By BETTE McDEVITT
Aerhaps youve taken one of Icelandairs popular low-cost flights to Europe. The flight stopped in Keflavik, Icelands International Airport. You may have looked out the window and shivered. People outside were walking at a 45-degree angle against driving sheets of sleet. The old lava near the airport looked like the moon. You were glad to be going on to Europe.
If you had stayed over, the weather might have changed in two minutes. The sun, languishing on the horizon, might have produced a double rainbow that would make you whimper. Iceland is a large watercolor in progress, my friend Lois said on the second day of her visit.
Welcome to Iceland, or Paradice as the poet Eliot Weinberger called it, the only country, according to Amnesty International, that has no human rights violations of its own citizenry, and that sends their prisoners home for holidays.
Icelanders are a literate and internationally savvy people who like to banter with you. The 250,000 citizens have a healthful environment and a progressive government that protects their citizens from birth to death. There is universal education, universal health care, almost 100 percent literacy, very low unemployment, longevity, no pollution and a prosperous middle class.
Everyone is known by her or his first name, including the president, and is listed that way in the phonebook. They follow a system known as patronymics. An Icelanders Christian name is followed by his or her fathers name and the suffix son or dóttir: Gudrún Pétursdóttir (Gudrún, daughter of Pétur). Relatives can therefore have many different surnames, which sometimes causes confusion to foreigners.
Iceland is as homogenous as the United States is diverse. The language, pure Norse, is the same as their ancestors spoke 1,000 years ago. Icelanders know their genealogy and their history from the first settlement, recorded in the Sagas. These are not the stories of kings, for there were none, but the stories of farmers and settlers. Peter Giersson, who owns a hotel in Borgarnes, in the heart of Saga country, can show you where each story took place, and where the most famous writer, Snorri Sturluson, relaxed in his still-steaming hot tub.
Iceland is not a closed society. They have welcomed many Eastern European immigrants recently, and people from Yugoslavia who face discrimination in their homeland because of ethnic intermarriages. The immigrants often work in the fish factories in the north of the country.
Fr. Jakob Rolland, parish priest at Christ the King Cathedral in Reykjavik, talked about Iceland, his adopted country over coffee and cakes at the rectory. Coffee is the eighth sacrament here. We cant do anything without it, he said. Rolland, from a mountainous region of France, has learned the language, changed his name from Jacques to Jakob -- no one here could say Jacques -- and taken out Icelandic citizenship. Im bound to this parish. This is my home now, he said.
Iceland is a challenge for the Catholic church. The country converted from paganism to Christianity in the year 1000, by agreement of the Parliament. On their way home to the North, from Thingveiller, where the Parliament met, the leaders threw their statues into the Godafoss Falls, rather like that last pack of cigarettes youll ever smoke. There were a few holdovers, eating horsemeat, a little bit of sacrifice to the gods and a bit of infanticide. Icelandic people defend their heathen ancestors, arguing that life was very harsh in those times, and if people could not feed their infants, they had no alternative.
It was a Catholic country until the Reformation in the 16th century, when the Catholic bishop, Jon Aronsson, and his two sons were beheaded. He is still regarded as a national martyr, a man who gave his life for his religion, Rolland said. Now heres a twist: In Iceland, priests were allowed to marry, but because Aronsson was not married and had two sons, he was denied sainthood, Rolland said.
The Lutheran church was established as the state religion, but in 1857, the Catholic church returned to set up a mission, with Sisters of St. Joseph and the Montfort Order of the priesthood. Slowly the prejudice against the Catholics calmed down, and the Icelandic people regained freedom of religion again in 1874, Rolland said.
There are now 3,500 Catholics in the country, only a little over 1 percent of the population, Rolland said. There are 13 priests in Iceland, three of them Icelandic. Four priests are traveling most of the time, visiting the immigrant population from Eastern Europe and the Philippines, who are in every community in the country except three. The present bishop of Iceland is Dutch, Johannes Gijsen.
Rolland said his Icelandic is not fit for print and always has an Icelandic person check it for grammar. Their language and culture are very important to them, he said. The weather is dreadful and the cost of living is high. They only stay here because it is their culture.
Recently Rolland has been listening to tapes of Halldor Laxness books as he travels. Laxness, Icelands Nobel laureate, died a year ago, at the age of 95. His last book Days Among the Monks about his sojourn in a monastery in 1920 was published in the 1980s. Laxness also wrote Independent People, the story of everyman, and The Atom Station about the conflict in Iceland over joining NATO.
When Laxness accepted the Nobel Prize, he paid tribute to his family and to that community of 150,000 men and women who form the book-loving nation that we Icelanders are.
My thoughts fly to the old Icelandic storytellers who created our classics, whose personalities were so bound up with the masses that their names, unlike their lives work, have not been preserved for posterity, he said. They live in their immortal creations and are as much a part of Iceland as her landscape. For century upon dark century those nameless men and women sat in their mud huts writing books without so much as asking themselves what their wages would be, what prize or recognition would be theirs. There was no fire in their miserable dwellings at which to warm their stiff fingers as they sat up late at night over their stories. Yet they succeeded in creating not only a literary language that is among the most beautiful and the subtlest there is, but a separate literary genre. While their hearts remained warm, they held on to their pens.
Bette McDevitt is a freelance writer in Pittsburgh, and a member of the Thomas Merton Center.
National Catholic Reporter, October 15, 1999