Wednesday, June 7, 2023

“I must watch over you”: The virtue of familial responsibility

December 29, 2012

by Carrie Frederick Frost

Sigrid Undset’s epic novel Kristin Lavransdatter begins with a genealogy, much like the Gospel of Matthew does: “When the earthly goods of Ivar Gjesling the Younger of Sundbu were divided up in the year 1306, his property at Sil was given to his daughter Ragnfrid and her husband Lavrans Bjørgulfson…” The purposes of these conventions are not dissimilar: Matthew’s genealogy connects Christ to the lineage of Abraham and David, and Kristin Lavransdatter’s connects Kristin to the great Christian kings of Norway, establishing her family as an especially pious one. Undset laces the text with references to the family’s exceptional reverence: Kristin’s father, Lavrans, always wears a cross containing the hair of his ancestress, Saint Elin; Kristin’s mother, Ragnfrid, is thought to be odd because she acutely mourns the death of Kristin’s young brothers in a time when infant mortality is common. This presentation of a Christian family that tends its bonds lovingly and conscientiously sets the stage for the exploration of the theological meaning of family.

For all the ambiguity in the Bible around family, the message that the family – be it biological, marital, spiritual or adoptive – is linked together at the level of the soul occurs many times: the Church is Christ’s bride; the hen wants to gather her chicks; the lost sheep is always sought and found by the fatherly good shepherd; Christ on the cross tells John and his mother that they are now kin; husbands and wives are said by Paul to sanctify one another. In the two millennia of Christian thought on the relative value of celibacy and marriage, the family has remained the locus of embodied Christian virtue; even the most ascetic saints were not spontaneously born in monasteries! Christians are brothers and sisters to one another, called to brotherly love.

Though family has always been central to the Christian story, Christian thought has only recently turned in any significant way to the theology of family. Now, through the work of theologians in the Christian East and West, and through the narrative exploration of family in works of fiction, a theology of Christian family is emerging. Some of the richest reflections on this theme, and especially on parenthood, are found in Kristin Lavransdatter.

It may seem peculiar that a persuasive theology of parenthood should be embedded in a 20th-century novel set in 14th-century Norway. Yet the power of narrative theology allows for exactly the sort of long, complex, and elegant meditation on familial virtue that a Christian vision of family merits. One of the many theological gems in Kristin is its portrayal of reciprocal responsibility in a pious Christian family. In Kristin virtue and vice are directly related to familial devotion. They are not only a matter of personal salvation nor merely one of familial honor and shame but, indeed, have everything to do with a family’s shared salvation and the sort of love we are called to give each other. This understanding may make parenthood a hard sell, since it is far more demanding than the modern conceptions of parenthood that value self-actualization and self-confidence over self-sacrificial love and reciprocal responsibility. The very idea of taking on the responsibility for other souls is daunting, but it can lead to a richer and more rewarding reality of family life. This is the theological vision of family fleshed out in Kristin Lavransdatter.

Undset’s medieval Norway could be called a “shame-honor” society, where mores are reinforced by communal censure and approbation, especially by family members whose shared name binds their reputations. Kristin’s mother cautions her from a young age, “Don’t forget you are your father’s greatest pride.” Yet in her late teenage years, Kristin becomes so smitten with the courtly but libertine Erlend that she allows him to seduce her in secret. This act is a private disgrace to her maidenly honor, which she knows would be shameful and scandalous to her parents if it were to come to light. Social concerns are clearly important here, but it would be a mistake to understand the characters’ reactions  simply as functions of the shame-honor code. Kristin’s act of dishonor so torments her and, when they later become aware of it, her parents, precisely because of how they perceive their Christian responsibility for each other.

Lavrans initially refuses the request made through Erlend’s kin for Kristin’s hand in marriage, even before learning of their ‘knowledge’ of each other. Relating this decision to his daughter, he says, “You know I wouldn’t be against it if I sincerely believed that it would be to your benefit.” Kristin presses him to explain himself and blames Erlend’s upbringing for the record of reckless behavior. She asks if Ragnfrid and Lavrans have been so without sin that they could dare to judge Erlend so harshly. Her manner and speech grow heated, but her father is steadfast. He concludes the conversation saying “It’s useless to discuss this anymore tonight. You may not believe it, but I must watch over you in such a way that I can answer for the consequences. Go to bed now, child.” If he were aware of the depth of the affair, his response to the marriage proposal would be different, since it would be more honorable to take a prematurely consummated union to the conclusion of marriage rather than have to look for another husband for the now un-maidenly Kristin. Without knowledge of his daughter’s sin, Lavrans is weighing the prospect of an irresponsible Erlend as son-in-law against his own responsibility to Kristin as her father. He underscores this when he calls her – his seventeen year-old daughter – “child.”

The scene is striking to modern readers who are, most likely, several generations removed from marriages that were arranged by parents – much less by fathers – or even required their consent in anything but a ceremonial way. Engagements are now often announced to parents after the fact. However, there is more going on in Kristin than the antiquated tradition of arranged marriage for the sake of economic security and social propriety. Lavrans feels that he must answer to God for any decision he makes for his daughter, precisely because he is her father. As a man of his time this includes the decision of whom she will marry. But he also feels responsible for other decisions: who her playmates will be, how much exposure to the pagan customs of the area she will have, who teaches her to read, and so on. The contemporary inclination is to outsource such duties to institutions such as schools or the state (or to leave them outsourced once they have been). Lavrans understands his own salvation to be bound up with the decisions he makes as a parent. His acceptance of, or negligence in, his responsibility to his children is a critical part of his duty as a Christian father, and of their access to God’s grace.

Such parental responsibility does not, as might be supposed, negate the freedom of the child to turn toward or away from God. When well exercised it empowers the child to choose God in liberty. Christian parents are called to weigh their decisions with the sobering awareness that they affect each child’s own path to salvation. Christ pays particular attention to the pleas of parents who both embrace this responsibility and understand it to be secondary to the authority Christ has over them. This is seen in Jairus’s intercession for his daughter (Mt 9: 18-26, Mk 5:21-43, Lk 8:40-56) and the Canaanite woman’s for hers (Mt 15:21-28, Mk 7:24-30). The case of the centurion pleading for the health of his servant is similar. The servant, though not a child, is nevertheless a member of his household who stands in a similar relation to the centurion as a child to a father:

Lord, do not trouble Yourself, for I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof. Therefore I did not even think myself worthy to come to You. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man placed under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it. (Luke 7: 6-8)

Christ’s approving response to this act of faith underscores the potentially sanctifying nature of domestic authority. Familial responsibility, then, has eternal and temporal consequences.

After her marriage to Erlend (to which her father eventually consented), Kristin begins to learn this virtue herself. Longing for release from her sins through confession and repentance, she undertakes a pilgrimage to the Nidaros Cathedral. Travelling on foot the whole way there, she carries her infant son Naakve – conceived in sin, but born in wedlock – on her back. The pilgrimage is filled with emotional and spiritual epiphanies, as it is the first time she has let herself fully feel the weight of the unconfessed sins that she has been carrying with her for years.

One of her epiphanies is that she has not just sinned against herself or God’s law, but also against her parents. It is her own parenthood that allows her the insight: “If Naakve should grow up to show his mother as little love as she had shown her own mother—oh, she couldn’t bear it.” She hears an internal voice asking, “Where are the deeds that should bear witness for you on the last day, showing that you were a link in God’s church?” She sees then that she has failed her parents by returning their love with deception and disobedience. She has disregarded St. Paul’s admonition to “consider one another in order to stir up love and good works” (Heb. 10:24).

Now she understands that she owes it to her parents to live virtuously. Her sin was not merely a personal failure but a failure of her familial responsibility as a daughter, and also as a mother of her son and future children. How she lives is how she loves; she is connected in deed to her family. Even though it may seem strictly “personal”, one sin can have a ripple effect. Family is often the first to be hit by its wake. The old wisdom of the Church is that one’s sin is in a very real sense a sin against all. Experience has taught Kristin that this is true and wise counsel. This awareness stays with Kristin the rest of her life.

In her maturity, Kristin sees that her father’s decision to allow her to marry Erlend has eaten away at him, and he has lost his characteristic merriness. Whereas formerly “everyone had sensed a daring courage and zest for life flowing calmly in this quiet man’s soul,” now, “[w]ithout thinking it through, Kristin had the feeling that what had changed Lavrans was partly his fear for the future of herself and her children with the husband she had chosen, along with the awareness of his own powerlessness.” Kristin is grieved by Lavrans’ suffering, even though she received exactly the marriage she sought. She counsels her stepdaughter many years later:

My happiness has never been complete, even though my father forgave me with all his heart for the sorrows I caused him. You know that I sinned greatly against my parents for the sake of your father. But the longer I live and the more I come to understand, the harder it is for me to remember that I rewarded their kindness by causing them sorrow.

 She still sometimes fails to live up to the measure of Christian familial responsibility, but she has learned well that it is a proper standard for the moral life.

Kristin has the solace – as do her own children – of being caught in the web of love that is spun with the silks of familial bonds. Her own parents and their love for her “had been strong and wide and unfathomably deep; while the love she gave them in return was weak and thoughtless and selfish, even back in her childhood when her parents were her whole world.” Kristin marvels over this love that persists after her parents’ deaths, sustaining her. As her children grow up, she recognizes this love in herself:

Wherever they ended up in the world, wherever they journeyed, forgetting their mother—she thought that for her, their lives would be like a current in her own life; they would be one with her, just as they had been when she alone on this earth knew about the new life hidden inside, drinking from her blood and making her cheeks pale.

The vision of family in Kristin Lavransdatter is tempered by an awareness that children really are a mystical mix of the creative powers of humans and God. Lavrans understands this, and near the end of his life he tells Kristin he had once considered becoming a monk:

And I must tell you, my Kristin, that it would be hard for me to sacrifice, for the sake of God, that life which I have lived on my estates, with its care of temporal things and its worldly joys, with your mother at my side and with all of you children.

The retention of these gifts, however, does not come without some cost: “So a man must learn to accept, when he produces offspring from his own body, that his heart will burn if he loses them or if the world goes against them. God, who gave the souls, is the one who owns them—not I.”

Familial bonds are a focal point in discourse today, be it in economics, politics or theology. Moreover, family, however defined, remains definitive of the human experience. The shared custody of souls offered by Kristin Lavransdatter, a Christian vision of the virtue of familial responsibility, helps us behold this experience in its fullness in ways that today’s popular accounts of parenthood cannot even approximate. We are obliged by our Lord to “love our neighbors as ourselves,” to extend of this sort of responsibility and obligation beyond blood kinship; we are Christian “on behalf of all and for all,” as the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom explains. And as Kristin and Lavrans understand well, the family is the home, the “breeding ground”, as it were, for the communal sense of life and salvation to which we are all called.


Carrie Frederick Frost is a scholar of Orthodox theology who lives with her husband and five children in Charlottesville, Virginia.


4 Responses to ““I must watch over you”: The virtue of familial responsibility”
  1. Kelly says:

    Thank you for this lovely essay and reminder. We must pray that God will strengthen all families.


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