The joyful, transformational thought of Eternal Life has always kept Sanna Kauppinen – the dancing priest– going through thick and thin. In her job as a Finnish Lutheran pastor, she has had to find comforting words for the excruciating pain of parents in front of the premature death of a child, as well as to console elderly people in their daily solitude. But her faith has never hovered: she loves to be able to deliver the jubilant message of Christian Easter, a time of hurt and passion but also rebirth and ‘renaissance’, throughout the calendar year dancing heavenly on the tips of her toes.
Sanna Kauppinen is not your average pastor. Working in the parish of Joensuu in Finland, where four out of her five priest colleagues are women, she has faced some high brows, although only a few, in ecumenical religious circles. “Wearing red lipstick and high heels while dressed in my priest robe might be shocking to some foreign colleagues but to me, it is business as usual”, she explains.
Contrary to old-fashioned stereotypes, Sanna is a ‘dancing priest’ in her mid-forties who never gave up an inch of her love for sports. She wants to make sure that movement, dance and physical well-being are strongly present in the activities of her parish and being on the Sports Advisory Board of the Finnish Lutheran Church enabled her to promote the importance of sports at many levels of the society. Of course, Sanna fully thrives being at God’s service, “I have not once questioned my decision to become a priest, it is my true calling“, she solemnly states, but feels that transformation is important in all aspects and fields of evolving life.
For her, the Church as an employer and service provider also needs to be able to renew and reinvent itself as the society surrounding it is in constant change. For example, the fact that priests do not have regulated working hours continues to cause issues for employees with a family. Therefore, Sanna is part of a task force that aims to develop this aspect along with others and she feels empowered and inspired to be able to make a difference, as one piece of the puzzle that makes up the Finnish Lutheran Church.
Midlife transition with faith as a constant
As a single mom with two teenage children, she embraces the so-called ‘rush years’ wholeheartedly, juggling to find time for her passions, sports, reading and doing arts and crafts, while working fulltime and raising and being there for them. She doesn’t actively schedule in weekly ‘me-time’ but does make a full effort to find some when it feels necessary. “I think that our body is much wiser than the mind and it tells us what we need, if we only listen to it carefully,” Sanna states. She is used to moving and exercising and her body craves for it regularly. Compared to her youth days when she was a passionate and talented dancer and when force, speed and endorphins might have been top goals, she now looks for peace of mind, resilience and stability, even in physical exercise. “Doing things slowly and savouring them truly when I have a day or a moment off is now more important to me than ever before.”
Sanna looks at her past with no regrets. Even though there have been tough decisions to be taken and hard lessons to be learned, she knows every single thing happened to her for a reason. “Our lives are in God’s hands and He will give us the courage to face both storms and rainbows, if only we allow Him to guide us”, she says. Midlife wisdom has made her humbler, yet she desires to dare to be fully herself and explore and accept her own persona as well as the world around her, with the maturity of a 45-year-old, but the curiosity of a child. Through middle age, she is also learning to be less in control of everything and to take things as they come. “I have met several extraordinary and wise women who I admire. I pray that one day I can reach the same kind of inner peace and joy that comes from profound life experience and balance.” The vicar of Vaara-Karjala, Anne Angervo, is one of Sanna’s important, inspiring mentors. “Without her unconditional love and unwavering encouragement, I would not be where I am today, dancing in churches.”
Sanna’s Holy Mission
Sanna believes strong faith can be fundamental and even life-saving, especially in the transition periods like midlife. It can be the one constant, the North Star that guides us even through turbulent times when we perhaps question some of our life choices. It forms a solid ground under our feet from which to safely take off on our wings, carrying us even through difficulties, suffering and defeat. “Believing that Jesus Christ, Son of God, conquered death is a huge comfort and gives perspective to all aspects of human life, from difficulties to celebrations, from deep suffering to elevated joy”, Sanna ponders. She also urges people to seek for the courage to make imperative changes in their lives through Bible study. “I have always found the answers to my questions in the Holy Book”, she admits. For Sanna, at the end of turbulent times – if and when we are ready to question and shake our status quo – there is always a rewarding sense of serenity and achievement, just like in the Easter scene. “The Resurrection and suffering of Jesus changed the world permanently, there is hope and there always will be, because of Easter Night”, she explains.
Her faith in God, that she feels is like the ebb and flow of an ocean, constantly altering and maturing, gave her also the strength to keep pursuing her mission despite the worldwide pandemic of Covid-19. Sanna has sung with other priests in the courtyard of a retirement home and she even celebrated her first baptism via Zoom at the end of March. Being isolated from the others can be hard and lonely and a smile and a wave through the window is not the same thing as a physical embrace. However, praying, meditating and doing physical exercise can help ease tension and take our minds off the crisis. “Prayer and faith in God can give us the kind of peace and tranquillity that the earthly world never will. Every time you pray, you give your worries to God, he promised to carry all our loads on his shoulders”, Sanna reminds.
And, at last, there is always humour. The dancing priest strongly believes in the healing power of a good, belly-shaking laugh. It can unite enemies, relax in a moment of stress and give us energy, even grant a longer life, according to many studies. Sanna loves to play pranks on her family members, friends and colleagues and is an ardent story and joke teller. “Having a good sense of humour is a blessing and has saved me in many situations”, she smilingly adds, in the midst of a few dance steps. “You should never grow too old to joke, laugh and have a ball, for life with a grumpy attitude is not half as much fun.”