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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.

But Iceland, unmatched in archiving and maintaining historical identity, has preserved the life of Saint Thorlák through his Saga, and his feast day of December 23 (Þorláksmessa) is kept as a cultural holiday even to this day. It was the reading of his Saga that revealed the full vitality of his life to me – and stood out in stark contrast to the other historical summaries of his life, which seem as gray as the shadow of the entire medieval period. Outside of Iceland, Bishop Thorlák is catalogued strictly as a no-nonsense bishop who established and enforced rules. He is noted for taking on politically powerful chieftains over their refusal to cede property to the diocese and their reluctance to conform to church morality in their behavior. This characterization fits well with the general medieval stereotype, and, yes, he certainly did do these things.

Yet, nowhere in these brief summaries does anyone point out Bishop Thorlák’s embodiment of meekness, humility, and otherness – which stands out in stark contrast to the valuation of physical strength, social standing, and cultural conformity prominent in the medieval period, particularly in Iceland. I realized that, unless we tell Thorlák’s story from the context of his Icelandic roots, the significance of his example cannot be properly appreciated. Perhaps he is not well known among the saints because his Icelandic character has not been considered or explored!

Thus, I set out to research the life of Saint Thorlák in the context of the time and place in which he lived. His Saga shows he was not named “saint” because he was a typical medieval bishop. Rather, his holiness was forged in defiance of a culture that valued power. While Saint Thorlák did establish and enforce rules within his bishopric, he did so with unprecedented mercy.

“Mercy” is not a word associated with the medieval Church. At a time when mercy was neither widely taught nor often demonstrated, in a country used to making its own rules (whether the Medieval Church agreed or not), Saint Thorlák based each movement of his priesthood on mercy. He established rules not as decrees from on high, but by demonstrating their spiritual significance through his own actions first. He expected the best from his people – but he knew how powerless most people feel to reach the heights of moral virtue when subsistence and belonging are critical to survival. He knew the moral code, he knew the reasons behind it, and he knew the harsh penances the Church assigned to those who fell short of these high standards. (Penances were not mere legend; they were an expected obligation in the life of the medieval church – either to be borne with hardship or ignored at the risk of perdition.) What made Bishop Thorlák different? He counseled people about living more virtuously and determined their penance, as did all other clerics of his time, but he then cut their debt of prayer, fine or fasting to a fraction of what was prescribed in the Penitential. The remainder, he took upon himself, and fulfilled for them. He slept and ate very little between the prayer and fasting he performed on behalf of his flock, but he kept his regular schedule by denying himself leisure. Maybe it’s true that Thorlák was the serious, dour-faced bishop depicted in other historical texts, but it could be that he saw how difficult the moral life was, and how stringent the punishments were, and set his jaw to endure the burden required.

Thorlák’s example was not lost on his penitents. Here was someone with the right to lord power over them and to exclude them from good standing in the institution so vital to families’ survival through economic hardship, harsh seasons, rough seas, and dangerous weather. Instead of shaming and scolding people for their weakness, he shared in it – without compromising the morality he proclaimed. Virtue thrived as mercy flowed.

Thorlák lived mercy in other ways as well. He personally invited destitute and diseased people to dine and stay with him in his own residence, but he did so in secret, so as not to draw praise for something he felt gave him more benefit in genuine companionship than his guests received in food and drink. He championed the dignity of women, taking political leaders to task who openly kept numerous mistresses while wife and children were used for show. He set up funds for poor families so that they could remain together rather than split apart for lack of provisions. His work was tireless.

I have often quipped that it may be Saint Thorlák has been hidden in the shadows of time because he is a saint whose example is desperately needed in our own time. The Saga is a fine work in its own right, but it is, after all, a thirteenth-century Old Norse document translated word-for-word into what ends up sounding rather stilted and pedantic in English. I may not have any Icelandic roots myself, but I am part of the universal Church which gives Bishop Thorlák to all as a model and mentor.

When I was offered the opportunity by publisher John Wilhelmsson to fulfill my wish for Thorlák’s story to be told anew to this generation, I gratefully accepted. My book Thorlák of Iceland was published in 2018, and I have been pleased to see more and more people take notice of Iceland’s patron saint with the same admiration I feel. I have also written a Novena in Honor of Saint Thorlac, which was approved as an official prayer of the church by His Excellency Bishop Dávid B. Tencer, O.F.M.Cap., of the Diocese of Reykjavík.

And, finally, it is my personal opinion and experience that Saint Thorlák is particularly suited in his manner and spirituality as an example for people on the autism spectrum. This is speculation on my part, but this has also gained popular ground over the past few years and is something that has been a significant source of inspiration and strength for many people worldwide. I realize this last point opens the door to an entirely different discussion, but I will leave that for a future blog post!


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