Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Tekakwitha - "She who bumps into things"

Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680)
Lily of the Mohawks

Lower left panel of the main door, St. Patrick's Cathedral
Photo by Eric Etheridge

On our way out to Ohio last week, as we were passing through the Mohawk Valley in upstate New York, we made a stop at the National Shrine of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha in the town of Fonda.

Kateri Tekakwitha's story as written by Joey Caruso in the literature handed out at the shrine:

Kateri Tekakwitha was a young Mohawk woman who lived in the 17th century. The story of her conversion to Christianity, her courage in the face of suffering and her extraordinary holiness is an inspiration to all Christians. Follow us as we share with you the life of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, who soon will become the first Native American Saint in the United States of America.

Many private miracles have already centered around Blessed Kateri, known as the Lily of the Mohawks and the holy grounds at the National Shrine of Blessed Tekakwitha located in Fonda, New York. The Shrine was founded in honor of Kateri, for it was here that she was baptized on Easter Sunday April 5, 1676, and lived her teenage years.

Kateri was born in 1656 here in upstate New York. Her father was a chief of the Mohawks. When she was only 4 years old her parents and brother died of smallpox. Kateri survived the disease, but it left her face badly scarred and her eyesight impaired. Because of her poor vision Kateri was named "Tekakwitha", which means "she who bumps into things". Kateri was taken in by her uncle who was bitterly opposed to Christianity. When she was 8 years old Kateri's foster family in accordance with Iroquois custom paired her with a young boy whom they expected she would marry. However, Kateri wanted to dedicate her life to God. Her uncle distrusted the settlers because of the way they treat­ed the Indians and who were responsible for introducing smallpox and other deadly diseases into the Indian community. When Kateri was 18 years of age, she began instructions in the Catholic Faith in secret. Her uncle finally relented and gave his consent for Kateri to become a Christian, provided that she did not try to leave the Indian village.

For joining the Catholic Church, Kateri was ridiculed and scorned by the villagers. She was subjected to unfair accusations and her life was threatened. Nearly two years after her baptism at the Kateri Shrine in Fonda she escaped to the Mission of St. Francis Xavier, a settlement of Christian Indians in Canada. On Christmas Day 1677 Kateri made her first holy communion and on the Feast of the Annunciation in 1679 made a vow of perpetual virginity. She also offered herself to the Blessed Mother Mary to accept her as a daughter.

During her time in Canada Kateri taught prayers to children and worked with the elderly and sick. She would often go to Mass both dawn and sunset. She was known for her great devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and to the Cross of Christ. During the last year of her life Kateri endured great suffering from a serious illness. She died on April 17th, 1680, shortly before her 24th birthday.

Kateri's final words were 'Jesus-Mary-I love you'

Witnesses reported that within a few minutes of her death the pock marks from smallpox completely vanished and her face shone with radiant loveliness. Before her death Kateri promised her friends that she would continue to love and pray for them in heaven. Both Native Americans and settlers began praying at the Shrine here in Fonda. Several people, including a priest who attended Kateri during her last illness, reported that Kateri appeared to them and many healing miracles were attributed to her intercession. Fifty years after Kateri's death the first convent for Indian nuns was established in Mexico and they pray daily for Sainthood for Blessed Kateri.

I was thinking this over for a while, and what really struck me was the pivotal role I believe the threat of forced marriage played in this story. I considered Kateri's situation... The daughter of a deceased chief. Her mother and brother both gone as well. Protectors gone and possible jealousies and resentments abounding. What were the prospects in such a society for a woman half-blind and scarred in an arranged marriage? Perhaps a life of beatings and endless infidelities? If so, small wonder that she begged Father de Lamberville, S.J. to allow her to become a Christian.

There seems to be quite a bit of evidence to suggest that the early spread of Christianity was especially driven by women who would have been duty-bound to enter into forced marriages in Roman Society. Living consecrated lives presented them with a freedom of sorts.

Elaine Pagels is surely a controversial author, but this review of her book Adam, Eve, and The Serpent points out something that is generally recognized by historians:

Central to her book is the contention that in their opposition to the totalitarian Roman state, "Christians forged the basis for what would become, centuries later, the western ideas of freedom and of the infinite value of each human life." Pagels grants that many Christians were themselves slave owners, yet says others went among the Roman Empire’s wretched outcasts with the message of radical equality -- that class, education and gender "made no difference."

On the basis on her frankly Jeffersonian reading of the early church, she concludes, "Our secularized western idea of democratic society owes much to that early Christian vision of a new society -- a society no longer formed by the natural bonds of family, tribe, or nation, but by the voluntary choice of its members."

While Pagels argues that the phenomenon of pre-Augustinian Christian celibacy was an expression of this early Christian impulse toward freedom (rather than of a hatred of nature or the body) , she thinks Augustine’s defense of celibacy is the very antithesis of freedom. Pagels points out how promiscuity and immorality in the late Roman Empire resulted in widespread infanticide and abortion, as well as a slave trade in child prostitutes who were treated, in Justin’s phrase, "like herds of oxen, goats, or sheep." Sexual exploitation of the unborn, the new born and youth of both sexes, together with the fact that even free men and women were expected to marry (usually arranged) and bear and rear children as a duty to empire and family, meant for many Christians that the only route to personal liberty led through the "freedom" of celibacy. "Christian renunciation, of which celibacy is the paradigm, offered freedom -- freedom, in particular, from entanglement in Roman society."

I also found it interesting that a convent of women in Mexico is praying for the cause of sainthood for Kateri. I saw a television commercial the other day raising awareness on the plight of battered women in Mexico (I believe the statistic was one out of every five women being the victim of domestic abuse). Here is a recent BBC article on it: Domestic violence stalks Mexican women.


crystal said...

I hadn't heard of Kateri Tekakwitha before. (scarred and partially blind, like me) That's an interesting idea that women would join religious orders to keep from getting married. I think that was probably true in medieval times as well as ancient.

Jeff said...


I admit that the parallels that you mentioned did occur to me. Even if you don't necessarily feel a sense of kinship or inspiration regarding her, I was hoping that you might at least get a chuckle out of "she who bumps into things". :-)

I think you're correct in saying that the tendency to escape forced marriages by entering religious life survived into Medieval times. I also think that there have always been plenty of people of same-sex-attraction in convents and monastaries. Life was just too difficult without a partner. You couldn't really survive on your own. The consecrated life provided them with a purpose that couldn't be found elsewhere, a means of mutual support, and way to contribute to the wider society.

Maria said...

Hi Jeff,

Popping over now. You and Crystal really discussed some of my thoughts, but I do agree with what you said here: "There seems to be quite a bit of evidence to suggest that the early spread of Christianity was especially driven by women who would have been duty-bound to enter into forced marriages in Roman Society. Living consecrated lives presented them with a freedom of sorts."

Funny, to see something from Pagels which didn't cause me to want to gouge my eyes out. ;-)

Jeff said...

Oh, yeah. Pagels the gnostic. :)She's usually bizarre, but I though this article wasn't too bad.

Maria said...

Hee! She does have some really out there ideas, but every now and then, I've actually thought she has some interesting ideas.

PS I like the new look of the blog.

Jeff said...

In spite of all the deconstruction she does, I actually feel bad for Elaine Pagels, because she and her husband lost a young son.

Heh, I finally bit the bullet and converted to the new Blogger template, mostly because I wanted to start putting some of my panoramic photos in the masthead and so I could easily add gadgets. It's a little annoying though, because it built my linklist out of a really old version of my old template. Don't know why it did that.

Maria said...

I really like your image in the masthead. Is that something you took from a vacation somewhere? It makes me dream about going on a long vacation, perhaps with only a one way ticket.

I think losing a child is the worst pain a person could bear.

Jeff said...

Yes, I took that photo in San Gimignano, in Tuscany.

"...perhaps with only a one way ticket."

Oh, I hear you, I hear you. :)

"I think losing a child is the worst pain a person could bear."

I think I could handle anything life could throw at me but that. Please God, don't ever let me have to endure that.