Today is the memorial of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha. Kateri was a Mohawk Indian born near Auriesville, NY in 1656. She became a Catholic at the age of 20, relocated to Canada, and devoted herself to prayer and the Eucharist. She died at the age of 24 in 1680. She was the first Native American to be declared Blessed and has been called "the Lily of the Mohawks."
History has painted a pretty awful picture of Native Americans. While I do not deny that there was much violence against European settlers, and especially against priests and religious, it is also true that these were a very spiritual people who had a deep respect for creation and their traditions. When I was doing graduate work in education, I took a history methods course and the prof was very much into Native American history, especially their spirituality. While we as Catholics tend to dismiss Native spirituality as pantheism, there is something we can learn from it...respect for God's creation, adherence to tradition, and the importance of ritual celebration.
Speaking of ritual, the memorial of Blessed Kateri brings back memories of my summers at Notre Dame and one of my classmates named Tom. Tom is the kind of person who makes being Catholic fun! Some of the things Tom did or said might have bordered on the irreverent, but if you know Tom, you know his love for Christ and for the Church. What does Tom have to do with Kateri, or ritual? Well, when we were at Notre Dame, Morning Prayer was celebrated for the students every weekday before class in Our Lady's Chapel. It was an intimate setting where usually just a handful of liturgy students and profs would antiphonally chant or sing Morning Praise. Kateri's feast day seemed to be one of Tom's favorites, or was it just that the hymn they would always choose to sing that morning seemed to have an Indian tom tom (no pun intended) beat. Tom is good at making up alternate lyrics for hymns, and as I recall he came up with some good ones for Kateri (always presented to us after prayer as we walked to class). Tom knew the power of humor, and never a day went by when Tom would have us in stitches as we sat around the table in the South Dining Hall (which is reminiscent of Hogwarts main hall, complete with a portrait of Dumbledore at one end - actually it was Fr. Sorin but the beard made the likeness unmistakable). Study evenings in the dorm were often filled with laughter and silliness at break time. Working on a class project with him for Ritual Studies didn't seem like work at all (we explored "strange new worlds"and decided that birds must live in the basilica). Tom showed us how not to get anxious over our studies, helped us to relax, and not take ourselves too seriously.
One year, on the feast of Kateri, I took a morning walk by St. Mary's Lake before prayer, something I never did since it was hard enough to get up early to even make it to prayer. As I was walking I found a feather. Finding a feather is no big deal considering the duck, swan and goose population around the lakes, but it made me think of Kateri, and of Tom. I brought the feather to the basilica and presented it to Tom before prayer as a gift in honor of Kateri. Tom put it in his hair and wore it. He wasn't trying to be funny, at least it didn't seem like it. He was truly grateful for this simple gift. I hope he realizes what a gift he was to us during those summers.
Humor is a great gift from God. It helps to lighten our load, brighten our day, and see things from a different perspective when it is done to build up and not break down. So often today humor is used as a way to make fun of people, to put them down, to criticize, and to tear apart. The Church often bears the brunt of jokes and degrading humor. I will always be grateful for Tom's contribution of good humor during my time of study, as I have so many stories of how Tom lightened my load and those of my classmates.
So lighten up! As we celebrate Kateri's feast day, spend some time outside honoring God's creation (she is one of the patrons of the environment). If you happen to come across a feather, well maybe Kateri is smiling on you. And Tom, if you still have that feather I gave you, take it out and know that I am thinking of you, blessing you for your humor, and hearing the sound of tom toms.