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The Charity of Kristin Lavransdatter

December 31, 2018


This year is my third Christmas as a married woman, and one of the changes that came shortly after my October wedding was that, for the first time, my choices about charitable donations at the end of the year were a conversation, not something I made my mind up about alone.

In the days following our first Christmas, I brought a spreadsheet to the discussion, and my husband brought in his parents, with whom we were staying for the holidays. We talked about their example of tithing and how we might set targets for our own household. Ultimately, what wound up recorded in the cells of my spreadsheet was shaped by both our families’ habits of charity.

This year, the run up to Christmas has been shaped by my husband’s and my participation in a Kristin Lavransdatter book club. Sigrid Undset’s novel is set in medieval Norway, at a time when the country has technically been Christianized, but the people are still learning how to live in a world touched by grace, where forgiveness can heal. As a relatively recent convert, I sympathize with the sense of still getting one’s sea legs in a world of miracles.

Near the end of the novel, Kristin reflects on the differences between her father Lavrans’s approach to charity and that of her son Gaute. Her son is still reasonably generous, but there is a cautiousness to his approach, a careful tallying up of what his estate can spend that is foreign to Kristin and to her father.

For Kristin and Lavrans, charity was not a matter of what was prudent, what share made up an adequate tithe. It was a matter of living out the corporeal works of mercy. If someone came to their estate, they would not leave hungry. If they needed somewhere to stay, the house was opened to them.

But, when she reflects on her son’s approach, it isn’t simply that Gaute doesn’t go as far as Kristin or the late Lavrans would have. His internal disposition to the work of charity is very different. Undset writes, recounting Kristin’s thoughts:

Gaute gave no more thought to his Creator than was necessary. He was generous and kind hearted, but Kristin had seen that her father had a reverence for the poor people he helped because Jesus had chosen the lot of a poor man when he assumed human form. And her father had loved hard toil and thought all handwork should be honored because Mary, the Mother of God, chose to do spinning to earn food for her family and herself, even though she was the daughter of rich parents and belonged to the lineage of kings and the foremost priests of the Holy Land.

Going over my final list for the year, a mix of anti-malarial interventions, medical debt jubilees, automated monthly tithes to our parish, etc., most of the donations I initiated were carried out through an online payment portal. Visually, no different than making a purchase on Amazon, no glimpse of the face of Christ in the particular person I helped.

The entries that come closest are the several GoFundMe entries, where we gave to someone we knew, or a friend of a friend struggling with medical expenses, funeral expenses, etc. For these needs, we felt we might be able to help out with our funds, but also that our friend would receive the donation personally—and that we’d follow up and continue caring for each other.

I’ve tried to let those personal asks spur my giving to farther away people. I match the donations I make to people I know with ones to Against Malaria, which will reach the people who don’t have the chance to ask me for help personally.

But Kristin’s words remind me how odd my workaround is. My life, without my doing much work to achieve it, is set up to buffer me and keep me away from real need. My apartment building means no one will approach me for the help as host that even Gaute gives. Aggressive anti-homelessness policies means cops will roust and remove the needy from the streets I walk through. I am kept safe from meeting Christ.

My spreadsheet for giving is almost complete, but my prayer for the coming year is that God will take something away; that he will remove some of my protections so that I can meet him and learn to love him better and to receive his love.