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Surviving the Virus

Surviving the Virus

 
By:  Beth Lynch October 19, 2020
#AmazingNation, #God, #Strength , #Suffering, #Truth

Ioragode (Little Sunshine) wore the scars on her face for rest of her life – the pitted marks of the smallpox infection that marred not only her beauty but her eyesight. The impact of the illness was so significant that it warranted a new name. The unflattering name of Tekakwitha was a better fit for “ she who gropes, she bumps into things, she put things in order.”

But this rose by any other name was just as holy. Countless thousands of people throughout the last three and a half centuries invoked it for intercessory aid and prayers answered. As a five-year old Mohawk/Algonquin child at Ossernenon (Auriesville) in 1660, however, she knew only tears and fears of the grief and loss of a smallpox epidemic.

The indigenous peoples of America had no immunity to the diseases unknowingly brought by the Dutch and French, and the principles of contagion were not worked out until the 19th century. Given their close society with its crowded longhouses, communal stew pot, and inconsistent hygiene, Mohawks were an easy target for an aggressive virus; “social distancing” was not known as it is in our fight today with Covid-19.

Ioragode saw her relatives succumb to the fatigue and fever, unable to gather firewood or cook a meal. Her strong and noble father, Chief of Turtle Clan at Ossernenon, was unable to rise from his mat. Her beautiful mother was covered with terrible blisters. Her precious baby brother cried as a rash spread over his little body. She herself developed blisters on her face, into her throat and eyes.

She saw the lifeless bodies of her parents and brother in the longhouse, wondered at their stillness and their strange color. She walked with her aunts to the burial site and listened as a sachem spoke of reasons for living and dying, and of spiritual journeys. It was incomprehensible to her, other than to know her family was traveling somewhere that she could not go. She likely sat with her uncle and aunts who would take her into their care. The aunts held her and stroked her hair. But their touch was not that of her mother.

They are buried somewhere on or near the grounds of the Auriesville Shrine, a place abandoned by the Mohawks after this terrible epidemic.

In a harsh environment without the comfort and medications we have today, Tekakwitha likely had a slow recovery. And hardships continued. Outbreaks of other diseases - measles, cholera, typhoid, influenza – added to the death toll. Tribal wars were ongoing as were battles with encroaching European powers. By the time Tekakwitha was ten years old, the Mohawks were reduced to little more than 1,500 people. That number would not fill even one fourth of the Coliseum that stands on the site today. They survived by swelling their numbers with captured and assimilated Algonquin, Mohican, and Huron.

And Tekakwitha survived. She grew accustomed to the longhouse of her aunts and uncle. She engaged in the work of children her age, and discovered a talent for crafts that would become valuable trade items. When the hardest hit came in 1666 - the French army’s destruction of her village - her people moved to the north bank of the Mohawk River where the National Kateri Shrine in Fonda is now located. With their surrender to the French, they agreed to receive the “blackrobes,” the Jesuit missionaries, who introduced Tekakwitha to the great love of her life: Jesus Christ.

Once again, she was given a new name. Baptized “Catherine,” we know her as Kateri. With that she embarked on a new life that was not understood or appreciated by her tribe. She fled her ancestral land in 1677, taking with her the memories of her parents and brother, of the Turtle Clan, of war and peace, of all that had occurred there.

The next three years would be the last of her short life. Living on the southern bank of the St. Lawrence River with other native converts, she was under the spiritual direction the Jesuits. Hers was a quiet life of prayer, penance, good works, and a constant striving for closer union with her beloved Lord.

She was particularly sensitive to the sick and vulnerable. We do not know what specifically she might have remembered of her parents’ deaths. But somewhere in her psyche were the scars of pain, sadness, and loss that were as real as the scars on her face.

However much Kateri was able to integrate the horrors of epidemic and death, the process culminated with her understanding of redemptive suffering. Christ on the cross was not a bloody, tortured man to equate with torture rituals of her tribe for power and revenge. His was self-emptying, self-giving for the sake of love itself. His was the only offering that could take away her sins, those of her tribe and its enemies. His was a redemptive suffering with which Kateri could join. In Christ crucified and risen, it all made sense.

Kateri Tekakwitha’s final illness was one of fevers, pain, weakness. Her last words were “Jesus! Mary!” She died on April 17, 1680, and is buried in St. Francis Xavier Church, Kahnawake, Quebec Province, Canada.

We can look to St. Kateri during this strange time of pandemic. Like her, we have witnessed the terrible suffering of loved ones who died from this virus. Like her, we grieve their passing, and adjust to a world without them. Perhaps, like her, we ourselves were afflicted with a near-fatal case of the virus, and struggle to recover. Life her, we have lost resources and are coping with scarcities of different kinds.

Most important, we are like St. Kateri when we embrace of the Cross of Christ, unite our sufferings to His for the conversion and redemption of sinners, and trust in the life to come that He promised.

St. Kateri Tekakwitha, survivor, pray for us!

 

Photo Credits:
"Jesus Christ suffers in love us so much." by angelofsweetbitter2009 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
"Biohazard Grunge Sign - Sepia" by Free Grunge Textures - www.freestock.ca is licensed under CC BY 2.0
"native american graves" by Noelle Gillies is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Father Claude Chauchetière, S.J., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

 


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