"The Merciful Kindness of Disapproval"
I read the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy every five years. It's a Nobel Prize-winning saga that transports me for a week or so into 14th century Norway and allows me to ponder a culture that has been almost completely transformed by Christianity. Some (such as myself) argue that it's the best novel ever written.
While I prepare each time to be absorbed into the life and struggles of another, I am always surprised by my changing reaction. As a young mother, the first reading allowed me to share Kristin's frustration with a husband who was inconstant, unreliable, and irreverent towards many Things That Matter. How could he shrug off incidents concerning duty, honor, and moral rectitude? Poor Kristin. The second time around, I realized that she knew these things about him before marriage; and he was right in saying he never promised her those things -- only his undying affections. Poor Erland to have married such a scold. The third time, I simply sighed upon finishing, recognizing certainly that, well, marriage is quite complicated.
But it's this fourth reading that shows, not only the trajectory of my own life with a small handful of children and a troubling culture lurking about to snatch them from the narrow road, but also how the purifying love of one's offspring throws us into the arms of God the Father -- as father. In this iteration, it was not so much the woes of Kristin or the failings of Erland but the shredded heart of Lavrans -- her devoted father -- that absorbed me. I should have seen this coming as my own chicks are leaving the nest, and making enormous, life-changing decisions about which the parents can only storm heaven and smile nervously.
To this end, I can now weave into the saga the brilliant phrase of Father Hart (Touchstone, Nov 2007) -- "the merciful kindness of disapproval." He wrote of the approbation that society ought to give to improper choices, and it's a struggle ever parent must endure. "Why," the distraught teenager wails, "why can't you just let me do what everyone's doing?" And then, "You're so judgmental," comes the rebuke from the affronted young adult. And the admonition, "Why don't you want me to be happy?" from the straying child who questions the motives of the scowling parent. Disapproval is seen by the other as a spoiler, the cause of tension, or the fruit of selfish myopia -- when in fact it is the kindest response possible. The wanton pins his angst on our reaction, rather than focusing on its source -- for to do so would justify our mitigated pleasure in his choice.
Now surely there is a tremendous gulf between our post-modern era and that of Christian Norway, in which Kristin plied her course. Whereas all in her contemporary society banded together to discourage sexual sins in order to strengthen family bonds, those in support of chastity, fidelity, and purity today are a few scattered voices. Whereas Kristin was hounded from all sides by the manifestation of her sins, the wanton souls of today are lauded and encouraged by prevailing standards to continue and multiply their vices. Where is the merciful kindness to which Father Hart refers?
The merciful kindness -- given voice by those of good will -- is echoed by the natural law imprinted on each heart. Thankfully, the words alone find resonance in conscience, and the better that conscience is formed, the more fruitful the soil the disapproval has to work with. Kristin had the advantage of a chorus of voices, from Brother Edvin to her father, from the approbation of the community to the shame she felt on behalf of herself and her husband. All served to purify her over the years so that she could offer her own chalice of suffering on the altar at the close of her life. Our children may not have the advantage of a chorus, but we can still combine our fragmented disapproval of error to the imprint on their souls, and let the grace of God do the rest.
Lavrans' heart was sorely grieved by the indiscretions of his favorite child, but his upstanding and sincere life was crowned by his constant love and forgiveness for Kristin. Each parent has the ability to do likewise -- testifying to the truths of our faith with selfless love and disapproval when necessary. We find this reference to wisdom in Holy Scripture:
Disapproval of sin is not only kind, but it is wise and just. God's order is for our own good and for our salvation. Joining our will to His Will means that there must be limits to our tolerance, for such is the nature of authentic love.