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My Saga with Saint Thorlák

Submitted By Aimée O’Connell, Guest Author

It was one of those mornings that homeschooling families know very well: the kids were restless, the math problems seemed endless, and the coffee pot had gone cold three hours ago. It didn't help that my daughter had her mind on a television show she had just discovered (during one of the rare breaks I allowed in carefully rationed increments) which captivated her imagination more powerfully than most shows had done before. She sang its praises up and down and drew doodles of the characters in the margins of what she ought to have been doing instead.

On that particular morning, when my own motivation was as tepid as my coffee, I decided we all needed a change of pace. We closed our workbooks and let my daughter have the floor. She proceeded to tell us all we needed to know about LazyTown: a half-hour, live-action show with brightly colored sets, a cast of puppets, and a highly skilled gymnast who, in each episode, was the target of a lanky villain employing a variety of disguises. She added that the show was created and produced in Iceland. Ah. Now, there is something I can go with. In honor of this amazing children's show, I declared we would close our math books and launch into a unit of study on Iceland. Problem solved!

This was my introduction to Iceland and Icelandic culture. It is a strange gateway, I admit, but if not for Magnus Scheving and Stefan Karl Stefansson, I might not be writing this blog post, nor would I have likely authored a book on Iceland’s patron saint.

Iceland is probably most noteworthy to outsiders for its remarkable natural beauty; perhaps, too, for having the world’s oldest parliament, for the meticulous preservation of Norse culture and literature, an admirable national literacy rate, and an exemplary system of renewable energy. Iceland is not, however, particularly known for its noteworthy figures in the history of the Catholic Church.

In fact, those practicing the Catholic faith there now comprise less than five percent of Iceland’s entire population and are predominantly immigrants, not native Icelanders. However, we were intrigued to discover among Iceland’s historical figures a patron saint canonized in the Catholic Church: Thorlak Thorhallsson, Bishop of Skalholt from 1174-1193.

As a Catholic family, we found this bit of knowledge of particular interest. It took quite a bit of digging, though, to get any information on Saint Thorlák beyond his Wikipedia entry. I was finally able to locate an English translation of The Saga of Bishop Thorlák, which drew me in the moment I opened the pages.

Saint Thorlák’s story spoke to me in a way that other lives of the saints had not … and, I’ve read many saint biographies over the years! To be sure, every part of the world has seen its share of holy men and women over the centuries. The very idea of being Christian is to live a life of virtue and charity, so, arguably, the Canon of Catholic Saints is like a “Who’s Who List” of model citizens to emulate from among the hundreds of thousands of other solidly good-living people in human history. Iceland saw its native son, Thorlák Thorhallsson, make this list in 1198, over eight hundred years ago, in the same historical period that would record the lives of household-name saints such as Francis and Clare, Bernard, Benedict, Dominic, Rita, and Joan of Arc in other parts of Europe, Bishop Thorlák of the tiny nation of Iceland got there first.

How is it, I wondered, that Thorlák made it into this Who’s Who, the Canon of Catholic Saints, in 1198… and yet, according to my preliminary search, seems barely known outside of Iceland?

True, Bishop Thorlák was locally canonized in 1198 by the Althing, not by the central authority in Rome. However, local canonization was the norm for most countries back then, as the Pope was not the world traveler he is today. Besides, Iceland was extremely isolated geographically. But Thorlák’s renown has not been limited to Iceland over the years. In 1984, Pope John Paul II officially reaffirmed Thorlák as the Patron Saint of Iceland. What an achievement, to be acclaimed by a pontiff who himself would one day be declared a saint! It underscored my question all the more: Why is Saint Thorlák not widely known?

Perhaps it is a matter of timing and placement. Thorlák was a beloved figure in Iceland until the 1500s when the Catholic religious establishment was razed in the Protestant Reformation. Catholic traditions were obliterated for many years before they would be re-examined centuries later to glean the spiritual treasures from the remnant of their memory. So, how well can anyone know the life of Bishop Thorlák? We can’t read from his writings; they have been pillaged or destroyed by fire. We can’t pay homage to his relics; they, too, were pillaged and destroyed, with the only remaining fragment housed (without signage, veneration or protection from either the Diocese of Reykjavík or Diocese of Copenhagen) in the exposed stone ruin of the Magnus Cathedral on the Faroe Islands.