Webster Bull's Reviews > Stages on the Road

Stages on the Road by Sigrid Undset
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's review
Jul 01, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: faith
Read from July 01 to 02, 2012

Updated review:

Sigrid Undset has never disappointed me, but I haven’t been this surprised by something she wrote since I first picked up Kristin Lavransdatter four years ago. A new edition of her essay collection Stages on the Road has just been issued with a foreword by Elizabeth Scalia (“The Anchoress” of Catholic blogging fame).

It is a short collection of only six pieces, written in the five years after Undset won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928; and it is stranger and more incendiary than Scalia’s somewhat generic introduction suggests.

Scalia cites the saints as triggers for Undset’s conversion to the Catholic Church, as they were for my own. She calls Stages “a thumping good read,” one that is “truly relevant to our era.” All well and good.

But Scalia misses or chooses to overlook Undset’s biggest thump of all: Stages on the Road is about historical stages, not stages in the life of faith. It is a ripping historical critique of the Protestant Reformation and the brutal damage it has done to our Western culture, a culture nurtured over 1500 years by the Catholic Church.

As such it is a brave collection, as the lonely cry of a Catholic in Norway, a country that has been even every bit as inimical to Catholicism as England. Lutheranism became the official state religion of Norway in 1539, four years after the martyrdom of Saints John Fisher and Thomas More in London, and as in England monasteries and convents in Norway were dissolved and their property confiscated by the crown, which was then Danish.

Not until 1845 was Catholicism allowed back into the country. Until then, Norwegians were obliged to profess Evangelical Lutheran Christianity. Today, nearly 80 percent of Norwegians say they’re Lutheran, while Catholics are barely a presence, representing less than 2 percent of the population. Muslims represent 2.1 percent.

Undset focuses on four lesser-known “saints,” one of whom, the Majorcan mystic Ramón Lull, isn’t even a saint. Her second subject, St. Angela Merici, founder of the Ursulines, is falsely advertised as “a champion of the woman’s movement,” in a table of contents revised by the republisher, Christian Classics, undoubtedly to broaden the book’s appeal. In fact, the effect is to blunt the book’s point. The last two saints, Robert Southwell and Margaret Clitherow, were martyrs during the Tudor rape of the Catholic Church under Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I.

Why did Undset choose these four B-listers? The final two essays help complete the point that neither Scalia nor the jacket copy does. “To Saint James: Proposal for a New Prayer” and “Reply to a Parish Priest” complete Undset’s critique of the Reformation.

To take the essays one by one:

Beginning with Lull (1232?–1315) allows Undset to consider the pre-Reformation Church, at the height of the Middle Ages. Undset is the first to admit that corruption rocked the Church during this era. Still, it was a time when “the Church stood in the center of living life. . . . The ideas that were entertained of its powerful position in the Middle Ages were false and exaggerated. It had been involved in ceaseless conflict.”

She explains the medieval Church as “an island between a sea of hostile peoples and the ocean to the west and north.” Among these hostiles were “the semi-barbarian hordes of the Great Migration,” “fresh invaders from the East . . . Huns, Avars, Tatars,” and of course Islam, which “conquered the Christian centers of culture at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, in North Africa, and in the Pyrenean peninsula.”

In this period of crisis and conflict, Ramón Lull was an early ecumenicist who founded a monastery where thirteen friars “were to be perpetually engaged in the study of Arabic and Hebrew.” Lull also believed that there must be a method that could make Christianity convincing to every man of good will. The Catalan author also wrote what is often considered the first novel, Blanquerna.

“The ‘Refomation’ which ensued,” Undset writes, “ was no reformation of the Church but a new formation, which was in keeping with the taste and feelings of the rising middle class. It needed vast and unscrupulous propaganda before it could make any pretense of being an ‘improvement’ of the Church . . . ”

In Undset’s essay on Merici, she meets head-on the mistaken critique of the Catholic Church’s attitude toward women. The Church has always taught that man and women are different in nature, but the examples of Merici and many others demonstrate that the Church has also given women of exceptional ability a chance to shine and even lead. Undset claims that Catholic women traditionally have been given “a freedom from interference which would be inconceivable in a society molded by Lutheranism or Calvinism.”

This struck a chord with me. As a convert from the Anglican Church, I never stop hearing about women in the priesthood. Yet as a young Episcopalian I never heard tales of a single notable Anglican woman, the way a young Catholic hears tell of Mary, Margaret, Monica, Catherine, Teresa, Thérèse, and their saintly sisters. “So long as Catholicism was the dominating element in the intellectual life of Europe,” Undset says, “a woman who really had a contribution to make to the spiritual life of her time was given an opportunity to do so.” St. Angela (1474–1540), a third-order Franciscan who founded the Ursulines as a company of virgins living outside any convent, was a stellar example.

Then came the Reformation. “Where the culture of a country was molded by Lutheranism or Calvinism,” Undset writes, “the women in the course of a few generations were brought up to be content with existing simply for the sake of the men.” Can I hear you say ouch?! Such a charge could not have gone down well in 1930s Norway, when Undset wrote it.

But her third and fourth essays, on Southwell and Clitherow, are after bigger game: Anglicanism, the state church founded by the Tudor monarchs. For these chapters, Undset reserves her harshest criticism of the “reformers.” She lays bare the contradictions of Protestantism. For example, there is “the Reformers’ pretension that everyone should form his own opinion of religion by independent reading of the Bible.” How does this square with the fact that in 17th-century England nine-tenths of the population were illiterate? In fact, the new state religion became the domain of the wealthy and landed, while most of the common people remained Catholic until it was no longer safe to be.

Southwell was a Jesuit priest who bravely returned to England under Elizabeth in 1586, though he “knew how in all probability his journey would end.” Clitherow was a wife and mother, and the first female martyr under the Tudors. Southwell was saved the terrible death of drawing and quartering because his saintly demeanor so impressed his executioner that he was allowed to hang until he died. Clitherow wasn’t so fortunate. She was pressed to death, screaming for Jesus. But her legacy lived on. Her daughter took the veil, and both of her sons became priests.

The fifth essay in the book takes Protestants to task for failing to abide by the eighth commandment. This began with the Reformation: “Let us just imagine, for instance, what a quantity of slander was required to induce the people calmly to acquiesce in the suppression of the monasteries and the conversion of their estates.” Obviously trying to win no friends among Protestants, she says that Catholics should pay attention:

“Most of us Catholics in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark are converts or the children of converts; we form a tiny minority among a people of coffee parties, weekly papers, societies, and meetings. All I suggest is that next time we prepare ourselves for confession, we should take up the eighth commandment and give as much attention to seeing how we stand towards it as we do to the rest of our preparation.”

The final essay addresses two of today’s hottest issues: marriage and suicide. On both counts, she accuses Protestant churches of caving in to the middle-class mentality, which overlooks the gravity of taking one’s own life while condoning divorce. In both cases, only the Catholic Church has kept its eye on the prize: our eternal salvation.

In the end, Undset warns her fellow Europeans that they cannot expect to throw aside Catholicism while keeping its many benefits:

“We must try to make this clear to ourselves—we have no right to assume that any part of European tradition, cultural values, moral ideas, emotional wealth, which has its origin in the dogmatically defined Christianity of the Catholic Church, will continue to live a ‘natural’ life, if the people of Europe reject Christianity and refuse to accept God’s supernatural grace. One might just as well believe that a tree whose roots were severed should continue to bear leaves and blossoms and fruit.”

Eighty years after these essays were written, Europe is suffering the consequences of its disavowal of the Catholic faith, just as Undset predicted.
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