Monday, December 9, 2013
[The following column was printed in The Forum newspaper, on Dec.7, 2013. Reprinted with permission.]
Living Faith: Sacred simplicity helps defeat Grinch
By Roxane B. Salonen
At times I find myself in solidarity with the non-believer.
Christmas, or at least what’s become of it in recent years, can have this effect.
Like the most ardent atheist and others of various religious persuasions, I am unimpressed by the excessive glitz and consumerism of the season. “Enough!” I want to rise up and shout.
At its origins, Christmas is a beautiful thing to behold, but the whole thing has gone awry. The Grinch has not only stolen Christmas but managed to mesmerize us with a twisted presentation of the holiday.
True to his green nature, and with sneering eyes, the Grinch reflects unbound envy and an insatiable lust for the almighty dollar. Claiming Black Friday as his holiday, he is everywhere that day, breathing deceit into the ears of the vulnerable.
“This will make you happy,” he hisses. “And you can’t do without this,” he says, his lips curled into a permanent smirk.
He’s stolen something precious from the faithful, and for our part, we’ve not only let him get away with it but at times participated in his antics.
I don’t believe we purposefully set out to embrace his vile ways, however. Mr. Grinch simply snuck in while we were sipping eggnog one fine winter and never left.
But here’s where I differ from the non-believer, who points to the furry, green man and says, “See, this is what faith gets you. What use is it to us?”
“You’re right,” I respond to the latter. “This version of faith is useless. On this, we agree.” But there’s another version of the Christmas story, and it’s worth renewing and reclaiming.
Though real in his own way, the Grinch is also a ruse, distracting us from the beautiful truths of this season. For me, it begins in the space where our senses can most assuredly be awakened to the goodness of Christmas.
During the Advent season at my home parish, I find not excessive shimmer but a simple wreath. On it, four candles represent a countdown to one of the most profound moments in history.
Here, I breathe in rejuvenating silence. Within this calming refuge, the lure of the Grinch fades, and in his place I see a stark stable, wooden manger and star-lit night when the world grew quiet and reflective for a while.
Soon, evergreen trees will spring upon the altar, not bedecked with tantalizing tinsel but tiny, flickering lights that echo the day love broke through the world in the faint wailing of an infant.
As incense rises and bells ring, I’ll pause long enough to center my soul, sending the Grinch to do his bidding away from my heart. Donning mercy and love, I’ll face the trappings of the counter-Christmas conspiracy with a revised, contrary plan.
It will be one of sacred simplicity, as it was intended all along, begetting a heart prone toward generosity, not just one day but the whole year through.
Christmas isn’t what’s wrong. The message of hope it bears in its purest form can be appreciated by all. What’s wrong is how we’ve allowed the cackling green creature to seize what is truly enduring and meaningful by bowing to the material.
It’s not too late to ponder in our hearts how we might rediscover the beautiful barrenness of this time. With a few adjustments, we can approach this season sanely and not be left singing the Christmas Blues come Dec. 26.
The Grinch has made gains, but somewhere in his dark world a light flickers, and neither he nor we are beyond letting it beckon to and change us for the better.
Friday, December 6, 2013
Thirteen - that's how many years we've had the privilege of attending our kids' elementary school Advent program so far. By the time our baby is past this, we'll have 15 of them under our belt.
Seven years ago, our daughters did their first (and only so far) duet together at this event. The evening has been etched forever in my heart. What a proud moment for me to hear my little gals' tender, angelic voices in harmony. And they were so graciously bold to dare do this in a church packed with parents, peers, family members and friends.
After 13 years, you'd think it would get a bit monotonous. It doesn't for me. Maybe it's because my friend is the choreographer for this event, and I know how hard she works to pull it off each year.
I've known her for about as long as I've been attending the Advent program, and when I see the kids, I see her in them.
It's not everyone who can teach creative movement to boys, nor convince kids of all stripes that it's the coolest thing ever to dance in the school Advent program. But she manages this every year.
My first such Advent program elicited tears of amazement and joy. I managed to pull it together this year, but the evocative movements of small people reaching to God still tugged at me.
These Advent events begin with and flow around a story -- the one leading to the climax of the greatest event in history, when God broke through the barrier between heaven and earth and presented himself to us as a small baby.
Why? So we would not be afraid to approach. He still beckons us, hoping with an unending hope that nothing will come between us and our thirst for what he has to offer.
Earlier this week, I was challenged to think of what the world might have been like before all that happened. But it's hard to conceive a world before and without Jesus; a world before hope, in its fullest sense, became a possibility. And yet we so easily forget what a remarkable thing this was, and still is.
When I watch the children reaching, I see it as a yearning for the only one who can truly satisfy our souls.
But still, we must wait for the very best part of all, when we are fully with him. In the waiting, we are reaching, and it is a beautiful thing -- like the sunflower reaching for the warmth of the sun so it might prosper rather than wilt and fade.
I've been reminded this week that waiting is not a passive thing; that though Advent is a time of waiting, it is not a time of being inactive.
On Facebook the other day, I asked my friends to describe Advent in one word. Just one friend asked to use two, and I gave her the pass. I was delighted at what came forth, and amazingly, there were few repeats. I hope they evoke for you feelings and images of active pause as they have done for me.
If you have a different one to share, please do in the comments box!
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
Peace Garden Writer, you'll find out why this book is so much louder than what it seems from its cover.
I'll race ya! Just promise you'll go quietly!
Monday, December 2, 2013
This four-day weekend offered me some relished reading time and cherished down time with family. I could feel my body physically slowing in preparation for this season we've now stepped into -- Advent. What a blessed time of year!
go here to sign up. It's free, and easy.
And more specific to the season, I'm diving into Edward Sri's "The Advent of Christ: Scripture Reflections to Prepare for Christmas."
I had a chance to hear Dr. Sri in Bismarck in October, and a few years before that, interview him on Real Presence Radio when he was in town for a Marian Eucharistic Congress. He's around my age, but has a few degrees more and a few kids more, too. Which makes him smarter, wiser and even busier than I.
Seriously, though, he presents complex theology in such an easy to digest fashion that I do really appreciate and respect his work. For the first reflection from his Advent book, he challenged me: "What are some things you can do each day this Advent to prepare spiritually for Christmas?"
It got me thinking about how much I like Lent, and the preparation for Easter we do then, and how edifying it is to prepare my body and soul through fasting. If I can make it 40 days, surely I can do 25 days.
Not that Advent is Lent, because it's not. And yet there are parallels. During Lent, we are preparing our hearts and souls for Jesus' death and resurrection. In Advent, we are making room in our hearts and souls to receive the baby Jesus. But that baby Jesus grew up and was crucified, so in truth, as we make room for the baby Jesus, we are making room for the crucified and risen Lord as well -- Emmanuel, God among us.
So, I am going to do some smaller fasts this Advent. For one, I'll have tea in the morning instead of coffee. It's a little lighter and it will be a sacrifice for me, but more importantly, it will be that daily reminder that I'm making a conscious decision to make a change that will awaken me each day to what I am waiting for. I'll try some other fasts too, but this is the main one because it feels doable to me, and I don't want to make this something so impossible to achieve that I won't make it through day two.
What about you? What are you planning to do to prepare spiritually for Christmas? I'd love to hear your ideas.
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
Monday, November 25, 2013
Our 22nd wedding anniversary celebration this weekend included dinner out at The Cork, the restaurant where our groom's dinner took place way back when, and a movie.
|Another dinner out in an earlier year (1999)|
We both found the film invigorating, but there's more to this story. Tucked into that movie was something no one else in the place would have noticed. Toward the beginning of the show, the captain is checking his email on the ship while listening to music. The song playing happens to be Eric Clapton's, "Wonderful Tonight." This was the song we danced to on our wedding night, around the same time in the evening we were watching this scene in the movie. A sign from above? A huge coincidence? Who knows? But it made us smile.
Here's another highlight from our weekend:
[The following column was printed in The Forum newspaper, on Nov. 23 2013. Reprinted with permission.]
Living Faith: 22 years together a sign of the divine
By Roxane B. Salonen
On Nov. 23, 1991, the sun shined brightly in Fargo, despite a forecast of snow and a northern breeze. By afternoon, the flakes came as promised but not profusely enough to block the insistent sun.
I remember driving around town that morning doing last-minute errands after getting my hair done, feeling abashedly conspicuous in my get-up – a wedding veil with long curls framing my face, and jeans with a casual shirt I’d wear until it was time to don the real deal.
Logistics had dictated this late-November wedding date, along with my affinity for warm, winter colors. And it was lovely – the bridesmaids’ red and black velvet dresses, our floral pieces featuring red Gerber daisies and eucalyptus. I can still smell the freshness of my bouquet, a sign that spring can flourish even in winter.
We were both 23 on that 23rd day of the month, and, though filled with knowledge from years of collegiate learning, clueless about life.
Along with all the other plans, I’d made a pact with myself to not end up a blubbering mess like some brides I’d seen, mascara streaming down their cheeks on their jaunt down the aisle. No, I’d remain composed, be the hospitable one rather than star of the show.
By evening my mouth would hurt from all my party-host smiling, but I was left feeling gratified. Many would comment on the markings of the day, including the rich music, meaningful messages and something harder to define, perhaps, but still obvious – the divine presence.
The latter had been intentional, an effort, however meager, to invite God into the relationship we’d just sealed in a sacrament.
Did I have doubts? Yes. I wondered what made us any more equipped than anyone else to beat the odds. And that question didn’t go away quietly in the coming months.
A move to a new state and so much to move through emotionally in tying together two imperfect lives lent itself to numerous trials. Many close to us worried, wondering if we’d make it, and we were among those wondering.
But somehow, despite all that threatened to break us and the inherent challenges of eventually raising one, two, three, four and five children, our marriage has persisted.
How have we remained together in this circle of family given the delicacy of the thread that seems to hold us up most days? I’ve asked this many times.
There is no human explanation. We easily could have been among the statistics of those who could not keep going. In fact, the only possibility that makes any sense at all is that when we asked God into our marriage 22 years ago, our request did not fall on deaf ears, despite human failing.
It was as impossible as many earthly endeavors are, and yet this relationship, marked by some for failure, has stood the test of time, bound by an invisible, transcendent force. Through this miracle, we’ve glimpsed the power of grace and glanced at the eternal.
In hindsight, the weather seems to have been as purposeful as other details that day; a foreshadowing of a chill that would come and go throughout our lives together, but always followed by sun melting the path before us, giving us just enough strength to move onto the next thing.
It hasn’t been easy, but through God, all things are possible. And on this day, we celebrate.
Friday, November 22, 2013
The thought came to me when I was pregnant with our fourth child. During that pregnancy, my aunt, my father's oldest sister, was dying of liver cancer, and I was intently pondering life and death.
It started here:
Life doesn't end with this one, and the next life continues on eternally. Eternal life means forever, as in never-ever-ever ending.
And quickly progressed to this:
Wait now, eternal? Who would want that, really? How could that even be possible? Wouldn't it get...boring or...overly long? Is that really something I even want?
Once my mind hooked into this, I couldn't let go. For a moment, I felt physically ill thinking about it. We can't wrap our brains around eternal, I know this, and yet this wasn't about not wrapping my brain around eternal as, for the first time, confronting eternal. This was the first time I'd ever thought of it in a negative light and it was extremely disturbing.
Until this day, I'd always taken for granted that our natural propensity is to yearn for something more -- that we have an innate sense of a life after this one -- the Act II. I know I'd always been moved in that direction. However, the earthly part of me seemed trained more in the way of anticipating endings. And so a non-ending just didn't make sense.
To be sure, I did not let this thought keep me up at nights. It was only an occasional disruption that would take hold for a little while. Eventually I would let it go and think nothing more of it.
But recently, it happened again, and I knew when I met with my spiritual director I had to bring this question before him. I felt a little silly as I explained being bothered by the idea of infinitude, feeling sure he'd think me a little loony, but he didn't. I'm assuming it's a thought others have had, too.
Now, I will be honest. I didn't think he'd be able to come up with anything satisfactory, and I will also share that I can't remember everything he said in his explanation. But at some point, I experienced one of those "aha!" moments that changes everything.
"We really can't understand it, that's true," he said, "but maybe we can think of it this way. We can understand relationships. Think of the love you have for your children. Is that something you can imagine going on forever?"
He continued on for a bit after that, but I didn't hear any of it. I was stopped at the thought of the love I have for my children and how I could never-ever-ever imagine that ending...ever. And in that moment, even though I still cannot, nor will I ever, fully conceive of how forever works, it made a whole lot of sense how it's possible for something to endure infinitely.
I don't know how it will work. It still doesn't make sense to me that we would ever want to continue existing into eternity and on and on and on. But I do know for certain that the love I have for my family doesn't seem to have an end point. Even on our worst days together, love, not as a concept but a reality, is very, very big and yes, I can quite imagine it lasting.
And now, I can embrace the idea of eternal life and not feel ishy at all. Instead, when I think on it, the warmest, most wonderful feeling comes over me.
It's something I could definitely get used to, forever.