Chapter  10

Holy Birgitta (Bridget) of Sweden 

Wednesday, and I go to the pool to swim. I manage 15.23 on the first round. On the second round I put some pressure on myself, and improves the result from Monday by 18 seconds, to 15.18. Not bad at all. But I am tense when leaving the pool. My face feels like a mask too tightly pulled over my head.

            I am going to see my psychiatrist, Dag Norum, in Fredrikstad. I have to concentrate on what to tell him. We do cognitive therapy, and it is demanding.

            In Frederikstad I park my car outside a big red brick building, Fredrikstad Domkirke, which is the cathedral of the bishopric of Borg. The bishop of Borg has his office in Fredrikstad. The parking lot in front of the church building is reserved for visitors to the cathedral. I pretend to be a visitor every time I use the lot. So far I have never got a parking fine.

            The Fredrikstad cathedral has a special feature. It is also a lighthouse. In the church spire a lighthouse lantern is mounted. It throws its light over the river Glomma, where big ships can navigate, over the river estuary and the islands of Hvaler. To me the cathedral/ lighthouse is a symbol of the Norwegian spirit of old times. One should be humble to God, but also practical. To look at the lantern in the spire – which is a secret to many who are not sailors – always give me some inspiration of a kind that I cannot really explain 

            The cathedral is situated in a nice park. I go for a walk in the park to relax before meeting doctor Dag, who is an old friend of mine from childhood.

            Some years ago a new building was under construction on the southeast side of the park. A dome was built, and a tower. I thought that the building was a mosque erected by our new countrymen from Moslem nations. I was badly mistaken. The building was the new Catholic church in Fredrikstad.

             It is built of red bricks like Domkirken, but is much smaller and much more modern in its appearance. On a sign on the church one can read that it is ”St. Birgitta Katolske Kirke”.

            Who was St Birigitta, and what was her virtues? I have a faint idea, and search my memory. Birgitta?  She was Swedish, lived in Medieval times and wrote a visionary book. Did she also start a monastery and an order of nuns? I decide to check upon this when I come home.

            I go to a cafe called by the Russian name Malenkij for a cup of green tea. In the cafe I find a copy of the local newspaper Fredriksstad Blad from 9th of April. On the front page there is an article about a female cancer patient who got a wrong diagnosis and died. She had cancer of the urine bladder and was operated at the county hospital, Sykehuset Østfold, in Fredrikstad. After the operation, she called the hospital on the phone and received the good news that her cancer was cured. This proved to be wrong. Her cancer of the bladder had spread to other parts of her body. Five months after the operation, the hospital told her this. It was too late, and she was dying.

              Her relatives have complained to the patient’s organization, Pasientombudet, and the complaint has been forwarded to an autorithy called Helsetilsynet i Østfold (The Health Board), which is operated by government. Helsetilsynet has opened a case against the hospital.

             I feel a chill down my spine. The spreading of cancer is nothing to joke about.

              Now for the psychiatrist. Our conversation was of a very private nature. I am not going to tell about it. I have said that I try to be open-hearted, but I’m not going to make mincemeat of myself in public.

            The tension of my body and mind eases a little after the one hour session with the psychiatrist.

            I drive home through the flat farmland of Østfold. The landscape is not typically Norwegian. It has no mountains, not even hills. Visitors from Northern and Western Norway often say that Østfold reminds them of Denmark.

            It is a sunny afternoon. Spring is coming, and it is coming fast. Springtime in Norway can be compared to tomato ketchup poured from a bottle, it all comes in one gush.

            Back home, I see a couple of big, grey birds under our walnut tree. Yes, we do have a walnut tree, which is not common in Norway since the walnut prefers a warmer climate. In a good season our walnut tree yields as many as fifty nuts. If it produces sixty nuts, it’s a bumper harvest. The nuts are smaller than then Turkish walnuts which are for sale in the shops before Christmas, but our walnuts taste as good as the ones from Turkey.

            The walnut tree was planted here when the house was built as a summer house for rich people from Kristiania (today Oslo) in the 1880’es. At the same time the copper beech, the Blood Tree, was planted not far away from the walnut tree. The Blood Tree has grown much, much bigger than the walnut tree and forced it to lean over. But the walnut stands its ground and has not capitulated.

            The birds are pigeons, wood pigeons (”ringduer” in Norwegian) or stock doves (”skogduer”). I think they must be wood pigeons because they have the pattern of a white ring around their necks. They are bigger than city pigeons, and not tame as city pigeons are. On the first sight of me, the wood pigeons fly away. They land in a nearby ash tree. Suddenly one of them starts to sing. The song is similar to the sound the cuckoo makes in spring, but on a lower note. It is a melancholy tone, and I love it.

            I go inside and find my book of saints, ”The Penguin Dictionary of Saints”, by the British author Donald Attwater (1892-1977). I bought the book once when in London. The book is not worn out, but I have used it sometimes to check the history of saints.

            Now I look for Birgitta, and get confused when I do not find her in the dictionary. She is thought to be the most important female saint of Scandinavia, isn’t she? It is a small mystery that there is no entry for her in the book.

            The riddle is solved when I find her under the name Bridget.

            The text opens like this: 

BRIDGET, foundress, B. in Sweden, c. 1303; d. in Rome, 23 July 1373; cd 1391; f.d. 8 October. This Bridget (Birgitta) was often called ’of Sweden’, though she was never a queen or royal princess.

 The code in the first sentence is not too difficult to solve. Bridget/Birgitta was born in Sweden, possibly in 1303. She died in Rome seventy years later, was canonized in 1391, and has october 8th as her festive day.

              Attwood writes:

 About 1317 she married a nobleman, Ulf Godmarsson, and they had eight children, including St Katherine of Vadstena, and a son Charles, who caused his mother great distress in later years. About 1335 Bridget was appointed principal lady-in-waiting at the court, where she zealously endeavoured to get Queen Blanche and her husband, King Magnus II, to take life more seriously.

 I wonder what Charless did to cause his mother great distress. I try to imagine the scene at the Swedish royal court where a strict woman tries to get the queen and king to be more serious.

             What was the problem? Maybe it was to much drinking and partying, for which the Swedish court has always had a reputation.

              Attwater goes on:

 Her own husband died in 1344, and Bridget later applied herself to the founding of the Order of the Holy Saviour (’Bridgettines’), primarily for women; its mother house was at Vadstena, which became an important Swedish religious centre. She spent much time in Rome, living very austerely, looking after the poor and the sick, and proffering very outspoken advice to the popes about the serious ecclestiastical and political problems of the time. She died in Rome on returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

 Some woman, there, from the North! I imagine her as a furious blonde, as a valkyrie of the kind Richard Wagner shows us in his operas. Bridget of Sweden, not shy about giving advice to the popes. And a woman of the world, travelling to Rome and the Holy Land.


 St Bridget appears as an intense personality, and throughout her life she claimed to have visions and religious inspirations, on the strenth of which she sometimes acted, as in her mission to the popes. Her dictated book ’Revelations’, chiefly about Christ’s sufferings and about future events, exercised wide influence and provoked strong controversy, especially at the time of her canonization and at the Councils of Constance and Basle (1414, 1431). Some theologians averred that she was deceived and not always orthodox; others maintained that her experiences were authentic and in accord with sound doctrine.

 A woman of controversy! I have always had a liking for women of controversy. I can imagine the fuss Bridget made in the top echelons of the church, how she wrought havoc on the priggish popes and dogmatic cardinals.

            She became a saint, one of the few (if not the only one?) to have a saint daughter.

 St Bridget’s daughter Katherine of Vadstena is also venerated as a saint, though never formally canonized (d. 1381; f.d. 24 March). She finished her mother’s work by obtaining official approval for the Bridgettine Order, and died in retirement at Vadstena.

 I do not beleive in saints. To put it bluntly, nothing is sacred to me.

            But I wish to find out more about St Bridget and her daughter. The place where I am going to attend the meeting of the Catholic students in Oslo is called Katarinahjemmet (Katherine’s Home). Possibly the Katherine who has given her name to the Oslo institution is the Katherine of Vadstena, or Katarina as she is called in the Scandinavian languages.

            I find my Norwegian encyclopaedia, ”Store Norske leksikon”, and read about Birgitta, as she is called there. A dear child has many names, and the Holy Birgitta was also called Byrghitta, Brigitta, Brigida and St Brita.

            She practised strong asceticism, got into raptures of extasy, believed that she got commands from God, and looked upon herself as a special tool of Christ. ”Store Norske” writes that ”during a visit to Vadstena Castle, the rules of a new order were dictated to her by Christ”.  Pope Urban V gave Birgitta the right to start a monastery at Vadstena, based on the rules of St Augustin and her own rules. The monastery was for both nuns and monks. In its days of glory Birgittas order had 79 monasteries in different countries in Northern Europe. One was in Norway, in Bergen.

            Birigitta is called the great author personality of Swedish Medieval literature.  Her revelations, written in Latin, were published in a book which was translated into many languages. The book is written as a series of conversations between Birgitta and Christ, the Virigin Mary or an angel. The subjects are morals, politics, the life after death, the life of Mary and the life of contemporary persons. Her style is vivid and depicts scenes from everyday life.

            One of the big questions in the scientific research about Birgitta is to what extent her

confessor (”skriftefar” in Norwegian) participated in the writing of her book of relevations.

            So she didn’t write the book herself? Perhaps this is true. Or is it an example of discrimination of women that the question is put forward?

            I did write that nothing much happened in the Norwegian church during the last 1000 years. This is not perfectly true. Reformation happened. The rebellion started by Martin Luther spread to Norway. Reformation hit Birgittas order hard. Most of the monasteries were shut down. Today the order is only for nuns – no male members - and has monasteries in Sweden, Spain, the Netherlands and Germany.    

            About Katarina Ulfsdotter, named after her father Ulf, ”Store Norske” writes that she accompanied her mother on travels to Rome and Jerusalem She became abbess at Vadstena in 1375. She was, as mentioned by Attwater, never formally canonized. But in 1447 pope Innocens VIII accepted that she could be venerated as a saint.

            What on Earth, or in heaven, made me interested in saints?


       Chapter  9

Chapter  11