The Master Builders of Scandinavia (or ‘How My Church Was Finally Built’)

I have recently had the great pleasure to befriend a band of tiny craftsman, a family-clan of master builders long-forgotten by history, with whom I have developed a working relationship. They are a fiery folk, hale and hearty, but small. I first met them on the road to Inverness. They were sitting by the side of the road and looked to be a ragged and tattered bunch, much beleaguered from their journey thus far. Surprised to see them, so colorfully attired in their traditional garb, I stopped my car and made it my primary objective to refresh them with hot coffee and a muffin, which I just so happened to have on the back seat. As they ate and drank, I gathered the courage to inquire from where they had come, and to where they were travelling.

One of their kin replied that they were from the northern forests of Scandinavia, half-way betwixt the Baltic and the Berent Seas, and just ten kilometers shy of equidistant, as the owl flies, between the Norwegian and the White Seas. Another of their group interjected that they had arrived at our shores upon a small sailing vessel made by his-truly and his brother and several cousins. They were all now in the midst of fleeing their homeland for undisclosed reasons—but along the way, they had suffered a surprise shipwreck, wholly unexpected, which was the reason they were now traveling by land, in search of a new home.

As they made their way through my muffin, I decided to ask the glaring question that most intrigued me, but the one I also feared might cause offence. “How is it that you all are so very small?” I asked. For none of them were taller than my shin, and I’d bet good money that none of them, even the tallest, could touch my kneecap on their tippy toes, nor even if they jumped with all their might.

A young lass stood proudly and exclaimed, “We sir, are The Podes! ‘People-Of-Diminutive & Exceptional-Stature’!”

“Oh yes, like Lilliputians!” I returned enthusiastically.

“No!” They all cried out in unison. Those are islanders from the South Pacific. We’re Podes from Finland!”

I considered this silently for a moment. I had never heard of such a people. “Fascinating! So you’re all…Podes. Okay. And what will you do now?”

“Vitta, sir.” The girl answered. “That’s our surname, I’m Analie. Analie Vitta! We’re carpenters, masons, blacksmiths, and painters, anything you like. We build churches. That’s what we’ll do.”

I was astounded. Church builders, I never would have guessed. Maybe doll-houses, but nothing quite so grand, or so large. “Fantastic! I’ve always dreamt myself of building a church. That was my dream, I would love to build a church. Though I never thought I might.” I answered.

“Then you shall build one with us!” They declared as one, with a raising of their mugs and a cheer.

I was flattered. I did in fact have a design for a church that I had created in my earlier years, and secretly, I had always hoped to bring that design out from the world of mere fantasy, out into the wide world of reality. Perhaps they could build my church. I wanted to ask, but sheepishly I kept my hope hidden, deciding to wait for a future moment to expose my secret to them.

After coffee and muffin, I invited them home and set them up in our spare room. When my wife came home from work, she was as surprised as I had been, when she first saw them—about twenty or so little people tucked into our guest bed. They were charming and great conversationalists, even considering English was not their native tongue. They won her over, though later that night she asked me quietly, how long they planned to stay. She was dismayed to hear it might be indefinitely. But she cheered up when I suggested they might build the fence I had never gotten around to, and that we may even ask them to remodel the master bathroom.

Early the next morning we awoke to the sound of our dogs barking. We peered out the back window and saw the whole of them already hard at work. Some were cutting branches from our trees and others were stripping the fallen twigs of their bark. Our dogs pressed their noses against the glass and looked intently at the industrious group as they labored. Already, in one corner of the yard they had a large pile of pebbles gathered, near which one bearded gentleman was crushing lime, adding water and adding the pebbles to create a strong concrete. Just then a group of young men returned from the woods behind our yard dragging several old planks of wood which they immediately went to work on, cleaning off the dirt, and scraping away the outer shell to reveal a very pleasant-colored wood underneath. They stacked the newly minted lumber in rows, organized by dimension and length. Our fire pit had been loaded with logs and a large fire was now burning, into which crucibles filled with metal gathered from who knows where, were boiling and several men were pouring out their contents into molds, creating nails, hinges, and other fasteners, connectors and chains.

It was an extremely impressive show and the four of us, me and my wife and our two dogs, looked on with amazement; though I feared it was hunger our dogs had in their eyes. “No Fritz, Rocco, these are not for eating.” I scolded them preemptively. These are people, we don’t eat them, understand?” They cocked their heads attentively, and then glanced out the window. “Not for eating,” I repeated. They looked up at me sheepishly and I knew they understood me. So we went out to greet our new visitors and I felt confident our boys wouldn’t attempt a quick bite. In fact, it turned out both our dogs were rather frightened by the little people, and preferred to keep a safe distance.

Mid-morning they took a break. My wife brought out coffee, their new favorite drink, and a muffin for them to share. Back home in Finland they drank nettle tea, which was a staple. Sometimes they added pine needles, or spruce in the proper season, when the needles are young and tender and sweet. And for the occasional pick-me-up they swore by birch-bark and peppermint which they ground up into a fine powder and sprinkled over the tea like we would do with cinnamon.

We sat down with them around the fire, and our dogs sat close beside us while warily watching our tiny visitors milling about. Aari Vitta, Analie’s older brother, tossed two morsels of bacon across the fire, one to Fritz and one to Rocco, and they devoured the little snacks eagerly. After that, our dogs viewed our new friends much more favorably. Where he got the bacon, I had no idea. I overheard Analie speaking with her mother about getting more eggs, they would need the yolks to mix with their pigments before they could begin work on the icons for the new church. She was the iconographer of the group, she and her mother who had originally taught her the craft. Though now, at the age of sixteen, Analie had already far exceeded her mother in ability. Her younger brother, Armas and their second-cousin Eero both chimed in excitedly, saying they knew where to get eggs, they had discovered chickens earlier in the morning, in a coop not far away, and they could show us where to find them! Their mother agreed, but reminded them that they aren’t thieves, and they’d leave something of value in return for the eggs they took.

So off we went in search of eggs: Analie, her mother, the two boys, and me with our two dogs. Patty, my wife, returned inside to clean up after the morning snack and to track down a plastic bag that someone requested to use as a tarp. At the mention of the word, ‘chickens’ both Fritz and Rocco grew very excited, and Fritz led the way, though he had no idea where he was going and needed to be called back to the correct direction on several occasions. The chickens were in a coop behind our neighbor’s house which wasn’t a long journey. As we entered the yard, Fritz caught the scent and ran barking excitedly after the chickens. Rocco, with much smaller legs, followed as best he could, with his tail held proudly in the air and waving back and forth behind him as he ran.

We gathered up two well-shaped eggs and Paivi, their mother, pulled from one of her many pockets a beautifully knit wool cap, which she lovingly placed beside the nest where we found the eggs. “We’ll leave that for them, it’s a fair trade, in truth they got the better of it. Back home this cap would be worth a half-dozen eggs.” And I believed her, as I peered down with interest at the finely crafted hat. Though I was hard-pressed to imagine how my neighbor might actually use the miniscule thing. Perhaps he could wear it as a finger-warmer, by pulling it over his pinky, or maybe his ring-finger, but certainly not his thumb. It would never fit, not without permanently stretching the little cap and ruining it.

When we arrived back in our yard the crew were all busy working. I was curious to see the progress so I walked up to one of the elders who clearly was running the show, and asked him how things were coming along. “Good. Good. Very good.” He replied while continuing to scrutinize the activities taking place all around us. I asked him how they all knew what to do, with no plans to follow. And I followed that question up with another, hoping to discover what my role was going to be in all of this. He told me to hold out my hands, and he inspected them both closely while laughing and shaking his head. “Not a callous to be seen! Those are the hands of a dreamer, not a worker. You’ll watch!” But, I protested. I let him clearly know I wanted to help. “Don’t you fret, be at ease my oversized friend. You have a very important part to play. We’re using your church design, don’t you know?!”

I was shocked, and pleasantly surprised. “But how did you know about that? I wanted to tell you, but hadn’t gotten around to it.”

“Your plans are hanging on the wall of your office. I made copies last night. See!” He pointed at a stack of tiny papers on a nearby rock. Peering closely I could see they were indeed my designs, but so tiny I could barely discern them. “I hand-drew them all myself last night,” he continued with a wave of his hand. Before I could reply he held his hand up, “Shush!” He said curtly. “Do you smell that? Wood preservative. Our secret recipe.” There was a pungent but pleasant smell filling the air; something like creosote but with a hint of pine. “Reminds me of pine-tar soap.” I remarked. “Mmmm,” he sniffed deeply. “I love the smell of wood preservative in the morning!”

He turned to me quickly and looked up into my eyes. I think. It is hard to tell what exactly he was gazing at from way down there; but I’m fairly certain he was staring me down, and about to make an important point. “And you should be happy! We’re using quarter-scale for this church. We never do that. We’re exclusively metric you should know; but it’s a concession to you. Your plans are all in imperial.” He rolled his tiny eyes and snorted derisively. He waved his hand dismissively, “It’s fine. You’re welcome. We’ll make do.”

However, I was disappointed. I had been of the impression that they would be building an actual full-scale church, and my life-long dream of creating a real church would come to fruition. Was this then to truly be the fulfillment of my dream, or only a partial, scaled fulfillment of it? I pondered this as we stood beside the fire, as very tiny men poured out glowing hot metal into forms, to create sections of a circular chandelier which would hang over the central crossing of the new church. I stared at the red, molten iron and considered this turn of events and what it meant for my dream. To my right, in the distance, sparks of brilliant white light showered the ground, while a little man welded two sections of the chandelier, which had cooled and were now ready for assembly. Where on earth did they find a MIG welder?! I was dumbfounded by, and admired their immense resourcefulness.

Over the course of the next six to eight weeks work on the church moved along swiftly. The Podes wasted little labor, and even less materials; they were very efficient, and yet they seemed almost careless as they labored. But as I think about it, they weren’t so much careless as they were effortless. They all worked together with an easy joyfulness that diminished setbacks and erased annoyances and frustrations which might have gotten the better of many of us larger folk. That popular saying: “Don’t sweat the small stuff” came to my mind often as I would watch them working together. And they certainly didn’t. For the Podes it was all small stuff, quite literally. That thought made me chuckle. And they seemed to know when something matters and when it doesn’t. For instance, they gave concentrated focus on making sure the building foundation was square and plumb, since everything else follows from this first, most consequential step in the building process. But they gave precious little attention to small errors in cutting, or smudges to finishes and things of that sort. For example, one afternoon two cousins were working on setting the top plates on several exterior walls, they were using dimensional lumber for this, as you might expect. It soon became clear that the wall heights were off, with several walls slightly taller than the others, so that the plates running along the tops wouldn’t match up properly. The cousins stopped their work and stood silently contemplating the situation. I’ve seen this scene play out before, on human jobsites, and it is often turns ugly, with yelling, cursing and stomping about. But not on the Podes jobsite. As time went by, the two cousins were soon joined by three brothers, an uncle and a grandma. The small cohort stared at the walls, disheveled and out of proportion, and one of them began to smile, and then another let out a guffaw; soon the whole group were laughing together, and slapping one another on the backs, and commenting upon the stroke of good luck this mishap presented. One of the brothers grabbed a round log and tossed it up on the taller wall, another brother grabbed a longer log, but slightly larger in diameter, and tossed his up on the shorter wall.  The larger diameter on the shorter wall made up the difference, and the smaller diameter log on the taller wall came level with the other and evened the walls out. Soon everyone was grabbing logs of various diameters and lengths and setting them in place along the tops of the entire perimeter of the building. When they had finished, the building now had a beautiful architectural feature not originally intended; the logs became the upper edge of all the exterior walls, lending the building a natural and organic beauty that it had previously lacked when using the dimensional lumber alone.

I called out to the workers; “I thought you had made a mistake! But I guess I was mistaken!” I grinned.

“No! No mistake. Just happy accidents!” One of the brothers called back to me.

“Ha! You sound like Bob Ross!” I laughed. “You know who that is? A famous painter, he always said that very same thing!” And then it struck me suddenly, I don’t know how I hadn’t seen it before, but all three of those brothers looked the splitting image of Mr Ross, only much, much smaller. They all had same Afro of curly reddish-brown hair, and the complementary beard. All carried the same happy-go-lucky smile. “You guys even look like him!” I exclaimed. “Maybe I can call you Bob, Bobby and Bobert!”

I found that mildly amusing; but you would never believe the effect it had on the entire group, but especially the three brothers. They all erupted in laughter and began pointing at one another. “You’re Bobert!” “No I’m Bob, you’re Bobert!” “I’m Bobby!” “Bobby! Ha!” They all erupted in laughter again, one even falling to the ground while holding his side. “Bobert!!!” “Ha!!!” The grandma was in tears, and several additional Podes ran over to inquire what was so funny, and after they had been filled in, they too erupted in laughter and added their own insights, pointing to each brother in turn: “He’s Bobby. That one is Bobert!!!” “Ha, ha, ha!” “And you’re Bob.”

“Bob, bob, bob.” The cousins sang out rhythmically while beating on their bellies like a drum. A little boy and girl marched grandly around in a circle, as the cousins jovially continued to sing. Eventually, the uproar died down and they all went back to work. It was a delightful explosion of merriment, wholly unexpected and seemingly out of proportion to the inherent humor of my original statement. But that made it all the more charming. And I reflected upon this joyfully, again and again throughout the day, as I recalled their surprising reactions.

As their work with me drew closer to completion I inquired where they intended to go next once they were finished building our church. “We are always moving towards Eden,” one of the older women replied. “Ours is a journey, constant and ever in the direction of paradise.”

Analie Vitta, the young iconographer, chimed in and further explained, “We build churches out of wood and stone, it is true, but more importantly we build churches within our own hearts, churches not made by hands, but by the spirit. This also is true.”

“All things must be done and made from the heart,” the old woman continued. “This is the way of the Podes, this is Podalism, and how we manifest our faith in the God of all, the Christ who saves us.”

“What exactly is Podalism?” I asked.

The old man who sat next to the woman who had been speaking up to now, cleared his throat and answered, “Podalism is our way of life, my friend. It is the essence of good living, of good design, and of good creation. It is Paradise Oriented Design. Podalism. All things done with love, everything made with good thoughts in our mind, and with nothing negative, all actions made with the inner energy and motivation of obedience and humility. We design and build towards Paradise, always towards God’s kingdom. That is the only way. Perfection is not in being perfect, but in loving God; and beauty, the highest form, is not in the absence of imperfection, but in the love of imperfection. Love covers all things and makes them beautiful.”

“I understand.” I was impressed and moved by what he said. It made me think of something else I knew a little about so I made a comparison, “Imperfect design, beauty in imperfection, these things make me think of Wabi-Sabi, is it like that?”

“No!” They all cried out in unison. That is an aesthetic philosophy from Japan. Podalism is rooted in love for God, and trust in his guidance. Look at the birds, how they build their nests, or the beavers and how they build their lodges and dams. Look at any of the animals and how they follow the patterns set down by our creator. Podalism is the same, it is our loving relationship to the material world, and our humble and receptive manner of living and creating in response to it.”

I considered this silently for a moment. “Fascinating! I think I would like to live like you Podes.”

“Anyone can,” Analie Vitta answered. “Just as you please, sir. Follow your dream of building churches, and never stop building the church of your heart.”

~FS

Several photos of The Podes completed church:

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