They Know Not What They Do

reading Valtonen book

They Know Not What They Do – Jussi Valtonen (London: Oneworld, 2017)

Reading They Know Not What They Do by Jussi Valtonen, is a bit like looking in on a group of observant and smart people, who share thoughtful, even profound, observations on love, disappointment, and American and Finnish culture, but who just happen to be on a sinking ship. You – and they – can never forget that things are only going to get much worse. Set against Helsinki’s endlessly brooding winter skies, and the droning of cicadas in Baltimore’s summer heat, a feeling of inescapable doom hangs over this dystopic novel as its flawed characters meet, mate, and make mistakes. The book feels somewhat long at 470 pages, but perhaps that’s just because, while there are lots of surprising plot twists, tragedy never feels far away.

They Know Not What They Do is an apt title. Joe, the ambitious American protagonist, Samuel, his estranged Finnish son, Alina, Samuel’s mother, and others in the novel seem to lack self-awareness in a normal, bumbling, struggle-through-the-day kind of way. However, they’re not lucky in life. None is able to escape the extraordinarily tragic consequences of failings that seem, in the end, fairly ordinary. This is part of the novel’s power. We’ve all made these mistakes, and if we haven’t met such tragedies, perhaps we’ve just been fortunate. The inside back cover states that Valtonen is not just a fine author and an exceptional wordsmith, but also a psychologist. He clearly knows day-to-day human weakness. Although he’s sympathetic, he’s a realist. The often very funny black humour will keep the reader going, even while a sensitive reader sometimes wants to put the book down rather than go through yet another looming misunderstanding, disappointment, or mistake.

If anything marks the book as Finnish, perhaps it’s this close attention to failure. As a Canadian reader, I’m familiar with literature where simple survival is victory. Finnishness and Americanism are presented as opposites, and are played up in the novel. But the stereotypes are presented only to be subverted: the American protagonist ends up paralyzed by indecision and fate, while the Finn achieves a sort of resolution.

The language throughout is clear, crisp, and its observations razor-sharp: the reader would never know the book was originally published in Finnish (translator Kristian London). Valtonen won the Finlandia Prize for this book, and it’s not hard to understand why. It’s exceptionally observant, and extremely well-written. Academics will recognize their foibles in its sharp-eyed observations of university politics, but so will fatigued young parents, adolescents just entering college, and the middle-aged trying to decide if they’ve accomplished anything with their lives. They Know Not What They Do was written by someone who very definitely knew what they were doing: if you can handle the coming tragedy, it’s well worth getting to know these people as well.

17 “Finnish” Clergy & the Future in Canada


Look at this photo of the “Finnish pastors” at this year’s Suomi Conference in Sudbury. Seventeen smiling faces. Seventeen clergy who, for the most part, like each other, share jokes, help each other out, support each other, and share an eagerness to be the best leaders they can be, in a renewed, vital Finnish-Canadian church.

But as they say, a picture tells a thousand words. And this picture, taken in the closing minutes of the Suomi Conference 2018, says a lot about what the Canadian Finnish church is, and might become.

17-6= 11          17-3=14           14-3=11           14-7=7             17-4=13

To start with, six out of the seventeen “Finnish” pastors in this picture aren’t Finnish at all! Six are actually English-speaking pastors from Canada. Only one of the six “anglos” – Stanley Johnston – is fluent in spoken Finnish. The rest of us practice our pronunciation with varying degrees of success!

Three of the seventeen “Finnish” pastors who DO speak Finn were either born in Canada or the United States. Or moved here at a very early age. That means that nine out of the seventeen people in the photo are probably more culturally North American than European. That’s major. The Lutheran church in North America is not a state church. Lutherans have always been a minority here. When you’re a minority, living with small budgets, and relying heavily on volunteers, you tend to think and act differently (as North Americans do, in any case).

Three of the seventeen pastors are actually visitors from Finland. Olli Valtonen is founder of the Tuomasmessu (The Thomas Mass), an international movement, and a book author. Leila Valtonen is a book author as well, a group psychotherapist and an expert in the Enneagram personality test.  Mauri Vihko is the new Kirkon ulkosuomalaistyön johtaja, administrator of Finnish churches abroad. He says that the Finnish church is also shrinking, along with its budget. Since 90% of the Suomi Conference budget comes from Finland, that’s a concern! Mauri assures us that there is no immediate danger. But changes are ahead…. Mauri is very interested in how to reach out to Finns who are “global migrants”, travelling out of Finland for jobs, adventure, or relationships. This is EXACTLY the kind of Finn we’re seeing more and more of, in Montreal.

Fully half of the fourteen Canadian pastors in this photo are either retired, or within a few years of retirement. Nothing wrong with grey hair, but there’s a lot of it in this photo! Three of the seventeen serve part-time, mostly because the parishes have become so small they don’t need a full-time pastor. Only four of the seventeen are women. But notice – they are among the youngest in an otherwise aging group. The face of the Finnish presence, and the face of clergy, in Canada, is changing.

This photo says it all! (photo courtesy of Ismo Makkonen; missing from photo: Pat Dorland)




The Young Finnish Women Pioneers of Montreal

Finnish maids in Quebec ca 1930

The earliest waves of Finnish immigrants to Montreal consisted overwhelmingly of young Finnish women. Unlike in other areas of Canada, where Finnish immigrants engaged in forestry or other labour, in Montreal the gender balance was definitely female! These determined and resourceful young Finns often worked as domestic help in the ‘grandes maisons”, or the large and rich homes of the Montreal wealthy. They were the primary movers behind starting the congregation, and the initial financial offerings they raised came from their own, often meagre, earnings. Through the years, unlike in many other churches, women and men together have always been on church council, and active in the direction of the congregation, its music and its social life. Newly arrived maids on the steps of the Finnish Immigrant Home in Montreal ca 1929 Victor Kangas Collection

It’s not surprising that so many of the Suomi activities planned for fall 2017 in Montreal – a Finnish bus trip to the Eastern Townships on Oct 14, the sold-out Suomi 100 Ball in December – are likewise spearheaded by women. The historical video can be watched here:

The Promised (Fin)land

2013-08-20 20.43.25

I really LOVE Montreal, one of “my” Finns will say. It’s a great city. It’s so exciting. But….But then the Finn will get a dreamy look on their face: “But you know, I’m only here temporarily. It’s a two-year contract. And then our plan is to move back to Helsinki.”

Montreal, nice as it is, is just the waiting station. For many, the land of their dreams is, was, and always will be, Finland. We’ll talk about Mount Royal and how nice it is in the spring to look out over the city. We’ll chat about going out for a sugaring-off and maple syrup, or skating on Beaver Lake, and we’ll all agree that there’s nothing like the taste of tire-sur-neige when there’s still snow on the ground and sap flowing in the trees. We’ll talk about going to La Banquise for poutine and the night life on St-Denis and the jazz and the great music and the outdoor terrasses for a cappuccino or a café au lait.

And that’s where I, for my part, would stop, maybe. But sooner or later, something, maybe talking about the Laurentians, will set the others on to Finland. Oh, the forests, they’ll say. You don’t have to go far out of Helsinki you know. The birches. I miss the birches. And then their conversation will be all about the saunas, and swimming in the deep dark lakes, and picking lingonberries and the quiet of the northland woods. And they’ll get this smile and this far-away look on their faces: You can be SO happy there, so easily! Even just dreaming about going back is what gets us through.

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth, writes John the Elder, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. Life, frankly, looks a lot more like traffic jams on Atwater street than either the idealized Finland of some folks I know, or the heavenly Jerusalem. But you and I CAN find glimpses of how things should be, even here, even on Monkland Avenue or Sherbrooke Street or Victoria avenue St-Lambert, in how we treat each other and the world around us, around the table, with all of our faults and warts and misgivings and hesitant happinesses.

Then, and then truly, we will experience that voice Revelation describes, speaking to us from the throne. The voice we cannot always hear, but the one we know is calling, and more than calling, promising. Telling each one of us. Behold, I make all things new even you.


If You Put Mont-Tremblant at the Top of Europe

Levi ski area

Okay, there are a few differences. At the bottom of the hill at Levi, Lapland (about 120 km north of the Arctic Circle), behind the state-of-the-art chairlift (heated seats, a tinted canopy and a conveyor belt to help you get on), there’s a wooden tee-pee where people crouch in the semi-darkness over a fire and cook their sausages for lunch. There’s one electric-car recharging station in the town, and the rental shop carries the standard glittering equipment you’d get at Lake Louise or Chamonix. But there are also posters advertising reindeer rides and Lapland igloos where you lie on your back and watch the northern lights. (They neglect to mention that there’s been little sunspot activity this year and a corresponding drop in occurrences.) The snack bar has all the usual fries and hot-dogs, but also salmon on rye rusks, reindeer burgers and a kind of potato pancake that they call ‘bread’ here but reminds me of a thicker Norwegian lefse (apologies for using one obscure Scandinavian cultural reference to help try to explain another!) In fact, we’re only a couple of hundred km from that northern reach where Norway and Finland greet each other overtop of Sweden, and sometimes ski accident victims here might be taken to a Norwegian hospital rather than a Finnish.

I help Kaapo and Oiva, my host family’s boys, get into their snowsuits. Kaapo is not feeling well. Their father, Matti, has been shovelling snow off of the family’s cottage roof all day, but the big man seems none the worse for wear despite the back-breaking labour. Sari and Matti take me to the restaurant near where they met, and treat me to a local speciality: a warm, flat Lappish cheese with accompanying cloudberry sorbet, and a thick caramel sauce on the side. I may not be in heaven, but I’m close. On the way out, I pick up the local Levi Times paper: “Kittila became an independent parish by Russian imperial edict on 30 January 1854,” it says. “Population 6500. There are 900 inhabitants in the town of Levi and rooms for 24,000 tourists. Unemployment rate 13%, 718 lakes and reindeer approximately 12,000.”

with Oiva and Kaapo Sari and Matti

A Warm – too hot! – a welcome to Rovaniemi


Sauna One

My Ash Wednesday in Finland began with a flight north. I left behind the beautiful old 19th and early 20th century buildings, the gritty sidewalks and the cold sea wind of Helsinki and landed in the sunny, white and still world that marks the beginning of Finnish Lapland. It was so strange to be surrounded by banks of snow, yet feel warmer than I had in Helsinki. “It’s a dry cold,” someone said. Rovaniemi feels like Saskatoon or Edmonton on a nice winter day. Even looks a bit like it.

Right now the Arctic Circle, ironically, is warmer than Montreal. Pastor Sari Kuirinlahti met me at the airport. “I have hugs for you,” I said, “from Riita and Olavi Hepomaki and from Jari and Liisa Lahtinen. Is that okay?” “Oh!” she answered, “I miss those people!” And she let me give her the hugs, even though she blushed. Then she handed me a chart with all the things I’m doing in the next few days, based on what I had emailed her. Two documentary showings in a theatre and a chapel, a couple of interviews, a trip, meetings, some concerts…..

But first, she said, sauna! Have you had sauna yet? I admitted I had been two days in Finland already without sauna. You will be picked up this evening, she informed me. Get ready (I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant). The afternoon gave me time to settle in to the “Piispankameri” or the so-called Bishop’s room, which when a Bishop isn’t visiting is used for other guests like visiting musicians, or in this case, me. Cross-country skiers were passing by in front of my window. Having no skis, I walked to a local store and bought some food for the apartment, with the very kind clerk taking me around by the arm and helping me find what I needed, then warmed up some Karjalan Pirakkat with tea. Sari returned and took me to meet church volunteers. They asked, with Sari interpreting, what I thought the challenges facing my congregation (and the church overall) in Canada are. It turns out there are many similarities, despite the differences. Then another pastor (they seem to be everywhere here), Tuomo K, whisked me away to the church camp at Norvajärvi.

There were men there in the woods by the frozen lake. Many men, of different ages, in the saunas, towelling off, out standing in the snow, or cooking Finnish sausages over a fireplace in a hall. I sat in the sauna listening to the quiet hiss of steam. My host made it hotter and hotter until unable to bear the steam any more we had to run, naked, out to the snow. “A warm – sorry, a hot! – welcome to Rovaniemi” he laughed. We had arrived late so most of the men were already dressed and setting up for their discussion. I waited until the others were gone and then did what I had promised myself I would do. I fell back into the snow and looked, oh so briefly, at the stars, ten kilometres north of the Arctic Circle.

The men sang a hymn, said a prayer, and I introduced myself to them in my very few words of Finnish. Then they fell into their planned discussion: how to be a Christian and involved in political life. It was all in Suomi, so I could only pick up a few words – socialism, communism, capitalism, faith, God. In this area the communist party was very strong for many years, and tensions sometimes ran high. Still, after the heat and steam and flight, it was hard not to nod off. The man beside me did, but then revived every now and then to add a few words to the discussion.

Then it was back down the highway, past the “watch for elk” and “Arctic Circle” signs, and boots crunching in the hard-packed snow, back to my room. “Kiitoksia!” I called out. “Good sleep!” my host answered. After that sauna, it won’t be hard to have a good sleep. Welcome to Rovaniemi.

You’re What? An english-speaking Finnish pastor from Canada? How does that work?

Helsinki harbour in ice

When I walked by the Fazer chocolate shop and teahouse, there were two young women standing outside, shivering in heavy coats and aprons. “Do you have hot chocolate?” I asked them in English. They nodded enthusiastically: yes! And for free! So I had some hot chocolate and drank it while looking for the Kappeli, where I was meeting my afternoon appointment, a professor from the Greek Institute.

What a great welcome to Helsinki. And in February, too.

My first full day in Finland was a busy one. At breakfast I met Teemu, who came with two of his children. He was to be my “barefoot” (as the Helsinki locals call themselves) guide. But a last minute situation meant we could only visit over breakfast. “I love Thunder Bay,” he confided. “I go there often. Canada is a good country. Almost great.” He smiled, that same quiet, ironic smile I’ve seen on so many Finns. Waiting for me to get the joke.

I bought a one-day transit pass and hopped the #9 streetcar to the Kallio area. I was treated to lunch and my first Laskiaispulla, or Shrove Tuesday bun, by Heidi R., a pastor, journalist and passionate interfaith worker. The pulla was amazing – but really, really hard to eat! And hard to eat during a radio interview. We spoke about Finns in Canada and the USA, my two documentaries, and the Camino de Santiago. The interview, once edited, is supposed to be aired on Finnish national public radio at some point in the next few months.

After, Heidi took me on a quick tour of a building I’d passed and wanted to see, the Kallio Church. The style, inside and out, is “Finnish Art Nouveau”, says the pamphlet. It looks a lot like Art Deco to me. It’s beautiful, and I loved the altarpiece of Jesus with the local working people of the neighbourhood.

Then it was back downtown by metro to meet Mari R-S, an academic whose work I had seen in the library and whom I had contacted. She brought her new four-month baby, and I managed to steal some time to hold him while we talked about tourism and pilgrimage. We also talked about rashes, and allergies and how much babies sleep (or don’t)! There was more Laskiaispulla, which of course had to be eaten.

After Mari left I walked up to the Cathedral. There was a pastor sitting in the corner, to whom I introduced myself. She seemed a bit confused, but friendly. “You’re what? An english-speaking Finnish pastor from Canada? How does that work?” I told her I wasn’t quite sure how it works, but that it does. She smiled and shook my hand. I’m not sure she believed me, just showing up like that, unannounced. Finns would never do that.

On the way back to my hotel I did some tourist shopping, and then had just enough time to change before meeting Kati B, a former church council member from the Finnish church in Montreal, and Mari T, a journalist who worked at Isien Usko and Kanadan Sanomat, for dinner. Both have now returned to Finland. Over salmon burgers and fish we talked about Canada and Finland, about how long one can be away before they ‘stop being Finnish’ and how long it takes to be Finnish again after coming home. “Maybe our generation is more used to this in-between feeling of never completely belonging in any one place,” said Mari. I believe that in our globalized world, that might be true of many people.

After dessert I walked the two of them to their tram. Tomorrow I fly to Rovaniemi. I’m thankful that the Suomi Conference has sent me here “to experience Finnish culture”. There seemed to be quite a bit happening, even in what was just my first day!

laskiaispulla Shrove Bun

Heidi Rautionmaa Kallio church

Jesus and working class clearest