Whenever I watch a movie, I’m always intrigued to see (or, more accurately, hear) how the soundtrack matches the visuals, especially when a familiar song is used to highlight a key moment in the film.
One of my favorite examples is from the 1987 comedy “Adventures in Babysitting,” in which the main characters, a flustered teen and her three charges, have to scramble back home after an unlikely series of mishaps in downtown Chicago. As the sitter races along the expressway with the kids in tow, Motown artist Edwin Starr can be heard singing his 1968 hit “Twenty Five Miles,” a driving, soulful number about walking a long distance in a hurry to get back to his beloved.
Although she lived a few centuries before Motown, I think that St. Kateri Tekakwitha, whose feast we celebrated earlier this week on July 14, might have appreciated Starr’s lyrics. In July 1677, the 21-year-old Catholic convert, born to a Kanien’kehaka (Mohawk) chief and Algonquin Catholic mother, walked (and probably canoed) some 200 miles from her village near modern-day Fonda, New York to the Catholic mission of St. Francis Xavier, located on what is now the Kahnawà:ke reserve near Montreal.
And like Starr, she had a very definite Beloved in mind — and heart — with every step.
Born in 1656, Kateri was orphaned at age four due to an outbreak of smallpox, which left her scarred and partially blind. Her surname is sometimes translated as “one who walks groping her way,” a reference to her compromised eyesight.
But her spiritual vision was crystal clear. She sought out religious instruction from Jesuit Father Jacques de Lamberville when he came to her village, and in 1676 she was baptized, taking her name in honor of St. Catherine of Siena.
Her new-found faith (perhaps inspired by her own mother’s) provoked ridicule and persecution, and Father Lamberville, along with several Indigenous converts, helped Kateri escape to the St. Francis Xavier mission.
Once there, she joined several other Christian Iroquois women in remaining celibate, taking a private vow of perpetual chastity in 1679. Kateri spent hours before the Blessed Sacrament and always carried a rosary.
A few short years later, her fragile health — weakened by severe mortifications and penances — declined, and she died on April 17, 1680 at age 24. Witnesses reported that minutes after her death, Kateri’s face became radiant, the marks of smallpox erased by a luminous softness.
As beautiful as that miracle is, however, I find Kateri’s mission walk, which took an estimated two months, far more breathtaking.
Maybe that’s because a journey of that length, and under those conditions, reveals a person’s essence: you don’t trudge 200 miles across rugged terrain without a compelling reason.
And Kateri might have saved herself the trip, had she been willing to make her life a little easier by “going along” a bit more with her fellow villagers, being less obvious in the practice of her faith (she refused to work on Sundays) and maybe even assenting to marry, as her uncle (who adopted her after her parents’ deaths) had wanted her to do.
But something — in fact, Someone — had captured her heart, and that desire led her across the wilderness.
The divinely inspired trek must have nonetheless been an arduous one, even though Kateri was skilled in foraging and assisting with her village’s hunting parties. Predators, scant provender, discomforts, physical and mental fatigue, doubts and fears all made for uncomfortable traveling companions, and she had no Bible apps, Word On Fire videos or Jeremy Camp songs — let alone the Eucharist — to sustain her. Accustomed as we are to comforts both physical and spiritual, we may have had to repent hourly for the sin of grumbling, had we walked those same miles.
But with every step, Kateri surely experienced the eager haste of the one in love, savoring the delight of reaching the mission, where the Eucharist awaited, and all the while nourished by a holy hunger — one that only deepened after she arrived and settled into her life of Mass, adoration, prayer, penance and charitable works.
In the end, Kateri spent herself fully, and at the cost of own her life. She breathed her last as she said, “Jesus, I love you.”
After a year and a half of COVID, those same words may have cooled on our own lips, and our steps back to in-person Mass, after months of livestreamed liturgies at our convenience, may have slowed or, worse, halted.
If so, we would do well to recall a steadfast young Indigneous woman who — having lost so much at such a young age — was willing to step forth in faith, and walk across a wilderness within and without, because (in the words of another Starr hit single) love was her destination.
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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