The White Martyrdom of Kateri Tekakwitha
By PaulaAnne SharkeyLemire
Sine sanguine martyr
There are several common mistakes that appear from time to time when one reads about Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha. One is that she was a nun; though Kateri took a vow of virginity, she never became a nun. Another is that she was martyred. A martyr is one who is killed for their faith. Kateri's death came at the end of a long illness. Though her life was indeed threatened and she would have gladly surrendered it for love of Christ, Kateri was not murdered for that wonderful, radiant love.
But there are two kinds of martyrdom, the red and the white.
Red martyrdom occurs when a person sheds their blood for Christ. Throughout the history of the Church, there have been many of these brave souls who died rather that forsake the Lord. Many of their names are very familiar and form a litany of courage and trust in God; Stephen, Lawrence, Justin, Polycarp, Sebastian, Paul Miki, Maximilian Kolbe, Agnes, Lucy, Agatha, Cecilia, Apollonia, Edith Stein, and Maria Goretti are just a few. Kateri Tekakwitha herself was born at Ossernenon, the same village where three Jesuit missionaries - Rene Goupil, Isaac Jogues and Jean Lalande - were martyred.
The second form is called white martyrdom. This is a martyrdom without blood, without the violent taking of life. White martyrdom is a total offering to God, a "dying" to the world and its allurements. A white martyr willingly gives up worldly concerns and makes his or her life a perpetual pilgrimage. A white martyr lives a life of heroic devotion for Him alone, eagerly uniting that devotion with Christ's sufferings.
Was Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha a white martyr? Let us look at the life of this humble young woman now revered as the Lily of the Mohawks and see if she was indeed sine sanguine martyr (a bloodless martyr).
Kateri was born in 1656 to a Mohawk chief and a Christian Algonquin woman. At the age of four, she lost both parents when smallpox devastated Ossernenon. Kateri herself suffered from the disease and was left with impaired vision and a scarred face. She was raised in the home of her uncle, an influential chief who disliked the French missionaries who worked to spread the Gospel among the Mohawks. Despite her uncle's distrust of these "Blackrobes," young Tekakwitha was deeply impressed by the Jesuits who visited her village. At the age of twenty, she was baptized by one Father Jacques de Lamberville.
Kateri Tekakwitha's family and neighbors persecuted her for her embrace of the Blackrobe's religion. It was almost immediately after her baptism on Easter Sunday, 1676, that her white martyrdom began. Overnight, she went from adopted daughter to household drudge. She was continually mocked and insulted for her faith. Often, when Kateri would not work in the fields on Sundays, her relatives refused to let her eat. She accepted the menial work, the abuse, and the forced fasts with humility and grace.
One day, Kateri was along in her family's longhouse when a man burst through the door. He raged at her, brandishing a club. He threatened to kill her if she did not renounce her baptism. Kateri showed no fear in the face of his wrath. She quietly told him he could take her life if he wished, but she would never let him take her faith. As Kateri bowed her head and entrusted her soul to God, it seemed as if she would indeed face red martyrdom. Instead, her serenity unnerved her would-be killer. He threw aside his weapon and fled in the face of that gentle courage.
On the advise of Father de Lamberville, Kateri finally left the land of her birth - the Mohawk Valley in what is now upstate New York - and fled over two hundred miles to a Jesuit mission near Montreal.
It was there, at the Saint Francis-Xavier Mission on the Sault Saint-Louis, that Kateri spiritual life and her white martyrdom flowered like a lily that had been transplanted from tangled thorns.
From her earliest days as a Christian, Kateri Tekakwitha had two great desires. One was to do what was most pleasing God. The other was to receive the Eucharist. We don't know exactly what the missionaries and Kateri's mentors taught her of Holy Communion. But we do know that their lessons, like the seeds in the parable, found very fertile ground in Kateri's heart. From her earliest days as a Christian, she was drawn to the sacrament and eagerly awaited the day she might receive Our Lord herself.
Only a couple of months after her arrival at the Mission, Kateri was permitted to receive the Body of Christ for the first time. Her joy at that moment was beyond description. From then on, having fortified her soul with the Bread of Angels, Kateri began to gradually withdraw from the world and its concerns.
Even before her conversion, Kateri had resisted attempts to have her marry. Now, well-meaning friends urged her to wed. They reminded her often of the social and economic hardships a single woman would face. Kateri listened to them, but she knew she would never marry. Moreover, the thought of poverty, hunger, and scorn did not frighten her in the least. Those were trivial things and her heart looked to Jesus alone for comfort.
Kateri took these concerns to her spiritual direction. She told him of her desire to renounce marriage and its worldly advantages forever. She wanted to dedicate her entire being to Jesus.
On the Feast of the Annunciation, 1679, Kateri knelt to receive Holy Communion in the mission chapel. Then, having received the Lord, she dedicated herself to Him forever. She offered her body to Christ on the Cross and her soul to Him in the Eucharist.
The scarred, half-blind orphan of Ossernenon had become a Bride of Christ, the consecrated virgin at the Mission on the Sault. Kateri had truly died to the world and sought only to continue her pilgrimage to Him. Her companions and mentors could see that she never lost sight of Him. In everything she did or said, she sought to be one with Him and His sufferings.
Kateri was strong in character and spirit but, from childhood, she had always been frail in body. She had never let this physical weakness stand in her way, especially in matters of devotion. Now, barely a year after her sublime vow, her indifferent health gave way to constant illness. She could no longer visit her dear chapel; the sickness confined her to her sleeping mat, too weak to move. Days and weeks went by in pain and solitude, but she welcomed this. She tenderly offered her suffering up to the Lord in place of her usual Lenten penance and spent the long, lonely hours in prayer, simply talking to Jesus and Mary.
Kateri Tekakwitha died on April 17, 1680, her last words - Iesos Kononronka - declared her love of Christ. The friends who knelt in prayer at her side then witnessed a wondrous transfiguration. The smallpox scars, the traces of her long illness, the remainders of all her sufferings vanished. Her features became beautiful, reflecting the radiance of her heavenly joy.
Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha was never required to lay down her life for the Lord she loved so greatly. It was that total and selfless love of Him that earned her the luminous crown of white martyrdom.
In 1980, Kateri Tekakwitha was beatified by Pope John Paul II. Efforts continue to have this holy young virgin a saint. Information on her canonization cause is available through the Tekakwitha League (www.katerileague.org).
http://www.tekakwitha.org NY, US
PaulaAnne SharkeyLemire - editor/creator, 518 434-4931
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