For some time, whenever I recommended Kristin Lavransdatter to friends I kept forgetting about the plague. I first read Sigrid Undset’s novel—a three-volume story of one woman’s life in 14th-century Norway—several years ago, not long after my conversion. I remembered the ending of the epic as tremendously satisfying, and one of the most peaceful I had encountered.
Then, I reread it with a passel of people I had recruited for an online book club. As we approached the final chapters, there was page after page of bloody incident. The plague ravages the convent where Kristin goes to live out her widowhood. Kristin risks her life confronting a group of men who intend to carry out a violent sacrifice to stave off the sickness. She drags a stinking corpse on a litter in order to give the abandoned woman burial.
In the plague we are now living through, most of us are not yet experiencing scenes of this type. The streets in my town are nearly empty, and the shops are quiet and dark. I contacted all my neighbors to make a mutual aid listserv for our street, but so far, all anyone has needed of me is a page of stamps, which I dropped off for an older couple who had entered preemptive quarantine after returning from abroad.
It’s hard to see the heroism in staying home. If social distancing works, we will have saved lives indirectly, never knowing who we helped. One animation tried to make absence tangible by showing a network of infection, and highlighting individuals in the growing, branching chain. One figure is labelled “This person worked from home,” another “This person didn’t go to that BBQ.” Because they stayed in, they are marked as uninfected, and each person downstream of them is suddenly freed of the virus they would have passed on.
Without the image, it’s hard to make the connection. After all, when someday our children ask us “What did you do during the coronavirus pandemic?,” it won’t seem exciting to tell them, “I moved my book club to videochat.” It’s more exciting to imagine that the sacrifices asked of us will be dramatic and romantic.
But it’s no surprise to Christians that we should value the invisible economy of grace over more worldly signs of effort and accomplishment. We are a people who believe that cloistered sisters, praying privately, have a powerful effect on the world. We are a people who believe that prayer, fasting, and humiliation are as much a part of our response to a pandemic as work on antivirals.
Read more at First Things