Nearly a century has passed since Sigrid Undset wrote the biographical essays about holy men and women, and the letters, which eventually would be collected and published under the heading Stages on the Road. It is a title evocative of the life of faith, wholly explored and lived-out—unpacked depot by depot, as it were—from the spiritual nursery, to precarious venturing forth, to stepping back in wonder or doubt, to the nearly inevitable and deepening darkness that, for all its pain, accesses an interior cave of Oneness, solitary yet completed in the companionship of the Christ.
This last is something akin to what Saint Catherine of Siena referred to as the inner cell or the “cell of true self-knowledge.” Undset, like Catherine a Third Order Dominican, shared with that clear-eyed Doctor an impatience with the sort of illusions bred by social conventions and encouraged by trends.
Raised by progressively-minded atheists, Undset realized while still a teenager that ideologies and their accompanying “isms” gave inadequate measures of the world and humanity, always narrowing truth precisely at the point where what is required is a broadness of understanding and the oxymoronic-sounding “bold nuance” of genuinely small-c catholic thinking. Sketching her autobiography for some editors in 1940, Undset wrote, “[World War I] and the years afterwards confirmed the doubts I always had about the ideas I was brought up on—(I felt) that liberalism, feminism, nationalism, socialism, pacifism, would not work, because they refused to consider human nature as it really is.”
Sigrid Undset’s life was a heavy one, and it seems if she could not have joy, she was determined to have light; unwilling to live her life in ideological self-containment, it is not surprising that Undset would eventually come to call the Catholic Church “home,” or that she would credit the saints with delivering her to its doors. Undset’s fiction is populated with vividly drawn characters—people of action whose narratives are built very precisely upon “human nature as it really is,” including the propensity for doubt and regret. To discover genuine men and women living boldly—not excused from those same propensities yet mysteriously delivered of them in the promise of a life in and with Christ—must have been for Undset a moment of staggering, irresistible illumination.
By degrees my knowledge of history convinced me that the only thoroughly sane people, of our civilization at least, seemed to be those queer men and women the Catholic Church calls Saints. They seemed to know the true explanation of man’s undying hunger for happiness—his tragically insufficient love of peace, justice, and goodwill to his fellow men, his everlasting fall from grace. Now it occurred to me that there might possibly be some truth in the original Christianity.
But if you desire to know the truth about anything, you always run the risk of finding it. And in a way we do not want to find the Truth—we prefer to seek and keep our illusions. But I had ventured too near the abode of truth in my researches about “God’s friends,” as the Saints are called in the Old Norse texts of Catholic times. So I had to submit.
The essays in Stages on the Road were written while Sigrid Undset was experiencing a full flush of earthly praise and material success, and it is lovely to contemplate that while the Nobel Prize committee was honoring this woman with what is arguably the most coveted award in Literature—for her epic novels Kristin Lavransdatter and The Master of Hestviken—Undset was focusing on the martyrdoms of the cheerfully subversive Margaret Clitherow and the besieged Jesuit, Robert Southwell. So detached was she from the prize (called “an homage rendered to a poetic genius whose roots must be in a great and well-ordered spirit”) that Undset’s brief remarks at Stockholm’s banquet amounted to little more than her saying, “Everyone in Norway asked me to give regards to Sweden!”
The Church might call that a well-ordered spirit, indeed.
In Stages on the Road we encounter Undset writing in her prime, just a few years after her conversion to Catholicism, and putting her great gift for storytelling at the service of these “friends” who had first served her through the public living-out of their faith, and their testimonial light. Through six long-form essays, Sigrid Undset’s prose gallops so nimbly one forgets one is reading biography and surrenders as to the most compelling fiction—traveling through error and ego with Ramon Lull of Palma, sharing Angelia of Merici’s itchy sense of discontent and mission. We compare present challenges to the faith against the underground maneuverings of Southwell and Clitherow and find both instruction and perspective in their placidity, even as we revel in the terrible romance of their martyrdoms. Author Bruce Bawer called Undset “half Viking, half Christian—torn between bold adventure and stark self-denial,” and we see that quality again where Undset writes on social issues, as she does here in an excerpted letter to a parish priest:
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…It must be remembered that in a democratic community the general public always lives on ideas which twenty or thirty years ago were the peculiar property of a few “advanced minds”—and which the most “advanced” people of the moment have discarded as unserviceable working hypotheses.
First published in English in 1934, Undset’s Stages on the Road remains a thumping good read that is truly relevant to our era and more than validates her re-emergence in the twenty-first century as an energetic, passionate, and intellectual Catholic voice, one that urges the faithful onward, and onward still, through brambles of history and passing modern trends, toward a Truth that is startlingly alive.