Another View of Saint Kateri

A.V. Walters

Today, the Vatican is Canonizing a fresh batch of Saints. It’s sort of the “Hall of Fame” of the truly faithful. It’s interesting to note the blend of those selected–they don’t make new saints everyday, ya know. Among them is Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, “The Lily of the Mohawk.” This is notable because it’s the first time a North American, indigenous person has ever been granted saintly status. It seems that every 350 years, or so, they get it right.

A closer look at Kateri reveals that she presents with many attributes similar to the female saints of the middle ages. She was a young woman–of high rank (the daughter of a chief and then, when her parents succumbed to a small pox epidemic, the adopted daughter of her uncle, the new chief.) Small pox had left her scarred and partially blind–yet she still had opportunities for marriage, which she declined. Like many of the early European saints, the level of commitment to her faith was out of step with the expectations of her community. It was not regarded with favor, at least not during her lifetime. Kateri left her home and tribe, alone, and walked hundreds of miles north, to a tribe where she would be welcome because that tribe had fully adopted the new Christian faith. Disturbingly, she advocated harsh self-abdication–even to the point of endangering her already compromised health. She was a great friend to all, and dedicated herself to a life of service and toil. She died young–in her early twenties. On her deathbed, the first of her miracles was reported by the Jesuits who attended her. With her last breath, the disfiguring scars of smallpox were reported to have disappeared from her face. In the eyes of God, everyone is beautiful and equal.

It’s a story about finding a place for smart, uppity, young women. Scholars have noted the similarity between the female saints of the middle ages and young women of the modern era who suffer from anorexia or cutting behaviors. From a psychological perspective, unusually saintly behavior is coupled with refusal to adhere to the gender-determined norms of the day. It’s a narrow avenue of control by those whose social options were more limited than the powers of their intellectual, or spiritual, capacity. Not that I want to discourage selfless devotion to a cause–that being one of the hallmarks of humanity–but today I hope that the pathways to self-realization for young people are more open than, well, martyrdom.

I discovered Kateri during my research for The Gift of Guylaine Claire. Her story was the perfect counterpoint to the title character–who was herself an odd fit in society. Guylaine had been raised in a loving home, one that, almost accidentally, found space for her to bloom creatively. Kateri’s tale mirrored the pivotal story of Guylaine’s indigenous grandmother, Claire, and tied into some of the central themes of my book. Kateri was so perfect, that if I hadn’t found her, I would have had to invent her. Her actual role in the book, as the subject of one of Guylaine’s sculptures, is minor but thematically she is woven in throughout the story in terms of forgiveness, transcendence and making one’s own way. Kateri was drawn to her faith, despite the fact that her tribe blamed the “Black Robe” Jesuits for the very epidemic that had taken her family. In an odd way, both she and her tribe were correct in their convictions. So, today we celebrate the recognition of a young woman challenged by personal circumstance and race. Maybe we can all learn from it.

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