Sunday, May 20, 2012

Brutal Blessing: "Saints of the American Wilderness"

Let me tell you, there is no way I would have our 12-year-old child read this book. I ordered "Saints of the American Wilderness" by Rev. John A. O'Brien because our younger son has chosen Antoine Daniel as his Confirmation name and I was planning to read the book with him. Antoine Daniel is one of eight Jesuit missionaries martyred in 17th century Canada.

 It is so brutal in its details that many times I had to put the book down and take a breather. That said, adults should read "Saints of the American Wilderness" if they want to understand the sacrifices our ancestors made to bring the message of Christ to the North American continent. Be forewarned: within the first few chapters, we read detailed, and I mean detailed, accounts of cannibalism, finger chewing, sadistic torture and on and on. These details are not gratuitous. They go a long way in helping the reader understand exactly what these French men faced as they evangelized among the Hurons of what is now Ontario.



Two things moved me deeply while reading this book.

First, these highly educated, sophisticated men - France's elites, really - had nothing to gain and everything to lose in the sense of worldly benefits by becoming missionaries in the American wilderness. And while some might criticize the French, English and Dutch colonialists for exploiting native peoples, these Jesuits had no motive except one: to bring the word of Christ to the Hurons. This was no easy task:  The Hurons' "vocabulary...was limited to concrete, sensuous objects; they had no word for a supreme being."

Second, no matter what fate befell them; illness, torture, near-starvation, these men somehow always could see the light of Christ imbedded in the reality in front of them.  For example, in the fall of 1644, when Jesuit Father Francis Bressani, visited Sainte Marie a few months after being the Iroquois, he came bearing scars on his face, neck, legs and arms. His hands were missing fingers and some of his fingers had been chewed off by the Iroquois. One of the Jesuits remarked "his mutilated hands have made him a better preacher than we, and have served more than all our tongues to give a better conception of our faith to our Huron Christians."

Why read this book, other than for its fascinating history of 17th Century Canada? What value is there in knowing the lives of these brave men?

Well, because I believe that saints serve as spiritual guides, because I believe these men are now more alive in Heaven than we are here on earth, knowing what these men suffered for their faith, for our faith, is a powerful reminder that I must not lose my hope or my faith, even when the common mentality tells me what I must be concerned about is solely the here and now, those "concrete, sensuous objects" that dangle before me and often distract me from what is lasting and true.






19 comments:

  1. sounds fascinating! This past year when I was teaching Liam about North American History, it was the first time I stumbled upon the North American saint stories. I don't know why the history of America doesn't have more stories of them. Instead the only thing I ever "learned" in school was that white man came and disrupted the Indian's lifestyle- which was a beautiful and peaceful lifestyle.

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    1. The Iroquois, in particular, were absolutely brutal toward other tribes. This book was an eye opener and is based on first-person accounts of the missionaries who truly had no other agenda other than educating the native Americans about God and the tenants of Christianity.

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  2. Ho, I could have warned you about ... um ... that stuff before you started reading. Yeah, wow. Isaac Jogues WENT BACK for another mission after having been tortured once. And Jean de Brebeuf was so courageous in his death that the warriors ... well, you know. We must pray to them for fortitude and (always) great charity in our current struggles to witness to our encounter with Jesus Christ in His Church.

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  3. Have you visited the Shrine of the North American martyrs in Auriesville, NY? There is the woods that are now the old Iroquois village of Ossernenon you may walk where Saint Isaac Jogues and his companions met death. It is an unforgettable experience.

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    1. not yet! But it is on my list, as is Midland, Ontario!

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  4. In Canada we know them as the Canadian Martyrs. There are many Churches and schools dedicated to them throughout Canada.

    They are St. Jean de Brébeuf (1649), St. Noël Chabanel (1649), St. Antoine Daniel (1648), St. Charles Garnier (1649), St. René Goupil (1642), St. Isaac Jogues (1646), St. Jean de Lalande (1646), and St. Gabriel Lalemant (1649).

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    1. Thanks! And by the way, I love your blog. Thanks for stopping by mine.

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  5. Unless you shut your child off from the world by age 12, I can promise you that the world will be teaching him about the depravity of man.Probably through media. It seems to me that this book would be the perfect opportunity to teach him about how much the world has hated Christ and how far it will go to try and stop his message. The early church taught their children about the atrocities committed in the arena and the bloody spectacles born upon our saints and those stories produced hundreds of years worth of Catholics willing to die rather than compromise their faith. as we also teach about the gruesome torture and death on the cross (at least i hope a 12 is mature enough to know that). Maybe we ought not hide the truth from our children and we wouldn't see such rampant departure from the faith. Maybe we could give them something they would be willing to fight for!

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    1. While I agree with you that learning about the evils of the world and being inspired by the saints is crucial for our children, I'd encourage you to take a moment to consider that a mother might know just how much her child can process at such an unpredictable age as 12. I don't have a 12 year old son, but I have a very sensitive 11 year old daughter, and if she were to read accounts as graphic and descriptive as these accounts seem to be at the present time, I can assure you she'd be waking up with horrible night terrors, sleep walking, and generally unable to function normally. It's probable that Allison knows more about her son and what's best for his faith development than either of us does, so to say "I hope a 12 is mature enough to know that" is a misguided at best. Let's give her some credit for knowing her faith AND knowing her son.

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    2. Boys and girls are different and again of course a mother knows best. My most humble opinion remains. I wonder how they were taught about the crucifixion though.. Was it as unbloody as the Mass.

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    3. Troy: You raise an excellent point. For me as a parent, it is a balancing act. I don't censor information but each stage of a child's development he or she is ready for more information. My children learned "Christ was nailed to the cross" as young ones, but the details of his torture are reserved for teenagers.

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  6. This is just the sort of book 12 year old boys should be reading and would be inspired by, imho.

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  7. Although not entirely recommendable, the 1991 Canadian movie "The Black Robe" honestly presents the devotion and courage of the Jesuit missionaries in the 17th-century Canada. It is beautifully filmed, too. Because it shows the natives without any attempt at glamorizing their culture, the movie was shunned by the politically correct Canadian chattering classes.

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    1. Yes! A good friend has recommended this to me. I would like to rent it...Thanks for the reminder.

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  8. I am an 80 year-old woman .I was less than 12 the first time we went to Auriesville.
    My mother bought a book called MANGLED HANDS. Every Sunday she read us another chapter. The courage and holiness of those Jesuits - The Pope's Legion- was awe inspiring and unforgettable, not frightening.
    The disintegration of the Jesuits is heartbreaking.

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    1. I will have to see if it is still in print. Thanks!

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  9. I have the book and as far as I know it is not in print. I am a descendant of Guillaume Couture who travels with Fr. Isaac Joques throughout the book. It is an amazing story of truthful accounts of the experiences that the Jesuits went through in that time period. It is worth every penny you would spend on the book.

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