Kateri Tekakwitha has been part of the landscape at Saint John’s for decades now. From her pedestal she gazes out over Lake Sagatagan, and from there she proclaims both her faith and the sense that she is completely at home in her wooded environment. She also performs a vital service to students and visitors who pass by on the trail at her feet. As Fr. Nick reminded us in his homily on her feast day last Thursday, there’s a ritual that runners observe as they go by. Carefully they slow down or pause to rub the nose of the dog at her feet, in hopes that there will be no tumbles or turned ankles as they negotiate the trails.
Kateri was born to Algonquin Mohawk parents in New York in 1656. Smallpox took her family, and at four years of age Kateri woke to find herself an orphan, with a scarred face and diminished eyesight. The latter explains the dog at her feet, because that pup helped guide her thereafter. At nineteen a Jesuit missionary baptized her, and she continued to serve the sick until her death in 1680.
The statue that now offers encouragement to cross-country runners at Saint John’s once graced Saint Olaf Church in downtown Minneapolis. The neighborhood of office buildings and high-rise condos was an unlikely home for her, and when the church burned to the ground in 1956 the pastor generously offered her statue to the monks. She’s been with us ever since.
Whoever crafted the statue took the liberty of adding the title “saint” long before Pope Benedict made it official in 2012. No alterations were necessary when the public recognition of her sanctity finally caught up with the reality of it.
To those who might wonder why we monks would welcome her into our midst, I would offer three points for consideration. First, she reminds us of the people who lived in Minnesota long before the Europeans arrived. We must respect both the memory and the culture of those who had lived here for such a long time. Second, along with Saint Francis of Assisi, the Church reveres Kateri as a patron of the environment. That makes her especially attractive for us, because we’ve carefully tended our forest and land and lakes for 160 years.
Our concern for the environment is by no means a recent thing at Saint John’s, and it predates even the 1890s, when we put in place a reforestation program after storms destroyed a huge stand of timber. It was the first such effort in Minnesota state history, but it mirrored the efforts that our Benedictine brothers had been doing in Europe for centuries.
Today we continue to rely on the woods for the lumber that we transform into our furniture. We also draw from the maple trees the sap that becomes syrup. But of even greater significance, our lands and lakes are an invaluable classroom for our students and guests — which this year included 8,000 schoolchildren who toured the arboretum. Our nurture of the land draws inspiration from St. Benedict’s concern for the tools of the monastery. Along with Benedict we see the landscape as a resource that deserves both cultivation and respect. It’s not something to be used, depleted, and abandoned. In practice, we cherish our environment because we believe that God created both us and our world. Both are sacred.
There’s one last element that Kateri adds to our lives as Benedictines. In most every respect Kateri was the most ordinary of people. She was neither a political nor military leader. She had no official status in the Church. She had few if any financial resources, nor was she a leading figure in her social scene. The reality is that she was a young woman who suffered serious health issues and who channeled her energy into serving the sick. In short, she was not a heroic figure. She was quite ordinary, but she was an example of how God generally prefers to use very ordinary people to do something extraordinary.
Today Saint Kateri Tekakwitha provides a vital service at Saint John’s. Symbolically she reminds runners and walkers alike that the world can be a confusing and even dangerous place, just as the woods can be. At the same time, the world and the woods are home to us, and God promises to be with us as we negotiate sharp turns and the stones and sticks that can trip us up along the way. They are obstacles, true, but they never justify turning back and giving up.
Saint Kateri urges us to run on with confidence, and her pup reminds us that God goes with us to show the way. We may stumble and we may fall, but God helps us get back on our feet. That’s how God uses the ordinary to accomplish the extraordinary. To that Saint Benedict would say “Amen!”
+In my previous post I neglected to mention that on July 9th Bishop Donald Kettler ordained to the diaconate our confrere Brother Efrain Rosado Casanova. In the months that remain before his ordination as a priest he will be doing CPE (Clinical-Pastoral Education) at the VA Hospital in St. Cloud, as well as assisting at Saint Boniface Parish in Cold Spring.
+On July 11th we celebrated the feast of Saint Benedict, and that included the observance of the anniversary of profession by several monks and the first vows of Brother Cassian. What I could not have anticipated in last week’s post was the tremendous storm that began as we processed into the church for Mass. There was thunder and lightning and a torrential rain that lasted the entirety of the liturgy. The theatrics and the two inches of rain were just amazing, and we actually enjoyed it all. It also kept the church quite cool, which was unusual for that feast day.
In the course of three days we received over 5.5 inches of rain, which is a lot but normally not overwhelming. However, there was one unintended consequence. Workers had just completed a rain garden to catch run-off that would normally flow into the lake. This pond allows the landscape to filter out any pollutants that the water might take with it into the lake. Unfortunately, this was more than the new pond could handle, and the dam burst and allowed a torrent of water to flow into the lake. Next time we’ll be better prepared.
+On July 16 and 17 the Oblates of Saint John’s Abbey joined us for their yearly retreat.
+The photos in today’s post illustrate a portion of what you might encounter on the miles of trails at Saint John’s. At the bottom is the entrance to the system, which was constructed last summer. Over the next two years we will be repairing and replacing some of the footbridges that have outlived their usefulness.