A colleague of mine, known to our eight (give or take) faithful readers as Alasdair Slackintyre, recently remarked on the tonal quality of our [his and my] blog posts. “We aren’t trying to be properly academic,” intuit, “[We’re] not properly planning out essays, not putting in good conclusions, not putting in good thesis statements.” Well, I have to concur. I’m not disciplined enough to do that, nor do I consider myself a particularly eloquent writer when I do make an honest attempt. But some things, I think, need to be said; or at least I need to vocalize them for my own sake. Gird your loins, Mr. Slackintyre. This might be messy.
Spoiler Alert: I’m talking about the end of Kristin Lavransdatter, a book which some of you may be currently reading. If you don’t want anything revealed, don’t read this.
Kristin Lavransdatter (the character, not the book) is a headstrong woman who lives in 14th century Norway. Though born to a good, reasonable father and a well-intentioned mother, she finds that she does not want to settle into the marriage her father has arranged for her with a kind, respected man. While she is betrothed to the man, Simon, she flees to the convent where she undermines the sanctity of the place by establishing a sinful and ongoing relationship with another man, Erlend. He seduces her and arranges nighttime meetings at a brothel. Continuing forward, Kristin breaks off her betrothal to Simon and marries Erlend, despite widespread shock and general disapproval. On her wedding day, she wears the dress and crown of a maiden, but she knows she is already carrying Erlend’s child. Her sin is made public when she gives birth less than nine months later; disgracing her parents who had celebrated her womanly virtue at her wedding.
Many years later, Kristin has had seven sons. Her husband, who proved unfaithful, has been killed. With her sons now all making their own ways in the world, she leaves the ancestral manor in the care of her son and his young wife, and she goes on a pilgrimage. On her journey she comes to this realization:
Surely she had never asked God for anything except that He should let her have her will. And every time she had been granted what she asked for – for the most part. Now here she sat with a contrite heart – not because she had sinned against God but because she was unhappy that she had been allowed to follow her will to the road’s end. She had not come to God with her wreath or with her sins and sorrows, not as long as the world possessed another drop of sweetness to add to her goblet. But now she had come, after she had learned that the world is like an alehouse: the person who has no more to spend is thrown outside the door.Undset, Sigrid. Kristin Lavransdatter. Translated by Tiina Nunnally, Penguin Books, 2005. p. 1071.
Kristin came to a realization which all of us know deep down, but are unwilling or unable to vocalize: We will be happier if we sacrifice our own desires and follow God’s will. It’s very strange. Like small children, we beg for ease and comfort: that’s why we want to stay in the world and pursue our pleasures. If God asks us to mortify or deny ourselves (fine, at least from my experience) we kick and scream and throw tantrums. But the irony is this: that if we followed God’s will and trusted Him, we would be more secure, more comforted, more happy. I grasp this on some level; obviously, I’m writing this. But I don’t believe it. If I did, wouldn’t I join some Carmelite monastery? Why are we allowed to follow our own wills? Why does God allow us to choose things that will make us less happy than if we unreservedly followed Him? The answer must be that God knows how weak some of us are. Our faith or our discipline is not as strong as it needs to forsake the world and follow him. So his will for some of us at least is to be in the world but not of it: to marry, have children, jobs, cars and houses. The irony is that this proves a much more difficult path if the goal is to gain heaven. If the end goal is to have pleasure, then this path makes a lot of sense.
Here’s the crux of the issue: I realized that I am just like Kristin. I repent of my sin, sure, but how much of that is motivated by the fact that pleasures cease being pleasurable? Sure, I can repent of the sin of drunkenness and avoid it, but let’s be honest: this avoidance is probably partially motivated by a particularly debilitating and recent hangover (don’t throw a fit, I’m using hypotheticals). Ooh, look at me scrupulously avoiding premarital sex! Well yes, but the idea of a bastard child is also terrifying. What’s that? You committed the sin of gluttony? Let me guess, you started to repent only after you’d already eaten your fill. The same principle holds true for essentially every situation. “Lord, I am so genuinely sorry, look, I see the evil fruits of my sin: please forgive me.” But the cookies are already eaten. The beer has been drunk. How convenient to repent now. How much harder and less glamorous to avoid the temptation in the first place. There’s no other option, of course. Having sinned, our only course of action is to repent and seek forgiveness. God must be more merciful than we realize.
Sira Eiliv, an old priest, speaks to Kristin, who is now an old woman:
Haven’t you realized yet, sister, that God has helped you each time you prayed, even when you prayed with half a heart or with little faith, and He gave you much more than you asked for. You loved God the way you loved your father: not as much as you loved your own will, but still enough that you always grieved when you had to part from him.Undset, Sigrid. Kristin Lavransdatter. Translated by Tiina Nunnally, Penguin Books, 2005. p. 1095.
There seems to be a formula here that’s probably true of every man ever created: First, God asks for something or everything. It might not be an active asking, but at a certain point man realizes that he owes God everything, and he wants to repay. Second, man either tries to unselfishly give God everything, or he cries, screams, and asks to hold onto some of his comforts. Thirdly, God answers us. He either gently leads a soul down the path of self-surrender, or (horror of horrors) he gives us what we blindly ask for, and thus excuses us from complete immolation, at least for the time being. This is obviously an ongoing process in one’s life. It probably happens over and over, with people failing or succeeding in varying levels.
The wonderful and horrible thing about this is that God is so generous he will help us accomplish our own wills, as Kristin realized in the first quote. It’s horrible because following our own wills will leave us less happy than submitting to God’s… and yet we still beg like children for what we want. But it’s not hopeless. Even if we follow our wills until the very end of the road- the proverbial alehouse for Kristin- God will be waiting patiently at the end. You will turn yourself over to Him a different person than one who did immediately and without reservation, but He will accept you nonetheless.
What’s the moral of the story? I don’t truly know. For me, the book galvanized me to begin seriously seeking God’s will in my life again. I wasn’t made for comfort or safety. I, and you too, was made to take risks and forsake the world in order to serve God. I don’t want to wait until I’ve spent all my money at the alehouse to finally drag myself to God. I’d rather do it now, so that I might still have something to offer him as a token of love. Kristin Lavransdatter is a love story. It’s not a love story of Kristin and Erelend, or Lavrans and Ragnfrid. It’s not a love story between Simon Andresson and Kristin. It’s the story of God relentlessly pursuing a stubborn, broken soul to the ends of the earth.