Kristin Lavransdatter is enjoying a renewed readership. Last year’s Audible release of the epic Scandanavian trilogy as a low cost audio odyssey has certainly helped. It’s worth the time to make this magical masterpiece a slow read, letting medieval Norway sink into your bones while you grow your own soul by following Kristin’s characters.
If you’re curious about the life of the Nobel Laureate and Nazi opponent who created Kristin, last year’s three-part series, Fascinating Facts about Sigrid Undset was written just for you. They’re among Sparrowfare’s most visited posts.
But a gem of an Undset essay collection can take you even closer to her heart. Stages on the Road is a soul-stretcher of another kind: an inspiring look at the saints Undset loved, an offering of her views on the role of women in society and a heartfelt defense of the Nobel Laureate’s faith as a convert to Catholicism.
This was Undset’s real passion, and Stages on the Road reveals it in remarkable ways.
As Elizabeth Scalia writes in the forward to this passionate little volume, Stages on the Road is “a thumping good read.”
When Sigrid Undset wrote about her faith, she applied the intellect of a woman who had searched intensely before arriving. Undset entered the Catholic Church in 1924, a time when there were only four native-born priests in her Norwegian homeland. Once she embraced Christ as she discovered him through researching the saints, she gave her whole heart to his service.
The novelist was born in 1882, just before the turbulent turn of a century that would explode not only in two world wars, but in a myriad of philosophical “isms” still advancing today–each built on the hope that humankind can, independent of God, heal society’s wounds and create something like paradise on earth.
Undset’s progressive parents raised her without religion, steeping her in literature and history. Her father was a well-known archeologist who died when Undset was 11. She attended a progressive school.
In adolescence, the time when many teenagers from religious households question the faith of their parents, Undset questioned the “liberalism, feminism, nationalism, socialism [and] pacisfism” offered her as a student of secularism.
That makes for an interesting twist in the story of a woman who by rights should be considered a feminist hero. While discerning the strengths of each of these “isms,” Undset came to realize “they would not work, because they refused to consider human nature as it really is.”
While Sigrid Undset was gaining a reputation as a writer of compassion and insight, she fell in love with a married man (whom she eventually married and later divorced). During that time she traveled to Rome and researched the medieval roots of her homeland for the works (Kristin Lavransdatter and The Master of Hestviken) that would garner her the coveted Nobel.
Undset’s research brought the lives of the saints to her attention, and she would remain captivated by these “strange people” for the rest of her life.
“If you desire to know the truth about anything, you always run the risk of finding it,” she would explain about the way this discovery affected her. “[I]n a way…we prefer to seek and keep our illusions.”
But I had ventured too near the abode of truth in my researches about ‘God’s friends,’ as saints are called in the Old Norse texts of Catholic times. So I had to submit.
Undset explains her conversion in large part by returning to the question of why humans, no matter how well intended, cannot heal the wounds of society.
In her introduction to Stages on the Road, she notes that since she had pondered that problem for a very long time, she was startled by what she found when she researched “God’s friends.”
Saints were the only ones whose lives clearly demonstrated another answer existed. It was found in the Love behind every risk those strange saints dared to take. It was found in Christ.
In Stages on the Road Undset takes us to that Love through a striking sampling of famous and lesser known lives. Each vignette sparkles with Undset’s own gems of insight, revealing the real passion of her life.
Concerning Ramón Lull of Palma–philosopher, logician, Franciscan tertiary–Undset goes straight to our need for humility. “Growth in humility means an intensification of this acknowledgment: God works, and we are His work–our works are a manipulation of material, which has been given us–every scrap of it, with tools which we have received as a gift.”
Ramón turned away from his flighty adventures and his petty worldly ambition, and accepted God’s invitation to the mighty adventure and the love that has no bounds.
In Angela de Merici, another third order Franciscan, Undset found a “champion of the woman’s movement.” “The people of the Middle Ages were never crazy enough to try to get round the difficulties by pretending that men and women do not differ to any appreciable extent,” she states, noting that long before the advent of secular feminism, the Church was providing women with options for both service and leadership.
Undset then contemplates martyrdom’s mysteries by examining two Catholic martyrs of the English Reformation. In “Robert Southwell, S.J.: Priest, Poet, Martyr,” Undset’s writing rises as she describes a man of stunning literary ability whose most beautiful act was his imitation of Christ in death.
His Christmas poems have a dark golden luster of their own. And there is an unforgettable power in his image of Christ–the eternal God who unwearied through all eternity supports the earth on his finger-tip and encloses all creation in the hollow of his hand–but in his humanity breaks down and falls beneath the weight of a single person’s sins….Southwell was…hung up by the wrists against a wall, so that he could barely touch the floor with the tips of his toes.
And when writing of Margaret Clitherow, the convert housewife crushed to death for the crime of hiding priests whose service the Crown had forbidden, Undset returns to the priests who defied the Elizabethan ban:
The fresh, sportsmanlike spirit which the English martyrs preserved while playing hide-and-seek with death day after day…ought to appeal to everything that impels us to hero worship….[It] is fairly certain that their story would be known to many more…if their last words had been something different and more popular than the name of Jesus.
“Margaret,” Undset writes, “would offer herself as a sacrifice, praying that she too, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, might be made of like nature with Christ.”
Stages on the Road concludes with two spiritual reflections, one (“To St. James”) on the sins of the tongue and the other (“Reply to a Parish Priest”) a plea for a muscular faith pitting strength of certitude against any attempt to water down ancient truth: “Against the commandment of Christianity to seek first the kingdom of God, human nature will always assert its right to seek first its own.”
A riveting reminder, that. And rooted in the real passion of Kristin Lavrandsdatter’s creator. After her conversion, Sigrid Undset became a lay Dominican. Her final book, published after her death, is a biography of St. Catherine of Siena.
How badly we need the saints.
And passion like Sigrid Undset’s.
Reads & Other Seeds
Undset “urges the faithful onward, and onward still, through brambles of history and passing modern trends, toward a Truth that is startlingly alive.” Read Elizabeth Scalia’s complete forward to Stages on the Road here. But do get the book. Read Stages on the Road.
Fr. Michael Rennier offers Five Reasons Sigrid Undset Should Be on Your Daughter’s Reading List. Worth sharing with everyone who has young women under the wing.
This conversation (“the mystery of motherhood and why everyone is worthy of being seen”) with Alanna Boudreau on the Love Good podcast is astounding! Literary and lyrical…have you become a Love Good patron yet? The other day I received the coolest bonus package ever from them, including a Love Good coffee mug, 2 CD’s, art and a book of Rilke’s poetry! Read Boudreau’s “The Muscular Soul of Rainer Maria Rilke” on Love Good’s website here. LOVE GOOD CULTURE. Don’t miss out on this beautiful movement.
Photo by Thomas Hafeneth on Unsplash. Sigrid Undset as a Young Woman via Wikipedia.
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4 thoughts on “Sigrid Undset’s Real Passion Revealed”
I hope more English-speaking folks learn about Sigrid Undsets’ life and writing.
Her approach to the Church reminds me, in general outline, of mine. Assorted “isms” were in play during my youth – the 1960s – including folks who didn’t seem to have gotten the memo that the 19th century was over. Oh, well. My appreciation of the Saints came later in the process – – – and that’s another topic.
About “isms” and “human nature as it really is” – – –
I suspect that many ‘God isn’t relevant’ attitudes come at least partly from a desire to avoid seeing what humanity really is, what each of us are: “little less than a god,” as Psalms 8:6 puts it.
The ‘Victorian’ attitude that we’re lords of creation, absolute monarchs of the world – – – made a mess we’re still cleaning up. But it had a small element of truth in it. We actually are in charge here: with the dominion we were assigned. But we don’t own the place, and “little less than a god” isn’t God – putting it mildly.
I see our position as more like stewards or shop supervisors: in charge, with the authority to maintain and make changes when necessary – – – and ultimately responsible to the owner. That, I think, is scary. But it’s part of our job. And that’s another topic. As well as one of my hobby horses. 😉
I hope more readers discover her too. Fr. Stanley Jaki wrote a book that’s out of print now “Sigrid Undset’s Quest for Truth.” He could read Norwegian so he had an advantage! But much of what I learned about her conversion I learned from his paintaking look at original documents. Undset was remarkably humble (I think where she was coming from on the stewardship point)…giving some time to an interview about winning the Nobel and then simply excusing herself to take care of her children!
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