This past weekend witnessed the canonization of seven new saints in Rome. For holy men or women to be recognized as capital-S Saints in the Catholic Church, typically two miracles need to be attributed to their intercession. Usually, this comes when someone’s illness is healed without an easy medical explanation.
Call me the modern skeptic, but I always found this litmus test to be… well… troubling. In my mind, the process goes something like this: people petition would-be saints for the miraculous healing of a loved one. If the sick person recovers, the candidate moves a step closer to canonization, like a rook in a churchy game of chess. And if the sick person does not recover? Well, the faithful pray-ers are left wondering if they bet on the wrong horse.
This all hit me a few Mondays ago, when I heard the backstory of Blessed (now Saint) Kateri Tekakwitha. As the story goes, a Native American boy in Washington state was suffering from a flesh-eating bacterium a few years back. His doctors could not stop its progression, and feared he would die. He received the sacrament of anointing of the sick, and his family prayed to Kateri for her intercession to heal him. A religious sister placed a relic of Kateri next to the boy, and the next day the bacterium ceased progressing.
Causation? Coincidence? Soothing superstitions?
The boy’s unexpected healing was investigated and eventually credited to Kateri Tekakwitha’s intercession. I didn’t think much about this story when I first heard it, because it was remote from my life and experience. Frankly, I thought it was a verdict in search of evidence.
Fast-forward to Wednesday of that same week, when my interior furniture of certainty was rearranged a bit. A friend came to work in a panic that morning. He received word that his otherwise healthy father had been rushed to the hospital with a rare, flesh-eating bacterium. ‘Necrotizing fasciitis’ almost always results in amputations, and often death. The same thing the boy in Washington State had.
Coincidence? I don’t know.
‘Jim’ took off that day to be home with his family indefinitely. It fell to me to organize a prayer service for his dad among the adults in the school. What should it include? What was God saying here? Suddenly I found myself praying to Kateri Tekakwitha, an unknown woman who died at 24, asking for some guidance. Maybe ‘praying’ was just rolling her name around in my head, or thinking about my skeptical appraisal of all things miraculous. Or marveling at the coincidence of it all. In any case, the critical distance of other people’s ‘miraculous healings’ disappeared. We prayed the rosary, we asked for Kateri’s intercession for Jim’s dad. I found myself praying that a churchy chess piece would make her move. How I wanted to believe, but my mind was divided between these actions, and too many philosophy courses that taught me to raise an eyebrow at such activities. And yet, and yet.
In the words of Paul Ricoeur, “Beyond the desert of criticism, we wish to be called again.”
Two days later, I got away for a mini-retreat up at St. John’s University campus in Collegeville, MN to clear my head. I’ve written before that St. John’s is one of the ‘thinner places’ where encountering God comes easily to me. Hungry for the outdoors, I got out running – up, down, around – an unknown path that hugs the shores of Lake Sagatagan. I crested a hill and came upon a clearing where a lone statue stood. It was of a young, serious looking woman frozen in gray, with a dog at her feet. Beneath it, the plaque read ‘Saint Kateri Tekakwitha.’ Odd, I thought. At the time, she wasn’t to be named a saint for another eight days. And yet here I was, and here she was, plaque and all. I reached out, and put my hand on her cool stony foot. Coincidence? Soothing superstitions? I waited there a minute, watching the late afternoon sunlight play on her stony face through the leaves. Silent. Assured.
Deafened by the silence around me, I kept on running.
A week later, Kateri was recognized as a saint in Rome. Jim’s dad continued his recovery. He lost some chunks of flesh from his arm, but otherwise the bacterium’s spread was successfully stopped. His doctors were amazed that he didn’t lose his arm, let alone his life. Jim was grateful as hell that his dad is still around.
I don’t have the time or qualifications to do any serious medical investigation. I’m not interested in proving, or disproving, any saintly gambit on the part of Kateri Tekakwitha. But I stop, and I wonder: would I recognize miracles around me if I saw them?