Sigrid Undset: One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church

Editor’s note: The Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset (1882-1949) is best known for her trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter published between 1920 and 1922. Undset would win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1924 while her many novels, memoirs, hagiographies, and miscellaneous works would make her a major figure in world literature. The same year she was honored with the Nobel Prize, Undset was received into the Catholic Church at age 42 becoming a lay Dominican. Her life both before and after her conversion was turbulent, filled with spiritual struggle, exile, and grief, but finally crowned with both the satisfaction of survival and peace of mind.  Her works, especially Kristin, have been credited with helping many readers find their way into the Church.  Crisis published the first English translation of this Undset essay.

One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church

Published December 1, 1995

If all the converts who entered the Catholic Church were to tell about their road to Rome, it would probably appear that no two of them followed exactly the same route. It does not surprise us, having accepted the claim of the Church to be the “pillar and ground of truth,” that as many roads lead to Rome as there are human minds.

When people stubbornly hold on to the hope that it is impossible to find any absolute truth, it is because they fancy that life would lose its excitement, would have no freedom, if there really existed one truth — one alone in which all other truths are contained.

Most of us have felt at some time that it is insufferable that two plus two always makes four. We have all known the longing for a dream world where two times two is five, or zero, or seven, or whatever we want at the moment. Of course, the freedom of the dream world is quite illusory. In fact, the number of dreams and combinations of dreams is not unlimited. The life of dreams is bound by laws to a higher degree than most people think. But what I don’t know can’t hurt me. That’s how people think. What glorious freedom, to fly into a world where people decide for themselves the nature and property of things. In the reality into which we are born, the nature and property of things is already given, everything is knit together by laws. For people as they are, there is only one possibility for freedom: they must find their own way through this whole net of causes and connections.

The attempt to find the way ends all too often in becoming ensnared and hung up in it. In this world we can only attain one kind of freedom, that which our Lord spoke of when he said: “The truth shall make you free.” But even after this truth has been acknowledged and a person is set free so that the deterministic factors in life can no longer bind one in chains, this freedom is maintained at no less a cost than the continual struggle against the powers from which one has escaped. First and foremost against the temptation to look back and long for the old romantic dream world, where two and two can be whatever, and one decides for oneself what shall be true.

To this extent, it is understandable when modern man exerts all his inventiveness to escape from the authority of the Church. In any case this is how it looks to those who have tried to escape from everything that came to them demanding to be authoritative. The effort not to be bound — and this fight against a Church that has always openly declared that it demands that its authority be acknowledged — are not unique to modern man. The same tendency was shown with great force already in Jerusalem in the days before the pascha in the year our Lord was crucified.

However, there are probably only a few converts who are prepared to explain their own conversion, why their resistance to one who calls himself the Way, the Truth, and the Life, a resistance dictated by fear and mistrust, has been overcome. It does not happen without the cooperation of the mystical and supernatural power that theologians call grace. We can only say that one day we had to acknowledge that our resistance was perhaps illegitimate.

We have a basic mistrust for all authority that is of this world, and at the same time our human nature is subject to an incurable desire for authority. We want teachers who can teach us something. We want teachers who can give us prohibitions and commands. We want someone over us whom we can depend on and admire, even love. Even in my childhood it didn’t take terribly much cleverness to discover this mistrust, even if the world’s hunger for authority had not taken the pathological forms that it has taken since then. The question arises, do we long for authority because in reality we are created to bow to an authority that has the only legitimate right over us — the right of the creator, the author of life?

“Think for yourself” was enjoined on us constantly at the school that I attended. But when I followed this advice to the best of my ability — and the result was that I thought something other than the teachers had meant that I should think — I soon discovered that they were unpleasantly surprised. They couldn’t consider my differences with them to be other than an improper desire to oppose them.

The first person who gave me a kind of complete picture of the conservative viewpoint was the Lutheran minister who confirmed me in the state church. It made a very negative impression on me. I became especially upset when he dealt with the sixth commandment with us. Almost exclusively, he dealt with the girls from the folk school. He warned them against getting mixed up with men who wanted to pick them up on their free afternoons, and he told a frightening story about a young girl he had been to visit in the hospital: there she lay, destroyed “merely because of one kiss.” I thought angrily, the girl hadn’t committed any sin — but the fellow on the other hand! And I knew well that in our class, “ladies” often did things that were many times more immoral than a servant girl’s jumping into bad luck. That virginity was a positive value, a reservoir of strength, not just a negotiable value in the marriage market, no one could expect a priest of that spiritual milieu to enjoin on us. It was a bit of bad luck and a funny thing if a woman became an “old maid.” I had read what Luther wrote about virginity, and it had made me very anti-Lutheran.

That this priest himself acted in good faith, that he was prepared to suffer and offer himself for his unattractive concept of God, I did not doubt, even at that time. It did not occur to me to take his version of Christianity to be a more authentic version of Christianity than any of the other versions I had come across. Even so, my confirmation instruction had made it clear to me that I did not believe in the religion that I had held in childhood.

In Protestantism, as I came to know it, almost every person I met who was on the whole religiously inclined had his “personal conviction” or his “independent conception” of Christianity. The God taught to us by my religion teacher in school was rather more sympathetic than a Uranien god-human, but not more humane than the most sympathetic person I was prepared to conceive of: wise, but not wise beyond all human understanding. Like so many young people from a free-thinking milieu, I had gotten the impression that one’s faith was a private matter, not to say a minor matter. I also had my faith, but even at that time I didn’t think I needed any God, but that he should be there to approve my own ideas of right and wrong, honor and dishonor, my ideals and judgments. They were as they might be after my nature and education: I understood enough to know, I myself was able to defend these ideas without a God who was one with me.

A God who was the “Absolute Other” and also a person who could communicate with me, whose ways were not my ways, whose distinct and unconquerable will could be distinct from my own will, I was not bold enough even to conceive of it. Those who spoke to us in the name of Christianity had not only sought justification for their usual way of thinking. Very many of them had given up historic Christianity as a teaching that was no longer tenable, even if they, purely on the grounds of feelings, could not give up their view of life that was colored by Christianity. They had given up faith in Jesus Christ, truly God and truly man, but they continued to worship Jesus, the carpenter’s son, as an ideal human and human ideal. Dogmas: truths revealed from “the Other Side and formulated in human language,” they could not believe in, but they believed in religious intuition and a religious genius in men.

I was certainly not disposed to worship any form of humanity — surely not a person who said of himself, “learn of me, for I am gentle and humble of heart,” even though he used a language against his opponents that, speaking kindly, was arrogant. I accepted as proven (without asking for proofs) that the historical Jesus was a religious genius whose intuition had brought mankind’s concept of God many steps upward in the path of development. At that time we always proceeded from the thought that development was always the same as improvement. But it didn’t seem to be of interest to me that a young Jew nineteen hundred years ago had gone around and assured people that their sins were forgiven — especially when he said of himself, “who can convict me of sin.” He couldn’t know from his own experience how it felt to have done something to another person that one would give all to have undone — to have fallen short of one’s own best purposes so badly that it seemed one couldn’t forgive oneself.

I knew what it was to be sorry for cruelty to others, secret cowardice, and indolence when indolence was unpardonable. For self evidently I did not know how to live in accord with my own private religion in such a way that I would be content with myself. Even less did I want to descend to that which was most miserable of all: to compare myself to people who, seemingly at any rate, lived after easier standards. I knew well I did not know them from inside, and so I could not really judge them. And as far as I knew, they had never said that they accepted my moral concepts either.

I was still far from believing that Jesus was God revealed in the Incarnation and that the Church was the organism in that he remained to do the work of salvation which he, nineteen hundred years ago had completed on the cross.

But I saw more clearly that the new systems of religion, either built on godlessness or on humanism plus a kind of deism, were not in the least more scientific than the old religions. Just the opposite. They built in ever higher degree on hypotheses and were in the highest degree matters of taste. Many of the current opinions that, without criticizing them, I had let go in one ear, but unfortunately not out the other, were in reality loose opinions or speculations determined by time or milieu.

I don’t know how many times I heard that God was the wish expressed by a human dream and that faith in life after death was probably invented by an unfitting greed for more life than that portion nature found fitting to give each of us. Now, I saw that the first supposition was a knife that cut both ways. I knew that people believed in a life after death, but that it seldom was an appealing form of life. They believed in Hell or Hades as a fact they were content to experience. For myself, I couldn’t find any form of eternal life that was not appalling in length. All the goods of the world finally receive their charm because we know that we do not have permission to use them long. The miracle of the seasons goes through our bone and marrow for we know, sooner or later, a spring will come that we will not experience. One year the first snow will fall on a mound of dirt under which we will lie.

It was the old story — I had rejected the beliefs and disbeliefs of others because they were sadly full of their own idiosyncrasies. But I realized that my own thoughts, to a large extent, were also decided by my idiosyncrasies. Naturally I could continue to believe in “my own power and strength” knowing well that it wasn’t much to believe in. But those who in the old days had managed with so weak a faith had not presented it as being other than a hand weapon with which they could cut their way through a short life.

I could not lose the feeling that the one who isolates himself in this way is a traitor, even though I couldn’t say what this betrayal consisted of, or what I had betrayed. I believed in a brotherhood of man, although it was impossible to convince myself that I believed in human perfectibility. I believed only in the dumbness and intelligence of man, in human good and evil and courage and cowardice, and in the unstable nature of each person. Even so I felt that what the Salvation Army soldier had said was true (she had been our servant in my childhood) that God loves sinners. “The greater sinner a person is, the more he loves him.” He has to love those, humanly speaking, most perfect people most highly: they always stand in danger of sinning in their minds and in their thoughts in a worse way than the common decent cheat and whore can dream of.

Human solidarity consists in all of us being common heirs of a bankrupt estate. After the bankruptcy of the fall into sin, a common loss of our ability to rise above the point of failure in our virtue and insight makes it impossible for anyone to lead other people anywhere but astray. Only a supernatural intervention can save us from ourselves. The Christian churches teach that Jesus Christ is himself that intervention — God, who was born of a woman, made himself one with our nature, and allowed himself to be killed for the sake of our sins, has shown us the way to eternal life. Not Hell or Hades, which people had always looked to with reluctant fear, but a life in and with God, the eternal blessedness of which we are not prepared to conceive. Already in the life we live here on earth we can experience such contact with the divine that we know life can be happy, even a life without end, when we renew our strength from the strength of which everything in the world is an outpouring.

At last I had come so far that I certainly did not believe in God. But neither did I believe in my disbelief. Proofs that force us, against our will, to accept Christianity as one accepts, for example, a demonstrated family relationship in botany, are out of the question. Otherwise, how could Christ say that “he who believes and is baptized shall be saved, but he who does not believe shall be damned”? This does not presuppose that the power of judgment should not be used. In the last instance it is with the will that man either will isolate himself in the hell of his egotism or will commend himself to God and be freed from the constraints of ego-worship, unto eternal possibilities.

I had nothing else to do than go to a priest and ask to be taught everything that the Catholic Church really teaches. That the Catholic Church was identical with the Church that Christ had founded, in itself, I had never doubted. For me the question of the authority of the Catholic Church was exclusively a question of the authority of Christ. I had never understood the history of the Reformation as other than a history of a revolt against Christianity, even if it was a revolt by believing Christian men who subjectively hoped that the true Christianity was something which agreed better with their own ideals.

The customary objections to Catholicism that I had heard had never made a great impression on me, although I had gained a rather vague conception that there was certainly something in the prejudices against the Church that were so widespread. There are prejudices — and there are two special reasons for them. The one is our displeasure at giving up our favorite fantasies that we are afraid a teaching church will take from us. The other is the scandal poor Catholics in many ages have caused — the dark backside of the shining doctrine of the communion of saints.

It should be easier for people today, I think, to discover what is meant by the merits of the saints as a treasury from which the whole Church profits. Clearly in our day not only Catholics, but Christians of all sects and nuance, experience that all of Christianity must atone for what each of us unholy Christians owes God and our neighbor. No human solidarity is so absolute as the solidarity between the living cells in the body of Christ.

In and of itself the cult of the saints that the Church has fostered from the beginning answers a need that appears to be ineradicable in our nature. We want to venerate the saints. For want of better we have hero worship of kings and queens, sportsmen and artists, film- stars and gangsters. We set some of them on pedestals to admire something of ourselves in them. In the saints, God’s purpose for us is realized, when he, to use the words of the Offertory, “wonderfully created human nature and still more wonderfully renewed it.” Only facing the saints can we find a solution to our need for hero worship, without at the same time worshipping something of our own nature, which it is cowardly or demeaning to do.

And the veneration of Mary? I have always thought that a matter of course: if anyone believes that God has saved us by himself taking on our flesh and blood, he must embrace with affection her in whose womb he built his human body and this with a special deep reverence, gentleness, and sympathy with the inconceivable difficulties of her life on earth, as well as a shared joy in her unutterable place in the kingdom of God. Because it is true that the son of Mary is both true God and true man, so the son is the son in all eternity and she the mother in all eternity, although he is the creator and she is his creation.

Because I believe that Jesus Christ is God who created us, I believe that he has built his Church as it is required for people. What God has given me through his Church is difficult to express in words. He himself has said that he gives us his peace, but not the peace that the world gives — it is of another sort. Perhaps it can be compared to the peace that reigns over the sea, the great depth. Bad weather and good weather on the surface do not influence it, neither does the rare animals that live and eat each other in the depths. It is the practical experience that the kingdom of God is within us. Even if surrounded by one’s own unpeaceful self, which is half real and half illusion, we experience that God in a supernatural manner is in us continually and establishes his kingdom in us — against our own attacks on it.

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