After Kateri, No More Flower Children

After Kateri, No More Flower Children December 21, 2011

With a second miracle to her credit, Kateri Tekawitha’s 331-year wait for sainthood is finally over. It’s a great day for her and all the constituencies she represents, including Native Americans, women, laypeople, those suffering from facial deformities, Canadians and – I add with special pride – New Yorkers. Kateri’s birthplace, near present-day Auriesville in Montgomery County, isn’t exactly Gotham City. But then, in Kateri’s day, Manhattan wasn’t much more than a bedroom community, either.

I’m absolutely over the moon for her. I know that if I’d suffered like she suffered – from smallpox, from near-blindness, from living in a cultural environment hostile to my faith – I’d jolly well want the Academy to recognize my work. Seeing martyrs, visionaries, stigmatics and other flashier characters raised to the altars would pique me till my braids were standing on end. Some wag (I’m thinking St. Philip Neri) would take to calling me “Pippi Leatherstocking.”

Truth be told, that might not be so bad. The last thing the Church needs is another saint with a flower nickname – actually, in Kateri’s case, several flower nicknames. The inscription on her gravestone pronounces her “the fairest flower that ever bloomed among red men.” Her admirers have been improvising on this theme like jazz men ever since, with the result that Kateri now answers to “The Lily of the Mohawks,” the “Pure and Tender Lily,” the “Flower among True Men,” and the “Lily of Purity.” This veritable bouquet of sobriquets puts her on the same sideboard with the Little Flower of Jesus, the Lily of Corinaldo, the Rose of Lima, and of course, the Mystical Rose her own self.

Those are just the sacred buds that blossom in the hothouse of my mind at one in the morning – the full list must be longer. And yes, it could hardly be otherwise. Flowers have symbolized human qualities since long before Jesus held forth on the lilies of the field, or Solomon on roses among thorns. The Greeks believed that when Hera was nursing one of Zeus’ rare legitimate kids, half of her milk spilled out. Part spilled into the sky, forming the Milky Way; part spilled to earth, forming white trumpet lilies. Through this myth, the flowers came to represent motherhood and fertility. If Attic mommy bloggers had existed, the ones who railed against ewe’s milk would probably have given themselves handles like “Xanthippe: Lily of Lesbos.”

That’s the whole point. After several thousand years, all this floral imagery just seems…florid. Fussy. Overdone. Too-too. Being a guy – a guy who fled his allergies right into the desert – I may be naturally biased, but the more closely flowers attach themselves to some person or concept, the harder I find taking her or it seriously. Mention the Little Flowers of Saint Francis, and you’ll see my eyes glaze over. With bloody melees, an unsolved murder mystery, and write-ups by Shakespeare himself, the War of the Roses has everything to recommend it to history geeks. I never bit, and I’d bet the name has something to do with why. If anyone decides to re-christen it Plantagenet Bastards Gone Wild, we can put that proposition to the test.

Some of this, as the saying goes, is well above my pay grade. Therese compared herself to a little flower; it’s not like I have any standing to tell her, “No, you’re a chipmunk.” Ss. Joachim and Anne never told the Blessed Mother that she’d leave for Massabielle with roses on her feet over their dead bodies, so why would she listen to me?

But the Church’s cultural elite – did I really use that expression? – can determine how dominant these images become. Therese’s case should stand as a warning. To a Western world half-strangling on garlands courtesy of the pre-Raphaelites and their imitators, “The Little Flower of Jesus,” relentlessly plugged, became less a nickname than an alternate identity. In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith has a man ask her heroine whether she prays to the Little Flower in order to grow up as pretty as her mother. He doesn’t specify which Little Flower, and the heroine doesn’t ask him to. By 1912, when Smith set her scene, referring to Therese by any other name would have sounded as strange as calling Peter “Simon” or Lady Gaga “Steph.”

The name and image worked just fine, it must be said, for cultural heavyweights like Henri Bergson and Edith Piaf. But their appeal has never been universal. In My life with the Saints, Fr. Jim Martin pleads Therese’s cause at some length to readers who might find her spoiled, scrupulous, bourgeois, neurotic or just plain dizzy. He’s not making these readers up – I know people who think like this. In large part, they’re reacting to Therese’s authorial voice, as translators of her memoir, Story of a Soul, have rendered it. But the moniker does its share, too; taken in conjunction with prayer-card portraits, it mistakenly suggests something decorative, fragile and finally, trivial.

It would be ridiculous to ask artists and hagiographers to drop flowers altogether. (That would turn Catholicism into a Jewish funeral, exactly what it’s not supposed to be.) But I don’t think asking for a little variety would be out of order. The Blessed Mother is the Mystical Rose, but she’s also the Ark of the Covenant, the Ravisher of Hearts and my favorite, the Untier of Knots. (It’s fun to imagine her telling Alexander the Great, “Quit acting like a two-year-old and stay your sword! Go have a lie-down; we’ll work out this Gordian thing later.”)

To her other titles, Kateri could add “Birch of the New World.” Native Americans used birch bark for canoes; Kateri waterproofed herself against temptations of the flesh and spirit. If that doesn’t work, I challenge my readers to come up with something better, or at least join me in praying that Blessed John Henry Newman doesn’t enter the honor rolls as Pansy of Oxford.

"Saint Joseph of Cupertino.'Nuff said."

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