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.