Chapter 17

The words of Augustine

When the meeting at Katarinahjemmet is finished and we are all leaving the premises, an old acquaintance stops by me. He is Lars Roar Langslet, a former cabinet minister of the Department of Cultural Affairs, where he represented the Conservative Party. I have always thought that he played a role when the government he participated in appointed me member of Kringkastingsrådet (The Advisory Board of the NRK). We are very different persons with different beliefs, but I think there is some mutual respect between us, and I know from the letters that I have got from him over the years that he has read some of my books with pleasure.

            Langslet is a Catholic.

            He says to me: ”I would like to quote the church father Augustine. Augustine said: Many are inside who think they are outside.”

             Katarinahjemmet is located in the Majorstua area of Western Oslo, amidst blocks of flats.

            I came a bit early, and parked my car on the small parking lot outside the red brick building. I went to the reception and was greeted by a woman in civilian clothes who said that she was a nun, but not wearing her nun costume. She gave me a parking permit which I placed in the window of my car. On the permit there was a picture of St Katarina.

            I was shown the way down to the room on the ground floor where the meeting was to take place. The room was a sitting room with an open fireplace (”peisestue”). To my astonishment the room was already crowded, and to my further astonishment the audience was not dominated by young students, but by people my own age or slightly younger.

            The meeting, I was told by Anniken Johansen, had been widely advertised in Catholic circles, on he University campus and in some newspapers. I saw Mr Langslet in the crowd and greeted him. Alongside him sat Ketil Bang-Hanssen, a former manager of the National Theatre. In the crowd I also saw Håkon Børde, a former Latin America correspondent for the NRK. I told him how pleased I was that he could come.

            The premises steadily filled up with people, and representatives of the organizer, the Catholic Student Society, were busy bringing in extra chairs. But some people had to sit on the floor, some to stand leaning against the walls.

            I was thoroughly surprised by the attendance. I had expected a much smaller and more intimate audience. I felt cold sweat break out under my shirt.

 In the audience I could see no old radical friends. I was among Catholics, and perhaps other Christians.

            Entered Hans Frederik Dahl. We greeted each other politely. We have known each other for many years, but on a distance, professionally. We have never been close associates, never friends. In the sixties we belonged to the same political party, Sosialistisk Folkeparti (Socialist People’s Party), SF. But when the youth organization of the party split from the mother party to form Arbeiderenes Kommunistparti (Worker’s Communist Party), AKP, I followed the youth. Dahl continued in SF, which in 1973 absorbed some of the Moscow Communists and some leftwing Labour Party members and was renamed Sosialistisk Venstreparti (Socialist Left Party), SV.

            At one point there was quite a turbulence between Dahl and myself. In 1987 I published a book, ”Brevet til Fløgstad”. The main content was a letter to my author colleague Kjartan Fløgstad, a winner of the Nordic Council’s prize for literature. I criticized Fløgstad, a Socialist and SV member, for flirting with post-modernism.

            Hans Fredrik Dahl did the review of the book for Dagbladet. He wrote that if we had not had Jon Michelet in Norway, we would have had to invent him. But then he pulled out his heavy artillery and shot at me. It was what the Germans call ”Eine grausame Salbe”. He wrote that I could not think coherently for three consecutive seconds.

            I have an elephant’s memory for insults, and have never forgotten this.

            We met in a radio debate, and the temperature became rather high. Today it is easy to see that we had a grudge against each other because of the political differences between our parties. Maybe some of my criticism of Fløgstad’s book was not so far off the mark as Dahl said it was.

            Much water has passed under the bridges since that debate. We have grown older, and perhaps milder. Dahl has converted to Catholicism and put his fundamental Marxist beliefs  behind him, even if, I think, his brain is not emptied of Marxist theory.

            I wanted to greet him with a joke, and say that I recently discovered that I was able to think coherently for as much as eighteen seconds. But the occasion was too serious, and I decided to shut up. Instead I asked him about his health. He told me that he has improved very well after his stroke, and that he now, at 69, is still a professor at the University in Oslo, in a half time job. He asked me how my health situation was, and I told him about my good PSA tests and said I was doing fine.

            Norway is such a small country that we seem to all know each other, like members of a family. I have been a dark sheep in the Norwegian family, and hope I still am. To be a white sheep is  not my role.

            The person who was to direct the meeting was a nun, sister Ragnhild Marie Bjelland. She wore her grey nun costume. She gave me the first word.

            I teased the audience by saying that I did not imagine that the average age of the Catholic students was so high. People laughed. The ice was broken.

             I spoke about St Katarina’s visions, much the same as I have written earlier in this book. I expressed how impossible it is for me to believe in the supernatural, in miracles. I said that I envied Dahl his newfound faith, but that I could not make his faith mine, because such faith collided with my rational mind.

            Dahl got on his feet. He did not seem to be much hampered by his stroke. Like me, he spoke without a manuscript, but more fluently, coherently.

            I made a note of what he said about reason and intuition: ”I believe because I have kept my reason. I needed to find a greater meaning, and that was for me a process of reason. But religion is also a question of intuition. ”      

            We had made relatively short speeches, to open up for questions and comments from the audience.

            A young medical doctor from Rikshopsitalet (The National Hospital) told that he had participated in reserach about how patients react when they pass through a deep crisis. Is there a turn amongst disbelievers towards the metaphysical? He said that the conclusion of the research was that people kept to the beliefs that they had before crisis hit them, but that thoese beliefs were intensified.

            I replied that this seemed to be valid for me personally. After the cancer crisis I felt that my atheism was more intense, but also that I experienced a strong desire to search my mind, to check if my atheism was a real position, if it was truly a fundamental part of my intellect, or if it was a shallow belief based on indifference. If I was an atheist because of honest thinking, or just out of disregard for religion.

            A woman quoted another St Katarina, St Katarina of Milano, as having said: I do not search for God. It is God who searches for me.

            ”God searches for humans,” said the woman.

            A man said: ”God is in all humans, looking for the good in all humans.”

            Another man talked about the two exits from life, going up or going down. I replied that I understood Pope John Paul to have said that perdition (”fortapelse”) is the absence of the love of God. I added that i intepreted this papal word as meaning: If a person is past redemption, it does not mean that the person goes to Hell, but that the person is not able to feel the presence of God’s love.

            Did sister Ragnhild Marie give me a nod when I said this?

            I thought that I could also add that Pope Benedict has taken a somewhat different view than John Paul, and that the new Pope is advocating the existence of Hell with quite a strong zeal. But I did not say this. I did not want to spoil the good atmosphere of the evening.

            Most of the comments from the audience was directed to me, the disbeliever.

            A  woman said that I should make notice of the fact that only those who in the decisive moment turn away from salvation do not go to Paradise. She said that the good Lord have mercy on souls, and that he observes honest doubt.

            I said, in a light tone, that I  could compare myself to a drowning man who tries to clutch at a straw, and that I hoped that my doubts would be considered serious if I really was to be judged by a higher power.

              The audience smiled.

              I said that I hoped I was not being coquettish (”kokett”), but that I really struggle to find out if my atheism is fundamental to me.

              I made a refrence to my novel ”Terra roxa” and said that my Jungle-Bjørg was a seeking person, a Protestant who was investigating Catholicism. I said that the feminists had judged my female hero to be Michelet in a skirt, and the audience laughed.

              I said that I look upon my self as a seeker, but that I cannot fake belief when I do not believe. 

             A man said about my references to the dramatic visions of St Katarina that to him I sounded as if I was afraid of the dark (”mørkredd”). I replied that I think I am not a terrible coward in the dark, but that some aspects of Catholicism are a bit scary to me. I mentioned the distribution of the relics of St Katarina to cities in Italy and abroad; the head to Siena, the fingers to Venice, the shoulder blade to Rome, the bones and pieces of skin to England.

             ”Faith,” he said, ”is not to be found in saintly visions or relics, but in the praise of Jesus Christ, his resurrection and universal presence. There is where faith is tested.”

             A woman siad: ”God calls upon man where he is. You have to see Christ in the other human beings.”

             Hans Fredrik Dahl spoke about the problem of how he could believe in a great God who left so many people as disbelievers, on the outside. He said that he thought that in the end God would have mercy on many souls, also many outsiders’ souls.

             In the crowded living room the air started to become thick. Sister Ragnhild Marie Bjelland said that we had to conclude. I was happy to hear this because I felt dizzy. My concentration slipped, and I did not make notes of the last questions and comments.

             I quoted an old Norwegian saying: ”Når Fanden blir gammel går han i kloster”. When the Devil grows old, he goes to live in a monastery. Saying this, I pointed at myself.

             Laughter from the audience.

             The meeting ended. Hans Fredrik and I each got a bottle of wine from sister Ragnhild Marie.

             People from the audience came forward to shake our hands an thank us for an interesting session. There were smiles on their faces. I felt happy. I felt relieved of a burden.

             I had done my job. I had not faltered, but spoken directly and as open-heartedly as i could.

              I drive home in the the half-light of the late April evening. Darkness fall, and I do not go in the permitted 100 kilometres an hour on the motorway, but take it easy and keep the pace of the big lorries in front of me.

            I roll Langslet’s words of St Augustine through my mind: Many who think they are on the outside are on the inside.

             Then the opposite, the contradictory, is also a possibility: Many who think they are on the inside are on the outside.

            I pass a slow lorry from Poland. The driver is possibly a Catholic. He thinks he is on the inside, but he is perhaps on the outside. I may be on the inside.

            No, this is bad, opportunist thinking. The driver from the Catholic stronghold of Poland is on the inside. I am on the outside. That’s the way it is.

            Is that a pessimistic view? No, it is a realistic view.

              The wine from the nuns is a ”Chateau Vieux Bonneau – Montagne Saint-Emilion”, produced in France in the year 2005.

            It is a good wine with a taste of cherries. I drink a glass. I drink another glass.

            ”Thank you very much, nuns,” I say. Then I go to bed.

            Good sleep comes to me as if I have deserved it.

              In the morning I find a word scribbled on the bedside notepad: FALSE.

            What was it that I thought was false when I woke up in the middle of thenight?

            My thinking about the lorry driver from Poland was not opportunist, nor was it realistic. It was simply wrong. It was based on false premises. The whole concept of being on the outside or the inside is a trap for the thought.

            The Polish driver may be on the inside when it comes to membership of the Catholic church. But that is not ”being on the inside” in the meaning of the words of Augustine. What St Augustine spoke about is being on the inside of  God’s community, or on the outside.

            Since I do not believe in God’s community, the words ”inside” and ”outside” in this context are not valid to me. I cannot be inside or outside something that does not exist..

            Where am I?

            In the middle of nowhere?

            I give up thinking about this. I remember a funny episode from Africa. There was this young woman who had come to work for the Norwegian Peace Corps (”Fredskorpset”) in Zambia. My family and I lived in Zambia at the time. My wife worked in a printshop run by SWAPO, the political organization which worked for the liberation of South West Africa (today the republic of Namibia) from South African rule. One of the SWAPO chieftains who lived in exile in Zambia was visiting our home in Lusaka, and so was the young Peace Corps woman. 

            She came from Lillehammer (later to become famous as the site of the Winter Olympic Games in 1994) in Central Southern Norway. She spoke English with a charming – and rather heavy – Norwegian accent.

            The SWAPO man, who had recently visited Scandinavia on a political tour, asked where in Scandinavia the young woman came from.

            She answered.

            He looked at her and asked  again.

            She blushed and answered stuttering.

            The SWAPO man said: ”It is not possible. A nice young comrade like you. No, it is not possible!”

            I said that I thought there might be a misunderstanding, and explained to the SWAPO man: ”You thought she said that she comes from the middle of nowhere. What she wanted to say is that she comes from the middle of Norway.”

            The three of us had a good laugh.


       Chapter 16

Chapter 18