Thursday, March 24, 2016

Lessons from The Axe

...these two, the eldest, kept together, because they knew that, whatever happened, one thing was certain--that they should be together.  This was the only sure thing, and it was good to have something sure.  The boy, growing up alone in the home of a stranger kin, struck root, without knowing it, in her who was promised to him; and his love for the only one he well knew of all that was to be his grew as he himself grew--without his marking the growth.  He cherished her as a habit, until his love took on a colour and brightness that showed him how wholly he was filled thereby. 

Sigrid Undset was a Norwegian author and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature.  I had read her trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter a couple of years ago, which I very much enjoyed, and have now embarked upon her tetralogy, The Master of Hestviken.  It is considered Undset's masterpiece.

The first book of the series, The Axe, introduces the two main characters: Olav and Ingunn.  They were betrothed as children and Olav was raised as a foster-son by Ingunn's parents.  Their future together seemed a given: Olav knew that he would belong to her and she to him.

That knowledge seemed so secure that one summer night, his blood warm with drink, Olav acted upon it.  Their bodies spoke the language of husband and wife, though no vows were exchanged or blessing bestowed in matrimony.  

And then, everything certain became washed in confusion and unbelief.  Ingunn's father died unexpectedly, before formalizing any wedding plans for his foster-son and daughter.  Ingunn's uncles, they soon learn, have other plans for Ingunn besides marrying Olav.  

Ingunn and Olav had seized upon what they believed to be theirs, only to realize they had acted rashly and preemptively.  Thus commences a long and twisted journey to marriage...or, perhaps better said, a journey deeper into sin.  

There is a sudden contrast between Ingunn and Olav's initial states of innocence and later period of guilt.  They began their lives together as children, as (foster) brother and sister.  It was a childhood of outdoor games, bickering as siblings do, and the calm reassurance of each other's presence.  Then abruptly, when Olav is sixteen, he sees Ingunn differently.  

Olav was ready with an answer; but as she bent down to her shoe, the smock slipped from her shoulders, baring her bosom and upper arm.  And instantly a wave of new feelings swept over the boy--he stood still, bashful and confused, and could not take his eyes off this glimpse of her naked body.  It was as though he had never seen it before; a new light was thrown on what he knew of old--as with a sudden landslip within him, his feelings for his foster-sister came to rest in a new order.

Olav had seen her naked body before in his youth, but now the vision prompts unexpected desires.  We live after the Fall and we are marked with Adam and Eve's concupiscence: with those sexual desires come the temptation to use and exploit another for personal gratification.  

The two travel to town that same day and Olav cannot stop dwelling upon these emotions stirred within him.  Nothing outwardly has changed, but his entire perception and relationship with Ingunn has altered.  As they rest on the way near some water, Ingunn innocently invites Olav to swim with her.  He knows he cannot--he can never return to that simplicity of childhood.  

And all the time he could not help thinking of Ingunn and being tormented by the thought.  He felt plunged into guilt and shame, and it grieved him.  They had been used to bathe from his canoe in the tarn above, swimming side by side in the brown water, into which a yellow dust was shed from the flowering spruces around.  But now they could not be together as before--It was just as when he lay in the stream and saw the familiar world turned upside-down in an instant. 

When Ingunn and Olav act upon their emergent feelings and desires by fornicating, they begin their descent into sin.   They perform their act in the darkness and Olav begins to feel as though he lives in the dense blackness: an unseeing, strained version of his former peaceful, cheerful self.  Though Olav enjoys his secretive night visits to Ingunn's room, deep beneath the pleasure is the unshakeable sense of wrong, of something askew. 
Though both Ingunn and Olav seek to be married, outside obstacles and personal misjudgments cause continuous detours and downfalls.  

Their sins are dominoes, knocking them further down in an escalating movement.  Sin leads you where you don't want to go.  A wrong choice, several steps ahead, is a path you never intended.  Sin--unchecked, unrepented of--is a downward, dizzying spiral.  Suddenly you find yourself doing, thinking, and saying things you never would have thought possible...

They had been playing on a flowery slope and had not had the wit to see that it ended in a precipice.

Thus Olav finds himself a murderer and Ingunn is pregnant with another man's child.  

And as sin clenches its fist tighter and tighter around your wounded soul, it covers the inherent beauty and grace within until they become completely obscured by the trespasses.  Everything becomes dark...sin begins to convince you that there is nothing of worth remaining inside of you.  

Repentance, prayer, work, and the further pilgrimage of life...the thought of all this was repulsive to her.  Even the thought of God was repulsive to her now.  To look downward, to be alone and surrounded by darkness--that was her choice.  And she saw her own soul, bare and dark as a rock scorched by the fire, and she herself had set fire to and burned up all that was in her of living fuel.  It was all over with her.

On this Holy Thursday, the evening of which Judas betrayed his Lord with a kiss, I cannot help but think Judas felt similarly to Ingunn.  It only took one glance, one appeal to God and he could have been saved.  But when one is drowning in sin to the point of death, even a glance can feel too much, too undeserved.

Their sins separate Ingunn and Olav from God.  It likewise divides them from each other.  Ingunn is distraught with guilt, convinced she can never be worthy of Olav after her betrayal.  Olav is enraged with hurt and astonishment that the one he had loved for so long and worked so hard to be with has afflicted him with such a blow.  But when he sees death has almost claimed her life through suicide, Olav's heart is hurt: he realizes that, as one body, Ingunn's pain is his pain, too.  

The boundless pain and distress in her poor eyes--it was that which drew his soul naked up into the light.  Away went all that he had thought and determined...He was left with the last, the inmost cruel certainty--that she was flesh of his flesh and life of his life, and this could never be otherwise, were she never so shamefully maltreated and broken.  The roots of their lives had been intertwined as long as he could remember--and when he saw that death had had hold of her with both hands, he felt as though he himself had barely escaped from being torn to pieces.  And a longing came over him, so intense that it shook him through and through--to take her in his arms and crush her to him, to hide himself with her. 

Sin has divided them, but Undset's first book in the tetralogy ends with a reconciling kiss between Ingunn and Olav--a kiss shared with joint weeping.  The wounds of their sin remain and, while there is always hope God can heal all brokenness, their path from this deep precipice is steep.

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