The greatest novel ever written shows how small compromises with sin snowball into disaster.
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A lot of the time, it can seem like little sins are “no big deal.” But every bad choice turns our hearts away from God’s will a little, and then a little more, until the consequences can become dire.
A vivid illustration of these consequences comes in Kristin Lavransdatter, which I recently read with my Well-Read Mom book club.
I’m hardly the firstCatholicwriter to sing the praises of this romantic drama set in medieval Norway. It’s been called the “greatest Catholic novel,” but I would take it a step further and argue that it is the greatest novel ever written, in any language.
This claim isn’t coming out of nowhere; I studied Great Books in college and have read just about every great literary classic. So whether your favorite novel is War and Peace, Pride and Prejudice, The Brothers Karamazov, or Jane Eyre, yes, I’ve read it, and yes, I loved it, but I still think Kristin stands a little taller than the rest.
Funny enough, my senior year of college, I had a moment of panic that I would someday finish reading every great book ever written and run out of top-shelf reading material. I needn’t have worried; in the highly unlikely event that I somehow finish all the great books, I would then have the delightful privilege of re-reading them.
It turns out re-reading might be even better than reading the first time. This was my third time reading Kristin Lavransdatter and sure enough, another reading was well worth it and brought never-before-noticed revelations.
That’s the genius of this book: Sigrid Undset’s characters are so realistic that her understanding of human psychology seems flawless, while her plot is so gripping that you can’t put it down.
As though all that weren’t enough, Kristin Lavransdatter is a spiritual tour de force that reveals a road map of one soul’s journey to God. Reading it helps me understand my Catholic faith better. And that brings me to the insight I took away from my book club’s Kristin discussion.
The sin snowball
A recurring theme in Kristin is how little sins, tiny transgressions, lead to bigger and worse sins and eventually to disaster. Even the smallest acts of turning away from God’s will end up snowballing out of control.
These little compromises with sin start out almost innocuously. If I may give spoilers for a novel written a hundred years ago, it might be something as small as seeking help from a healer who is known to use witchcraft when a beloved child is badly injured.
This small compromise seems so understandable. But it leads to the healer, a woman of very questionable morals, gaining an unhealthy influence over an impressionable young girl. Eventually that influence brings about all kinds of disasters.
This theme arises over and over in the book. During my book club discussion, we teased out many examples. Every small act of missing the mark, like an arrow aimed slightly off-target, is the catalyst for a chain reaction of problems.
It seems like things work pretty similarly in the world outside the novel too. Perhaps that’s why so many saints hated to commit even a venial sin.
St. Joan of Arc once said, “I would rather die than do something which I know to be a sin, or to be against God’s will,” and many saints shared her feeling. I think they knew how little sins can spiral out of control.
Recognizing the “sin snowball” in Kristin led to some self-reflection. What small transgressions seem like “no big deal” but set off a chain reaction of much bigger issues? I’m trying to notice when little choices trigger the “sin snowball,” and make a plan to turn toward God’s will instead of away from it next time.