Op-ed column: Kateri has been admired by both believers and atheists alike

In the late afternoon of my life, the theist/atheist dichotomy does not work very well anymore.

While Carl Strock and other atheists wait for the miracle of the Roman Catholic Church acknowledging that Jake Finkbonner was healed due to the skill of his doctors alone, not to the intercession of Kateri Tekakwitha, I await the miracle of the American Atheists Association establishing a hospital at least as competent as St. Mary’s Hospital in Amsterdam, not far from Kateri’s birthplace, and establishing a charity equal in munificence to Catholic Charities.

I am neither an atheist nor a Roman Catholic. My own faith is filled with tension from a number of sources and lives side-by-side with the knowledge that I might be wrong. Over the years, I have investigated the alternative — that God might not exist. I have read books like Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not a Christian,” only to be disappointed that such an intellectual could produce such an unconvincing book. And I have been equally disappointed by books that claim to prove that God exists.

I have a love/hate relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. I hate the top-down, authoritarian, pedophile priest-protecting hierarchy that sometimes seems like it could trade places with Goldman Sachs and no one would know the difference.

On the other hand, I love the simple faith of so many Roman Catholic people, not only here, but around the world, fully aware that fear, not faith, is what keeps some of them in the church.

I must admit that many of the letters by Catholics to the editor of The Gazette about Kateri were facile, but no more facile than comparisons between the mythology surrounding her and the fairy tale “Jack and the Beanstalk.”

Importance of mythology

It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the differences. Authorities like Joseph Campbell have already adequately described mythology and its importance. And J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the “Lord of the Rings,” has written about the difference between various kinds of myths, including what he calls true myths, which influenced C.S. Lewis, author of the “Chronicles of Narnia,” to convert from atheism to theism and eventually to Christianity.

My respect for some Roman Catholics and atheists was diminished by the posts and ripostes that filled the Gazette over the past few weeks. Surely questions about whether life has meaning, about what happens after we die, about whether or not there are any universal and objective values, among other things, are not settled by dismissing as medieval nonsense a 2,000-year-old tradition that has produced some of the world’s greatest intellects and social reformers, and in spite of a bad track record in many areas, still does a lot of good.

Nor do we come any closer to answers to these questions, questions which have haunted thinking and sensitive people across the spectrum from belief to unbelief throughout all of history, by responding to an atheist’s tomfoolery with tomfoolery of our own.

In the late afternoon of my life, the theist/atheist dichotomy does not work very well anymore. While I do believe in God, I know several atheists I would rather spend time with than many theists. But they aren’t those who think the concerns and beliefs of people can be dismissed with warmed-over lampoons of the anti-Semite H.L. Mencken.

So what do we do with Kateri? Mark Twain, who was an agnostic, if not an atheist, admired Joan of Arc, almost to the point of worship, and wrote an admiring biography of her. No doubt he was influenced in his devotion by his own three daughters, two of whom died before he did, one very young.

And singer/composer Leonard Cohen, before he became famous, wrote a novel, “Beautiful Losers,” published in 1966, about a love triangle in which all three parties are obsessed with Kateri Tekakwitha.

The experimental novel, which devout Catholics probably would not like, begins, “Catherine Tekakwitha, who are you? Are you (1656-1680)? Are you the Iroquois Virgin? Are you the Lily of the Shores of the Mohawk River?”

I feel as Mark Twain did about Joan of Arc. I don’t have to believe in miracles allegedly occurring due to her intervention. She may even have suffered from serious mental illness.

But there is so much to admire about her, even if that admiration has been influenced by watching Ingrid Bergman play her in the movies.

In the end though, it is not the Roman Catholics, nor the atheists, nor Mark Twain nor myself that has the last word. It is Leonard Cohen, born Jewish, but clearly fascinated with the young Mohawk Catholic convert in the same way Twain was fascinated by Joan of Arc, who appeals to all of us when he asks Kateri, in the sentence immediately following the quote above, “Can I love you in my own way?”

Daniel T. Weaver lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

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