Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Lessons from Kristin (Part II)

"That's why marriage and the wedding mass were created--so that man and woman would be given help in their lives: married folk and parents and children and house servants as loyal and helpful companions on the journey toward the house of peace."

When we last left Kristin at the conclusion of the first novel in Sigrid Undset's Nobel-winning trilogy, things were not looking so good for her.

Her parents had finally succumbed to her stubborn insistence on marrying Erlend, a handsome and charming man, but one prone to irresponsibility and possessing little self-control.  

Their courtship, tainted by sexual sin, did not prepare them well for marriage and they find themselves struggling in their relationship to communicate, understand, and empathize with the other.

But the struggle is not hopeless, nor is it bereft of joy.  Kristin undergoes a tremendous conversion during a pilgrimage she embarks upon and experiences great remorse for her transgressions.  Erlend, too, regrets his former actions and the ways in which he dishonored the woman he loves.  

Through their shared tribulations and triumphs, the theme of the second book, The Wife, is one that demonstrates the purpose and beauty of family.  

There are many families presented in the novel, of varying sizes and contending with different circumstances.  And each individual family member has his or her own flaws and interior struggles.

Out of the myriad of characters presented, not one of them is perfect.  And it is within the family that these flaws are most evident. 

Take, for example, the pivotal relationship between Kristin and her father, Lavrans.  

So close is this familial bond and, indeed, so definitional that, in 14th century Norway, a child's last name was formed from that of his or her father.  Thus, Kristin is "Kristin Lavransdatter" (datter meaning "daughter").  She is Kristin, Lavrans' daughter.  Her self-definition is intimately connected to her father.  

Though she and her father enjoyed a very close relationship, Kristin's insistence on marrying Erlend (and her promiscuity with him prior to their actual marriage) wounded her father--a pious, honorable man--greatly.  

She remembered her father's face when she was about to ride off with Erlend and he lifted her onto her horse.  Lavrans had put on a happy expression because there were so many people around them, but Kristin saw his eyes.  He stroked her arm and took her hand to say farewell.  At that time her main thought had been that she was glad to be leaving.  Now she thought that for as long as she lived, she would feel a sting in her soul whenever she remembered her father's eyes on that day.

Yet, despite her reckless behavior and disobedience, the love Lavrans has for her does not end.  It is his daughter who wounds his heart the most, but who simultaneously has brought him the most joy.  Mirroring the perfect forgiveness of the Eternal Father, Lavrans forgives Kristin and loves her, despite her errors.

Kristin herself experiences the pains and difficulties that arise in parenthood.  She and Erlend eventually have seven sons.  She welcomes each gladly and gratefully and gives of herself untiringly to ensure their well-being: caring for them through the night when they are ill with serious fever, singing them to sleep, bringing order and prosperity to her husband's great estate to provide for her sons' future.

Her self-giving motherhood is beautiful and exemplarily.  She realizes that the fate of her children is bound up with her own.  

Wherever they ended up in the world, wherever they journeyed, forgetting their mother--she thought that for her, their lives would be like a currant in her own life; they would be one with her, just as they had been when she alone on this earth knew about the new hidden life inside, drinking from her blood and making her cheeks pale.

These parent-child relationships shape and change each person.  

It is within this family dynamic that one finds a training ground of virtue or breeding ground of vice.  It is indeed within the family unit itself that one's salvation (or damnation) is largely, though not exclusively, worked out.

And at the crux of this family structure is the relationship between husband and wife.  The spouses' love is the bedrock on which the family is built and the happiness, holiness, and health of the family is significantly influenced by the strength or weakness of that husband-wife relationship.

As Kristin progresses through her marriage, she can clearly see Erlend's defects and errors.  But she begins to recognize her own contribution to the problems of their marriage:

In spite of all the tenderness that welled up inside her when she saw her husband's despair, she didn't have the will to silence the inner voice that asked, hurt and embittered: How can you speak that way to me?  Have you forgotten when I gave you my faith and my honor? Have you forgotten when I was your beloved friend?  And yet she understood that as long as this voice spoke within her, she would continue to speak to him as if she had forgotten.

When Erlend finds himself into a life-threatening situation where he is accused of treason, Kristin realizes that, whatever the circumstances, she is bound to him, and he to her.  The particular times he has failed or hurt her and vice-versa are ultimately not primary.  First  is her duty to love him and to honor him.

By the grace of God, we two unworthy souls were joined together in holy marriage.  Branded by the flames of sin, bowed by the burden of sin, we came together at the portals of God's house; together we received the Savior's host from the hand of the priest.  Should I now complain if God is testing my faith?  Should I now think about anything else but that I am his wife and he is my husband for as long as we both shall live?

And so we see these families of imperfect people--children, parents, spouses--struggling together, sometimes victorious, sometimes miserably defeated.  But it is in these relationships that one is presented with the best and greatest opportunity to become the person he or she is created to be.  

It is in patiently bearing family members' faults, lovingly encouraging the other in virtue, humbly creating an example of charity, bearing offenses forgivingly & graciously, that the family has the ability to become a domestic church: a place where God's presence is felt and His name is honored.  

Indicatively, there is a moving conversation between Kristin's parents, Ragnfrid and Lavrans, that best exemplifies this purpose of family.  They, like most married couples, did not have a perfect marriage. Their union had been arranged and Lavrans was still quite young when they were joined in matrimony.  Their marriage had faced many sorrows and crosses.  Yet, at the end of their lives, their faith and struggle to live virtuously bonded them together in love.

Perhaps you may think, wife, that you've had more sorrow than joy with me; things did go wrong for us in some ways.  And yet I think we have been faithful friends.  And this is what I have thought: that afterwards we will meet again in such a manner that all the wrongs will not longer separate us; and the friendship that we had, God will build even stronger.

Aside from the glaring exception of the Holy Family, no family on earth is perfect.  

But it is exactly through these imperfections that we can practice virtue and sacrificial love and thus grow in perfection to eventually reach the heavenly family of God.  

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