After Kateri, No More Flower Children

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.

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  • jkm

    Pippi Leatherstocking! I vote for that nickname, or at least I would if I could stop laughing. I bet she would like it too. As one of those people you know who think that way about Therese (or used to, anyway), I never associated it with the Little Flower name, but you could be right. I don’t have any problem with that other Little Flower, though—the one from New York (who grew up in Arizona) with the Jewish mother and atheist Italian father who named him after the Little Flowers of St Francis, the populist Republican Episcopalian who read comics to kids on the radio and gave us an airport I can never find my way to. In any case, I have already seized on your canonization sobriquet. It is traditionally botanical, but though it has wonderful flowers (night-blooming), it’s the prickliness it’s known for. It’s “self-incompatible” (you do have those bouts) and must be cross-pollinated by bats, for whom—in a nice nod to Hera—it serves as a stimulant to lactation. I’m registering the website name and holy card copyright now: St. Max, Saguaro of the Sagebrush.

    [You were one of the people I had in mind, Orchid of Ohio. It might seem strange that I'm bashing floral imagery only a couple of days after praising Oscar Wilde, whose stories had more flowers than a mafioso's funeral. There's no double-standard, though. When Wilde starts gushing about delicate blossoms of pink and pearl, I say to him, "You're on thin ice, Pally. I'm giving you till the end of the page to get off this horse and say something clever." He always makes the deadline.

    Mayor LaGuardia was one of my dad's heroes. When I was growing up, I dated a lot of girls from the specialty music and art high school named in his honor. I went to a specialty science and math high school named for the disabled war vet who was serving as governor of New Amsterdam when Kateri was born. Some day I'll have to write about running cross-country for team called the Peg Legs.]

  • Joi

    If by some miracle I ever became a saint, I’d have to insist on being referred to as the Cactus of Southern California. Maybe a thistle. Something prickly, at any rate.

    [joi, you're the second of my readers to claim the thistle as a totem. I feel like I'm writing for the Scots Guards.]

  • Ruth Anne

    The name ‘Tekakwitha’ roughly translates to ‘she who bumps into things.’ It’s the ‘Dances with Wolves’ and ‘Stands with Fists’ of the Mohawk people. I say we go with that.

    Kateri SheWhoBumpsIntoThings.

    [A young woman I used to know showed signs of her lifelong accident-proneness early on. Her parents nicknamed her "Grace." Meanies.]

  • Brian Sullivan

    I like the Saguaro moniker. How about St. Max Lindenman, the Wandering Jew? (Ducking)

    [You give me way too much credit, Bri. My ancestors wandered in the desert. I freaking MOVED to one. No milk, no honey, just a lot of pico de gallo.]

  • Amy

    For what it’s worth, Rose of Lima isn’t a flowery nickname. The girl was actually named Rose.

    [My understanding is that she was baptized with the name "Isabel," but was called "Rose"; the name became official at her confirmation. (Kind of like Francis of Assis was born "Giovanni.") It's true that no one attaches a definite article to her name -- that was mine.]

  • Sarah

    @Amy: Only kind of. She was actually born Isabel, but her mother nicknamed her Rose for her beauty and it stuck. So she can definitely be put up there in the ranks of nicknamed “flower children,” as Max calls them.

    Also, St. Max the Wandering Jew? Brilliant.

  • Holly in Nebraska

    So if you get sick, we shouldn’t round up a spiritual bouquet for you?

    I actually like all the flower talk. Maybe it is a girl thing. I finally managed a few years ago to get some lily of the valley from a friend of a friend (my favorite, although it takes over like kudzu). I have a small Mary Garden and try to plant symbolic flowers every year like Mary’s gold (marigold), and Mary’s mantle (morning glory). Although I thought Jesus’ Baby Slippers (snapdragon) was pushing it a little. A goggle will find a lot more medieval Mary names for flowers.

    I was always taken by the violet of humility. Therese’s sister Leonine, who I think I like better than Therese, finally became a Visitation nun (associated with the violet). I don’t wonder if she was more a saint than her sister. But I like the fact that Therese was “spoiled, scrupulous, bourgeois, neurotic or just plain dizzy.” Give me problem saints any day.

    [You say'um mouthful, Kemo Sabe. You're absolutely right about Therese: I LIKE that she's chatty and emotional. Not everyone's lucky enough to be Clint Eastwood.

    Flowers may be a girl thing in this culture, but that hasn't always been the case. The Greeks were in the habit of naming flowers after men, like Hyacinth and Narcissus. (I see a lot of myself in that guy.) In Medieval Europe, flowers figured prominently in heraldic designs. Many a knight rode out to do dirt wearing lilies on his shield.

    It occurs to me now that naming Kateri after a flower might have been a gallant compensatory gesture. She went through life with a scarred-up face; what better way to make it up to her than comparing her to something beautiful and delicate? It's like calling a short man "a giant in his field."]

  • cathyf

    When I was in high school my anatomy/physiology teacher would patrol the lab while we did an experiment. Whenever she came upon lab partners where one girl was doing all the work and the other was watching, she’d bark at the watcher, “Whatcha doin, posing for holy cards?!?!?”

  • Sherry

    Since you want her title sans flowers, how about petitioning the Vatican on behalf of those with allergies for a list of Gluten Free Saints? Ducking and running out of the room.

    In seriousness, since she has been credited with healing people of illnesses, including having her own face healed of its scars after death, perhaps she could be the “Till We Have Faces” Saint, and have a mirror, for she revealed Christ by her simple full faith in all its beauty.