even when we feel confident we're in the right place, there are so many forces all around telling us we're stark-raving mad to be associated with this Church; a church that so often contradicts the world and yet begs our involvement in it. It is easy to feel we must defend ourselves even when we know a defensive stance is not what will win hearts in the end; rather, living it and sharing our joy will.

But every once in a while, we need something like Ekman's conversion to give us a little lift, to remind us that we are in the right place, and that it's a very good place and worthy of our commitment and sacrifice.

We are blessed beyond measure to be Catholic, and we have every reason to rejoice when others find their way into our family of love. Oh, Ekman may have moments of disillusionment as he discovers how very human we all are, but hopefully we can help him see that even in our imperfection, we are a blessed lot with immeasurable gifts at our disposal, which are now at his, too.

Welcome home, Ulf and Birgitta Ekman. It's Lent, but nevertheless, let the happy dance begin.

Question: Are you a convert? What was it that pulled you into the Church? If you're a cradle Catholic, what is it that compels you to stay?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

second-shot sundays: spiritual fasts stir mixed reactions

[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, and allowing a second chance for those who missed them the first time, I reprint them here, with permission. The following was originally printed in The Forum newspaper, on March 8, 2014.]

Faith Conversations: Faith fasts generate ambivalence, receptivity

By Roxane B. Salonen

MOORHEAD – Several weeks before the start of Lent this year, Travis Woyen began salivating at the sight of a fish recipe on Facebook.

“I’m a sucker for fish,” he wrote. “I’ll admit that part of the reason I look forward to Lent each year is for the fish specials.”

Woyen, a Lutheran, didn’t grow up fasting for spiritual purposes, but says over time he has gradually entered into fasting and abstaining from meat.

The fish deals around town make it fairly easy. “It’s like buying hams after Christmas – it’s all on special and you can find it everywhere,” he quips. “Living 1,500 miles from the most convenient ocean, that’s certainly a benefit.”

Woyen, who sees both the light and deep of this season, says he does feel a bit torn by the different messages sent out this time of year.

“You’re entering a 40-day period of intense reflection and reasonably priced seafood, and it seems kind of wrong that there’s an upside to it,” he says.

The positives can include breaking out of ruts and becoming more self-disciplined. “The notion of stepping back from a lot of things is something we pretty much need as human beings to reestablish some sense of balance.”

And with the mental and physical benefits, the spiritual follows, he notes. “You do something to one, it affects the others.”


Greg Jeffery, Fargo, is a lifelong Catholic who approaches fasting during Lent as one with arachnophobia does a spider.

“The thought of fasting is not an attractive one in any way, shape or form to me,” he says. “I would rather run a mile than fast for a day.”

Jeffrey says he has no problem doing other spiritual exercises, like focusing on personal prayer, practicing devotions or giving extra time to a charity.

“There’s just something about fasting that I don’t like, to speak very candidly,” he says.

But he admits his resistance to fasting is likely telling him that it’s exactly what he needs.

“It does seem that the cross you don’t want to embrace is typically the one that is going to be the key to unlocking a greater freedom from sin,” Jeffrey says.

He adds that since fasting is mentioned numerous times in the Bible, there must be something constructive about it.

“It requires discipline, and we alone have control over whether we put something in our mouths or not.”

And since discipline is the grounding presumption of the acquisition of virtue – a persistent habit in favor of the good – Jeffrey notes, fasting can be a way to develop self-control over all kinds of vices, including common hang-ups like impatience or gossiping.

Though tempted to shirk the whole thing, instead he tries to follow the advice of a mentor, who once told him, “Don’t do what you can’t do; do what you can.”

“If you’re having a hard time getting started with fasting, just offer it up to the Lord,” he says. “Don’t try to lift 300 pounds when you haven’t yet bench-pressed 100.”


Val Wagner of Monango, N.D., a Presbyterian, has an altogether different perspective of spiritual fasting based on feeding challenges surrounding her 4-year-old son, Eli, who was born with the inability to process many proteins.

In response to what she views as trendy, faith-based diets, she wrote a post on her blog, Wag’n Tales, “Glorifying God doesn’t require a diet.”

In the post, Wagner said she recently read an article in which someone claimed to give up meat as a way to be closer to God, and that the hardship was worth it because of what Jesus gave up for our souls.

She wondered what that implies for her son, since he has no choice in his diet.

“Does that mean he’s destined for a life of being unable to show his gratitude?” she wrote. “If he finds himself really wishing he could enjoy ‘forbidden foods,’ does that make him less worthy than the others?”


Todd Ferguson, a local naturopathic doctor, has considered fasting from various perspectives.
“There’s a long history of fasting for both religious and medicinal purposes, from as far back as you could contract things,” he says.

Fasting for medical reasons, particularly water-only fasts, has been known to help the body’s immune system during infection, and migraine headaches can be alleviated when certain foods are eliminated, he notes, naming just a few benefits.

But fasting beyond five days, or when done with a patient suffering from a serious disease like cancer or heart disease, should be guided by a physician.

Some should avoid fasting altogether, including pregnant or lactating women and anyone who has struggled with an eating disorder. “If they have a confused relationship with food already, you don’t want to sweep them further into that pattern.”

In the right circumstances, however, fasting can be helpful, Ferguson says. From a medical standpoint, it can heighten appreciation for food and help us rethink appropriate amounts for our body’s proper functioning, while spiritually it can refocus our reliance and trust in God as well as on the needs of others.

“We tend to get caught up in the drama of everyday life,” he notes, “but in fasting, a lot of things seem simpler in terms of meeting your basic needs, and it exposes a vulnerability that we often have to ignore to get through life.”

There will always be those who do it for the wrong reasons, he adds. “We all have our pride that we have to come to terms with. But fasting is a good remedy for pride. It makes you quickly realize you’re weak and in need.”

Despite its pluses, he says, fasting can be difficult to pull off, particularly for our society.

“We’re not really good at sacrifice and putting ourselves in those situations,” he says. “But when your goals are grander than temporary pleasure it gives a different perspective. If I’m thinking of something beyond this life or this moment, there’s a lot to be said about fasting, because it can connect me to something deeper and greater.”

Sunday, March 9, 2014

second-shot sundays: nothing but full-on surrender will do

[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, and allowing a second chance for those who missed them the first time, I reprint them here, with permission. The following was originally printed in The Forum newspaper, on March 1, 2014.] 

Living Faith: Full-on surrender makes for much deeper faith life

By Roxane B. Salonen, The Forum

At some point in my study of children’s literature, I realized I could hasten my learning by heading straight for the winners – those that withstood both time and reader scrutiny.

I began seeking out as many Newbery-winning books as I could find, and through this process, became much more informed and illuminated regarding that genre.

So it has been with my life of faith. As I’ve grown in it, I’ve turned more and more to a study of those humans who’ve lived exemplary, time-tested faith lives.

And in this, I began to notice certain themes repeating. Namely, there always seemed to be some kind of dramatic turning, a point at which a full-throttle leaning into God had occurred.

In other words, surrender, full and true.

Many of us approach this word “surrender” warily, with good reason. Surrender implies lack of control, and it can be not only frightening but unwise in some cases to fully surrender.

In the life of the believer, however, we have the assurance of the safety net of God. When we fall it’s an upward descent into something beautiful and unconditionally loving.

Unless we allow ourselves to fall in deep, I’m convinced the life of abundance we’ve been promised as believers just won’t be possible.

So what does surrender look like? I’ve found one visual in the story of Edith Stein, who lived and died during World War II.

Born Jewish, Stein went through years of spiritual doubt as an intellectual in 1930s Germany. But one summer, while staying at a friend’s home, she discovered a book written by St. Teresa of Avila and couldn’t put it down. From that point on, each day became another step toward God.

Stein was baptized a Christian and later entered a Carmelite monastery. But her Jewish roots put her at risk, and she eventually was extracted from safety and forced onto a train heading to the concentration camp at Auschwitz.

As recorded in “Edith Stein, A Biography,” one witness, having observed Edith en route, noted, “Many of the mothers were on the brink of insanity and had sat moaning for days, without giving any thought to their children. Edith Stein immediately set about taking care of these little ones. She washed them, combed their hair, and tried to make sure they were fed and cared for.”

Stein was gassed in a “cottage” with others about five days after the train arrived at its final destination.

Despite the tragedy, what stands out to me is how she was able to hold up against the evil around her. I find an explanation in Stein’s signature phrase, “Learn to live at God’s hands.”

Stein had surrendered all to God, not through acquiescing to evil but in trusting God’s ultimate plan and accepting God’s grace. This allowed her to move through an unfathomable scenario with some wits about her.

Years earlier, Stein had said, “Only God can welcome a person’s total surrender in such a way that one does not lose one’s soul in the process but wins it.”

In other words, this full-on surrender can happen in completeness only with God.

At times, I’ve resisted giving my life so wholly to God, but as these holy people reveal, a real freedom happens with surrender. And in my best moments, I’ve known it to be true.

Elisabeth Leseur, who lived in early 1900s France, is another who made surrender to God her utmost quest.

The wife of an intellectual atheist who converted after her death after reading her diaries, Leseur once said, “It is only when one has rooted oneself in eternity that one can let one’s humble little barque float upon the surface of the waves and rejoice fully in the view from earthly rivers.”

Perhaps the simplest utterance of surrender I’ve read, however, comes from St. Francis de Sales: “Yes, heavenly Father, I accept everything; yes, and always yes.”

I suspect none of these found the “yes” always easy, and that it came at a price at times, but keeping in sight the one who will never disappoint surely made it easier.

As the transforming season of Lent draws near, for some faithful there’s no better time than now to say, “Yes,” once and for all, and to discover that in the yes is bliss.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

writing wednesdays: a desert pause

Wait a minute, no, I didn't mean this!

Lovely as it is, it has one "s" too many.

No, I meant this kind of desert pause.

Well, I am pausing a bit from the sweet kind too, but what I really mean by a "desert pause" is...well, you'll see by peeking at Peace Garden Writer today.

Wishing you a meaningful pause, whether from dessert or in the desert!

Monday, March 3, 2014

meaningful mondays: feeling the loss in a friend's leaving

I tried putting on a brave face. I knew it wouldn't help her a titch if I let the real feelings pop to the surface.

So I focused on the positives: that by moving to another city far away, my friend would become a blessing to others. It's true, of course. She will. But I also know uprooting your family to another part of the country after settling in and finding your church, school, and a nurturing city is no small thing.

It's part of our very mobile society, however. It happens all the time.

Someone is offered a great job and after a time of hemming and hawing, the decision is made to go. And at some point, there's no turning back.

Frequent though it may be, I wonder if we properly acknowledge as a society the loss involved, not only for the mover but for those left behind. In fact, I would say in some cases it's harder on those left in the wake.

I've never relished goodbyes and when we moved out West in our first year of marriage, it happened so fast that I didn't have time to tell all of my friends we were going. I'll never forget the shocked reaction of one who found out after we'd departed.

I realized then I'd probably refrained from a big announcement in part to protect myself from uncomfortable goodbyes. Clearly, I saw in hindsight, that had been a selfish decision. I'd denied some of my friends a chance to experience the stages of letting go I'd already quietly experienced.

Now, I'm on the other side of it, and I can say this friend has been generous in the sharing. She's brought our circle of faith-sharing women into each step of the process and we've circled around her and tried to lend our supportive hearts and minds to make her uprooting a little less painful.

But in all of that I'd not let myself consider that this is a real loss for us.

It's important to share that the friend who is moving a couple months from now is a vibrant person, the epitome of hyperbole. Along with being a true thespian, she's a mother and wife, a teacher, a skilled vocalist and flutist, a dancer and a church decorator.

She began coming to our circle of faith-sharing sisters when her oldest of two children, now in middle school, was a baby. There, she poured out her life's hopes, dreams and fears as we did in turn. Though we didn't do tons of socializing together outside our group, we've definitely come to know each others' souls from the inside-out during these years together.

So last week, as we joined forces in song-leading at a regular weekly school Mass -- I managing melody and she handling harmony -- it hit me. She's leaving and this kind of thing isn't going to happen again. Come May, the harmonies will cease. The strength I feel from her leadership and musicianship in this instance, and the ardent yearning to know God I witness from her at our group, will be no longer.

The passionate responses and dramatic conclusions we've come to expect from this friend in our faith-sharing group will dissipate. There will be not just a tiny void but a glaring chasm.

After receiving the Eucharist that day, I went back to my chair and realized I couldn't completely hold back the tears, though I remained discreet and composed through the final song. I can act too, after all.

But as we were putting away stands and music at the Mass's conclusion, I felt a prompting to tell her what had just happened. Even though I knew it might set her off course a bit, I wanted her to know now -- not two months from now -- that she'd mattered.

"I'm grieving you," I said, and within a few moments we were in a heartfelt embrace that I'm sure made those still lingering in the sanctuary wonder. It called to mind another grieving friend-hug I had in a swimming pool years ago when we learned a friend was leaving, not just to another town but our world due to a prolonged illness.

Sometimes, you just have to stop and acknowledge your grief -- in fact, to name it in the first place. Whether someone is leaving the earth or moving a few states away, the loss is real.

Granted, my friend isn't dying, but preparing for her to fade into the horizon is like a mini-death. And it deserves a little space -- even if just an unplanned, unrehearsed moment of embrace among two friends.

Some in our faith-sharing group went to see our friend perform in her last public drama here the same night of the tearful Mass. In the "Forbidden Broadway" performance, she carried out a rousing rendition of both Carol Channing and Liza Minnelli. It was the perfect way for her to end her theatrical career here. We laughed our way through it, celebrating but knowing, too, that the goodbye has begun.

Now that I've gotten my tears out of the way, I think I can go back to doing what needs doing to help send my friend on her way. This is life, after all, always a welcoming, always a letting go. Not always easy, but always possible.

Q4U: What have you learned about grieving to prepare you for the next round?