Correcting History Personally: Stages on the Road
How shall I interpret my title? It could be a call to sanctity, certainly. But I have in mind the remarkable work that Sigrid Undset did in Stages on the Road. As you may already know, Undset was a Nobel prize-winning Catholic novelist in the first half of the twentieth century, the author of such works as Kristin Lavransdatter and The Master of Hestviken. For a brief appreciation, see my 2008 essay, Sigrid Undset in this Vale of Tears.
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The remarkable genius of the essays gathered together in Stages on the Road is that each one seeks to make an important point about a modern misunderstanding of Catholic culture and then to illustrate the point through a brief biography of an exemplary Catholic. For example, in the first essay on “Ramón Lull of Palma”, Undset argues against the modern conviction that during the centuries in which the Catholic Faith dominated Western culture, people had no understanding of or sympathy with those who were not Catholic, such as Jews and Muslims. Hence the myth that modern secularism represents a liberation when it comes to a true appreciation for the gifts of those who are “different”.
But Undset, a highly competent historian of Europe, particularly in the medieval and early modern periods, explains the remarkable familiarity of the Catholic world with those of other faiths, the great respect that was often afforded to those who had not embraced Christianity, and the considerable interest in fairly representing their culture and values and beliefs, if for no other reason than to more effectively reach out to them with the riches of Christ. That there was also prejudice and significant hostility in various times and places is, of course, undeniable, just as there is in our own “more enlightened” age. Moreover, there were ample reasons for continued conflict quite apart from religious beliefs. But that the Church fostered a culture of ignorance and intolerance—a view of Jews and Muslims which was simplistic and undiscriminating—or that the high middle ages or Renaissance was in general characterized by such a culture is categorically false.
Undset follows this introductory portion of the essay with an exploration of the life of Ramón Lull (1232-1315), the legendary and brilliant Majorcan Catholic writer who devoted his life to understanding and fairly representing the beliefs and attitudes of non-Catholics, and who worked incessantly to establish special schools in which Catholic missionaries could be well-educated in the languages and thought patterns of other peoples, the better to engage them generously on behalf of Christ. As is the pattern of the book, the life and exploits of Ramón Lull, along with the support he received in many quarters, including from the Franciscans and even from a pope, give the lie to the prevailing misconception of the effects of Catholicism on human relations in our own day.
The second essay, “St. Angela Merici: A Champion of the Women’s Movement”, follows the same pattern. Once again, Undset explains that the view of women in Catholic Europe was nothing like that of later Protestant Europe, against which feminists reacted, thinking incorrectly that they were rebelling against a medievalism. Instead, she provides ample evidence of the highly nuanced attitude toward women wherever the Church held sway, the wide scope of their responsibilities, and the remarkable opportunities they had to show their administrative ability through positions of prominence and respect in both secular and religious life. And again she illustrates the point with the life of Saint Angela Merici (1474-1540), an Italian whose piety and good sense led her to be consulted by those in every walk of life, and who eventually founded the Ursulines to provide for the education and formation of girls.
So too in the chapters on Robert Southwell, SJ and Margaret Clitherow, and in her “Reply to a Parish Priest”, in which Undset addresses many modern ills with a good sense which would have been far easier to come by were it not for the Protestant and secularist conviction that everything that the Catholic Church once infused into European culture must inevitably be ignorant, blind, narrow and even pinched.
Again, what strikes me most forcefully about Sigrid Undset’s technique in these essays (which is also the technique of her whole literary life) is her ability to sympathetically portray a culture and then bring it into a particularly sharp focus through the lives, aspirations and struggles of particular persons. Often, as in Stages on the Road and in her lives of saints—including her wonderful and complete biography of St. Catherine of Siena—Undset captures the times through the real persons who graced them. In her fiction, of course, she does the same with characters she herself has created, but who are always realistically portrayed.
Indeed, Undset always focuses on the personal, but never as in some modern abstract personality, alienated from and suspicious of place and time. She never succumbs to the caricature or the surreal. For Undset, the personal is always situated in a particular culture, with each character as much the recipient as the giver of all that makes life rich and full. Hers is an authentic realism. It is rooted in an assurance that nature is fundamentally good even when it is wounded and weakened, and that grace perfects it and makes it whole. A human life is the ultimate portrayal of both a culture and of that which transcends (and therefore strengthens) culture.
But Stages on the Road also serves as an example of one very good way to engage our own culture and enrich it with a deeper and more Catholic understanding. So many modern ideas are built on denial of one sort or another, denial of what the Church has taught, denial of what has been lived in other times and places, denial that anything good can come from our own history, denial of nature, and even denial that anything good can come from God. How wise it is, on occasion, to portray honestly and sympathetically the misunderstood goods that are now denied, and to demonstrate the richness of lives and cultures which embrace those goods.
This could be a call to a deeper and more human history, one concerned not so much with statistics or events or quotations as with lives. I highly recommend it to the essayist. But it could also be a call to sanctity after all, for that is the one story we are all called to write. In our own time and place, we can be flowers of a deeper culture, a culture enriched and watered and transformed by grace. We can be in our own right, I suppose, important stages on the road. We know, I think, that we are often called to make a particular argument about something valuable that is neglected or lost in our own day. But if so, we are also called to both form and benefit from a particular kind of culture, and to live a particular kind of life.
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