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  • Forskeren

Kristin's First Encounter with Brother Edvin

Updated: Mar 29, 2022

I'm rereading Kristin Lavransdatter, since the first time I didn't take any notes. I am kicking myself, but at the time, I didn't quite realise I would be researching for a PhD.

Lavransdatter, Audenssøn and Gymnademia are full of great spiritual dialogues and internal monologues that I will be using in my studies, and as I come across them, I'll put them up here for your edification.

This first recounts Kristin's introduction to Brother Edvin in Hamar. Like all great artists he is somewhat of a mystic, and - while not without his flaws - rather a saintly man.

Kristin marvels at his stunning painting of an altar reredos, but the conversation broadens beyond art...

“It seems to me that the dragon is awfully small,” said Kristin, looking at the image of the saint who was her namesake. “It doesn’t look as if it could swallow up the maiden.”

“And it couldn’t, either,” said Brother Edvin. “It was no bigger than that. Dragons and all other creatures that serve the Devil only seem big as long as we harbor fear within ourselves. But if a person seeks God with such earnestness and desire that he enters into His power, then the power of the Devil at once suffers such a great defeat that his instruments become small and impotent. Dragons and evil spirits shrink until they are no bigger than goblins and cats and crows. As you can see, the whole mountain that Saint Sunniva was trapped inside is so small that it will fit on the skirt of her cloak.”

“But weren’t they inside the caves?” asked Kristin. “Saint Sunniva and the Selje men? Isn’t that true?”

The monk squinted at her and smiled again.

“It’s both true and not true. It seemed to be true for the people who found the holy bodies. And it seemed true to Sunniva and the Selje men, because they were humble and believed that the world is stronger than all sinful people. They did not imagine that they might be stronger than the world because they did not love it. But if they had only known, they could have taken all the mountains and flung them out into the sea like tiny pebbles. No one and nothing can harm us, child, except what we fear and love.”

“But what if a person doesn’t fear and love God?” asked Kristin in horror.

The monk put his hand on her golden hair, gently tilted her head back, and looked into her face. His eyes were blue and open wide.

“There is no one, Kristin, who does not love and fear God. But it’s because our hearts are divided between love for God and fear of the Devil, and love for this world and this flesh, that we are miserable in life and death. For if a man knew no yearning for God and God’s being, then he would thrive in Hell, and we alone would not understand that he had found his heart’s desire. Then the fire would not burn him if he did not long for coolness, and he would not feel the pain of the serpent’s bite if he did not long for peace.”

Kristin looked up into his face; she understood nothing of what he said.

Brother Edvin continued, “It was because of God’s mercy toward us that He saw how our hearts were split, and He came down to live among us, in order to taste, in fleshly form, the temptations of the Devil when he entices us with power and glory, and the menace of the world when it offers us blows and contempt and the wounds of sharp nails in our hands and feet. In this manner He showed us the way and allowed us to see His love.”

The monk looked down into the child’s strained and somber face. Then he laughed a little and said in an entirely different tone of voice, “Do you know who was the first one to realize that Our Lord had allowed Himself to be born? It was the rooster. He saw the star and then he said—and all the animals could speak Latin back then—he cried, ‘Christus natus est!’ ”

Brother Edvin crowed out the last words, sounding so much like a rooster that Kristin ended up howling with laughter. And it felt so good to laugh, because all the strange things that he had just been talking about had settled upon her like a burden of solemnity.

The monk laughed too.

“It’s true. Then when the ox heard about it, he began to bellow, ‘Ubi, ubi, ubi?’

“But the goat bleated and said, ‘Betlem, Betlem, Betlem.’ “And the sheep was so filled with longing to see Our Lady and her Son that he baa’d at once, ‘Eamus, eamus!’

“And the newborn calf lying in the straw got up and stood on his own legs. ‘Volo, volo, volo!’ he said.

“Haven’t you heard this before? No, I should have known. I realize that he’s a clever priest, that Sira Eirik who lives up there with you, and well educated, but he probably doesn’t know about this because it’s not something you learn unless you journey to Paris. . . .”

“Have you been to Paris then?” asked the child.

“God bless you, little Kristin, I’ve been to Paris and traveled elsewhere in the world as well, and yet you mustn’t think me any better for it, because I fear the Devil and love and desire this world like a fool. But I hold on to the cross with all my strength—one must cling to it like a kitten hanging on to a plank when it falls into the sea.

“And what about you, Kristin? How would you like to offer up those lovely curls of yours and serve Our Lady like these brides that I’ve painted here?”

“There are no other children at home besides me,” replied Kristin. “So I will probably marry, I would think. Mother has already filled chests and trunks with my dowry.”

“Yes, I see,” said Brother Edvin, stroking her forehead. “That’s the way folk dispatch their children these days. To God they give the daughters that are lame and blind and ugly and infirm; or if they think He has given them too many children, they let Him take some of them back. And yet they wonder why the men and maidens who live in the cloisters are not all holy people. . . .”

(Penguin edition, translated by Tiina Nunnally, pp. 34-37)

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