Catholics in America – The Lily of the Mohawks, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha

“You renew the church in every age by raising up men and women outstanding in holiness, living witnesses of your unchanging love.” So reads one of the prefatory prayers to the Mass for Holy Men and Women.

When one reflects upon nearly any specific situation or locale in the last 2,000 years, it doesn’t take long to bring to mind one of these “living witnesses” that sanctify and consecrate it with God’s presence: Augustine during the collapse of the Roman empire, Benedict in his self-sufficient early medieval monastery, Matteo Ricci in the imperial courts of Mandarin China, Teresa in the slums of Calcutta.

Our nation is not exempt from this reality. And yet none of our true “natives” has been canonized by the universal church. That is, however, about to change.

On Oct. 21, one of my favorite Christian personages, the Lily of the Mohawks, Kateri Tekakwitha, will be “raised to the altars” and named a saint.  I distinctly remember being fascinated by her story in the basement library of St. Peter’s Elementary School in Merchantville when I was about 9 years old. Little did I know I would someday have a more personal connection to her.

My spiritual mentor Cardinal Avery Dulles is buried in Kateri’s birthplace in upstate New York. And so in June of 2009, the grieving 29-year-old doctoral candidate and research assistant stood in Auriesville, N.Y., as fascinated by Kateri’s life and God’s zigzagging plans for each of us, as that adolescent paging through a picture book of saints while sitting cross-legged on the linoleum floor in South Jersey.

Tekakwitha, the daughter of a Mohawk chief and Algonquin mother, was at a young age ravaged by the same outbreak of small pox which decimated her family and clansmen in 1660, the disease permanently scarring her face. Most likely because of this, the young Native American girl was exceedingly shy and reserved, spending the majority of her time inside a smoke-filled longhouse in which multiple families dwelt without partition.

After the death of her parents, the authority figure in her life was a chieftain uncle of the Turtle clan. When Tekakwitha became enamored with the preaching and lifestyle of the missionaries, her uncle demanded she maintain the traditional socio-religious patterns and avoid the mysterious “blackrobes.” She refused, fled to Canada and was eventually baptized taking (or being given) the name Kateri, a native pronunciation of Catherine, after the Italian saint from Siena.

Kateri became a model of holiness and piety to all who knew her. I’ve read a quite a bit more on her since the SPS days, and, as with so many of the saints, remain both taken and horrified by the extremes of self-mortification she underwent. (I am all for self-denial and asceticism, but standing half-naked in the snow for hours or mixing ashes into all one’s food seems at least somewhat excessive. Yet, the sacred is famously defined as mysterium tremendum et fascinans – that Mystery which makes us “tremble” but yet captivates or fascinates us).

She reportedly achieved a mystical union with God through this zealous and intense prayer-life. For, like the Messiah described by Isaiah, she was “a person of sorrows, one well acquainted with grief.” As difficult as it sounds, this is a necessary prerequisite for authentic communion with the Christ. (Cf. generations of artwork depicting Pilate’s Ecce Homo). The Author of Life walks among us and heals us — we spit on him, mock him, and nail him to a tree, and do so daily. Maybe her penitent ashes-as-seasoning wasn’t so unwarranted after all.

Upon Kateri’s death, her disfigured and pox-ridden complexion was said to be transformed into a healthy and radiant beauty. Almost immediately, miracles were attributed to those seeking her intercession or visiting sites associated with her life. This “Mystic of the Wilderness” often serves as a patron to those interested in ecological sustainability and natural conservation, as well as adolescents who are mocked for their Christian witness.

Michael M. Canaris is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.

Categories: Growing in Faith

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