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Synopsis: The Burning Bush

Synopsis of the sequel to The Wild Orchid. In this second part of the Paul Selmer duology, Paul finally becomes a Catholic, he and Bjørg suffer tragedy, the marriage difficulties when she runs off to Denmark. Lucy reappears and makes Paul’s life rather more complicated. Through all of these, Paul struggles – sometimes successfully, other times not so well. His unemotional and at times reluctant faith brings him to his knees.

Dramatis Personæ

Christiania [Oslo]:

Paul Selmer: the protagonist

Julie Randall-Selmer: Paul’s mother

Tua: Paul’s younger sister

Hans: Paul’s younger brother

Sigmund: Paul’s youngest brother

Erik Selmer: Paul’s father

Lillian: Paul’s father’s second wife

Halstein Garnaas: Tua’s beloved, a parson

Uncle Abraham: Erik’s brother; a parson

Lucy Arneson: Paul’s first love

Randi Alme: Old school friend of Paul and now a Catholic

Harald Tangen: Catholic priest

Ole Jacobsen: Paul’s father-in-law

Herman Løvstø: Lucy’s husband

Jack Alster: Henrik’s son (see below)

Arnt Hauan: Paul’s lawyer


Bjørg Berge: Paul’s wife

Sunnie: Paul’s daughter

Helge: Paul’s son

Henrik Alster: Paul’s friend and business partner

Berit: Henrik’s wife

Lillemor: Berit’s daughter

Frøken Raaen: clerk at the business

Nils: errand boy

Mortensen: engineer and friend of Paul

Else: Mortensen’s wife

The country:

Jo Braastadlykkjen: sculptor employed by Paul

Ruth: Paul’s cousin

Bubbe: Bjørg’s little boy Johannes

A view of the gospel side of the old high altar in St Olav's Church (now cathedral) in Oslo, during paschaltide


1. It is 1916 and Paul’s company has been blacklisted by the English for Henrik Alster’s acting as intermediary in some German purchases of oil and fish. Paul is not at all sympathetic to the Germans; Henrik is married to one. Paul’s father dies and Bjørg gives birth to a boy: Helge. Paul says prayers with Sunnie for the first time and realises that he has admitted to her that he is a believer. There is no going back on this now. When Bjørg finds out she is not amused, but comes to a compromise. Sunnie can say her prayers in bed, but there are to be no signs of the cross! When her mother isn’t about, she shows her father the sign of the cross with a mischievous giggle: “You do that too, papa”.

2. In 1917, Paul leaves the Trondheim firm and takes over the stone works in the Gudbrandsdal for himself and he would mover there if he could, but Bjørg would be too bored. The change seems to be good for the marriage, and Paul and Bjørg are very fond of each other. Being immersed in nature makes Paul think of the beauty, eternity, reality, original sin. He loves his time with Sunnie, who is a charming though stubborn child. After being told off and given a smack, she comes to the window and spits at her father: ‘“I can spit down at you, papa, but you can’t spit up at me!” He gave up and ran, so that the youngster shouldn’t see that he was laughing.’

3. Paul stumbles across Henrik’s wife Berit in Sweden, having an affair with a scoundrel. He says nothing to Henrik, who seems to already have his suspicions about Berit. Paul takes Sunnie to High Mass in Trondheim for the first time where she is beautifully behaved – and engrossed in a beautiful holy card given to her. When they return home, Bjørg quizzes Sunnie and laughs at her for not grasping the story of the St Stephen. Later she chides Paul for allowing Sunnie to make fun of religion when it should be treated with reverence. He replies, “I think that a little child amusing herself is one of the most solemn sights on earth.” Paul has decided that day to ask instruction from Fr Harald Tangen next time he is in Christiania.

4. Paul takes the plunge and sees Harald Tangen, though is disappointed when he isn’t given a spiritual stripping down. Harald hands him a catechism to study and the two will meet fortnightly. Immediately after this he visits his cousin, Ruth, and they talk of women’s liberation, religious feeling and natural religion – all the things he had planned to discuss with Harald Tangen.

5. Paul muses on a variety of subjects: religious sentiment, the nature of God and God in nature, the “Jesus of faith” and the “Jesus of history”, objective and subjective foundations of morality and the limits of self-imposed morality. He has a new home in the Romerike district at the south end of the Gudbrandsdal and is preparing it for Bjørg and the children. Fr Tangen has told Paul to speak to Bjørg about his becoming a Catholic.

6. Paul attends the Easter Triduum for the first time and is impressed with the physical realism of the ceremonies. Bjørg tells him that Henrik discovered Berit’s affair and Paul begs her – out of respect for his friendship with Henrik – not to speak of it with her parents. He finally reveals his intention to be received into the Catholic Church and Bjørg takes it better than he expected. “But I tell you this – you’re not going to be allowed to drag priests and such like into the house – so that they turn the children’s heads with any fanciful stuff”. Last preparations are made with Fr Tangen. Paul feels coldness at the idea of his reception at this late stage, but he remains convinced that the Church’s teachings are true. “So the only thing to do was to get it over. Afterwards it would have to be God’s affair to thaw him and put fresh vital sap into the dried up mass of tissue that composed his soul. And that was what the sacraments were there for—” He will ask Herr Eberhard, a Catholic acquaintance, to be his sponsor.

7. Paul goes to the church, hoping to avoid any fuss at his reception as a Catholic, but finds several nuns and the Gotaases as well as the Eberhards present. He does his best to pray fervently to be generous with God and follow his will. He is makes the profession of faith and goes to confession before trying to quickly escape. Surprised to find the whole crowd ready to congratulate him outside, he receives a number of kind gifts including the crucifix from his room at the Gotaases. Fru Gotaas had prayed much for him, her son recounted, and insisted that if Selmer were ever to become a Catholic, he should be given that cross.


1. After eight years of marriage, Paul’s love of Bjørg has gone stale as he now seems an outsider to his familiar circles. He is also of the opinion that she neglects the children. While her Catholic relative is visiting, Bjørg tolerates his Catholicism and even attends the High Mass once or twice. Paul’s mother is disgusted with it all and blames Bjørg for everything, including his faith. Paul will not allow himself to regret his marriage, though, as that would be futile and dishonourable. With her relative gone, Bjørg sours and is clear in her distaste for everything Catholic, even though Paul does his best not to grieve her with it. The children love looking at the Catholic pictures and rosaries Paul keeps shut away, but know they mustn’t when their mother is around. It is 1920 and Bjørg is furious that she is about to have a third child. After giving birth to a healthy little boy, little Erik dies of meningitis and Bjørg flies in a fury at Paul, bitterly complaining that his prayers had done no good at all. Bjørg is continuously hostile to Paul’s attempts to be kind to her but is glad when his cousin Ruth visits. Bjørg accepts an invitation from Henrik Alster to spend time at a sanatorium he has bought. Here she befriends a couple who off to take her to Germany, France and Belgium, but Paul will not allow her to go off for three weeks with people she has only just met. On the return journey, when Paul and Bjørg came across her friends, Bjørg contrives to travel part of the way with them. When Paul believes he has caught up with them, they are gone. Bjørg has left a note that she is determined to go with them abroad.

2. Paul attempts to make the best of it and wires Bjørg some money, while her father takes the opportunity to visit Paul and the children. Six weeks later he receives another note from Bjørg – now having returned to Christiania – again asking for money. She then requests the children down to Hans and his wife Evi. Paul visits Hans and learns that Tua is very ill and in need of an operation. Paul reflects with frustration that despite his conversion, he still has to struggle with old habits of impatience, arrogance and indifference. At Communion, he turns to the Sacred Heart: “Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make my heart like unto thine”.

3. Hans is overworked and exhausted, Tua is contantly ill and Sigmund has made a hash of his career. But Paul knows that of all of them, he is the greatest disappointment to his mother who is suspicious of all things Catholic. She complains about Tua’s marriage with Halstein and his overzealous care of his wife. If only she had been able to get some experience of married life before she got married. She would like them to get a divorce. Paul is not in agreeance. After a further week there is still no word from Bjørg and Julie inquiries about the possibility of a divorce for Paul, as Bjørg’s new friend, Fru Schjistad, has been going about saying Bjørg and Paul are to get one. Paul’s determination to fetch Bjørg from Copenhagen is thwarted when Tua suddenly dies of heart failure.

4. Bjørg breaks her silence to send condolence to Paul and the family. Julie is inconsolable and sits “like a tigress from whom they have taken her young”. Paul takes himself to Copenhagen but finds Bjørg and her mother left their hotel three days earlier. She left a note saying that she had unpleasant news for him and would explain in person. He finds her looking very well and attractive. Bjørg suggests the children come to stay with her and her mother in Copenhagen, but Paul won’t hear anything of it. Her mother blames Paul for treating Bjørg badly and suggests that the State Church would grant a divorce and award the children to Bjørg, as Paul is a Catholic. Paul refuses to speak to his mother-in-law about it, and reminds her of the limit of her authority of Bjørg. Husband and wife go to dinner, and Bjørg weeps over her lost son. Paul tries to comfort her with a sense of purpose in having given Erik life – and eternal life. She complains that she isn’t wealthy or talented, but Paul tells her the greatest talent and most important work of all is motherhood. At last she agrees to come home, but once back at her hotel, her mother talks it out of her. Fru Jacobsen berates Paul about imprudent business dealings and his treatment of Bjørg as a “breeding machine”. Paul leaves them for a while, only to discover that his mother-in-law has truly had a heart attack. There is no getting Bjørg back now, for the time being. He doubts there could be a man on the scene.

5. Jacobsen visits Paul to tell him there is a man on the scene! Paul laughs when he hears the gentleman is supposed to be from Czechoslovakia or Greece. Then he wonders if it could be true, after all. Even if so, he cannot bring himself to be jealous, and rather sees Bjørg in a more human light. He cannot believe she would go as far as real infidelity. Jacobsen suggests it may be as well Bjørg has such a dragon to guard her. Paul holds onto the prospect of their return after hearing from his lawyers that taking the children is out of the question. Fr Tangen advises him to take no further steps, as he believes the love interest is imaginary and that Bjørg will in the end return to the children. Paul follows his advice.

6. In the summer, Ruth spends time with the children in the country with Paul and Lillian, who is considering buying a villa with two storeys to share with Halstein and the children. Paul comes home one evening to find Jo Braastadlykkjen being entertained by Ruth – there is clearly something between them. Paul and Ruth see Jo to his lodgings after a long walk and a long row there and back. Ruth is acting peculiarly to Paul, and he is disturbed she might have some strange notion. An outraged Lillian reveals Halstein has remarried just eight months after Tua’s death, but Paul is sympathetic to his brother-in-law. Lillian insinuates that Paul and Ruth would make a great match, and no one would blame them after Bjørg’s behaviour – and the Catholic Church is so brilliant that it must be able to find a way to a divorce. Paul leaves, reeling in disbelief and discomfort. He doesn’t want to see Ruth go, but he knows he can’t spend much more time with her. Reflecting on Halstein’s new wife, Sunnie tells Paul he is never to remarry.

7. At the end of summer, with Bjørg is still in Denmark, Paul determines to sell one business to focus on the other. He will send his children to the Catholic school in Christiania and rent the old room at the Gotaas house, which now belongs to their son, Wilfrid and his family. Paul misses the old Gotaases and the charm of the old place that seem infused with charity. Julie wavers in her atheism but is drawn to the spiritualists with the hope of seeing Tua again. Paul would prefer she remains an atheist through what he considers invincible ignorance, rather than to go in for such bizarre nonsense: “eternal life which is anything but uninterrupted insight into God is hell, as once must discover sooner or later”. Paul meets Henrik who plans to leave Berit to marry a younger woman, to Paul’s disappointment. Even if Henrik’s union to the divorced Berit would not be considered a marriage by Catholics, that he accepted her back after her indiscretion and is now going back on his word is unchivalrous. Henrik urges Paul to give up his increasingly unprofitable chief business, but Paul is not ready for that yet.

8. Sunnie and Helge love their boarding school, St Joseph’s Institute in Christianity and Paul gets all their news every week. Bjørg is still away, and Paul reflects that he did indeed spend too much time away from her. He understands that one’s sins may be forgiven, but one must nevertheless confront the effects of sin. Ruth takes Paul on, challenging him on his persistence in his religion. Eventually she wrests from him an admittance that he cares for her - but he would never turn his back on the one to whom he committed himself. Ruth loves Paul and is sorry he won’t leave Bjørg – both for her own sake and for his.

9. Bjørg’s father dies suddenly and Paul hopes for his salvation: “Jacobsen had had his purgatory already in this life”. Bjørg writes that she wants a divorce, being in love with another man. She wants the children with her next summer. Paul finds himself indifference rather than desolate. Julie visited Paris to find Sigmund – now a physical wreck – recently married to a Danish variety star. Ruth has married Jo Braastadlykkjen and is pregnant. Hans’ wife tells Paul her husband is a drug addict and his affairs are in tatters. He has disappeared for three days. In the end, Paul finds Hans, probably contemplating suicide for ruining his wife’s prospects. Paul determines to help his brother and will sell his business to do so. Sunnie and Helge are to be confirmed, and Sr Marie-Halvard (Randi, now returned to Norway as a teaching sister), gives Paul regular updates on the high-spirited Helge. Helge is confirmed Christopher (because he loves motor cars) and Sunnie, Paula. She asks her father to call her by that name from now on: “Sunlife, that isn’t a name really – ish!” Word arrives that Bjørg’s mother has also died. Paul “had caused some masses to be said for her soul – and he assumed they were needed”. At a dinner with Paul’s other, brothers and their wives and children, Sunnie suddenly becomes ill with inflamed lungs; she is delirious and has terrible pains. Thinking about death, she assert that she should like to die as a sacrifice to Jesus – for a soul, she says. Paul is heartbroken when Sunnie tells him he has to offer her up to God. Sobbingly he says: “Yes, yes, yes, Sunnie, I’ll say it. My God, I offer her up to Thee”, and he loses consciousness. To Hans’ horror and annoyance, Paul arranges for the priest to administer the last sacraments. He is convinced she will die after the priest’s visit. On the contrary, she sleeps for the rest of the night and all pain has left her – much to her bewilderment. Paul had informed Bjørg of Sunnie’s serious state and receives a telegram that she is returning. Finally, after several years, Bjørg returns rather haggard-looking, downcast, on edge with everyone at home and feeling somewhat of an outsider. Paul shows Bjørg only kindness and she eventually breaks down and tells him how she regrets everything. She says she has been made a fool of and the last tryst finished as the man in question was still married after all. She asks if she may stay and Paul tells her he wants her to, and that the children have a right to her. When she tells Paul of how he had wronged her for so long, treating her like a child, he takes his share of the blame, but when she begs him to stay in her room with him for the night, he is utterly disgusted and extricates himself. “She was so—so absolutely revolting he thought her, as she clung to him—and at the same time he had never before felt so completely that they were both human beings and that the bond between them was unbreakable—it was an actual fact.” Paul sends both Bjørg and Sunnie to a sanatorium where Bjørg reveals she is pregnant – from her time in Denmark. When Paul tells her that it makes no difference in the question of her staying, she promises never to stand in the way of his or the children’s Catholicism again: “For now I can see that you’re a true, living Chris

1. While waiting for family, Paul meets Lucy again at a club. Lucy is separated from her husband and is bringing her two surviving children up alone, supporting them with a sweets-shop she has opened in Oslo. Paul feels obliged to ask her if she would like to dance and they do. Paul drops her off at the train station. Some days later she comes to his office to ask for loan of 600 crowns – which he gives her. She is in a desperate situation since her husband, Herman Løvstø, abandoned her and the children. Seeing her out, Paul refuses to be disparaging, considering how humiliating it would be for him if he were obliged to ask for help.

2. Sunnie visits Paul at his office and speaks of her exploits in school, explaining why her grades are average. She is bored there and would like to attend a Dominican convent school in England with her friend. She asks Paul if he would not be happy if she became a nun. Paul replies with an emphatic ‘no’. She explains her reasons to Paul – though of course she is too young. Paul promises to “pray that your lot may fall as is best for you”. Helge is now an independent little fellow, is serious about his prayers, but doesn’t make a show of it – unlike Sunnie who always likes to talk about God. Bjørg’s child – Bubbe – has a mental disability, and Bjørg thinks this is a punishment from God. Julie would have Paul be done with both Bjørg and “the changeling”, but Paul refuses to abandon them. He feels pity for the child and believes it would have been much harder to love him if he were not afflicted like this. Bjørg herself is somewhat frightened by Bubbe, and is keeps her distance from Sunnie who loves the child and cares for him. She gets on quite will with Helge. Paul, Sunnie and Helge share a bond in their Catholicism outside of which Bjørg remains a stranger. Paul considers selling their home in the country with his now unprofitable business. Julie would have him take over her business instead. Paul takes Sunnie and Lisa Eberhard to Newcastle to visit Lisa’s aunt, Monika Gotaas. Paul delivers Sunnie and Lisa to the Dominican convent school: Albertus Magnus College. Before he leaves, he receives a letter that had been following him from Oslo – from Lucy, asking for more help. He sends a postcard to the post office back home, hoping it will be delivered.

3. He finds Lucy’s shop and offers some assistance. She is not in need of money, as she saw Julie who insisted on lending her 200 crowns. Paul offers to send his bookkeeper around to help Lucy get things in order. Paul sees a great deal of Lucy over the following months – not with any particular relish, but only to help her. He realises now that there is nothing particularly special about Lucy except perhaps her toughness. Paul catches the train to visit his mother and sees Lucy get on the same train – only Paul deliberately chooses another carriage. On the way from the station to his mother’s, he finds Lucy’s drunk husband Herman manhandling her and throws him into a ditch before seeing her to her home. She invites in up to meet her children and asks him to stay for tea, but when Paul phones his mother to tell her he will be late, she urges them all to come to her place. Herman is watching from the road but eventually leaves. They walk through the snow to his mother’s home. At last a sledge is called to take Lucy and the children home.

4. Lucy asks Paul to look in on her son who has a bad fever after the trudge through the snow. Both Paul and Lucy are getting nostalgic and Paul feels a struggle surge within. He gets a hold of himself and is about to leave when he can’t help but ask why she left him. She thought he knew from Hans. She had contracted tuberculosis and might have infected him – and any children she may have borne – and she would have to go to a sanatorium. She couldn’t bear putting Paul through all of that and knowing his kindness, decided to break it off herself. She went with Herman because she didn’t really love him. Paul kisses Lucy and tells her he still loves her. Hans confesses he tried to get Lucy to seek treatment, but she refused and made him promise not to tell Paul anything about it. He was going to anyway, until he read that she had married, and thought to spare Paul the anguish. Paul spends the night in his office, struggling with temptations of rebellion against God and the faith. In the morning he goes to St Olav’s church and considers the darkness that surrounded God on the cross. Kneeling at the altar rails, before the Blessed Sacrament, his mind is suddenly blinded: “It was as though a burning bush drew him into itself, closed around him, consumed him, and yet he continued to exist—then it released him again, then it was no more, but it left behind a paralyzing sense of happiness”. He finds he has been weeping. He goes to confession and receives encouragement and advice that where there is war there is danger and fear – but that is not the same as cowardice or despondency.

5. Paul pays off Lucy’s last debts but without visiting her himself. After he and Bjørg go to the theatre and he spies Lucy and her husband there, she asks him to call in to see her. Not without trepidation, Paul visits her shop and she detects a change from the last meeting. Over a bottle of sherry, she explains she wants to divorce her husband and Paul tells her that he doesn’t believe in it. All the same, she asks if Paul will come by her house again for a visit. “That would be playing with fire”, he says. She continues to tempt him, but he is resolute. Still, he tells her he has never loved anyone as he has loved her and that is not likely to ever change. Lucy resigns herself to the disappointment. Paul buys a house at Vindern, on the doorstep of Oslo. As Bjørg is not up to moving, Paul sends her to a sanatorium while he tends to it, staying at his mother’s house in the meantime. Henrik’s son Jack, a former communist, is now a Catholic and planning to join the Dominicans. While at his mother’s he receives a call from Lucy: Herman is outside and she is scared. Paul takes Hans’ revolver and makes his way to Lucy’s where he finds the glass on the front door smashed in. He finds Herman throttling a bloodied Lucy, her daughter screaming, and her son punching his father. After taking a blow to the jaw, Paul manages to push Herman down the stairs. He puts Lucy – unconscious – to bed and goes to ring the doctor. Herman is dead at the foot of the stairs. He also calls the sheriff: “I find I’ve killed a man”. Paul is taken in to custody by a sympathetic sheriff. He has no regrets for his action, but is sorry for Herman.

6. Paul receives a visit from his lawyer Hauan in jail, who tells Paul he will have to remain there for at least a month. Hauan doesn’t think Paul will be charged, but is not happy that Paul’s spending time and money on Lucy might become public. Lucy herself has been taken to the Catholic hospital. Lucy’s son has given a statement strongly in favour of Paul. Later, Hauan tells Paul that Herman had – among other things – an aneurism on his heart; and he was under the influence of alcohol. Paul confesses and is able to attend Mass in his cell. Later he learns that at about the same time Bubbe has died. Paul is called to the court and hears two convincing witness – the telephonist and the doctor – speak in his favour. Finally, Lucy herself is brought in. She explains that each time Paul looked in on her, it was only after she had asked for help. Paul passes out, feeling that Lucy is going to die from her injuries. In the end, there are to be no charges laid and Paul is released. His mother collects him and takes him to their old home where Bjørg is waiting and throws herself into his arms.

7. At Our Lady’s Hospital, Lucy, seems to be doing as well as can be expected. When Paul goes to see her and she asks him watch over for her children, he tells her that one of the Gotaases and his wife will take them in and keep them if it comes to the worst – if she doesn’t mind them being brought up Catholic. She is glad to know they will be cared for in this way, and is happy if they become Catholic. A few days later she dies of an affection of the brain. Paul goes up to see the dead woman. After her funeral, Paul receives a little bottle that Lucy had kept from the old days. He places it inside a statue of our Lady of Lourdes. “Let her keep it, as she has kept so many other secrets.” On the Seventeenth of May [Norway's national day], Paul is about to celebrate with Bjørg when Sister Marie-Halvard [Randi] calls, asking him to step in to play the folk dances. Paul, Bjørg and Helge, Julie, Hans, his wife Evi and their son Eric meet up with Jo and Ruth Braastadlykkjen with their children, Little Jo and Kari for a lovely afternoon. Paul and Helge taxi off to the school and chats with Sr Marie-Randi, as he now calls her, as they are on familiar terms once more. She speaks about all the good of the past being transformed “in such a way that we understand we shall continue to be ourselves for all eternity”. Paul replies that he believes. She quotes St Paul: “Thy grace is sufficient for me”. “That too, I have begun to understand. Now.” Sr Marie-Halvard is called away to tend to some catastrophe or other as Paul turns to the piano to practice for the dances.

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Eva Van Strijp
Eva Van Strijp
Sep 14, 2022

I was intensely frustrated by Paul's inability to say no to Lucy. Would love to know if you felt he couldn't really get out of it (as thought Fr Auberive and Paul's mother). Also, there's a page in book 3 that I didn't understand (page 271 if you have the Cluny Media edition): all about the various heresies throughout time and... into the future??

Sep 14, 2022
Replying to

As for Fr Falk's summary of the history of the Church, this was in the context of the play about St Cecilia and the challenges facing the Church. His brief overview of the past was accurate. The rest of it is fiction based on his own [read: Sigrid's own] predictions. I found it interesting that she predicts that due to "the growing intellectual paralysis" by the twenty-third century, there would be "a return to animism, the interpretation of dreams, fetishism, the worship of the spirits of ancestors and of eponymous heroes who were erected into local divinities of fertility". She even talks about "the wireless telephone"! As it turns out, these things have come to pass not two centuries after…

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