An extra posting this week! Today is the feast of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to be beatified, and Martha Dudich couldn’t pass up the opportunity to reflect on how her Catholic faith has been enriched by Native American traditions.
Before moving out to the western New Jersey farmlands almost 13 years ago, I had returned to live for a time in the house my father built for our family in the mid-1950s. There were brick steps – 3 of them – leading to the front door. And because there was too much stuff in the garage, my car sat out in the driveway. This meant that instead of leaving the house through the garage, I went out the front door and down those 3 steps, never giving it a whole lot of thought until I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop offered by the late and fairly amazing José Hobday. Franciscan sister, Seneca elder and outstanding storyteller, José’s enthusiasm for the presence of God in the ordinary was nothing less than extraordinary. Those stories, drawn from her own life in the desert of the Southwest, eloquently communicated her relationship with God and the global community. I was blest to meet her on about ½ dozen occasions in the almost 70 years of her ministry and it was from Sister José that I learned the Way of the Steps.
This was one of many practices from Native American traditions that enriched her faith and prayer as a Roman Catholic. Going by a variety of names among the tribes, the ritual generally takes place in the morning. There are 3 parts: focus on the day ahead, on yourself and on the mystery of life. As with most Native American prayers, strong emphasis is placed on the earth, so José suggested we find a way to pray it outdoors. This may be done with or without words. Tribal rituals are customarily performed without words, though certainly for many of us words might be helpful. I took to offering it as I left my house each day, one part for each of my front steps.
The first step invites me into the day ahead. I step out, welcoming the day and everything I will receive in these hours, whether part of my plan or not, remembering all is gift – gifts I am to use wisely, for the benefit of my sisters and brothers, for the care of the planet. The second step expresses the idea of entering into myself. Honoring myself as I am, image of the Divine, beloved by my Creator. True to myself and my Maker. Walking respectfully on Mother Earth, so nothing is injured. Walking into people’s lives with similar care, so none will be bruised. The final step moves me into mystery, with the prayer that I might embrace it, accepting the things of this day I do not and cannot understand, and using these encounters with mystery to closer connect me to the Creator and all creation.
While similar to the morning offering, long a meaningful part of my Catholic prayer life, the emphasis in this prayer differs slightly. In the morning offering, I give my day to God, admittedly too often with meager efforts. The Way of the Steps is about accepting what God grants me. Offering that back to God, in gratitude and in service to others, I can feel I really have something to give.
Today the Church celebrates the feast of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, a 17th Century descendant of Algonquin and Mohawk tribes, the first Native American to be beatified. And I am reminded of the important ways Native American tradition can inform my Christian prayer. These beliefs and practices are not considered “religion” – in fact, that word does not exist in tribal languages. Rather, they are integrated into and inseparable from daily activity, considered a seamless part of being. Is what I believe naturally, instinctively infused into the way I live and move and have my being in the world?
Sister José would often say Indians pray as relatives of the earth. They consider the sky their father, the earth their mother. No surprise she herself was drawn to the Franciscan charism embracing “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon.” The earth teaches stillness, suffering, caring, courage, limitation, freedom, regeneration, to forget, to remember. This recognizes our sacred relationship to all creation, not one of domination, manipulation or expenditure. Native American concern is with the long-term welfare of life rather than with short-term expediency or comfort. Their concept of Fourteen Generations – reverence to the 7 generations that have gone before you and the 7 that will come after you, keeping them ever in mind and heart and living according to that reverence – should not seem strange to those professing belief in the communion of saints. We are interconnected. I am never alone, and I cannot live only for myself.
Respect for silence, for memory and for celebration are Native American values I bring to my prayer. Cherishing solitude and letting Spirit move without language or even sound. Keeping alive those who have gone before by telling their stories. Finding any reason to celebrate – at table, in song, with a card, a call, a visit.
While it wasn’t a deal breaker when I bought the house where I now live, there is indeed a trio of steps leading from my deck out to the yard, the driveway, the world beyond my property. The gifts I have and can be to others and the mystery of life as it unfolds. I step out in service and gratitude.