You may be wondering: Who is St. Thorlak? Read about him here.
The following Novena to Honor Saint Thorlak is not only a meditation on how he lived the Gospels in his lifetime, but is also an opportunity to get to know more about the life of this Nordic saint.
* Please note: The texts from which these meditations were drawn are listed at the end of this Novena. The chief source is known as The Saga of Bishop Thorlak. When most people hear "saga," we tend to think of exciting legends and mythology. However, from medieval days, Scandinavians used the term "saga" broadly to include both fantastic and realistic, historical narratives of people's lives. In the case of Bishop Thorlak, the original text was a factual account of his life and ways, and of remarkable things reported as happening after his death. In no way does the text's title ("Saga") imply that its contents are exaggerated or mythological in nature. We have every reason to believe they are factual as reported, and the Vatican's declaration of Thorlak's sainthood in 1984 further confirms this as concrete evidence, not mythological fancy.
Novena to Honor Saint Þorlákur of Iceland
(For private, individual devotion only)
Each day, say:
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
Heavenly Father, we thank You for the holy life and example of Saint Thorlak of Iceland. Inspired at the youngest age to seek wisdom, he found it in You; in the psalms and writings of Holy Scripture; in the virtuous instruction of the priests who fostered him; and in the majestic natural wonders of his homeland.
Receiving Holy Orders at eighteen, Thorlak devoted his entire life to feeding the spiritual and material hunger of his people. His quiet compassion for the poor and suffering led him to long hours of prayer on their behalf. He afforded peasants and penitents the same dignity he showed chieftains and kings. May Saint Thorlak help us live and to love, according to your will, heavenly Father. Amen.
Saint Thorlak, quietly humble and pure of heart. Pray for us!
Saint Thorlak, mentor in wisdom. Pray for us!
Saint Thorlak, gentle pastor. Pray for us!
Saint Thorlak, merciful confessor. Pray for us!
Saint Thorlak, champion of families and holy matrimony. Pray for us!
Saint Thorlak, defender of authentic Catholic living in all states of life. Pray for us!
Saint Thorlak, fatherly intercessor. Pray for us!
Saint Thorlak, true ambassador for Christ. Pray for us!
Saint Thorlak, devoted patron of Iceland. Pray for us!
Heavenly Father, we pray that all people in Iceland may be united in Christ under the patronage of Your holy servant, Saint Thorlak. May all taste Your unending love and mercy, and rejoice in Your presence. Through Christ our Lord. AMEN.
Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be.
Daily Meditations on the Life of Saint Thorlak:
Day One: Quietly Humble, Pure of Heart
From his earliest age, St. Thorlak was described as quiet, observant and reflective. As an adult, his peers noted that he lived his life striving to do things well more than making a show with words. Some even said that speaking was difficult for him, and historical texts suggest he had an actual speech impediment. Regardless, St. Thorlak left a strong impression on those with whom he spoke, repeatedly being characterized as careful, gentle, wise, even-tempered and loving in all his words.
Along with his quiet temperament, humility seemed to come naturally to St. Thorlak. His parents were so poor that they voluntarily broke up the family for lack of provisions. He taught himself to read, however poor they were, and showed such an interest in studying that his mother made arrangements for him to live at the farmstead at Oddi, a renowned center of learning operated by clergy. St. Thorlak rose quickly in his academic achievements and was ordained a deacon by the unlikely age of fifteen, and a full priest by nineteen. Both his education and Holy Orders guaranteed him a lifetime of comfort and high social status, yet he never behaved any differently. He considered himself a servant of God and obligated to seeing that his mother and sisters were cared for. He eventually earned the privilege of traveling to England and France to further his studies, which was expected to be the last he would need to see of his coarse, primarily agrarian homeland. To everyone’s surprise, he joyfully returned to Iceland after six years and resumed his pastoral role in the Church of his home district. Even as he would rise in Church ranks from priest to Abbot to Bishop, he remained humble and unassuming. He greatly loved the poor and often privately invited them to dine with him, washing their feet and bestowing them with gifts before they left. It was only after his death that his colleagues broke their silence about that which their bishop had done in secret.
Of his own decision, St. Thorlak opted to place himself under the Rule of St. Augustine, which laid out specific measures of self-discipline and moral conduct. He devised a daily prescription of prayer and fasting for himself that was substantially more elaborate than that of most priests, even to the point of prostrating himself alone before the altar and also keeping long vigils during the night, for sheer love of God, His people and His church. He went about this routine quietly and matter-of-factly, not wishing to have attention called to his piety.
Nearly everyone who spoke of St. Thorlak in his lifetime remarked on the purity of his heart, which flows logically from the depth of his prayer life and greatness of his humility. Fellow priests, bishops and archbishops – even kings – were all equally inclined to comment on his modesty, virtue, purity and integrity.
LET US PRAY
Heavenly Father, our lives often seem far removed from what we would call holiness and humility, yet we see in the example of St. Thorlak that we can achieve these virtues simply by loving You as we are, where we are, and in what we are given. May we grow quiet, as St. Thorlak did, so that we may observe and experience Your presence in this very place, this very moment, and in the people before us. AMEN.
Day Two: Mentor in Wisdom
As we previously learned, St. Thorlak spent much of his childhood living at a boarding school where he was instructed by a renowned priest and scholar. He never forgot his gratitude to his mentor, referring back to him with gratitude any time he received praise for his conduct. As he grew older, St. Thorlak himself mentored many people. When he traveled to England and France to further his studies, he did so with his countrymen in mind, intending to bring back what he had learned so as to share his teachings. He was an avid reader who encouraged others to read. When he wrote, it was for the edification of others. Even in his ordinary conversations, St. Thorlak was said to have sought out good and pure people in order to learn from their ways of living and then impart this knowledge to those in his flock. He loved learning, believing that wisdom was a gift from God… and he was most generous in wanting to share this gift with anyone he could.
Throughout his ordained ministry, St. Thorlak accepted many roles as mentor, both implicitly and explicitly. He was named abbot of the Augustinian monastery at Þykkvabaer, where his leadership established an order of canons widely recognized for their beautiful and harmonious way of living. As Bishop of Skalholt, he was said to be rich in wholesome counsel and was like a spiritual father to all. And, as his own mentor had done, St. Thorlak also personally instructed young men in theology and matters of faith, including his nephew, Pall, who would himself go on to be named Bishop of Skalholt after his uncle’s death. St. Thorlak frequently instructed fellow priests in liturgical practices and strove, above all else, to help others live good and pure lives – by himself living the ways of excellence he prescribed.
LET US PRAY
Heavenly Father, source of all wisdom and knowledge, You taught us through Your Son Jesus that we are to be lights to the world, shining before others that they may see our deeds and give the glory to You. You generously gave Your wisdom to Your servant, St. Thorlak, who delighted in shining Your light to all in his path. Grant us the grace to seek Your wisdom and to share it with others, through mentorship and example. In the Name of Jesus Christ Our Lord, AMEN.
Day Three: Gentle Pastor
The historical text, The Saga of Bishop Thorlak, uses many verbs to tell us what he did for his people in Iceland. Some of these verbs describing his ministry directly are: commanded, ordered, admonished, taught, rebuked, helped, established, explained and called. Indeed, much of what has been written about St. Thorlak in all historical references describes him as a headstrong reformer who tolerated no deviation from Church rules and battled with prominent leaders over matters of morality and ownership of Church property.
Yet a study of these verbs’ modifiers from these same pages paints a different picture. These are some of the adverbs used: beautifully, lovingly, gently, patiently, friendly and excellently. Two adjectives used often are mild and gentle. This hardly sounds like a taskmaster whose main concern is toeing the Church line.
St. Thorlak was a reformer. The clergy in Iceland during his time were lax, often living little differently in their moral manner than before their ordinations. St. Thorlak did work hard to teach, lovingly and gently, the reasoning behind Church rules. He took seriously his role as pastor (and later, Bishop) of his flock, guarding against sin and leading people away from habits that were harmful to their souls. He believed a priest should serve the people, and so he did not flinch from telling the truth – yet he delivered his admonitions with, as the texts say, “moderation and gentle chastisement.”
St. Thorlak was also a mediator… between disputants in his district, and also between the people and God. In the matter of civil disputes, St. Thorlak was said to have reconciled many feuding parties. He deliberately took the time and made the effort to view each case with wisdom, seeking truth and balance until it was found. When it came to penitents, St. Thorlak showed God’s mercy by assigning lighter penances than was the custom, voluntarily performing the greater portion of the burden himself. Although he was known to have excommunicated those who persisted in their discordant behaviors, historical accounts assert that “he greatly lamented men’s misconduct” and that “disobedient men pained him because he healed the spiritual wounds of his subordinates.”
LET US PRAY
Heavenly Father, St. Thorlak wished for everyone to live harmoniously according to Your plan. He knew that Jesus is present wherever two or more are gathered in His name, and so wanted to impart this recognition to everyone in his flock. St. Thorlak was not afraid to lead others to You, but he took great care to do so in a way that was loving and gentle. May the pastors of Your Church follow St. Thorlak’s example in their perseverance, forbearance and striving for concord. Please, Dear Father, help us too, to hear Your voice through our pastors and not grieve those set over us by persisting in that which is not in harmony with Your Church and its teaching. AMEN.
Day Four: Merciful Confessor
Before he was consecrated Abbot or elected Bishop, St. Thorlak was a parish priest at the site called Kirkjubaer for six years. There, he and a fellow priest sought voluntarily to follow in the footsteps of the apostles in every manner of living. Among many things, they “started to bear all the responsibilities on behalf of all those people inhabiting the districts close by them.” In plain words, St. Thorlak and his colleague performed most of the penances of their people themselves, as an act of mercy and a means by which penitents could joyfully experience forgiveness firsthand. Another example of this practice is given in the same text, where it is said that St. Thorlak, having been elected Bishop, “gently helped [penitents] with light penances," spending many of his own hours quietly in prayer and fasting specifically for the salvation of his people.
One of the most striking examples of Bishop Thorlak’s mercy and desire for reconciliation between his people and the Church occurred when his health had begun to fail, and it was thought at one point he would die. At that time, he issued a decree freeing all those whom he had excommunicated “as a comfort to them” – a supreme act of mercy from a Bishop who did not wish to see these souls excluded from Communion without one last attempt at reconciliation. Instead of seeing this magnanimous gesture for what it was, the parties in question ridiculed the Bishop, claiming his words were tantamount to his admission that he was wrong to have excommunicated them in the first place. As it happened, Bishop Thorlak recovered for a time, and when he had the strength to speak again from his sickbed, he reinstated his original ruling, decreeing that these individuals would need to perform the penances originally assigned to them or never be reconciled, of their own decision.
St. Thorlak was a just man, but even after his death, he did not refuse mercy to those who called on his aid. There are at least three recorded miracles whereby St. Thorlak admonished his supplicants to amend an injustice before seeking his help. In one case, he posthumously counseled, then healed, an unwed mother and her newborn child over the course of multiple visits. This was a woman he had excommunicated, counseled about improper relationships and then reconciled before his death, and who had apparently fallen into another improper relationship. Nonetheless, he helped her in her illness during her unwed pregnancy. St. Thorlak consistently demonstrated mercy in all that he did and all that he taught: The mercy of forgiveness, the mercy of reconciliation, and the mercy we can show one another. For, when all is said and done, the purpose of mercy is to bring others, rejoicing, back to God.
LET US PRAY
Heavenly Father, help us to be merciful in the ways that St. Thorlak showed mercy. May our efforts to forgive and forget offenses against us be lifted up as penance to help in the remission of their sins and bring them closer to You.
St. Thorlak, help us to desire mercy for our neighbors and close associates, particularly those who offend us.
Day Five: Champion of Families and Holy Matrimony
St. Thorlak was well aware of the value of an intact family. His own parents made the difficult choice to break up their household when they could no longer support each other and their children. While it was the case that St. Thorlak made it a frequent practice as Bishop of Skalholt to promote and uphold the sanctity of marriage as a sacrament, his method was a clever and tender means to make amends for the pain of his own childhood.
St. Thorlak had two rather obvious reasons for focusing his efforts on curbing immorality between men and women. One, of course, was his being a representative of the Church, whose teachings were not widely regarded when it came to chastity. Promiscuity was a cultural norm; even prominent, married political leaders rarely hid the fact if they had mistresses. Clergy also largely disregarded the Church rules on celibacy. Secondly, St. Thorlak was a Canon Regular of St. Augustine, meaning that he voluntarily held himself to a strict personal standard of conduct. Canons Regular were bound by the honor of continence in all areas, so that even gazing upon members of the opposite sex was discouraged for potentially leading one’s mind toward temptation.
Above all else, St. Thorlak personally believed that the relations between a man and woman were a sacred gift from God, to be used to the glory of God alone. It was highly offensive to him that this gift, “the greatest enjoyment of this world,” might be “wretchedly insulted and wrongly violated” by means of lust and promiscuity. To drive this point home, St. Thorlak warned his flock about sins of the flesh, and those who persisted were routinely assigned monetary fines as their penances. The catch was, this money never went to the church, as some might accuse. Instead, this money was collected and immediately distributed to faithfully married but destitute couples with children. In this way, he attempted to keep struggling families intact – and make the acts of penance more relevant, perhaps more personally meaningful, to those repeatedly committing sins against Holy Matrimony.
St.Thorlak was also faithful to his own family. When he gradually rose in social rank by means of his ordination, he kept his mother and sisters with him, providing for them in the absence of their father. He took particular care of his mother, keeping her close at hand and looking after her well-being for the rest of her life.
LET US PRAY
Heavenly Father, You endowed St. Thorlak with a loving and insightful comprehension of the sanctity of Holy Matrimony, and the fortitude to defend this sacrament for the sake of preserving families. You designed men and women to honor one another and raise children within the blessing of marriage. May we have the same courage as St. Thorlak to support, promote and defend the faithful observance of the vows and obligations of Holy Matrimony.
Day Six: Defender of Authentic Catholic Living in All States in Life
St. Thorlak lived in a time of great contrasts. He grew up in a country populated mostly by poor farmers and seafarers, frequently subject to harsh climatic conditions and fluctuations in the availability of food. He himself came from a family in good social standing whose money ran out during a downturn in mercantile activity, and from complete poverty he then entered the high social class of the priesthood. He went from having very little education to attending a prestigious center of learning, and he studied abroad only to return home to his humble roots. In his religious career, he was a deacon, a parish priest, a theological scholar, a Canon Regular of the Order of St. Augustine, a consecrated abbot of a monastery and a bishop. In each setting, St. Thorlak conducted himself as he had previously: in full obedience to God. Historical narratives state he “heeded to the utmost the obligations which pertained to each of the ordinations that he received. And as quickly as his education and ordination proceeded, he foresightedly attained with resolute steadfastness all the good qualities which belonged to the orders.”[11a]
St. Thorlak never took his rank lightly, and felt the higher one rose, the greater his responsibility to live uprightly. In particular, he believed those in public offices had the greatest burden of good living, as they were the examples for all to see. Historical accounts relate that very few matters troubled him, but he was particularly uneasy when he was obligated to attend proceedings at the Althing, which was Iceland’s parliamentary gathering. It troubled him to travel there because “many men who were highly thought of went astray in their suits there.” [11B] Likewise, he held the conviction that that it is the “greater downfall of the church if noble men erred greatly.” [11c]
Scholars have often noted that St. Thorlak disputed with wealthy men over church holdings. Many wealthy landowners wanted to keep the deeds of churches on their property, including one of the most powerful chieftains in Iceland at the time. St. Thorlak steadfastly insisted that the Catholic Church should possess the deed. While scholars cite this as part of the common argument that the Catholic Church as a political entity sought power and land holdings, it was the case with St. Thorlak that he believed neither the Church nor the landowners should claim the deed; rather, the landowner should consider himself a mere steward of that which belongs to God, and God alone.
St. Thorlak tended many different walks of life among his flocks: peasants, married, single, prominent leaders, monks and fellow priests. He saw them all equally, as brothers and sisters in Christ, and expected no less from them.
LET US PRAY
Heavenly Father, we sometimes find ourselves setting different standards based on different states in life. Help us to see, as St. Thorlak did, that everyone, everywhere, has the same fundamental vocation: to love the Lord Our God with all our hearts, all our souls, all our minds and all our strength; and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Day Seven: Fatherly Intercessor
Throughout his years of ministry, St. Thorlak was a man of the people. He was genuinely attuned to the material, physical and spiritual needs of those around him. Of these, he placed greatest emphasis on needs of the spirit, praying aloud for his petitioners and offering them counsel on how they might grow closer in relationship to God. His words were firm but affectionate, protective of the souls before him. He treasured wisdom and sought to impart instruction, not condemnation.
In his lifetime, many miraculous intercessions were attributed to the prayers of St. Thorlak for his people. Among these included curing the sick, calming harsh weather, healing diseased livestock and extinguishing house fires. On his deathbed, a fellow priest implored him: “We ask you, master, although you are now parting from us visibly in bodily presence, be to us a spiritual father, interceding for mercy with Almighty God, for we firmly believe that in the spiritual life you will have no less power with God than now.”
Indeed, after his death, reports of miraculous interventions by St. Thorlak poured in from all over Iceland and Scandinavia. The character of these intercessions followed a distinctive pattern that is well worth noting. St. Thorlak did respond rapidly and prolifically to those who called upon him in many diverse needs. However, in several cases, St. Thorlak himself appeared in dreams to his supplicants, assuring them and personally advising them just as he had in life. Furthermore, there emerged a habit among those he helped of developing a sort of partnership with their patron. Supplicants gladly promised St. Thorlak a share in the benefits he gave them, which they expressed through prayer offerings or material donations to the poor or to the church in Iceland. He never sought payment, but it became the custom to pay his benevolence forward by pledging to order one’s life more closely around God, materially and spiritually.
It is in the spirit of this tradition which we invite St. Thorlak into OUR lives, asking humbly and confidently for his guidance and intercession wherever we need healing… and, in gratitude for his affection, promising him prayers for the people of Iceland, and a firm resolve to order our own priorities – material and spiritual – around growing closer to God at all costs.
PRAYER SEEKING THE INTERCESSION OF SAINT THORLAK
Heavenly Father, I praise You for the life and ministry of Your servant, St. Thorlak of Iceland, whose fervent love of You brought people from all walks of life to a deeper understanding and appreciation of their faith. Whether wealthy or poor, healthy or infirm, young or old, those who encountered St. Thorlak felt personally touched and uplifted by his desire to share Your treasury of wisdom with them.
Loving God, I pray that St. Thorlak may come to my aid as a spiritual father. May he see my present needs (especially _______________________) and respond with swift compassion, assistance and instruction. May he help me see how to grow closer to God and to find relief from my troubles. May his wise counsel lead me to the healing and restoration I need most.
In gratitude for his intercession, I promise to remember the people of Iceland in my prayers, and, in spiritual partnership with their patron, to seek Your will, My God, in all that I do hereafter.
Day Eight: True Ambassador for Christ
We have looked previously at how St. Thorlak often acted as mediator: between feuding parties, between chieftains and the Church, and between penitents and God. It could also be said that he took the role of ambassador in these matters, since in each case he was acting as a diplomat for Jesus Christ and His Kingdom. St. Thorlak may have been quiet and humble, but he never flinched in his duties as ambassador - that is, an Ambassador for Christ - to chieftains, archbishops and kings... and, even more, to ordinary people.
St. Thorlak was no stranger to political tension. When elected Bishop of Skalholt, he validly received this office from his predecessor; however, formal consecration could only be conferred by the Archbishop of Norway, who in turn required consent from the King. At that time, there were many political hostilities between Iceland and Norway, and instead of giving his blessing, the King made several threats against the Icelanders. St. Thorlak held steadfast to his request, asking nothing more than acceptance and validation of his election. Eventually, his quiet perseverance won out, and consent was given. 
St. Thorlak was as much a diplomat between the Church and its people. He ranked highly as Bishop, yet regularly kept company with common folk. He held himself to high personal standards of fasting and abstinence, but if, for instance, he attended a banquet where alcohol was served, he graciously sipped his drink in a cordial gesture of appreciation for his hosts, but secretly, never truly imbibed. In another example of his magnanimity, it was revealed at St. Thorlak’s funeral that he had been quietly caring for a man with leprosy for some time. Such was the way of Bishop Thorlak, faithful representative of Jesus to all he met.
LET US PRAY
Heavenly Father, help us to remember that, as Christians, we are called to be ambassadors of Your Kingdom in our own circles of friends, families and municipalities. Help us to emulate the example of St. Thorlak in always remembering where our allegiance lies and acting as Your steadfast representative.
Day Nine: Devoted Patron of Iceland
Our meditations on the life of St. Thorlak would be remiss if we did not acknowledge his official title, the Patron Saint of Iceland. Even a quick glance through the recorded accounts of miracles in the 12th and 13th centuries would validate this title firmly. No plea by any Icelander seemed too great or too trivial for St. Thorlak’s help.
We have already considered that St. Thorlak had the opportunity to leave Iceland when he studied abroad, but he returned home out of love for his family and a sense of duty to his country. He knew the needs of the people of Iceland, whether believers or non-believers, and studied long enough to learn what he wished to learn so that he could return home and apply his newfound wisdom to his vocation there. We also know how greatly he loved the common folk in his lifetime, and certainly too, after his death, as his miracles attest.
On January 14, 1984, Pope St. John Paul II made St. Thorlak’s status as Iceland’s patron official, although that title had already been formalized in the hearts of Icelanders for almost 800 years. It is hard to dispute that St. Thorlak was a holy man and would likely have been a saint in any territory into which he was born. As it happened, God saw fit to bring this splendid soul to the people brave enough to weather life on the remote volcanic island just below the Arctic Circle.
St. Thorlak’s relics were once highly venerated in his homeland, but the agents of the Protestant Reformation removed and destroyed them in the 1500s. All that remains now is his name, historical narratives, and devotional images in Iceland’s Catholic churches depicting what his likeness might have been.
Now that we have studied the life of St. Thorlak, it seems most appropriate to offer prayers in thanksgiving for his sixty years of tireless service to God under many trying circumstances… and, as a gesture of appreciation, to join him in praying specifically for the perpetuation of the Catholic faith in Iceland. The churches he worked so hard to secure have since burned or been destroyed, but the One True Church is very much alive in Iceland… and, rather like its patron, is a quiet, steadfast invitation to all Icelanders to come and encounter the Living Christ in the tabernacles therein.
Thank you, St. Thorlak, for all of your labor for the Catholic Church: in Iceland, and the world.
LET US PRAY
Heavenly Father, we call on You now to send forth Your Spirit to all who dwell in Iceland. Lead them with Your light. Instruct them with Your wisdom. Remind them always of Your love. Provide them with abundance in all of their needs: spirit, mind and body; that YOU may be glorified in all they do, now and always. In Jesus’ Holy Name, through the Most Immaculate Heart of Mary: AMEN.
Saint Thorlak, Pray for Iceland! Saint Thorlak, Pray for Us!
Experience the Novena as a meditation on Vimeo:
(All references to Saga of Bishop Thorlak link to the PDF of that document, which can be read here)
 See SAGA OF BISHOP THORLAK, chapter 12
 See SAGA OF BISHOP THORLAK, chapter 14
 See SAGA OF BISHOP THORLAK, chapter 7
 See SAGA OF BISHOP THORLAK, chapter 6
 See SAGA OF BISHOP THORLAK, chapter 16
 See SAGA OF BISHOP THORLAK, chapter 18
 See SAGA OF BISHOP THORLAK, chapter 18
 DuBois, Thomas, ed. Sanctity in the North: Saints, Lives and Cults in Medieval Scandinavia p. 345
 See Brown, Nancy Marie, Ivory Vikings, p. 93.
 See RULE OF ST. AUGUSTINE, chapter 4. (Link directs to PDF)
 See SAGA OF BISHOP THORLAK, chapter 15.
[11a] See SAGA OF BISHOP THORLAK, chapter 3.
[11b] See SAGA OF BISHOP THORLAK, chapter 11.
[11c] See SAGA OF BISHOP THORLAK, chapter 15.
 See DuBois, Thomas (ed.), Sanctity in the North: Saints, Lives and Cults in Medieval Scandinavia, p. 246.
 See SAGA OF BISHOP THORLAK, chapter 11
 See SAGA OF BISHOP THORLAK, chapter 16
 See SAGA OF BISHOP THORLAK, chapter 19