“A Season of Little Sacraments: Christmas Commotion, Advent Grace” Advent book review

 

Guest review by Nancy Hoch

“Whatever our religious affiliations or lack of them, we practice being the people that the season asks us to be.”

These are lines from a more than memorable little Christmas book produced by one of our own right here in Pocatello.  Author Susan Swetnam of Idaho State University’s English Department has produced a number of thought-provoking books, including this one.  She is a devout Catholic, and though her book deals with the season of Advent as celebrated by Catholics, much of the book will have meaning to any caring and committed Christian.

The title is “A Season of Little Sacraments: Christmas Commotion, Advent Grace.”  As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints preparing for Christmas each year, a title that would be clearer for those of my faith might be “A Season of Little Wonders: Christmas Commotion, Christmas Peace.”  This slight change in meaning aside, for non-Catholics, the importance of this warmly-written book is the overall message it conveys.  As readers, we can feel the approach of that special day with the author—which includes many new and exciting ways to truly celebrate that wondrous event.

The author takes us through poignant reflections in her own life, especially those dealing with the Christmases after the passing of her husband.  She writes of her personal growth as she experiences greater devotion, the practicing of more patience, and the writing of a non-traditional Christmas letter.  There are delightful ideas on activities such as hosting a Sunday afternoon wreath-making party with close friends and also ways she prepares for an annual Christmas gathering at her home.

There are thoughts on the simplicity Christmas lights can bring and even the act of de-cluttering her pantry.  That particular day-long activity becomes symbolic of the clutter that can rob any of us of deeper meaning if we allow ourselves to over-prepare at Christmas.  She shares fresh ideas on how to make, or select, truly meaningful gifts throughout the year and other thoughts that help us to truly “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” as it is sung each year in Handel’s magnificent oratorio, “Messiah.”

This book gives honest insights into the frustrations and temptations that can steal from us the joy of what should be the most meaningful day of the year.  We are led to truly make room in our homes and in our lives—room for the celebration of the coming of the savior into mortality.

Originally published in the Idaho State Journal, 26 Nov. 2016 “Pocatello Woman’s Christmas Book Gives Insights For All”

“A Season of Little Sacraments” by Susan Swetnan is available here.

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Excerpt: A conversation with an atheist in the afterlife

Hearts of the Fathers – Chapter 11

More than a hundred students looked on as the Professor introduced me to the class. It appeared that even a few faculty members had dropped in to hear my tale.

“Begin with the moment of your death on Earth,” he said.

I told my story, and whenever he felt I was sugar coating things, he pressed me for detail.

“Few people in this realm have been to the slum worlds,” he said.

Despite his prodding, I left out much of my experience in Hell and on Earth, not wanting to relive the horrors. And I didn’t want to feel like an ex-convict warning school children to just say no to drugs.

When I came to my rescue, I nearly used the word “angels” to describe my Guardian and his attendants but was embarrassed to use the term in this environment.

“It looks like you have met the Shiners,” said the professor with a laugh. “They must be getting desperate if they’re milling around in the slums to look for new recruits.” The students chuckled.

“Shiners?” I said, surprised that he had used the same term as Raven.

“They’re part of a powerful religious cult. They live in a different realm, but they come here looking for new recruits, luring easily-duped people with the promise of a better life in a better world. Basically the same kind of religious garbage that was sold in the old life. Those who were most religious during their life on Earth are the most susceptible to their evangelizing. But at least you didn’t get sucked in, to your credit.”

“But they helped me,” I said. “They were there when I needed them.”

“Sure, as long as you buy into what they’re selling,” said the Professor.

“But what about religion and God and all that?”

It was a risk to go there. Whenever religion came up in class in the old world, he would put on a mock attitude of patience and restraint, as if, were he less of a gentleman, he would be tempted to let loose a tirade and put such nonsense to rest immediately, but would instead patiently explain just one more time the folly of the student’s question. Most of the students learned what kind of questions to ask and what kind not to ask.

“I mean,” I continued, “here we are, still alive after our death on Earth. Weren’t they wrong, the atheists—or what did you call them—the scientific materialists? Didn’t they get it wrong?”

The class looked at me with a mixture of humor and anticipation, as if to say, this is going to be good.

“The materialists were wrong?” replied the professor with mock surprise. “Well let’s think about that. Look around and tell me what you see. If it’s not matter and energy, tell me what it is. Touch your face. Are you a ghost? A dream?”

“But we’re still alive after our death,” I said, trying to recover. “Doesn’t that mean we must have souls and all that?” I was unguarded. These questions, unlike those I asked in college, were sincere, born of genuine confusion rather than a desire to sound smart. “You told me yourself the promise of an afterlife was to pacify the uneducated and oppressed, to keep them from revolting and trying to improve their life on Earth.”

“Well,” he said. “I was both right and wrong, just as you are in this moment. Yes, consciousness somehow continues, and we have some excellent theories to explain the physics behind it. The mind we developed on Earth somehow forms a copy of itself in a parallel dimension. So we keep going, for now. No need to conclude that the soul is eternal or comes from God.”

“But it might,” I said.

He only laughed. “You’re new here. You don’t understand how far we’ve come in our understanding of the universe. Where is this Heaven that ‘might’ exist? Where is that God who sits on His golden throne answering everyone’s questions and solving everyone’s problems? Nowhere to be found. No harps or angels or Jesus to make it all better.

“We still answer our own questions and solve our own problems through scientific inquiry. Our research continues to point to a rational, natural universe, although admittedly more complex than we realized on Earth. When you dig deeper into nature, you don’t find super-nature. You just find more nature, matter and energy just like before. Our knowledge is still empirical, observable, and repeatable. The scientific method applies here as much as it did in the old life, even more.”

I recognized the old fire and certainty in his voice, a mixture of defiance and intelligence. Just listening to him made me want to be on his side. His tone dared you to disagree with him.

“Besides,” he continued. “How certain are you that you are experiencing a life after your death on Earth?”

“I died in a car wreck,” I said.

“Can you be quite certain of that? What evidence do you have of your physical death?”

This was another of his techniques I remembered from college. It was one I loved very much, especially when he applied it to what I thought of as less-intelligent students. He had a way of taking the most certain and obvious truths of our existence and turning them into problems. He could make someone doubt the very ground they walked upon.

I didn’t know how to answer. My existence was as real and obvious to me as anything I had known. I had a perfect recollection of all that had happened to me since my car wreck. But I had not, come to think of it, actually seen my dead body. I had not seen my funeral. Most of my post-death memories, though vivid, were more like a nightmare.

He let me puzzle over the question for a moment, then continued.

“There is a school of thought among some of our best minds here that asserts all of this is a dream. They believe their physical death has not actually occurred and that this is a coma-induced dream world. They believe their bodies are on life support in hospitals, and that eventually they will awaken back into their regular life, or their family will pull the plug, finally extinguishing their existence.

“Can you prove they are wrong? Can you prove to them they exist? Can you prove that you exist as a real entity beyond your supposed physical death on Earth? Maybe you survived that car wreck and you’re in a hospital right now, hooked up to life support.”

My mind was spinning, and I felt dizzy, like there was nothing to grasp on to. The thing I thought most certain—that my life had continued—was now in question. I could hear other students chuckling under their breath. Now I was the class dunce, paying the price for having said something stupid.

I was about to attempt Descartes’s famous “I think therefore I am” proposition, but I knew he had already thought of that and would have a ready response. I was done talking and wanted to dissolve into the anonymity of the class. If I were in a coma somewhere, this would have been a great time to wake up…or pull the plug.

“I guess I can’t prove anything,” I said, finally breaking the silence.

And then it came, the rescue, the counterargument that would show the issue was more complex than originally supposed. He wasn’t without mercy. He would hold students intellectually hostage, but he would eventually throw them a bone.

“The problem with that theory, of course, is that everyone who holds it believes they are the ones lying in the hospital bed in a coma, and that the rest of us are just props in their dream. To my mind, this is bad philosophy. We only have access to our own consciousness so it follows that we will be biased in favoring the reality of our own existence above others. We must take the facts as they are, and not fall into a solipsistic denial of reality on the one hand, or, on the other hand, strive for a supposed absolute reality in God.”

I was relieved, not only because he was moving on from my interrogation, but because assuming the reality of my existence was not as stupid as he first made it sound. Now I can see the only foolish thing I had done was invest the power to validate or invalidate my being in another person. I allowed him to set boundaries on what were and were not acceptable ways to pursue truth.

Now that I had been made a fool by his intellect, I decided never to be caught off guard again. I would redeem myself. He would see in me the intelligence he had once appreciated. I had grown intellectually soft after college, and even after my death my mind had dulled. I would work and prove myself, and he would not regret taking me in. I wanted him to see me as a peer worthy of real debate.

After the class, the Professor approached me and said, “I hope I didn’t come off as too harsh. I appreciate you having the guts to tell your story. You’re lucky you made it, you know. And I don’t just mean out of that pit. It looks like the Shiners are on to you, so you aren’t in the clear yet. Don’t let them get into your mind.”

I wasn’t worried. I had found a new home and wasn’t looking for another. The University captured my imagination, and I felt like I could spend eons there. But the Professor knew me better than I knew myself. I had been infected with the God virus, and my symptoms were already showing.

 

Read more here.

This is the first chapter of the exciting new spiritual novel Hearts of the Fathers–a story of one man’s journey out of Hell to discover a universe grounded in God’s love. 

Fleeing from a deadly head on collision, a man descends into a hellish realm to hide from Heaven’s beckoning light. God can rescue him from the darkness, but escaping Hell is only the beginning. The greatest test will come as he confronts his broken relationships and sees himself and others in truth. 

 In a journey through spirit worlds where beliefs, pain, and addictions continue to limit the progress of departed souls, Hearts of the Fathers takes on the critical question: How can we overcome the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual blocks that prevent us from reaching our God-given potential? 

 Inspired by the research of hundreds of near-death experiences, this book will transform the way you view spiritual growth. Available on Amazon here.