The Lily and the Cross
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The young woman now honored with such beautiful titles as "the Lily of the Mohawks" and "the Wonderworker of the New World" was born in 1656 at Ossernenon, a village of longhouses which stood on a high hill overlooking the Mohawk River. The daughter of a Turtle Clan chief and a Christian Algonquin captive, she was orphaned at the age of four when a smallpox epidemic decimated Ossernenon. With a pockmarked face and damaged eyesight from her own struggle with the dreaded disease, Tekakwitha was raised in the longhouse of her father's brother and successor.
When Tekakwitha was in her late teens, French Jesuits established a mission in her uncle's village. The Mohawk chief distrusted and disliked the Christian Blackrobes, but grudgingly allowed their presence as a party of a treaty with the French.
Despite her uncle's stern objection to the Blackrobes and their faith, Tekakwitha was deeply impressed by their words perhaps they brought back childhood memories of her mother's whispered prayers and gladly risked her family's disapproval to be baptized. With a joyful heart, she became a follower of Christ and took the name Catherine, in her language, Kateri. Subjected to persecution in her village, she fled over 300 miles to the safety of Caughnawaga, a mission village near the French settlement of Montreal. In this place, often called the Praying Castle, her already deep faith flourished. She died there several years later at the age of 24. Devotion to the holy girl began almost immediately. She was beatified on June 20, 1980 and is now one miracle away from sainthood.
In the familiar prayer for her canonization, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha is referred to as "this young lover of Jesus and of His Cross." Her great devotion to Our Lord is one of the most profound aspects of her story and one that is occasionally overlooked these days when her life is simplified and sentimentalized. Yet it was Kateri herself who said, "I have given my soul to Jesus in the Eucharist and my body to Jesus on the Cross."
Her earliest biographers two of the Jesuit missionaries who knew the Lily of the Mohawks during the last years of her life and who recorded her story soon after her death have left us a chronicle of this great love.
In his narrative, Fr. Pierre Chauchetiere wrote that even before she was allowed to make her First Holy Communion, Kateri's heart and happiness were in the little mission chapel: "It was this desire to be united with Our Lord that brought her so often to the church and that made her find life in the forest so wearisome. The only consolation she had in her very great infirmities was to be able to drag herself to the church, where she remained with the modesty of an angel during hour after hour.
"When she entered the church, she took holy water, reminded herself of her Baptism, and renewed the resolution to live as a good Christian. Then after kneeling in some corner near the railing (for fear of distractions from those entering or leaving), she covered her face with her blanket and make an act of faith in the Real Presence of the Blessed Sacrament. She made also many interior acts of contrition, resignation, and humility, according to the inspirations she felt in her heart. She set aside a time for these visits, which brought her to the Lord five times a day without fail; in fact we can say that church was the place where one would most often find her."
No matter how bitterly cold it was in the humble church, Kateri would remain there for hours, kneeling in prayer and lost in love for the Lord. When she grew numb, the missionaries urged her to sit by the fire and warm herself. She would smile and thank them for their kindness before hurrying back to her place before the altar where she had left her heart.
Fr. Pierre Cholonec spoke of this love, too, when he wrote of her first Holy Communion: "She approached, or rather, surrendered herself to this furnace of sacred love that burns on our altars, and she came out of it so glowing with its divine fire that only Our Lord knew what passed between Himself and His dear spouse during her first Communion. All that we can say is that from that day forward she appeared different to us, because she remained so full of God and of love of Him."
Later the same missionaries tell of how, when the winter hunt took her far from the village and prevented her from visiting the mission church, she continued her acts of devotion in the forest. She had made a little oratory in a secluded spot. There she carved a cross into the rough bark of a tree and she would kneel before it in the snow. Her head bowed beneath her shawl, her poor scarred face would burn with love as she prayed before that simple cross.
The missionaries also tell us of the severe penance that Blessed Kateri imposed upon her already frail body. She often scourged herself, slept for several nights on thorns, and burnt her thin legs with hot coals. These mortifications were all expressions of her love of Jesus upon the Cross and a way for her to share, in some small way, in His sufferings. Her scourgings were a memorial of His, the sharp brambles beneath her sleeping mat recalled His thorny crown and the hot coals branded her as His forever. Extreme as they might see now, these were one of the ways she expressed her devotion to Christ's Passion on the Cross.
As a supreme act of love and sacrifice, Kateri renounced the world and marriage forever when she took a perpetual vow of virginity on March 25, 1679. On that day, Kateri knelt in the chapel and prayed to the Lord to accept her as His own and gave herself totally to His service.
In the end, Kateri Tekakwitha herself tells us so eloquently and simply of this great love in two instances.
When Kateri lay dying on Wednesday of Holy Week, 1680, the last words she spoke were, "Jesus, I love You!" As Pope John Paul II stated at her beatification, these simple words summarize her life "like a noble hymn."
Even after death, Kateri spoke of this love to Anastasia Tegonhatsiongo. At the mission of the Sault, this older Mohawk woman was her teacher and friend. She had known Kateri's Algonquin mother and looked on Kateri as a surrogate daughter.
One night, some days after Kateri's death, Anastasia heard Kateri's voice calling, "Mother, arise."
When she sat up and opened her eyes, she saw Kateri standing before her. But this was not the frail, scarred Kateri she had known in life. She was "brilliant with light" and her eyes were filled with joy. The heavenly light radiated from a cross that she held in her hands. She spoke once again to Anastasia: "My mother, look at this cross and see how beautiful it is! Oh, how I loved it on earth and how I still love it in Heaven!"
The Cross of Our Lord and her intense love for it had illuminated Kateri's soul. May we truly profit from her example and let it illuminate ours as well.
PaulaAnne Sharkey Lemire is the creator of Kateri On-line (www.tekakwitha.org), one of the largest web sites dedicated to the Lily of the Mohawks. A native of Albany, New York, she has recently published Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha Prayers and Devotions.
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