Aidan Nichols on Sigrid Undset: Readers of the heart
The first book I ever read by Sigrid Undset was her biography of St. Catherine of Siena, about whom I wrote a paper in graduate school. This, of course, was at a time when the professor who was to offer guidance on my academic progress was busy presenting new theories about how the ecstasies of late medieval and Renaissance saints could be explained by their severe mortifications—particularly their arduous fasting—which led to hallucinations.
If only he had actually done his research and read the work of another great mystic, St. Teresa of Avila! She was aware of the imbalances caused by both excessive mortification and excessive desire to stand out, and she sometimes ordered over-eager sisters to keep quiet…and eat more. But that’s the trouble with those who pride themselves on being up-to-date: They always think previous generations were backward, stupid, and entirely ignorant of human nature. No institution knows human nature better than the Catholic Church—or has had longer to study it.
I am focusing here on the famous Norwegian author Sigrid Undset because the incomparable Dominican scholar Aidan Nichols has just written an intellectual biography of her: Sigrid Undset: Reader of Hearts. For my part, I was aware of Undset as a biographer long before I realized she was a Nobel-prize-winning novelist who, among her many gifts, wrote deeply and well about such fictional medieval figures as Kristin Lavransdatter (an impressive trilogy) and The Master of Hestviken (a tetralogy). Like so many of her characters, Undset herself had to undergo a conversion before she could complete her task of seeing life whole.
Undset took the vital step into the Catholic Church in 1924, after a long period of observation and reflection on human life since her girlhood, and after extensive engagement with the the problems of her time—especially the growing “woman” question and the ever-rising tide of secularization, which she saw in everything from the work of modern intellectuals throughout Europe to Naziism in Germany. She had written widely on many related questions in the magazines of the day, and collections of her essays were also widely circulated. When Germany invaded Norway, she escaped to the United States, where she made significant contributions to the intellectual aspect of the war effort—what we might call the propaganda effort to warn everybody against the death-dealing totalitarian “isms” of the early to mid-twentieth century.
In her essays, polemical writing and fiction, Undset was preoccupied with one central theme—a theme with which serious Catholics are depressingly familiar today. For Undset saw that the characteristic flaw of modernity was the insistence on living as if what we want is the same as what is real, so that we increasingly reject reality itself. Indeed, nothing less underlies the collapse of the once-Catholic West. Today every cultural warrior is militantly aware of the ongoing effort to redefine everything according to our wayward desires, refusing to admit our radical dependence on what is actually real, and ultimately refusing reality itself as an insupportable limitation on the self-willed distortions to which we are so carefully taught to aspire. But there is a reckoning, and it comes at a great cost: Nobody who chooses to live in such deliberate blindness can find happiness in the face of his own mortality.
Undset saw this spiritual disease of the modern period very clearly. For her, conversion entails a deliberate embrace of reality, and the rejection of Satan’s pomps, that is, his empty promises, which are quite simply the antithesis to what is real. This perverse and pervasive pattern of diminishing reality led Undset to disdain not only overt secularism, with its insistence on jettisoning the rich tradition of what we might call the Catholic immersion in reality, but even Protestantism, which Undset saw as a vain effort to flee from reality in such a way that Christianity could be non-dogmatic and non-sacramental and so mean whatever people wanted it to mean.
In an exchange with the Swedish Lutheran archbishop Nathan Söderhblom, Undset took exception to Martin Luther’s supposition that monogamy was natural and celibacy unnatural. She was insistent on a frank correspondence with reality: “Neither celibacy nor monogamy is natural in the sense that it is possible if a person does not assume control over his nature—just as it is necessary to take control of the wooden piles when one is going to build a stave church or of a stone in order to carve a marble pillar.” And so:
When the Archbishop cites the old phrase, naturalia non sunt turpia [“natural things are not shameful”], I must honestly confess that I do not entirely agree with him. It seems to me that this is often cited by people to excuse the naturalia which belongs to their own nature—the naturalia of others they are very willing to judge as perversities…. When trustworthy persons use old figures of speech about light and dark powers, of the evil and good in human souls, they are too much inclined to think of this image as a pattern of stripes; they do not notice that evil and good do not lie in stripes in the mind but are blended, as red and blue blend into purple. And so often it is this purple that the natural man longs for secretly and willingly falls down and worships when he finds it. [cited by Nichols, p. 175]
Of course Undset was no fan of Luther, who had in his rebellion against the ancient Faith slipped into nominalism, which subverts our apprehension of reality. She was a Realist thinker, and even at times a Realist philosopher, through and through. This same realism, discussed so ably by the Thomist Dominican philosopher and theologian Aidan Nicholas, rapidly led her to a richer understanding of Catholic dogma:
We think of dogmas as formulae for revealed truths in contrast to human discoveries which we can evaluate for ourselves. Dogmas reproduce the content of revelation correctly but not completely (they are like photographs: as photographs of the same scene can be more or less clear, dogmas can be formulated so that more or less of their content is distinguishable). Between accepting the dogmatic teaching of the Catholic Church and experiencing the spiritual reality of the content of the dogmas there is the same difference as there is between a photograph of [the breathtaking mountain region of] Rondane and a foot trip through it. [Cited by Nichols, p. 167]
A mature intellectual biography
It is this sort of maturity of thought into which Undset grew gradually from her childhood until her conversion at age 42, through marital and family difficulties and the sheer struggle for survival before she became famous. Her dual capacity to see reality while understanding the confusions of the human heart is revealed throughout her work not only in her unblinking perception of what is at stake in life but in her almost maternal sympathy with the flaws of her fictional characters and their possibilities for redemption.
It is probably this last, more than any other characteristic, which has led Fr. Nichols to subtitle his biography “Reader of Hearts”. Chapters cover not only Undset’s early life but the stages of her development as a person along with the themes which dominated all of her work. Thus, for example:
- The Writer, the Lover
- The Social Polemicist
- The Coming of War
- The Novelist’s Themes
- The Theological Controversialist
- The Hagiographer
The last chapter, of course, brings us back to St. Catherine of Siena. I feel blessed to have first loved St. Catherine through Undset’s biography. One of my daughters is named for this incomparable saint—but of course all saints are incomparable, in accordance with the infinitely manifold gifts of their heavenly Father.
The last book I reviewed by Fr. Nichols was his brilliant analysis of the core texts of he Second Vatican Council (see Toward a deeper understanding of Vatican II). Everything this very able thinker and writer touches turns to gold. But just as one could not fully appreciate his explication of the primary conciliar texts without having read them, so one cannot fully appreciate his deft and insightful biography of Sigrid Undset without having read at least some of her Nobel Prize-winning fiction. Taking time for either Kristin Lavransdatter or The Master of Hestviken (or both) is clearly the best course.
I myself have read very little of her shorter novels, her stories and her essays. But her three greatest works are probably the two largest and her biography of St. Catherine, so if you fear the length of the novels, try the saint. Undset went so far in imitation of St. Catherine as to become, like Catherine, a Dominican tertiary. Fr. Nichols is, of course, a Dominican priest. All three have chosen to build on a secure foundation, and wisdom suggests reading at least some of Undset’s work before taking up Fr. Nichols’ biography to learn more about what made her the great gift to Catholic literature and Catholic life that she undoubtedly became.
Here we have a stellar pairing: As with St. Augustine in his Confessions, we discern in Aidan Nichols’ biography of Sigrid Unset two brilliantly restless hearts—restless purposefully, that is, until they rest in God.
Aidan Nichols, O.P., Sigrid Undset: Reader of Hearts, Ignatius Press: 2022. 218 pp. Paper $15.26; eBook $11.67.
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Posted by: Grace2014 -
Sep. 05, 2022 7:34 PM ET USA
Thank you. I have just read Father Nichol's book. It is outstanding. I recommend the Tina Nunnelly translation of Kirsten Lavrensdatter. Thank you again for a most enjoyable essay.
Posted by: ewaughok -
Aug. 09, 2022 6:14 PM ET USA
Thank you Dr. Mirus for this review of Fr. Nichols biography of Sigrid Undset. In the course of recovery from a long illness, I just finished Kristin Lavransdatter, and am reading some of her theological polemics at this point (in a collection edited by the great Benedictine Fr. Stanley Jaki). I hope to read The Master of Hestviken in the coming months. And now I shall add Fr Nichols book to the list as well!