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My favorite novel is an underappreciated masterpiece by a little-known Norwegian Nobel-prize winning author. It’s called Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset. The title is a reference to the protagonist, and it’s a coming of age story about Kristin and her family. If you have read the book, you know that the whole work is startlingly realistic portrayal of sin, love, redemption, and the mercy behind God’s forgiveness.

According to the National Catholic Register, “the Catholic jubilee has added spiritual significance to the Hebrew jubilee, comprising a general pardon, an indulgence open to all and the possibility to renew one’s relationship with God and neighbor. The holy year is, therefore, ‘always an opportunity to deepen one’s faith and to live with a renewed commitment to Christian witness.’”[1] When Christ handed Peter the keys to the kingdom instructing him to bind and loose, this power to distribute grace also came with that action. So with the Holy Father’s institution of a Jubilee of Mercy, it is an opportunity for the faithful to avail themselves of extraordinary graces of conversion and repentance and to live this Lent more intensely and with more intentionality in order that we might respond to the loving gaze of Christ.

Pope Francis puts an emphasis on personal conversion in the sacrament of confession in his Bull regarding the Year of Mercy, but also he touches briefly on encountering God’s mercy through pilgrimage. In this essay, I will be doing the same thing: reflecting on confession and pilgrimage.

My favorite novel is an underappreciated masterpiece by a little-known Norwegian Nobel-prize winning author. It’s called Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset. The title is a reference to the protagonist, and it’s a coming of age story about Kristin and her family. If you have read the book, you know that the whole work is startlingly realistic portrayal of sin, love, redemption, and the mercy behind God’s forgiveness. With its 1000 pages of text, it takes the long view on Kristin’s life in fourteenth-century Norway. Character sketches from this story provide a good point of departure for an examination of conscience. Kristin’s father, Lavrans, is the picture of a loving and virtuous husband. The townsfolk flock to him for advice and wisdom. He seems to be the pillar of manliness balancing strength and discernment. Because of her experience in her father’s Christian household, Kristin’s view of God the Father clearly reflects her father’s good example.[2] Lavran’s’ commitment to Kristen’s flourishing engenders a happiness and security that led her to be a light to all those she encountered. However, Kristin’s impulsive and poor decisions wreck the tranquil life that her father had worked so hard to achieve and protect.

Kristin Lavransdatter

Part of the novel’s genius is that it has so many moments of heart-rending irony that illuminate the Christian understanding of sin and redemption; we have to lose our lives to save them in Christ. We have to die to our own wills for life to abound. Sigrid Undset captures our own consciences when Kristin recognizes beauty in God’s will and the ugliness of her own self-will.

Lavrans (the name is Norwegian for Lawrence), had arranged a marriage for Kristin to a man whose lineage and landholdings were a perfect match for Kristin’s hardworking, but lower-born family. She wasn’t thrilled with her father’s choice. Her betrothed is jovial, hard-working, and a little portly. Later though, while Kristin is being educated at a convent she meets Erlend, a strikingly handsome, older, and charismatic man who sweeps her off her feet. He seduces her and they sleep together.

In the days following, Kristin begins to change:

“She began looking for evidence that other people, like herself, were not without sin. She paid more attention to gossip and she took note of all the little things around her which indicated that not even the Sisters in the convent were completely holy and unworldly… Kristin now developed an alert ear for all the small disturbances within the convent’s walls: little complaints and jealousies, and vanities.” (Kristin Lavransdatter, 149-150)

The author hits the mark here. In a tangible way Kristin knows she has separated herself from God and His family. Rather than embracing her identity as the innocent Christian bride she was intended to be, Kristin becomes the Elf-Maiden—the pagan demi-goddess who lives mysteriously outside of Norwegian Christian society, who has to grasp and steal to get what she wants. Instead of seeking redemption and forgiveness, she measures her own sin against the vices of others. Kristin’s response is exactly what we do when we are unrepentant about sin. We rationalize that our behavior is not so bad in comparison to others. It is for us to consider in what ways her thought-process might be akin to ours.

It is only after they have been married for many years that Kristin begins to realize how angry she is with Erlend, even though, by then he is her lawful husband. She realizes how carelessly he put her in danger by not following the established customs of courtship and how much she had to sacrifice to be with him. She sacrifices her reputation, the relationship of trust she has with her father, her social standing, and her interior peace. So, even though Kristin has everything she wants with Erlend, everything inside of her is ruptured.

By this point in the story, they have seven sons together, and she has turned his floundering farm into a thriving enterprise. Kristin has proved to be thrifty and diligent. Erlend, too, is a completely devoted and faithful husband. In many ways he’s become a better man by being married to Kristin. They have gone to confession, repented, and paid fines associated with the public nature of their private sin together. But she’s still angry.

On one night when she goes up into the mountains to get away from Erlend, he follows her. She can’t sleep. Undset says:

“She refused to get down and lie in the pitch dark next to the warm, slumbering body of her husband…That is why she had come out into this troll night to breathe when she felt about to suffocate… She sat there and let the old, bitter thoughts rise up like good friends, countering them with other old and familiar thoughts” (Kristin Lavransdatter, 725).

Although Kristin is a loving and self-sacrificing mother, she is mercilessly unforgiving of her husband. So, over time these small thoughts have become a process that is now a familiar pattern to her. Kristin’s unwillingness to forgive blocks the feminine light in her heart and gives birth to rancor. In a twisted way Kristin enjoys her internal rehashing’s of Erlend’s mistakes. Erlend goes about the day carefree, looking to enjoy life with his wife and sons. Though she is fully practicing the faith, it is Kristin who is really trapped. As a result, it colors her attitudes about everything in her life and shrouds her vision in darkness.

In many ways, Kristin embodies sins that come more easily to women. Women are geniuses at nurturing life in others. Wouldn’t it make sense that the areas and patterns of sin for women reside in this sphere? Women are star manipulators; feminine sinfulness manifests itself in cattiness, jealousy, or a kind of twisty-turning revenge in which Kristin engages.

Kristin lives in stark contrast to the men in her life. Everyone I know who has read the book falls in love with Lavrans. The women love him; the men want to be him. He is the epitome of manliness, courage, steadfastness, and love. He is not only a warrior fighting for his country in the days of his youth, but he is a prudent landowner, townsman, and father. He is loving towards his family and generous with the poor. He does not parade his faith, but trusts in God and seeks to please him above all else in a way that is deeply personal and self-sacrificing.

Lavrans embodies so many of the virtues that I hope to instill in the young men in my English classes. He is not just hard-working, but he also has moral courage. Everyone trusts Lavrans to do and seek the right thing once he has ascertained it.

Kristin’s husband, Erland, possesses his own virtues, but the list is shorter. In a word, Erland is patriotic. He loves his country at great cost to himself and his family, but what Erland wields in love for his country, he lacks in prudence. Erland ultimately is a man who lives by his passions. When Lavrans and Erland are traveling back to see Kristin’s first child, the following dawns on Lavrans:

It was a pity about Erland; he could have been fit for better things than seducing women. If only times had been such that a chieftain could have taken this man in hand and put him to use… but as the world was now, when every man had to depend on his own judgement about so many things… and a man in Erland’s circumstances was supposed to make decisions for himself and for the welfare of many other people. And this was Kristin’s husband.”[3]

In other words, Lavrans doubted that Erland possesses any moral courage. He effuses sexual love, but it overtakes so much of his personality that no one takes him seriously. He is an easy target for Kristin’s hatred, because his weakness is so apparent. He lacks self-control and no one trusts him for it.

It is true Kristin sleeps with a man before she is married to him, but that is not her chief problem. Her problem is self-will; Kristin has to have things her way. This is quickly followed by anger, and revenge, to say nothing of self-pity. Erland has seduced another man’s wife and has two children with her before he even meets Kristin. But, again, although lust is where he falls down, it’s his lack of self-control (part of the virtue of temperance) that is the real root. Erland says whatever he is thinking; he has a startlingly negligent way of seeing his station in life as a nobleman and a father.


I offer these character sketches as an opportunity for readers to look at their own lives. Seeing the patterns of sin in our lives as opportunities for grace, healing, and conversion are all apart of living Lent during the Jubilee Year of Mercy more intensely. God is always looking for ways to manifest his mercy to us. I share an example from my own life.

The biggest blessing of my life happened in the midst of attending the University of Texas at Austin, when I encountered a wonderful group of friends who taught me the joy of living the faith more by actions than by words. After not practicing the Christianity that I had learned in childhood as a Protestant, I came into full communion with the Catholic Church in 2001.

During this special time as I was learning about Catholic practices, I began to understand the importance of going to confession regularly. My friends made it a point to go at least once a month. In this regular practice I could see how much they were growing in self-possession, maturity, and charity. They truly seemed to be so much closer to God when they humbled themselves this way. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “Indeed the regular confession of our venial sins helps us form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit. By receiving more frequently through this sacrament the gift of the Father’s mercy, we are spurred to be merciful as he is merciful” (Catechism, 1458). I was twenty when I made my first confession, and I had lived long enough to commit some pretty big sins. Even though I initially went with trepidation to the confessional, I discovered that those bigger sins were not the hardest to confess.

In Undset’s novel, Kristin is able to see clearly how her personal mortal sin leads her to other venial sins, like gossip, vanity, pride, jealousy and vice versa. After my first confession with the “bigger” sins, it was later in the day-to-day examination of conscience that the deeper work began for me. So I started looking at the smaller areas of sin that would be easier to sweep under the rug—maybe it was an uncharitable comment here, or a jealous thought there, and slowly the deeper patterns of sin in my life started to come to the surface. I began asking myself: What is motivating my vanity, jealousy, or gossip? Where am I feeling insecure about my identity? I discovered these were precisely the opportunities which Jesus wanted me to let him in a more authentic way; they were also some of the most painful experiences I have had. The darkness and mire of sin that I had allowed to cloud my vision slowly melted away against the backdrop of the Father’s love.

In the context of frequent confession, I started to learn that unforgiveness is more than just the pain in my chest that tells me I am angry: it’s a poison that I choose to drink and it infects the way I see those I love, myself, and God. I’ve discovered that when I’m unforgiving, it’s not just towards the instigator; instead, suddenly everything is wrong with me, God, and the world. Unforgiveness is a poison I choose and it affects everything in my life, not just the isolated instances where I’m angry. It is the same with Kristin. She isn’t just angry with Erland; rather, her bitterness surfaces in her interactions with her children, their neighbors in the countryside, and with God. She lashes out exteriorly, but she is never able to admit interiorly that she is the one she is mad at, she is the one who didn’t say no to Erland when he seduced her. She is facing the constant accusation, “You are the man,” like the prophet Nathan says to David, after he has seduced Bathsheba.

Regular confession is both difficult and freeing. On the one hand, making a habit of going to confession means I have to “face the music” regularly; on the other hand it means that I don’t have to lie to myself about where I’m weak. As I was converting and beginning this process, I started to become good at admitting my mistakes outside of the sacrament. This started to build reconciliation in my relationships before I even had to hit my knees in the confessional. In addition to avoiding episodes that I knew would be temptations for me, it also helped me to forgive myself. We are our own first neighbors, after all. I started to get excited that I didn’t have to carry around these burdens anymore. I was empowered to change my thoughts and my actions.

The Church sees confession as an integral part of day-to-day conversion, everyday holiness, everyday happiness. In the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis connects confession with pilgrimage. There are immense graces associated with this tradition. In his Bull of Indiction, Pope Francis suggests that one of the means of obtaining mercy during this Jubilee is to go on pilgrimage. He writes: “May pilgrimage be an impetus to conversion: by crossing the threshold of the Holy Door, we will find the strength to embrace God’s mercy and dedicate ourselves to being merciful with others as the Father has been with us.”[4] He goes on to mention opportunities for pilgrims to come to Rome and receive special indulgences for the Jubilee.

Throughout Kristin Lavransdatter, Kristin participates in the Christian tradition of going on pilgrimage. At the end of her life, Kristin is on a pilgrimage to her last destination. As she is musing about her life, she realizes that, “surely she had never asked God for anything except that He should let her have her will. And every time she had been granted what she asked for—for the most part. Now here she sat with a contrite heart—not because she had sinned against God but because she was unhappy that she had been allowed to follow her will to the road’s end.”[5] Still, Kristin knows that the source of her misery was actually doing her own will; it’s both the virtue of hope and a movement of grace later in the next few pages that keep her from being dismayed by it. Sin, on the whole, is choosing our will over God’s, and it leads to our greatest unhappiness, even if we don’t always realize it in the beginning. Despite all her foibles and misplaced loves, she is able to surrender all to him in her last moments. She has several of these moments of grace, and many of them are on pilgrimage.


Because I’m an English Teacher at heart, I will conclude with one more example of mercy and conversion in literature. There is an episode in The Wind in the Willows that I can’t help but think of when I want to describe to someone else what it is like to meet Christ.

It goes like this. Rate and Mole are up in the middle of the night looking for Baby Otter, who has wandered off away from his family. In the midst of this act of charity, Rat and Mole are perched in their boat out on the river and come to a strange island. The author writes:

“The line of the horizon was clear and hard against the sky, and in one particular quarter it showed black against a silvery climbing phosphorescence that grew and grew…

’There it is again!’ he cried, alert once more. Entranced, he was silent for a long space, spellbound…. ‘O Mole! the beauty of it! The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear, happy call of the distant piping! Such music I never dreamed of, and the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet! Row on, Mole, row! For the music and the call must be for us’…. The Mole, greatly wondering, obeyed. `I hear nothing myself,’ he said…. Breathless and transfixed the Mole stopped rowing as the liquid run of that glad piping broke on him like a wave, caught him up, and possessed him utterly…. For a space they hung there…then the clear imperious summons that marched hand-in-hand with the intoxicating melody imposed its will on Mole… And the light grew steadily stronger….`Here, in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him!’…. Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror—indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy—but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near… and still the light grew and grew.”

This passage captures the magnificence of man’s encounter with the Divine. It is a riveting, staggering, unplanned rendezvous that takes them unawares. This wonder that Mole and Rat experience is the normal response to the all-encompassing nature of God’s presence and mercy. In whatever resolutions or practices that we may make for the Year of Mercy, let us pray that we may meet Christ’s gaze when we encounter Him.

This essay was originally delivered at the Adult Faith Formation Retreat, St. Laurence Catholic Church, Sugarland, Texas. It first appeared here in March, 2016.


[1] National Catholic Register, “Pope Francis Announces Jubilee of Mercy,” accessed 8/21/2015

[2] Reinert, 76

[3] Undset, 379

[4] Misericordiae Vultus, “Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy,” accessed 8/31/2015

[5] Undset, 1071

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