You know the joke about the pious man? The one who had received a prophecy about the coming hurricane and his own assured safety therefrom? When the hurricane struck, passed up the his friend’s car, then a rescue boat, and finally a helicopter? Having drowned, God asks him what happened. His response? “I was waiting for you to save me, like you promised!”
Of course none of us is so foolish as this poor sap. We’d never miss the obvious rescue for our drowning soul, to lazy, too presumptuous to reach out for the obvious deliverance. I mean this in all honesty; given the obvious salvation, we’d likely take it.
Unfortunately (maybe fortunately too) God’s ways are not man’s. You see, God’s grace is the unexpected rescue. Our missing the boat (so to speak) is far more common and more likely than we’d like to believe. Remember Alanis Morisette’s pop hit “Ironic?” If not, take a trip down memory lane. The difference between life and death, conversion and damnation, hinges on the ability to see (with this 90’s pop musician) that it’s “a little too ironic”, that “life has a funny funny way, of helping you out.” “It’s a free ride, when you’ve already paid / it’s the good advice, that you just didn’t take / and who would’ve thought…it figures.” The grace of redemption rarely looks like the Coast Guard. So rarely is God’s mystery so plain. More often than not, when God offers a hand, I’ll more likely expect a slap in the face than a merciful embrace.
This truth, the prevalence of grace unnoticed, the grace rejected, became obvious to me the same way that the layers of bug guts on my windshield finally come to my attention—someone has to tell me about it! That someone was Nobel Prize winner Sigrid Undset. Her method of communication: the novel Kristin Lavransdatter. (Now, before I go on, I want to acknowledge that “everyone” read this book during the summer. I had no idea at the time. A friend of my wife [Molly Breuning] mentioned last fall that she’d read it during college.) Set in 13th c. Scandinavia, KL narrates the life of a woman whose combination of passionate love and impelling fear continually blind her to the graces offered both to prevent disaster and correct her wayward life.
The first grace is the most obvious, but of course, it is the one given to her as a small child. By a chance of timing, she enjoys an afternoon with the saintly Brother Edwin as he paints a stain-glass window in the church. His comment to her serves as the hermeneutical key, a prophecy, for the rest of Kristin’s life of grace missed, rejected, or (to be charitable) of grace half-embraced. Looking at the painting of her namesake, young Kristin remarks:
“The dragon is all too small, methinks,”…”It looks not as though it could swallow up the maiden.”
“And that it could not either,” said Brother Edwin. “It was not bigger. Dragons and all such-like that serve the devil, seem great only so long as fear is in ourselves. But if a man seek God fervently and with all his soul so that his longing wins into his strength, then does the devil’s power suffer at once such great downfall that his tools become small and powerless—dragons and evil spirits sink down and become no bigger than sprites and cats and crows…No one, nor anything, can harm us child, save what we fear or love.”
But if a body doth not fear nor love God?” asked Kristin, affrighted.
The monk took her yellow hair in his hand, bent Kristin’s head back gently and looked down into her face; his eyes were open and blue.
“There is no man nor woman, Kristin, who does not love and fear God, but ‘tis because our hearts are divided between love of God an fear of the devil and fondness for the world and the flesh, that we are unhappy in life and death. For if a man had not any yearning after God and God’s being, then should he thrive in hell…nor would he feel the torment of the serpents’ bite, if he knew not the yearning for peace.”
The rest of the novel slowly and painfully walks with Kristin through the life of a divided heart, a life of refusing the unexpected rescues that would protect her from harm at the hands of her fears and loves. Worldly loves and fears blind her to the activity and providence of God in her life for her soul’s sake. At every misstep, God offers a rope, but her myopic vision perceives only a noose. Passionate love for Erlend competes against the filial love of her parents. She fears a broken heart more than a broken word and a broken relationship with Lavrans, her father, and Simon Andre, her fiancé. Fear of losing her children to death by sickness competes with fear of pagan superstition. Fear for her children’s future stifles her ability to love them. Their attempts to become worthy men she sees through the lens of this fear.
Eventually, guilt and fear of death (a close call) move Kristin to a kind of Christian repentance, but we see it remains a half-measure. Her confession and penance are the rescue she wants, the rescue she expects. True, she confesses and does penance for her sin fornication, and worse, for deceiving her parents about her being married in the flesh to Erlend before their nuptials. Yet, her newfound love of self-righteousness prevents her from absorbing the mercy of God and granting that mercy to others. She becomes like the servant in the parable who has been forgiven a great sum, yet strangles his fellow man for a much smaller sum. She cannot offer the grace of forgiveness to her husband, Erlend, for his part in leading her astray, for his infidelities, for his foibles, for his inattention to the practical matters of the estate and their children. The grace she refuses for herself becomes a grace refused to others. Unwilling to accept the grace of God’s mercy, she has no mercy to give Erlend, her wayward husband. For Kristin, then, the sacrament of penance becomes a sham of grace. It’s the olive branch she can control and seek, rather than the olive branch God extends to her.
The truest graces offered to Kristin come at the least likely moments. They present themselves in two places, as the appearance of the least likely savior, the apparent enemy. Simon Andresson, the promised husband she has betrayed and jilted, follows her to the harem where she secretly trysts with her paramour, Erlend. Breaking into their upper chamber, Simon confronts Erlend, takes Kristin from his sordid hands, and leads her away. For her part, however, Kristin experiences this rescue as cause for even deeper loathing of this man, whose constancy is true.
A second grace takes the form of Erlend’s concubine, Eline. In a surprise to Erlend and Kristin, Eline appears during a visit to Erlend’s aunt. Witnessing Eline’s demolished psyche, destroyed life, and desperation in seeking Erlend’s return to her and the children they have together ought to have woken Kristin from the nightmare of her sin and its wages. Instead, she rejects this rescue, choosing instead to throw her lot in with Erlend, come what may. Indeed, what comes is testing, for Eline is killed that night in a struggle with Erlend and Kristin, who cover up the death to hide the guilt rapidly accumulating on their hearts’ frozen terrain.
And so goes the tale, on and on, spiraling away from mercy.
Some of you may not have read the novel (yet), so I will not describe its conclusion, yet even without the conclusion in place the lesson learned for me in this beauty is to see the natural consequences of my sin as a grace of divine pedagogy. For example, I’m not inclined to hear a note of grace in my child’s disrespectful back-talk, but my soul’s simply out of tune. The grace is there, behind the distressing disguise. Wakeup, Kent. My child’s attempt to get out of sweeping is learned every time I sigh at or argue with my wife about whether my wife about whether to repaint the hallway or chop down that dead tree. May the wages of sin become a road sign to me: WRONG WAY!
Oh, divine teacher, open our eyes to the unexpected rescue from sin, from fear and love of the world that competes with our belonging to you alone. Non nisi te, Domine.