On my recent stay at Mercy Ecospirituality Center in Vermont, I did a bit of weeding. I find that time in a garden is a contemplative space, perfect for gathering my thoughts on Kateri Tekakwitha. My mind and heart go to another place as my hands work in the soil.
I knew of Kateri Tekakwitha having grown up in Western New York. However, I admit that I didn’t really know her. She is the patron saint of Native American and First Nations Peoples, the environment and integral ecology. As we remember her on her feast day of July 14, I am struck by the many connections from her life with what we are now experiencing.
At age four, Kateri was the only member of her immediate family to survive a smallpox epidemic, though it left her face scarred and her eyesight severely impaired. She wore a blanket to cover her face for the rest of her life—a short one, as she died at age 24. However, the stories of her life reveal a woman who, in spite of her blindness, was able to “see” and know deeply.
In the 17th century, a smallpox epidemic decimated an estimated 90 percent of the indigenous people in North America. They didn’t have immunity to the disease carried to North America by its colonizers. Today, we are again experiencing our brothers and sisters of color disproportionately suffering from an epidemic, this time the coronavirus pandemic. Systemic social and economic factors, already in place before the pandemic, increased the risk for the virus among communities of color.
As a woman, Kateri lived with expectations regarding her life, that she would marry and raise children. However, she defied custom and chose not to marry, but rather to center her life in her faith and in serving others. She suffered for that choice, being ostracized and eventually fleeing to find a place where she could freely live her commitment. Today, a woman still encounters barriers to serve both in society and within the Church.
Kateri was considered the “Holy Woman,” spending time in prayer. She would go to the woods to speak to God and to listen for God in the voice of nature. Today more than ever, given the realities of climate change, dying oceans, decimated forests and loss of species, we might turn to Kateri for inspiration and guidance. The worldview of Indigenous peoples embodies relationships built on deep respect, reciprocity and responsibility for all of creation. It is a stance of gratitude for life, for the entire created world. Life was lived in connection with the animals, rivers, sky and trees. The Earth was understood to be for the benefit of people and nature—there was no separation. There was a deeply felt connection with the rhythms of nature.
My time in the garden—space to listen, pray and ruminate with my sister Kateri—draws me close to her spirit. I am inspired and challenged by her bravery as a woman, her deep sense of connection with all of created life and her profound commitment to her faith. In this time of a worldwide pandemic, exposed racism and Earth itself suffering, I find hope in this woman of God, woman of nature.