Sunday, January 08, 2006

Kristin Lavransdatter

For the past few weeks I have lived in 14th-century Norway, sharing the life of Kristin Lavransdatter, the eponymous heroine of Sigrid Undset's Nobel-prizewinning, 1200-page saga. I first read the novel in my 20s, nearly half-a-century ago, and was deeply moved by it. Now I am older than was Kristin when she died of the Black Death. Like Kristin, I have children, grandchildren and a long marriage. When I first read the novel, as youth man, it all seemed a thrilling fantasy. Now, it rings with the truth of a life lived.

Surely, part of the reason I so enjoyed the novel then and now is that it is intensely Roman Catholic. Norway in the early 14th century was Catholic, having been brought into the pan-European fold by sainted King Olav in the 11th century. In Kristin's time, the country's former paganism was not far beneath the surface of Christianity. At times of great distress, Kristin's contemporaries (and at least once Kristin herself) turn first to God, His Holy Mother and the saints, then, when all else fails, to the magic of the former pagan deities who were still thought to reside in forest glens and mountain halls.

Only a few years after publishing the novel in 1920 -- to instant acclaim -- Undset became herself a convert to the Roman Catholic faith.

What is it that distinguishes Catholic from Protestant Christianity?

If I may generalize:

Catholicism is a faith of hermits and solitary pilgrims. The archetypal Catholic saint lies prostrate in silent solitude and candlelight before the crucifix, the symbol of a God-man who suffered and died alone. The Catholic drama of sin and salvation plays out in the privacy of one's own soul; every seeker walks alone through the valley of darkness, hoping to find the light.

Catholicism remains even today deeply medieval -- even pagan -- in its rites, arts, and institutions. Catholic liturgy is intimately connected to the annual and diurnal solar cycles, or at least it was when I was a child. The monastic cloister with its fixed round of prayer and rule of obedience to proper authority is the paradigm of Catholic faith.

By contrast, Protestant Christianity is a faith of the new 16th-century European middle-class. It is a religion of collective worship, of daylight and urban clatter, of the entrepreneurial spirit. The Protestant's journey toward salvation is played out in the marketplace; virtue and sin are a matter for God's ledger book. The paradigmatic virtues of Protestantism are thrift, industry, tidiness, and collective attention to numbered hymnals and the Book of Common Prayer. The only proper authority is God Himself, as he speaks through Scriptures.

So yes, Kristin Lavransdatter is a Catholic novel, as I am Catholic to the soles of my feet, although I have long since lapsed theologically from that faith (and every institutional faith) into a robust agnosticism. Never mind: I still walk the walk with Kristin. I share her love of the natural world, her sense that the world is shot through with powers we don't begin to understand. When Kristin struggles with her Latin prayers in a dark recess of the cathedral at Nidaros, barely knowing what the formulaic words signify, only that they are a kind of magical incantation, I am with her, because I know, as she knows, that for all the learning, honor, law, and material prosperity that makes our lives tolerable, we live in a world that is deep beyond our knowing, and profoundly worthy of our reverence and awe.

And I will say this too, controversially I'm sure. Although everlasting life is an article of Catholic faith, immortality looms much less large in the Catholic sensibility than in Protestantism. We Catholics are dreadfully attached to this world of water, wax, bread and wine, flesh and blood, incense, chrism, light and darkness -- in short, all those things the Reformists dismissed as idolatrous. Hence the doctrine of the resurrection of the body; for the Catholic, everlasting life will only be tolerable if we can feel the thump of blood and the pangs of carnality. When Kristin dies, Ulf Haldorsson, who like so many other men loved her, regrets that he had not been more forthright in acting on his desire, even though to do so might have cost him his immortal soul. The priest Sira Eiliv says to him: "So it's futile to regret a good deed, Ulf, for the good you have done cannot be taken back; even if all the mountains should fall, it would still stand." And that is immortality enough for the Catholic.

So I share much with Kristin, by virtue of my early religious training. But there is much that is different too between Kristin and me -- not least of which is the security that has come with empirical science.

Kristin lived at a time when 50 was a fine old age. Death for mother or infant at childbirth was common; no modern woman would want to endure the agony that Kristin suffers with her first birthing. Vagaries of weather meant hunger or full bellies. A nick from a knife could mean sepsis and death. Men went about armed, and a fatal blow of an ax or sword might be occasioned by minor slight. The Black Death, when it came, was an all-consumming holocaust.

Make no mistake, the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment may not have changed human nature, but they utterly transformed the circumstances of our lives. Perhaps the most telling difference between Kristin's world and our own is this: For Kristin, every event is the handiwork of a personal God. Of the Black Death, she thinks: "This was the plague -- God's punishment for the secret hardheartedness of every human being, which only God the Almighty could see." Every soul is corrupted by sin, even though only God can see it.

We who embrace Enlightenment values believe that human nature has been shaped by billions of years of evolution, that we are each of us capable of virtue and evil, that physical and mental illness have natural causes, and that collectively and as individuals we are able to order our lives as we see fit. Nature might still smite us with apparently arbitrary tribulations, but innocence or guilt have nothing to do with it. No personal deity sits on high sending thunderbolts or blessings our way. If we choose to be good, we do so not because we anticipate everlasting bliss or fear hellfire, but because altruistic genes and common sense compel us to do so.

Blades play an important role in Undset's novel; a lot of hacking goes on. But the blade that separates the modern secular humanist from Kristin's world is Occam's Razor. With it we have pared away a vast overlay of spirits and demons, elf maidens and mountain kings, miracles and supernatural manifestations of every sort. We have replaced those arbitrary forces with genes, germs, and natural law -- and perhaps a dose of quantum indeterminacy -- all very much a part of this world of beauty, mystery, joy and sorrow. In such a world we make our pilgrimage, out of darkness into light, never forgetting that our faith too -- like Kristin's -- must be judged ultimately not by pope, bishops, priests or councils, not by holy books or ancient traditions, but by the greater happiness of humankind.

Near the beginning of the novel, a holy man, Brother Edvin, says to Kristin: "There is no one, Kristin, who does not love and fear God. But it is because our hearts are divided between love for God and fear of the Devil, and love for this world and this flesh, that we are miserable in life and death. For if a man knew no yearning for God and God's being, then he would thrive in Hell, and we alone would not understand that he had found his heart's desire. Then the fire would not burn him if he did not long for coolness, and he would not feel the pain of the serpent's bite if he did not long for peace." All of the material accouterments of modernity do not necessarily make us happier than people of Kristin Lavransdatter's time, but they do make it easier to live in this world and this flesh. What we share with Kristin and Brother Edvin is a longing, always, for coolness and peace.

Further Reading

This time, I read Kristin Lavransdatter in the handsome Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition paperback, translated by Tina Nunnally. I originally read the book in Charles Archer's translation from the 1920s. I much prefer the new one. Archer tried to evoke something of a medieval way of expression; Nunnally opts for a sparer, less archiac style.

Archer: "This snow will scarce lie,' Ulf said. "No, 'twill melt, belike, before evening," answered the priest.

Nunnally: "This snow won't last," said Ulf. "No, it will melt away before evening," replied the priest.

My friend Bob K.made me the gift of Andrew Lytle's little reading of Undset's novel, called, simply, Kristin, published by the University of Missuori Press.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.