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St. Kateri Tekakwitha and the Crucible of Sanctity

July 14, 2020


An important question for all Christians to consider is whether or not we treat the grace that Christ has given us as something cheap. We might have habituated ourselves to set patterns of religious activity. We might have our charitable causes, vaguely construed as “faith based” so as not to offend, that we choose to support. Our identity as a Christian is a fall-back position should circumstances demand that we need it as a safety net. All this is cheap grace—relatively easy, demanding little in terms of cost or conversion.

Kateri Tekakwitha was born in 1680 in a territory known to us today as the Canadian province of Quebec. She was a member of the Mohawk tribe. She was a Christian, and the Church celebrates her as a saint, an exemplar of heroic virtue. St. Kateri was not a great wonder worker or scholar. She did not found a religious community and never wrote any mystical or theological treatises. She was not a martyr (though she endured a low-key death to self that would challenge the bravest among us). Much of her life was spent in obscurity. A victim of smallpox, she bore the disfiguring scars of the disease on her face, which made her appearance off-putting. Poor in ways that would shock, she gave away the little she had, living in austerity and choosing less so that others might have more. A convert to the God of Christian foreigners, she was shunned by her people. As an indigenous person, she had no real place among the European colonists whose religious faith she shared.

So St. Kateri spent her days on the margins, wandering between two worlds, two peoples, neither of which had much room for her.  To her tribe, her Christian faith made her an intolerable dissenter. To the emerging colonial world, she was a strange outsider.  And it was this marginalization that would become the crucible through which she would pass, and in this way she would become holy as Christ is holy. And therein is St. Kateri’s lesson for us.

A saint is a Christian who displays to us in a concrete, tangible, human form the mystery of God in Christ. His life, his presence, his mystery becomes embodied in the saint in such a way that in their very person the encounter with Christ is akin to the manner he gives himself to his Church in the sacraments. The saint becomes, for the Church and for the world, a privileged route of access to Christ, and in the body of the saint, as he is in the sacraments of the Church, this encounter with the Lord Jesus is abiding, personal, and true. In the saint, the Church and the world meet Christ.

Each saint will represent Christ in particular ways, and St. Kateri embodied Christ in his suffering. In her own body, the sufferings of Christ became real to the senses. Christ’s sufferings are not abstractions. Remember that Christ, as the Scriptures testify, “was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3). His sorrows and grief were not only the wounds of his Passion but were occasioned by a passionate love for his creatures and his creation that he expressed in a descent into our world that would place him among the marginalized. Again, the Scriptures express this descent as God in Christ being so bold as to take the “form of a slave” (Phil. 2:7), and in doing so showing us that power is not a thing to be grasped at, and that the presence of God will be most readily found not in the bodies of elites, but in the bodies of those deemed least according to the standards of the world. Conversion to Jesus Christ beckoned Kateri Tekewitha into this crucible of sanctity. She accepted it as a privileged gift, and her descent into Christ’s invitation made her a living icon of his presence. From her place at the margins, she drew people to the true center—the center who is Christ.

I believe it was St. Augustine who once mused that it is easy for us to think about grandeur, to enjoy honors, to give our attention to those who flatter us. But all this is really cheap. Of far more value is to suffer for Christ, to pray for those who persecute us, and to take our place, in imitation of Christ, among the least who inhabit the marginal places of the world.

May St. Kateri, saint of the margins, show us how to live in this way.


Painting by Jan Henryk de Rosen; photo by Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P.