Painting of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha by Sister Dorothy Grills, C.S.J.
It is odd to think, I guess, that if Kateri Tekakwitha had lived about two centuries later, she would have been carefully fitted with special prescription sunglasses. Indeed, for a young woman who endured so much through illness and alienation from her community, a further burden was placed on her when her eyesight was greatly affected after her family and relatives died from smallpox, and she survived, but became severely sensitive to direct sunlight and even bright light.
Her contemporary biographers stressed the necessary practice she had of always wearing a veil or blanket over her head to block the sunlight, and in fact, was pleased even to stay as much as possible in the longhouse, the centre of activity and community creativity for a settlement.
That fact explains the detail in the early painting of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha by Jesuit Father Claude Chauchetière done in 1696, 16 years after Kateri’s death— Kateri appears with a cloak over her head and shoulders, avoiding the unwanted glare of daylight, while holding significantly a simple cross of her newly-adopted faith in Christ.
There is much for us to learn from this humble young woman, Kateri. Orphaned at a very young age, and displaced from her native town, she had to become accustomed to serving the members of an extended family, who made great demands on her.
The writers at the time went into detail about how Kateri applied herself to the labours of the longhouse. She ground the corn, fetched water and carried wood. She avoided idleness and created small articles with extraordinary skill. But especially she had a natural horror of the impurity and scandal around her.
Kateri resolved to dedicate herself to Christ, and be consecrated in her life to her Lord; therefore, she had to undergo much opposition from her community when she declined to marry. In addition to her habits of industry and devotion, she remained an example of single-mindedness and faith. The difference from others that her heroic virtues demonstrated once led a crazed man to menace her with a hatchet, but the amazing equanimity she showed cowed the bully into uncomprehending submission.
She approached the Christian faith with deliberateness, and was only baptized at the age of twenty, then lived for just four more years, dying in 1680 at Kahnawake, not far from Montréal. From the earliest days after her death she was heralded as a striking example of chastity.
For all those who have to undergo disruptions in their lives, caused by disease, or by rancour in a community, or by social changes, or by personal hatred, or by the effect of one’s own Christian principles, Kateri Tekakwitha is a saint who stands close to us, to guide us through these difficulties. This is partly the reason why Kateri has been a true patron for the First Nations of Canada and the United States for 330 years, but these reasons should make her especially appealing to everyone of all origins, at all times.
This saint of the longhouse of the 17th century is our very own, and we shall always cherish her presence in the world that needs healing. Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, pray for us!
Reprinted from Catholic Missions In Canada Magazine, Spring 2012