I could write tons and post an equal amount of photos from my trip. Instead of the usual itinerary run-down, this post will be a bit more philosophical. The main focus for my little bus trip was “Olsok” (St. Olav’s Day) and the St. Olav’s Days in Trondheim.
A bit of background, that is to say, a short history of Norway:
We start with the viking era: Miscellaneous farmers, fishermen, vikings ruled by miscellaneous earls and lords who claimed a hill each. Harald Hårfagre (the Fair-Haired) refused to get a shave or a haircut until he’d gathered Norway into one kingdom. Fighting ensued with the local earls. The kingdom of Norway emerged. Harald went to the barber.
I refer you to the nice link above to Harald because where he left off, we sort of pick up. Powerful earls in the Trondheim area wanted to do their own ruling, preferably with a distant Danish king, and by the time King Olav Haraldsson (St. Olav’s real name) came around, there was not only a strong anti-Olav sentiment but also a strong anti-Christian one. Olav’s problem was that he thought violence was a really neat idea, and he even used his new religion (Christianity) to justify it. (Some things never change.)
Fast forward to 2008, and a bunch of barefoot actors running around in a heat wave, showing what happened to Olav one fateful day in the year 1030. The day was July 29 to be exact and on July 29, 2008, I was sweating rivers in an amphitheater made of wooden benches high above an outdoor stage, a grassy slope. On the slope, the good people of the farming community Sul are divided between their Norse gods and this new Jesus god, and with that between following the earls of Lade or the king of Norway, recently returned from Sweden to reaffirm his position as king.
King Olav on horseback speaking to his men before the battle, as staged in the outdoor amphitheater in Stiklestad.
Olav didn’t make it. He was slain in battle. Here’s where it gets good: His followers hid his corpse and instead sank a coffin filled with rocks in the river. That coffin was claimed to have risen back to the surface several times. When Olav’s followers dug up the corpse a year later in order to move it to a permanent burial place, they discovered that his corpse had not decayed but actually looked quite fine and life-like and smelled of roses. And people claimed that if they touched anything of Olav’s, they were healed. (A blind man in the play regains his sight as he brushes against the dead Olav being carried from the battlefield.) So Olav was sainted, and is Norway’s patron saint. He was devisive while he lived, but his death unified Norwegians both politically and religiously.
Olav is buried under the Nidaros cathedral, Europe’s northernmost cathedral, and for a long time, a popular destiny for pilgrims. Pilgrimages have come into vogue again and wandering up from Oslo to Trondheim to the cathedral is now done with microfiber clothes and running shoes, but the principle hasn’t changed.
People believe something holy happened here by the river Nid, which hugs Trondheim’s city center, and has given the cathedral its name.
The days we were there, Trondheim was celebrating Olav Days, which included a “holy conference”, non-stop services in the cathedral, and a week-long jazz festival. Something for everyone. Because of the services inside the cathedral and the ban on photography, we didn’t get a chance to explore that much inside. But at one point three of my fellow travelers and I attended vespers, after wandering around downtown Trondheim, having a beer on the river (literally) and listening to some Dixieland jazz in the street.
I have never done anything like that before. We were handed booklets that explained how to sing and how to follow the special notation. The point was not the melody but the rhythm of the words, and the audience was expected to join in. It was really like Gregorian chants. Because everything was so unfamiliar (and a bit challenging to sing), I think maybe three of us in the audience accompanied the choir. I tried and after a while it got easier.
The Nidaros Cathedral by the river Nid. The long, low building with the red roof is the old bishop’s residence.
I sat on a simple chair far below the vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows. As I looked at the altar nearest to us, at the east end, I saw two Jesus figures positioned one above the other – one crucified, the other risen. I’ve never seen a church decorated quite like that before. I tried to suck in the atmosphere, but all I got was “big”. Big building. Big, beautiful building. As I followed the text in the booklet, listening to the back and forth between the men and women, and the feeble attempts from us in the audience, the event became more and more relaxing and beautiful. We sang the vespers for the first day of the ten-day St. Olav celebration (all in Norwegian). When it was over, I was very happy we’d decided to duck into the church and participate.
As usual, when I read words about the Christian God, I find myself analyzing and questioning, and the text in the vespers was no exception. As one of my fellow travelers said as I explained my own relationship with God (what else do you talk about after hanging out in a cathedral together?), I am quite the philosopher. Which led to an old but familiar exchange: You take it too seriously, she said. But if one isn’t supposed to take faith seriously, why have it? I replied. Yes, I do take it seriously. Very much so. I guess I just want to get it right. I’ve always wanted a belief in something, and when I was a kid in Norway, I was curious about the Christianity surrounding me, but there was this one little thing I just couldn’t “get”: Jesus dying for our sins. And if you don’t get that, I realized, you just don’t get Christianity. This realization came back to me in the Nidaros cathedral. The one thing that separates Christianity fully from every other religion is Jesus dying on the cross and rising up again from the dead. But that’s the one thing that never made sense to me, and when I was 17, I gave up Christianity altogether and wandered off in search of God elsewhere (successfully).
Another thing that got me philosophizing with my fellow travel was something in the play. The young girl Gudrun, who is a bit psychic and predicts the king’s death, is talking to her grandfather about where the good, the bad and the warriors go when they die. He explains that not only the warriors have a place to go, but there is also a place for the good and a place for the evil. I had never heard of any Norse “heaven” besides the warriors’ Valhalla, so this made me think. Obviously, the old Norse religion had its concept of good and evil, and of reward for the good and punishment for the bad. Well, gee, doesn’t that sound like Christianity and a bunch of other faiths? That’s when I realized that the cross and everything associated with it was the only thing that set Christianity apart, truly apart from other faiths. (So maybe I’m late in realizing this. So what.)
Because I never go to church unless it’s for a funeral or something, I have totally forgotten what a service is like, or even that thousands of people find Christianity so valuable that they will follow in the footsteps of the pilgrims. Or rely on the support of far younger colleagues and attend in an old and feeble body what may be their last holy conference with others of like mind. (We shared our hotel with quite a few foreign old men who looked like Orthodox bishops.)
The west end of Nidaros Cathedral with a wreath decorating the patron saint of pilgrims, St. Jacob. (As the event progresses, other statues get wreaths, too.)
My trip to Trondheim reintroduced me to stories, habits and situations I had almost forgotten about. I wasn’t expecting that wonderful bonus.