“Mozmozik Odiozon Kinikinik Volcanda Kottliwi Kwahliwi Tapsiwi.”
(May the Great Spirit and the Great Creator bless us and smile upon us.)
– Abenaki-Algonquin prayer
Kateri Tekakwitha was half-blind, orphaned, pock-marked and never married. Even worse, her name meant “She who bumps into things,” yet it’s easy for us to bump into Kateri. There are hundreds of statues and paintings of this 17th-century Mohawk girl strewn about North America.
They reach back to a few years after her young death in 1680 when a priest named Father Chauchetière created a primitive but pious-looking Tekakwitha in oils. He claimed this came from a vision, rather than as he knew her in real life.
Appending the “saint” was just a last touch by the Vatican when she was canonized in 2012. Pope Benedict finally caught up with popular opinion across the Americas: that Kateri was an extraordinary, yet ordinary woman, a person of flesh and blood and not even particular hardy or especially talented, at that. What did she actually do to earn top billing in Christian living?
Kateri was a women of inexplicably great faith, considering she was entirely immersed by forces hostile to her faith through her short life. Tribal leaders and her adopted family opposed her God and Christianity in general. Refusing to marry and taking a “vow of chastity” didn’t endear her to the neighbors. Like present-day Christians in Muslim areas, she was accused of “sorcery” (blasphemy) and fled New York to a Christian community near Montreal at 20 years of age.
Although Kateri’s Algonquin mother was a believer, she died when the girl was only five. Did she remember and embed her mother’s prayers all that time? Something supernatural was at hand. These are daily issues for contemporary parents, with kids marinated in a cultural that is equally opposed to Christian faith. Almost every saint and martyr has something in common with us now, even if we aren’t boiled in oil (I hope).
Our native saint wasn’t tortured to death, but she wasn’t treated very kindly either. Kateri was mocked and excluded by her entire tribe. True stories like this Indian maiden encourage us to keep strong, dedicated, defiant, humble, or whatever is called for at the moment.
Now tagged as the “Lily of the Mohawks,” contemporaries described Kateri as extremely “disfigured and swarthy.” At the time, “swarthy” was not considered a good thing. Overcoming poor vision and rejection, “extreme swarthiness” was just one more thing to conquer. And she did. Paintings of Kateri almost never revealed her scars; an ugly memento-mori left by smallpox that wiped out the rest of her family.
This is common to art surrounding “saints” – they tend to prettify the Christian, but even more the gruesome torture and murder that ended many of their lives. Perhaps this delicacy and editing is done out of deference to the deceased. People skinned alive aren’t the stuff of glamor shots. They will be remembered as they are depicted in art, in some cases for a few millennia.
Saints and martyrs are often posed almost languidly, with placid expressions as if contemplating calculus. Although this may be irritating, it’s more of a theological statement than physical reality for saints now and then. Ethereal creatures with eyes rolled upward in ecstasy are bit weird, but in the language of the time, it meant, “No worries, God has this.” In what looks like a grand mal seizure, they just overcame the world, the flesh, the devil (and Saracens, Assyrians, Romans, Ottomans, North Koreans, Turks, Boko Haram or fill-in-the-blanks).
Kateri’s honor at this time can’t be attributed to political correctness, although the first and only North American saint is not only darkly indigenous, but female. She was honored in Mexico and Canada hundreds of years before this canonization. Saints are spiritual celebrities in a sense, although most were uncelebrated and some even hated in their lifetimes. Kateri is also an anti-stereotype of American “Indians.” Neither the old bigotry nor the PC “earth-goddess,” in perfect synchronicity with all creation fits her.
There are at least 10,000 Catholic saints at this point, coming from everywhere on the globe. Do we need more? Protestants believe all true followers of Christ are “saints” and this is entirely scriptural. However, they rarely point to specific and real people who have weathered the world and won as their inspiration. Catholic saints are some of the faith’s “action-heroes.” Just like the comics, they beg to be illustrated and their stories circulated and admired.
Whether it’s overdone or not in issue for theologians. Art is important, though, because it’s almost the only way martyrs and exemplary Christians can be remembered by the average person (who does not read the entire 1,800-page “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs”). Unfortunately, there are throngs more victims every year and only God can keep up with them all. I’d love to see contemporary martyrs acknowledged and commemorated in art, word and deed.
Is there a Foxe in the house?