Kristin Lavransdatter, Motorcycles, and Docility to Reality

I’ve been reading Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter in concert with a group of folks who have all committed to “Kristin by Christmas!” One passage I particularly loved comes when Kristin goes to stay and be schooled at a convent. Abbess Groa welcomes Kristin with these words:

I have heard good things of you, and you seem to be clever and well brought up, so I do not think you will give us any reason for displeasure. I have heard that you are promised to that noble and good man, Simon Andressøn, whom I see before me. We think it wise of your father and your betrothed to send you here to the Virgin Mary’s house for a time, so you can learn to obey and serve before you are charged with giving orders and commands. I want to impress on you now that you should learn to find joy in prayer and the divine services, so that in all your actions you will be in the habit of remembering your Creator, the Lord’s gentle Mother, and all the saints who have given us the best examples of strength, rectitude, fidelity, and all the virtues that you ought to demonstrate if you are to manage property and servants and raise children.

I love the connection Abbess Groa makes that those who are entrusted with command must be able to learn to obey and serve. In modern, secular contexts, it’s very seldom that I hear obedience and docility cited as prerequisites to leadership or management of others. Kindness, yes, but yieldingness, not often.

The non-specifically religious context where I’ve seen it most beautifully praised is Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft. Becoming a maker of things, he argues, means being mastered by reality, “The tradesman must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away.” Or, as he puts it in a longer passage:

In any hard discipline, whether it be gardening, structural engineering, or Russian, one submits to things that have their own intractable ways. Such hardness is at odds with the ontology of consumerism, which seems to demand a different conception of reality. The philosopher Albert Borgmann offers a distinction that clarifies this: he distinguishes between commanding reality and disposable reality, which corresponds to “things” versus “devices.” The former convey meaning through their own inherent qualities, while the latter answer to our shifting psychic needs.”

Kristin’s time at the convent, Crawford’s time with motorcycles both offer the chance to see the limits of our own wills. We are truthful when we are docile to reality, be it physical or moral reality. For her sake and for the sake of those she will command, Kristin must be able to yield to what (and Who) is true, rather than let her will create an alternate reality.