Recently I picked Good News About Sex and Marriage by Christopher West. This is the first of West’s books I’ve read; but several years ago I listened to a recording of one of his seminars on cd (Naked Without Shame here on 10 cds for just $3.90) and last May we attended a day-long seminar in Boston (read my blog about it here). There isn’t much new in the book to me therefore, but it’s still a good read and a useful overview. It’s been good food for thought. It’s easy to get through and highly recommended. I believe this is one of the most accessible book for beginners and a good place to start for those put off by more theological language.
Anyway, as I’ve been reading, I’ve been thinking more about Kristin Lavransdatter and what a wonderfully Catholic novel it is, such a good exploration of the Catholic understanding of the vocation of marriage. And a great illustration of the truth of many of the Church’s teachings about sexuality which are now so misunderstood. (As the deplorable cover blurbs I wrote about in my last post so aptly illustrate.)
I haven’t a fully formulated anything coherent and I don’t have time or energy or focus to do the topic justice. But I thought I copy some quotes that I underlined as I was reading Good News, from the chapter specifically dealing with premarital sex, and use them as jumping-off points for some random musings on the novel:
There are definite spoilers for the novel, so if you don’t want important plot points ruined, don’t read any further.
Yet if this issue is left unaddressed, a couple who enters marriage having already engaged in sex with each other or with other people will inevitably face difficulties, perhaps totally unaware that the pain they’re experiencing stems from the wounds of illicit sex.
This was at the heart of the novel for me. Kristin’s marriage with Erlend is wounded from the beginning because of their illicit sexual relationship. It seems to me Kristin is very self aware and generally understands those premarital encounters as the root of the pain in her marriage.
Authentic love is ready to sacrifice everything for the good of the beloved. Above all, it never entices another to do evil. To engage in gravely disordered kinds of behavior and encourage one’s beloved to do so as well manifests an attitude diametrically opposed to authentic love. At the very least, it manifests a blatant ignorance of the meaning of marriage.
I think Kristin does have an understanding of the meaning of marriage, at least more so than Erlend. Erlend is very childish, though of course he also didn’t have any good role models to help him form a healthy understanding of marriage. Kristin’s parents’ marriage may be wounded– in fact I found that encounter between Lavrans and his wife where they confront their hitherto-unspoken brokenness one of the most poignant moments of the novel– but despite that woundedness, there is still a solid foundation of faith that Lavrans passes on to Kristin. And a strong element of self-sacrifice on both their parts.
Willingness to engage in premarital sex demonstrates an implicit acceptance of sex outside of marriage. Thus it should be no surprise that studies indicate much higher rates of adultery among couple who engaged in premarital sex as compared with those who don’t.
This theme popped up again and again. Erlend’s disastrous affair is hardly surprising precisely because his understanding of marriage so damaged. But adultery is actually quite common in many of the minor characters. And even many of the priests have children out of wedlock. What was fascinating to me was seeing how the children of these extramarital relationships are invariably wounded in one way or another.
Premarital sexual activity establishes a pattern of self-indulgence that fosters the very vices (lust, pride, selfishness, dishonesty, distrust, sloth and more) that serve to undermine– and if not addressed destroy– the healthy relationship of a husband and wife.
You can almost use this list of vices as a checklist as you go through Kristin and Erlend’s marriage. At one time or another one or the both of them indulges in most of these vices. And I think Undset draws the lines quite clearly, showing how one vice fosters others. Also how the wounded relationship of the parents does grave damage to the children and fosters in them the various vices that so distress their mother, though she finds herself helpless, unable to stop the behavior that is hurting her children.
Of course, even before they were married their sinful relationship led Kristin and Erlend to commit the murder of his former mistress and the mother of his children. The clearest example of one vice leading to another.
Sexual intimacy clouds a couple’s judgment of their relationship, preventing them from reaching the objective assessment essential to discerning an authentic vocation to marriage.
The novel kept coming back to this point. If Erlend hadn’t seduced Kristin would she have broken off her engagement? Would her judgment of his faults have been more level-headed? Would she have realized that Simon really was the better mate for her, even if she didn’t feel passionately about him? It seemed clear to me that Simon would have made Kristin a good husband, that their marriage would have been full of love and happiness. I think if she had married him she would have come to love him even more passionately than she loved Erlend, and with a more authentic, Christ-like love. That to me is the essential tragedy of the novel.
Everything hinged on that one decision. Simon’s unhappy marriage with Kristin’s sister, even, was clearly a very misguided union because she was merely a substitute in his mind for her sister; but I wonder how much of the unhappiness of (and adultery in) his first marriage was also because of the same wound caused by Kristin’s breaking of their engagement and because of his witnessing of his intended in the illicit sexual relationship with Erlend. It wasn’t just that she “broke up” with him but that witnessing her sexual sin and taking the blame on himself he also became complicit in a way with that sin. He had failed to defend his bride and that wounded his masculinity.
And of course Undset shows very well how Kristin’s sin wounds her father and her mother and her sister’s. There is a real sense of the corporate nature of sin, a wound in the Body of Christ that affects all its members. This theme is echoed on the political level too with all the intriguing around the throne and the various illicit relationships among the great peers of the realm, especially the king’s son who is suspected of homosexual sins.
I’ve also been thinking though about the various endings: Erlend’s tragic death with all the weight of his sins still on his head, Simon’s slightly better death, having made some peace with his past, and Kristin’s self-sacrificial death, which I thought was the perfect ending for the novel. I loved that her redemption was not easy, that even in the cloister she is still dealing with all her baggage and until the very end her motives are mixed. There is as much pride as charity in her response to the mob. And yet there you also see a glimpse of what she should have been, could have been, had she not had such a heavy weight to carry.
I liked that the novel showed that her spiritual journey was not a smooth climb but involved many steps forward followed by regression. I loved the recurring theme of pilgrimage. Life is, after all, a pilgrimage.
My previous post about Kristen is here: https://www.thewinedarksea.com/2008/01/16/kristin_lavransdatter/