Sauntering with St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the Lily of the Mohawks

Readings for the Feast Day of St. Kateri Tekakwitha

  • 1 Kings 19:19-21
  • “Psalm”: a selection from Leonard Cohen’s novel Beautiful Losers
  • Matthew 8:18-22

This reflection was shared at Sacred Saunter Outdoor Eucharist on Saturday April 17, 2021 at Freshwater in Eureka.

Tekakwitha, which means “She who bumps into things,” was born in the Mohawk village of Ossernon in upstate New York around 1656. Her childhood and adolescence were marked by hardship. A smallpox epidemic, which claimed the lives of her parents and younger brother, also scarred her face and severely impaired her vision. Her aunt and uncle, as adoptive parents, attempted to pressure her to marry beginning at age 11, but she resisted every attempt. Moved by the preaching of Jesuit missionaries, Tekakwitha followed in the path of her late mother and converted to Christianity. She was baptized on Easter Sunday, 1676, at 19 years of age. As part of her conversion, she took the name Kateri, in honor of Catherine of Siena. Kateri Tekakwitha devoted her life to chastity, pledging to marry only Jesus Christ, and asking the Virgin Mary to accept her as a daughter. Her piety was mocked and derided by her fellow villagers, some of whom threatened her life. She fled to a village south of Montreal, where with her friend Marie-Therese, she attempted to begin a monastic community of indigenous women. They were dissuaded by the local priests, who believed they did not have enough experience to begin such a community. Kateri therefore accepted an “ordinary” life of chastity and good works among the people, especially the elderly and sick. At age 24, she succumbed to a serious illness. Tradition accords her final words as being “Jesus, I love you,” as she entered eternal life on Holy Wednesday, 1680. Following her death, it was reported that her body softened and her face took on the appearance of a child, even including a smile. The pockmarks of her childhood smallpox faded, and her skin became smooth. Pilgrimages were made to her grave as early as 1684. Kateri Tekakwitha is known as the Lily of the Mohawks, and was the first Native American to be canonized in the Roman Catholic Church, where she is considered the patron of ecology and the environment, as well as persons in exile.

We have much to learn from our Native American brothers and sisters, who are considered the original environmental activists. In 2016, I visited the Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock North Dakota, where I learned about the Lakota Sioux’s sacred relationship with tobacco. I’m a nicotine addict who has abstained from nicotine since June 2015, so in 2016 I was concerned that I might be offered a Peace Pipe by a Lakota Sioux tribal member and I did not want to offend the person by turning it down. However, I learned from one of the elders who guarded the sacred fire that tobacco is indeed a holy herb for the Lakota Sioux, but it is not to be smoked. In fact, smoking the herb is considered an abuse. Tobacco is to be used primarily as a tool for prayer by offering it into fire or water. 

When I participated in the water ceremony, which was performed every morning, I prayerfully offered a small pinch of tobacco to the river with several others and I remember little minnows feasting on the offering. So I invite us to pick up some piece of the earth, perhaps a redwood needle or a blade grass, and offer it prayerfully to the water at the dock as an expression of gratitude for this good earth, which God has made. You can follow me to the dock, but let’s be sure to keep some distance so that we don’t “bump into things” (like Kateri Tekakwitha) or bump into each other, and then we will gather at the altar for prayers and Eucharist. 

A “Psalm” from Leonard Cohen’s novel about Kateri Tekakwitha

God is alive. Magic is afoot. God is alive. Magic is afoot. God is afoot. Magic is alive. Alive is afoot. Magic never died. God never sickened. Many poor men lied. Many sick men lied. Magic never weakened. Magic never hid. Magic always ruled. God is afoot. God never died.

…Many stones were rolled but God would not lie down. 

…Though they locked their coffers God was always served. Magic is afoot. God rules. Alive is afoot. Alive is in command. 

…Though his shrouds were hoisted the naked God did live. This I mean to whisper to my mind. This I mean to laugh with in my mind. This I mean my mind to serve till service is but Magic moving through the world, and mind itself is Magic coursing through the flesh, and flesh itself is Magic dancing on a clock, and time itself the Magic Length of God. 

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