Friday, December 23, 2016

All in the Family: The Saga of Saint Thorlákur

I grew up believing I was descended from Norwegian nobles who had fled the fjords of Scandinavia and settled in Iceland in the ninth century (when King Harald the Fairhaired was consolidating his dominion) in search of peace, liberty, and justice. This ancient pedigree stood me in good stead at school, where most of my companions couldn’t even name their own grandparents. So, although I was a shy youngster, I strode through my early years with the self-confidence of a child of the so-called “one percent,” even though our home was on the other side of the river from my obvious social peers.

Now, the truth of the matter is that there are five generations between me and any obviously wealthy ancestors, six generations before another minister appears, another couple of generations to find a bishop, and fully twenty-six generations to get back to the Norwegian nobility. Other than a few prosperous farmers, or an occasional teacher or merchant, my family tree is pretty much overflowing with farm laborers, domestic servants and parish paupers – not exactly the august pedigree I once fancied. As it happens, I am descended from the Oddaverjar clan, which was one of about eight families that dominated the national life of Iceland during the so-called Commonwealth Era from the eleventh to thirteenth centuries.  Now, this is where the story gets interesting – and complicated, so bear with me.

Saint Thorlákur (1133-1193)
My 22nd-great-grandfather – that’s a grandfather with the prefix “great” appearing twenty-two times – was Jón Loftsson, the patriarch of the Oddaverjar, who was considered one of the leading chieftains of his day. His was an entitled existence and, while life in Iceland was hardly as opulent as it was on the continent, Jón enjoyed all the trappings of wealth and privilege that Iceland had to offer. Those trappings included a mistress, Ragnheiður, who happened to be the sister of Bishop Thorlákur of Skálholt, who is remembered and honoured today as Saint Thorlákur.*

Carrying on an adulterous relationship with a saint’s sister is as close as any member of my family has ever come to sainthood, as near as I can tell, and while I’m not here to commend it to you as a lifestyle choice, let alone the noblest course of action, it does give me some sense of familial connection to Saint Thorlákur, since his illegitimate nephew and eventual successor, Bishop Pál Jónsson, and my 21st-great-grandfather, Sæmundur Jónsson, were half-brothers.  This makes Saint Tholákur a sort of “23rd-great-uncle-in-law,” which gives me a warm feeling all over.

To further complicate matters, Saint Thorlákur was, for all intents and purposes, an “adopted” member of the Oddaverjar family. Having been born into a prominent family that had become impoverished, Thorlákur was raised and tutored by Eyjólfur Sæmundsson – Jón Loftsson’s uncle – and ordained while still a teenager. When he was consecrated as Bishop of Skálholt, the Oddaverjar naturally assumed they had captured the bishop’s chair. They were mistaken, for Bishop Thorlákur’s greater loyalty was to the church itself.

Their mistaken assumption became apparent when Jón asked Bishop Thorlákur to consecrate a church he had built on his estate at Keldur to replace two that had been destroyed in a storm. In those days, the chieftains and large property owners bore the responsibility for erecting churches in their localities and, by custom, they retained ownership of the churches they built. Bishiop Thorlákur refused to consecrate the new church unless its ownership was transferred to the diocese, citing a decree from Archbishop Eysteinn, who was the primate of the churches across Scandinavia. “I hear what the archbishop is saying,”replied Jón, “but I have decided to disregard it. I do not think that his intentions or understanding are any better than those of my ancestors ... and I have no wish to belittle the policies of our former bishops in Iceland, who honoured the custom of the country that laymen should control the church that their forebears had dedicated to God ...” Bishop Thorlákur threatened Jón with excommunication but neither man would back down. In the end, the bishop consecrated the church while refusing to acknowledge Jón’s ownership – a strategic compromise worthy of modern geopolitics.

It was customary for Icelandic priests to marry in this era, the doctine of clerical celibacy having not yet reached this far north, but Thorlákur remained single, having had a dream that he was destined to take “a much higher bride” than he had been contemplating – presumably the bishop’s chair. He was troubled by his sister Ragnheiður’s affair with Jón Loftsson and, after he had become bishop, he threatened them both with excommunication unless they broke off their relationship. Once again, Jón dug in his heals and refused Bishop Thorlákur’s demand, saying that he would not comply unless his own heart led him to do so. In time, Jón did have a change of heart and the relationship ended, after which he and Ragnheiður were both absolved by the bishop. Their son together later became Saint Thorlákur’s chaplain and, in time, his successor as bishop.

If they were alive today, I suppose that Jón Loftsson would suspect Bishop Thorlákur of being a socialist, while the saintly bishop would accuse Jón of “tea party” politics. Saint Thorlákur would surely seek to impeach Jón as chieftain, if he couldn’t excommunicate him, while Jón would undoubtedly end the bishop’s charitable exemption, or else force him to file annual reports detailing every expenditure above 600 thousand krónur – that’s $5,000 in our currency.** Their disputes about church and state, priesthood and laity, public and private, honour and piety, reflect conflicts that have echoed down through the ages. We still argue about such matters, the primary difference being that it’s perhaps easier to approach the conflicts lightheartedly when several centuries separate us from the presenting issues. Yet we are no less quarrelsome a people, even though our social mores have changed and much of what provoked conflict in medieval times now arouses amusement. And, truth be told, we still excommunicate dissenters.

It’s somewhat consoling to think that family relationships in the twelfth century were as complicated as the ones many people endure today. Can you imagine being part of the Oddaverjar clan around the Yuletide? As Chistmas approaches each year, I can almost hear my branch of the family saying, in unision, “Oh great, the saints are coming for dinner again. There goes the Solstice!” Yes, it turns out that even saints’ families have “issues” at this time of year.  In my household this Christmas, we will remember and pay homage to the ancestors, as we always do, but we’ll be quietly relieved that they’re not all coming for dinner.

This post was first delivered as a sermon at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Winnipeg on Saint Thorlákur’s Day – December 23, 2012. It was subsequently published in Lögberg-Heimskringla as “All in the Family: a whimsical look at Saint Þorlákur” on December 15, 2015.

* In Icelandic, Saint Thorákur’s name was spelled Þorlákr in saga times and is spelled Þorlákur today; he is commonly called Þorlákur helgi. He was the son Þórhallur Þorláksson and Halla Steinadóttir; born in 1133, he died in 1193.

** This is an allusion to the fact that, in 2012, the Parliament of Canada was considering a bill that would have required trade unions to detail any expenditures exceeding this amount in their annual reports.

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