This is entitled ten things I learned about Christianity in Iceland. I feel a bit like an elementary school kid coming off of summer vacation and given that essay: what did I do over the summer.
I love stories, as you know. They feed our imagination and help us to think about our faith as a church family and our faith in our own hearts. It helps us to see how our ‘same’ faith evolved in different places and how the people and the land feed and shift the same faith/story.
A few weeks ago, I talked about Babel and the confusion that happens when we don’t speak the same language. Icelandic is a Germanic based language and so can be really challenging for some travelers…fortunately, Iceland is dual lingual and most Icelanders speak English quite well. Traveling helps us to bridge language and find commonalities. I feel like stories bring us together. We, universally, love stories. And the Icelanders love stories.
I deliberately didn’t ‘fact check’ any of these stories. One of my favorite Icelandic quotes I learned while there: never let the truth get in the way of a good story. So, duly warned.
Here are ten things I learned about Christianity in Iceland. Slight aside that might be helpful: Icelanders are primarily of Norwegian and Irish descent (think Norse mythology and legends and the love of an good Irish story). Saga was on the Childrens’ list of word search words that come from the Icelandic. If that doesn’t described a love of stories, I don’t know what does. And besides, what does one do in a winter that is steeped in darkness? Sit around a warm fire and share stories.
Here are some of my nuggets:
- The oldest house (above ground) in Reykjavik was once owned by Bishop Gier Vidalin (1761-1823). He is a cleric famed for hospitality. So much so that he heralds the nightlife of Reykjavik with these words: “there are two places where the fires never die down—hell and my house”. Apparently he was quite social, probably to a fault: he goes down in ecclesiastic history as the only bishop to be declared bankrupt.
- The transition from paganism to Christianity is said to have been a peaceful conversion. In the early 1000’s Porgeir, despite being a pagan himself, ruled on the side of Christianity to unify the people. Pagan practice was still fine in your own home, but the public face of Iceland would be Christian. By 1016, parliament completed the transition…although there was a dismal lack of priests so the reality might have been somewhat different than what was ruled.
- That being said of a peaceful conversion. There was also one tale that one of the most devastating volcanic eruptions in history was blamed on a lack of faith in God. Using this volcano and the fear invoked to the advantage of the priests, this was the biggest conversion point of the people to Christianity. The lava field is still called the Christian lava field.
- These next two I hope are not offensive to anyone, but it gives a little bit of a mythical background to the people of Iceland. Again, stories, take what resonates and is fun, let go of what doesn’t. According to folklore, the Hidden People (elves, gnomes, and the like; there are loads of them in Iceland) are some of Eve’s children. God asked her to bring all her children to him, but there were so many she could not make them all ready for God. She took the most presentable of the bunch and hid the others away in a cave. God, of course, knew she had hidden them away and told her that from then on those children would be hidden away from her and all of her other descendants forever…with the special exceptions (which is why we sometimes have glimpses of these Hidden People).
- Next…don’t make deals with the devil. Just don’t. It’s a bad idea. There was once a man who wanted to get home to Iceland from Europe so badly that he struck a deal with the devil. He would give the devil his soul if the devil would bring him across the seas home, without getting him wet. Deal struck. The devil carried him home on his back, keeping him safely out of the water. When they came in sight of land, the man thumped the devil on his head with his Bible. The devil sunk into the water and the man got wet. He got home to Iceland and kept his soul. Ok, this turned out all right in the end, but it’s still never a good idea to make deals with the devil.
- There are the most beautiful hillside churches throughout Iceland. Although entirely different than our own churches, I felt a kinship to these small country churches and could not help but think they are full of a small congregation of country folk worshiping in their community together. It brought me joy. I also learned that one must be careful in Iceland where the church graveyards are built…geothermal activity and graveyards don’t mix, so sometimes the graveyards are built elsewhere.
- One of my favorite traveling sounds is the sound of a church bell calling for service.
- Churches are called Kirks. Including Hallgrimskirk in Reykjavik, which is named for Hallgrim Petursson the iconic Icelandic minister and poet of Iceland (1614-1674). The church is built in the style of the landscape to mimic the basalt columns found in special places of falls and beaches.
- I unexpectedly found the Passion Poems of Hallgrim Petursson. They are beautiful and make up much of today’s service.
- Keep faith. Do not eat what the Hidden People offer you, but be polite. Keep a prayer on your lips and trust in Jesus and God. Be not led into temptation. So long as you keep faith, you will be protected, safe, and comforted. Trust.