In February of this year, I was asked a simple question: What source material have I seen that sheds light on the life of Saint Thorlak? Fair enough, considering that I oversee the online apostolate in his name and frequently reference his teaching and example in our weekly thoughts. I responded with a list of citations I would recommend to anyone wanting to become familiar with Iceland’s patron saint. I commented that the sources in English are greatly limited, and that, unfortunately, the closest we have to a comprehensive biography is the hagiographical Saga of Bishop Thorlak, preserved from the 12th and 13th centuries and thankfully translated from the original Icelandic. It is a marvelous document, but admittedly not a smooth read.
The discussion might have ended there, had the query not come from a book publisher. His response was one of those astonishing turns we rarely experience. His interest was more than academic. He wondered if I would be interested in writing a contemporary biography of St. Thorlak for his publishing company. Within days, we crafted an ambitious outline and set a rough goal of finishing “by the end of the summer.”
For the next six months I used that outline as my road map, seeking every accessible resource in English that would journey me to twelfth century Iceland. I repeatedly examined the same encyclopedic facts through lenses of geography, economy, family, climate, historical period and politics, hoping that all these slices taken together might produce a precisely computed tomography of the heart and mind of this great saint. I spent the springtime highlighting, referencing, cross-referencing and corroborating. My hand-drawn chronological timeline blossomed with yellow sticky notes as I read article after article on the lives, politics and careers of the Nordic 1100s.
Then, I put it all aside, and began talking.
For two straight months I refrained from writing. Instead, I called everyone in my path my audience and breathed wordly life into the two-dimensional stack of historical data I had gathered. I went full hog: I recited the types of grain which grow in semi-frozen acidic soil with only one season of sunlight, but then I explained why it was relevant to a family of five whose father was very frightened after the fishing season failed. I described the uniqueness of medieval Iceland being a parliamentary commonwealth among European monarchies, and considered how that might impact the development and experience of the Catholic Church. I reflected on how political change can be effected both from the top down and the bottom up. I mused that the paved streets and stone architecture of Europe must have been overwhelming to those who came from a land of low turf houses, unhewn basalt cliffs and stratovolcanic mountainscapes. I talked about the pressure one must feel to please those who invest their hopes, and their money, in their education. I wondered why some people are labeled as difficult when their studies lead them to realize how things might be improved for the greater good, if only their questions did not threaten the status quo.
So many of us on the spectrum possess, and profess, great volumes of encyclopedic knowledge. Why? Perhaps because our bliss is in knowing something slice by slice, from every angle, as thoroughly as possible. Each fact may start out flat, but when we give these facts the breath of our words, they come alive, in three dimensions, through us.
If anyone will listen.
How often we wish others would be this thorough in wanting to know us, especially when so many are content with just the outer slice of our behavior. How we long to be seen in more than one dimension.
Back at my writing desk, the image of Saint Thorlak’s statue from Christ the King Cathedral in Reykjavik meets my eyes in his fixed, two-dimensional gaze. Most everyone knows him in two dimensions: one, the historical man, born 1133, died 1193; two, the bishop known for his clerical reforms and pious habits, canonized in 1984.
What if we took the time to think about him through those other dimensions: family, childhood, politics, geography, physical health, educational experience, tensions, hopes, disappointments, dreams?
He might not seem so flat. He might seem more like a person.
Continued next week.