The old widow in the smoky house

A relative recently sent me a copy of some pages from an old “kalender,” (actually more like what we’d call an annual) published in 1932 by Augsburg Publishing House in Minneapolis. These pages contained an essay by a pastor (identified only by the initials “Th. F.”), concerning his memories of a particular aged widow he’d known when he was a young schoolteacher in Norway. The article was of interest to me because this widow was one of my ancestors. Her name was Sophie, which was also the name of my grandmother, a descendent of hers—also in her own turn a godly widow.

The essay is called “Den gamle enke i røkstuen,” which means, “The old widow in the smoky house.” A røkstue was a kind of cottage once very common among the poorer classes in Norway. It was a single-roomed house with a plastered fireplace in one corner for heating and cooking. Such fireplaces had no chimneys. The smoke filled the room, then escaped through a hole in the roof. They were sooty and unpleasant places, and Sophie’s living in one was evidence of her poverty.

The author remembered Sophie as a simple, quiet, loving soul who devoted her life to prayer. One time she went down to the river to wash some clothes, and felt compelled to spend some time with God. Because she didn’t like to “pray to be seen of men,” she went further along the river to a quiet spot where she wouldn’t be seen. But just as she knelt down, a stone rolled over on her foot and crushed it, pinning her. She had to call for help to get free, and she was crippled for the rest of her life. She often wondered, the pastor recalled, why God would allow such a thing to happen while she was “approaching the throne of grace,” but she finally decided it was for God to understand and for her to accept.

The pastor felt he knew why. He believed that if the accident hadn’t happened, no one would have known about her secret prayers. He felt the sight of her limping (like Jacob’s limp in Genesis) was a constant testimony to God’s presence in her life.

Such thinking seems insane (not to mention heartless) to us today. But I wonder if it’s possible that we, with our love of ease and comfort, have simply grown unable to understand things that were clear to earlier, tougher generations who took daily suffering for granted.

Or maybe not. I’m not drawing conclusions here. I’m just wondering.

I’ll translate a little from a passage near the end:

And she was not one of those who, while listening to God’s Word, sit and (in their thoughts) share the message generously with others; she applied it to herself, and so brought rich blessings home with her. One time, when the pastor at the altar said, “Let us all pray,” she began to think that obviously not everyone there in church was praying along. How could so-and-so pray, being such-and-such, etc.? And just as she sat and thought that way about others, she realized that she, precisely because of such thoughts about others, was herself neglecting to follow along with the prayer. “I was both grieved and ashamed that the devil should deceive me so,” she said. But after that she was always vigilant in guarding against that temptation….”

We think of our forebears as unenlightened compared with our educated selves. I suspect God doesn’t see it that way.

4 thoughts on “The old widow in the smoky house”

  1. Excellent. Thank you.

    “I wonder if it’s possible that we, with our love of ease and comfort, have simply grown unable to understand things that were clear to earlier, tougher generations who took daily suffering for granted.”

    I agree, and what great stories could be written with this thought in mind.

  2. What a touching story and godly heritage, Lars. Do you think that you are enjoying some of the answers to Sophie’s prayers for her grands and great-grands?

  3. Lars,

    Not only were they tougher people than us, they were also smarter. Not “book smarts” smarter, but smarter about life.

    Why? Because they had time to think. They didn’t fill their lives with a blur of activity that drowned out their thought processes.

    I’ve long believed that the old men and women in our churches are the ones from whom we should learn the most. Yet to too many of us, they’re invisible. What a loss to this generation!

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