Sigrid Undset and the Hound of Heaven

Sigrid Undset in Bjerkebæk
Sigrid Undset in Bjerkebæk (photo: Avilde Torp, via Wikimedia Commons)

I recently finished reading Sigrid Undset’s The Master of Hestviken, having also read Kristen Lavransdattar and Catherine of Siena, and I am struck once again by her ability to understand humanity. One of the overriding themes in Undset’s works is God’s continual pursuit of a soul to the very end. She narrates nearly perfectly the interior state of her characters in all of their thoughts, experiences, desires, and inability to see truth. And, since her characters are so much like real people, they fall from grace, and live long lives of wallowing in their sins, and fleeing from a pursuing God who wants only to love them and to be loved in return.

The way she shows God’s continual, steady desire for humans to turn to him is reminiscent of Francis Thompson’s poem The Hound of Heaven, which begins with these lines:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
   I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
  Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears

And ends in these:

Halts by me that footfall:
   Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
   'Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
   I am He Whom thou seekest!

Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.'

The haunting feel of this poem, the depiction of God who pursues the sinner who seeks joy elsewhere, is perfectly embodied in Undset’s works. She also has the same theme in her biography of Saint Catherine of Siena, who does not flee from her Lord, but is used by him as a means to bring grace to those who did. Undset, herself, who was a convert, knew from personal experience how to so beautifully put God’s pursuit into words. So many times in reading The Master of Hestviken, I would put the book down and weep or eagerly read on through my tears because of the beauty in the way that she expressed the human condition in relation to our Savior.

The two novels of Undset that I mentioned are set in medieval Norway where Christians lived in a tension between their pagan past and the Church. There are scenes in which the characters sing old ballads containing Norse mythology, and they speak of giants and fell creatures in the woods who are still to be feared. And while Christianity is the nominal religion of the people of the country and there is public penance for grave sin, the people, being human, still tend toward sin. Those who live Christianity and all of its moral precepts faithfully seem few and far between. In fact the sins of those in that Christian society are not much different from the same sins that people are still committing. For even in a fully Christian country conversion is a lifelong endeavor.

We get so comfortable wallowing in the muck of our sin and learning to put up with our own faults that we forget that God wants to raise us out of our fallenness. We are like St. Augustine, seeing the good, but not ready to embrace it and not ready to let ourselves be lifted up by grace. We sometimes find ourselves almost resolute and ready to make our fiat, our yes, to God, and then find another excuse. And it is not just the initial conversion that we put off, but we also put off the continual repentance, such as when we delay our next confession after discovering a long-standing pattern of sin that God is ready to free us from.

In reading these works of Undset, I cannot help but examine myself and my own fleeing of God for worldly pleasures, such as the indulgence of (a lot of) chocolate. Do not we all find ourselves pursued by our Creator? But he does not give up the chase while he still has a chance. And as he used St. Catherine in her time of worldly turmoil, for Italy was cleft with wars during her time and those left in peace were consumed with desire for earthly pleasures, there are those he uses in our lives to bring us closer to him.

He breaks through to us in a moment of grace, of revelation, and we just have to accept that grace, despite our fears and our pride. When the grace is offered, we are to accept it. And Undset’s characters, like us, are given so many offers of grace (and as a reader it is so clear that they should accept it), and so often they fail (as we real humans fail). But God does not give up on us; and that is what Undset gets so perfectly in her writing. He will never stop offering his grace while we still have a chance to accept it; he cannot stop offering it, because if he did, he would not be God.

   Fear wist not to evade as Love wist to pursue.
             Still with unhurrying chase,
             And unperturbed pace,
      Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
             Came on the following Feet...
(The Hound of Heaven, Francis Thompson)