The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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December 7, 2001 Issue

Appreciating the Advent wabi-sabi

Wabi-Sabi is the exact opposite of everything today's culture preaches

Third in an Advent series

By Tom Rinkoski

In the September-October issue of Utne Reader magazine, I was introduced to Wabi-Sabi. This idea of peace and beauty continues to help me push the pause button in the hectic pre-Christmas pace.

Broadly, wabi-sabi is everything that today's sleek, mass-produced, technology-saturated culture isn't. It's flea markets, not shopping malls, aged wood, not swank floor coverings, a single morning glory, rather than a dozen roses. Wabi-Sabi understands the raw beauty of December gray landscapes, and the aching elegance of abandoned farm buildings and aging outhouses. It celebrates wrinkles, bent toes, curved backs and all the other marks that time tends to leave us. Wabi-Sabi is Jesus being born in the stable, giving hand made coupons to do another persons' chores, and a teen's definition of a clean room. Wabi-Sabi is not Martha Stewart. My snow-shoveling style is wabi-sabi.

My daughter Marie is an advanced wabi-sabi disciple who finds beauty and grace in shopping at St. Vincent de Paul and the Fox Valley Thrift Store. When we go on our annual excursion to choose and cut a Christmas tree, the only perfect thing about it is that it fits us perfectly.

Don't get me wrong. I like nice things. I confess that I have one pair of pants made in Italy that whisks me to Capri each time I put them on! But, often the power of a thing is not found in its perfection. Our universe longs for wisdom, for genuineness, for shared history that is not usually manifest in the products found in Best Buy and Toys R Us.

I am a wabi-sabi dad, living in an imperfect world and reveling in the wabi-sabiness of it all!

I believe the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Advent is wabi-sabi pointed. When Jesus asks, "Just what did you go out into the desert to see?" it is a wabi-sabi loaded question. "Did you think," Jesus asks with the smile of a fox, "you would find someone dressed to the nines with a full Gospel choir? Were you expecting this John the Baptist to spew Steven Spielberg flames of prophecy to assuage your anger and fears."

Jesus knows we have visions of perfection drumming out messages like boom boxes in our mind. We play and replay MTV-inspired tapes of what we would like the world to be. The world never quite measures up and therefore we experience loss and grief. The meal we cooked for dinner is not quite what we hoped. Sarah, once again, refuses to dress up for the Christmas party. Brian spent more on his music than he did on gifts for his grandmother. And we can never seem to get the family out the door on time for Sunday Mass. Family life is always dealing with unmet expectations and a lack of contentment. That can be a source of frustration, or a font of grace. It is our choice.

Here's the good news. Bringing wabi-sabi into your Advent/Christmas doesn't require money, training, or special skills. Now, here's the hard news. It takes a mind quiet enough to appreciate muted beauty, courage to see God in bareness, and a willingness to accept things the way they are.

Wabi-Sabi, and Christmas, depend on the ability to slow down, to shift the balance from shopping and wrapping to being, to appreciate rather than to perfect. Wabi-Sabi fuses the moods of gentle melancholy at the transience of things and a sigh of bittersweet contentment in the marks of that transience.

My mother taught me how to wrap packages to be works of art. My kids showed me that packages wrapped in Cub Food bags decorated with magic markers are works of love. I keep learning.

Practice wabi-sabi this week. Take out an old Christmas ornament from the back of the box. Or perhaps a chipped figure from a creche set. Use an old bowl as a receptacle for the mail. Place it carefully before you. Look deeply for the minute details that give it character. Explore it with your fingers. Remember the stories behind each crack and chip. If you don't remember, make some up. Let God speak through it.

(Rinkoski is the Green Bay Diocese's Family Life director.)

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