The Redemptive Suffering of Motherhood in Kristin Lavransdatter

If you haven’t yet read Kristin Lavransdatter, be warned that there are spoilers ahead. If you have read Kristin Lavransdatter, head over to the Magnus Archives after reading this article to check out our 2022 course on the novel!

“For Adam was formed first, then Eve, and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.  Yet woman will be saved through bearing children if she continues in faith and love and holiness with modesty” (1 Timothy 2: 13-15).

Reading Kristin Lavransdatter, we encounter a character whose entire life is the embodiment of this verse. From childhood, Kristin is aware of her own indifference toward God; and when she reaches her teenage years, her blinding love for Erlend Nikulaussøn renders her willing to turn her back on her parents, her faith, and society. Thinking only of herself, she tramples on others to bring about her own will; and later, her pride and unwillingness to forgive is a source of constant strife in the marriage she so badly wanted.  By the end of the novel, however, Kristin is an old woman who risks her life to save the souls of a group of treacherous men and the life of a little boy, and who contracts the black plague in her efforts to give an outcast woman a proper burial. With such a dramatic transformation, the question then arises of how this all took place. What led Kristin from being a rebellious, self-centered woman to dying a saintly death? 

As a result of Eve’s transgression and the fall of mankind, man’s union with God is diminished, resulting in the personal, inner struggle man finds with his own will, in discord between the sexes, and in conflict with nature. In further accordance with diminished unity, the punishments become specific to each sex, with the woman’s punishment being pain in the bearing and bringing forth of children. Yet even before the punishment is dictated, there comes a glimpse of hope: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15). While Eve is “the woman” obviously referred to in context of the preceding events, “the woman” also refers to Mary, as the seed that will bruise the head of the devil is a prefigurement of her son, Christ the Redeemer. Through the sincere gift of self of her perfect fiat, Mary’s receptivity makes possible the Incarnation and consequently the Crucifixion, reclaiming the unity that was severed in the garden, and ultimately sanctifying the suffering of motherhood.

Kristin is one such woman “saved through bearing children.” Throughout her life, her downfall is the desire to bring about her own will, which she sees as being opposed to God’s will. As a result, she views the physical and spiritual as being opposed, just as they were as a consequence of the fall. Prior to children, Kristin’s life is characterized by a divide between the material and the spiritual; between love of self, and love of others. The divide grows greater and greater as she gives in to her will for the material, and she is never willing to help others at her own expense. 

It is only later when Kristin first becomes aware of her out-of-wedlock pregnancy that there is an immediate change in her. Preparing for her wedding, a pregnant Kristin begins to reflect on the people she has hurt in order to bring about this celebration. The reality of being with child leads her to confront the harsh reality of her sin and guilt:

She… felt the crushing, oppressive weight in her womb – the burden of sin she was carrying. She had played and romped with her sin, measuring it out as if in a child’s game. Holy Virgin – soon it would be time for it to lie fully formed before her, looking at her with living eyes, revealing to her the brands of her sin, the hideous deformity of sin, striking hatefully with misshapen hands at his mother’s breast. After she had borne her child, after she had seen the marks of sin on him and loved him the way she had loved her sin, then the game would be played to the end (279).

Visiting their home church, Kristin prays for her child, saying, “I beseech you [St. Olav] to protect the innocent one who is in my womb. Turn God’s anger away from the innocent, turn it toward me” (279). Kristin asks that any punishment for her sin be visited on her instead of on her child. This is the first time we see her value someone else at her own expense. Visiting the empty church again on Christmas Eve, Kristin thinks of Christ’s birth to Mary, and longing for her family, grows even more aware of her guilt: “perhaps that was as it should be, that tonight she was shut out from the celebration of the birth of God’s son to a pure and innocent maiden” (325). Because of her motherhood, Kristin has a new similarity to Mary that more effectively juxtaposes her shortcomings. After a long and difficult labor, Kristin’s prayers for protection are answered when she gives birth to a healthy baby boy. Holding her newborn, Naakkve, Kristin further regrets her sin in contrast to his newly baptized purity. 

Recovered from childbirth, Kristin longs to go on a pilgrimage of atonement. Upon reaching Christ Church, the end of her pilgrimage, she is greeted by the sight of Christ on the cross. Significantly, He is flanked by Mary and John the Evangelist, a depiction of Mary’s motherhood being extended to all. Seeing this holy mother and son, Kristin has her first major breakthrough:

The pure virgin, who was his mother, stood looking up in deathly anguish at her innocent son who was suffering the death of a criminal. And here knelt Kristin with the fruit of her sin in her arms… Pulled out of her sin-tainted body, so pure, so healthy, so inexpressibly lovely and fresh and innocent. This undeserved beneficence broke her heart in two; crushed with remorse, she lay there with tears welling up out of her soul like blood from a mortal wound (401).

Moved by the blessing of her healthy child, she feels the undeserved extent of God’s love and mercy, creating a new depth to her remorse. As she realizes the difference between herself and that heavenly mother, she is struck by the similarity between her father, Lavrans, and her heavenly Father. With Lavrans too, she comes to a new awareness of his unceasing love and mercy. She thinks of her mother as well, realizing that “if Naakkve should grow up to show his mother as little love as she [has] shown her own mother… she couldn’t bear it” (404). 

Through the mystery of the Incarnation, the divide between the physical and spiritual is mended as the physical is elevated through its relation to the eternal. In order for Kristin to be saved then, she must learn to cling to the mystery of the Incarnation, mending the divide between her will and God’s. This is no easy task, for the Incarnation necessitates the Cross. Kristin continues to have many spiritual triumphs and setbacks over the course of a very long life; far too many peaks and troughs, and far too long a life to fully outline in so short a space. During her time on Earth, Kristin’s eight sons continue to act as a bridge to salvation in several major ways.

First, they lead to her increasing understanding of her parents. Through this understanding she comes to regret enforcing her will against them. Furthermore, she slowly becomes aware of the deficiency in her own earthbound love for her children when compared to the love of her parents for their children, which is rooted in Christ. 

Second, although Kristin’s love for her children is often bound by earthly constraints, motherhood leads her to develop the habits that will ultimately result in her salvation, the most important of these being the renunciation of her own will. Early on, Kristin learns to surrender her will in small matters as she constantly toils on behalf of her sons. Later, she must surrender her will as her sons begin to age out of her protection and guidance. This habit, coupled with the love of her children, finally gives her the strength to surrender herself into God’s hands. Additionally, Kristin’s children serve to increase her empathy, not just with her parents, but with all those less fortunate. 

Lastly, Kristin’s children lead to a direct growth in her spiritual life. Through the anguish and joy of bearing new life, she begins to understand the redemptive aspect of suffering. When Kristin’s children suffer, she reaches out in prayer, actively trying to align her will to God’s. She continually suffers fear on their behalf, and often sees the goodness of God’s mercy. In this manner, she begins to understand the mystery of the Incarnation.

Kristin’s life can largely be summed up in the following passage. As she approaches her final years, she experiences a moment of immense grace:

The river seemed to be showing her a picture of her own life: She too had restlessly rushed through the wilderness of her earthly days, rising up with an agitated roar at every rock she had to pass over. Faint and scattered and pale was the only way the eternal light had been mirrored in her life. But it dimly occurred to the mother that in her anguish and sorrow and love, each time the fruit of sin had ripened to sorrow, that was when her earthbound and willful soul managed to capture a trace of the heavenly light…

As she said five Ave Marias in memory of the painful mysteries of the Redemption, she felt that it was with her sorrows that she dared to seek shelter under the cloak of the Mother of God. With her grief over the children she has lost, with the heavier sorrows over all the fateful blows that had struck her sons without her being able to ward them off. Mary, the perfection of purity, of humility, of obedience to the will of her Father – she had grieved more than any other mother, and her mercy would see the weak and pale glimmer of a sinful woman’s heart, which had burned with a fiery and ravaging passion, and all the sins that belong to the nature of love: spite and defiance, hardened restlessness, obstinacy, and pride. And yet it was still a mother’s heart… in spite of everything, in spite of her willfulness, her restless heart had managed to capture a pale glimpse of the love that she had seen mirrored in her father’s soul… (1068).

Kristin’s final actions are profoundly maternal; she puts her life at risk to save a little boy during the plague, and sees that his deceased mother has a proper burial. In tending to the dead woman, Kristin contracts the plague herself. Significantly, it is Kristin’s son’s ship that brings the disease to the region; her child brings about her opportunity for salvation. 

It is the redemptive suffering of motherhood that offers Kristin a means of participation in Christ’s suffering. Through the unique and powerful bond a mother has with her children, Kristin learns to place the needs of others before her own; gradually she learns to set aside her own will, until she can truly say, “not my will, but yours, be done.” Just as Christ is a bridge between the physical and spiritual, Kristin’s children become a bridge in uniting her earthly will to God’s heavenly will. In this manner, through a long and difficult process, Kristin is shown to be the embodiment of St. Paul’s verse.

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