Rich and Strange: Catholic Relics in the Modern Age

 (This excerpt is from the manuscript’s Chapter 4, which explores Indigenous saint, Kateri Tekakwitha)


Suffering came to her early and often, until she learned to make it less an unexpected guest than a daily visitor.  Perhaps she hoped – paradoxically – to lessen her pain by controlling, at least, its unpredictability: to drain it of its power to surprise, to usurp, to presume, by voluntarily inviting it in.  And then taming it.  Enduring it.  Mastering it.

Pain first high-jacked her life when she was just a little girl of four, when the smallpox epidemic of 1661-1663 raged through her Haudenosaunee village of Gandaouagué, tearing from her both her parents and her brother, two years her junior.  Though she survived, Tekakwitha was forever marked by the experience, physically and perhaps psychologically, too.  Though the deep scars from the pox that pitted her face and body were only skin-deep, they must have been a lasting reminder of her ordeal and her triple loss.  Each time she glanced down at them, Tekakwitha must have wondered why she had lived when they had died – and flushed with shame whenever she lamented, however privately and momentarily, the illness’s brutal assault on her childish beauty. 

More serious was the damage to her vision.  Her sight had been diminished (one poignant translation of her name, Tekakwitha, renders it as “she who bumps along as she goes”).  The disease had also made her eyes sensitive to strong sunlight: forcing her to live out the remainder of her life in the shade of the blanket she always wore draped over her head, even in the stifling summers of Iroquoia. 

Literally marked by pain as a little girl, as an adult convert to Roman Catholicism Catherine “Kateri” Tekakwitha used suffering as a self-imposed initiation into the mysteries of the faith.  She deftly braided together longstanding Haudensaunee ideals of courage, stoic endurance, and active preparation for the slings and arrows of guerilla warfare (and its tortuous aftermath) with newer threads of post-Tridentine Christianity, which spoke of self-abnegation, penitence for sin, and the imitation of Christ and his saints.  From the tools around her – snow and fire, ash and thorns – the young woman forged for herself a crucible of suffering: refining her soul by torturing her body.  With other women – her soul sisters - she founded a sorority of pain that at once reflected and defied both of the religious traditions that made her who she was.  Pain - and their brauvara mastery of it - allowed Kateri and her sisters to blur the lines between Haudenosaunee spirituality and Roman Catholicism, usurp traditionally male prerogatives and values, and challenge conventional expectations about the boundaries of lay and clerical spirituality, forging a fierce, uncompromising new spiritual path. 

Kateri Tekakwitha, perhaps more than any of the other individuals explored in this book, lived out her faith in and through her body.  Of course, the relics of all Catholic saints are venerated because they represent a sacred remnant of their earthly past, their earthly selves.  For the faithful, the veneration of a saint’s relics inexorably pulls down to earth their attentive gaze, or attracts their listening ear.  Like a heavenly dowsing rod, it rouses saints transfixed before the beatific vision, urgently reminding them of their earthly obligations, and channels their beneficent attention down through those fragments of their discarded, earthly selves.  But arguably, relics are all the more poignant and powerful when the saint in question so viciously used and abused her body in the service of her spirituality.  

Tekakwitha’s spirituality radically denigrated the body: demonstrating both mastery of and contempt for her physical self and its omnipresent needs and desires.  And yet, paradoxically, such a robust rejection of the body elevated it, simply by making it the persistent focal point of spiritual attention.  Asceticism – the radical rejection of all of the earthly, bodily joys – food, sex, repose, rest – by the greedy embrace of their opposites – hunger, chastity, sleeplessness, work – made the body the site of an interminable, intimate inner war for control.  The logic of asceticism only “works” when there is a tacit acknowledgement of the attraction of these bodily indulgences, and how difficult they are to give up, such that those contemplating the lives of ascetics feel the imaginative loss in their own bodies.

While Tekakwitha’s earthly life was marked by its intense corporeality, her cult is characterized by another classically Catholic feature: the ability to transform.  All successful saints’ cults must evolve or die.  Like a night-growing vine delicately reaching out its tendrils to seek an anchor, saints’ stories must find ways of attaching themselves to the ever-changing here-and-now to gain new audiences of the faithful.  Saints who cannot find a way to speak to the needs, fears, and hopes of generation after passing generation are doomed to dormancy until their perceived relevance to some new cause or issue reawakens them.

But the cult of Kateri Tekakwitha is a particularly exuberant example of such constant transformation.  The very things for which she was venerated in the seventeenth century - her almost superhuman acts of asceticism and self-mortification and her consecrated virginity - are today so irrelevant as to be almost an impediment to her perceived sanctity, rather than a confirmation of it.  Today, the Iroquois woman venerated as a saint is chiefly celebrated for how she “embodies” or “solves” a series of dilemmas that would have meant little or nothing to her as a historical individual in her own time.  She is invoked as a kind of living incarnation of and model for contemporary “Native Catholicism:” a potent but unstable alchemical mixture of pan-Indigenous traditionalism and post-Vatican II theology.  Many of her contemporary Indigenous venerators see Kateri as bringing together two spiritual worlds into a vibrant, shimmering whole that, in its fullness, is somehow greater than the sum of its parts.  They call upon her, as “their” saint, to bring healing and unity to all Indigenous peoples, to bless and succor their relationships with one another as nations, and to protect them from a dominant, non-Indigenous culture often perceived as overreaching, indifferent, or actively hostile.  An icon of Indigenous feminism, Kateri is also earnestly entreated, as a latter-day “patroness of the environment,” to save an overheated planet.  Such appeals, in their blithe ahistoricism, demonstrate that, for the faithful, saints are not creatures merely of their own historical time, but of the eternal present.  They can thus be invoked to transform social issues that would make little sense to them if they were, like the rest of us, restricted to a merely historical ambit, or held merely human powers. 

Many of those seek, through their prayers, to pull this shy, soft-spoken Mohawk woman from her time into our own use their interpretation of who she was: her bodily self, to do so.  Though her asceticism and virginity go largely unmentioned, regarded as the relics of a long-vanished theology, today’s Tekakwitha is still vividly corporeal.  Often her imagined body, marked by its experiences of pain and deprivation, its indigeneity, and its femininity, bears strikingly similarities to the bodies of those who invoke her. 

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