Death and Afterlife of the North American Martyrs: Part III of Interview with Emma Anderson

Today is Part III of our interview with Emma Anderson about her new book Death and Afterlife of the North American Martyrs. My thanks to Emma for her graciousness in engaging in this conversation, and bringing the same energy and passion to the conversation that she has brought to this important new book. 

In your chapter “Pilgrims Progress,” we follow you following contemporary journeys of those who celebrate the martyrs, which include some ultraconservative Catholics as well as contemporary Asian immigrants who celebrate the martyrs in spite of having no particular historic connection to them. And then you find contemporary Jesuits who emphasize multiculturalism in their reading of the martyrs. How can the martyrs be subject to such diverse and self-evidently contradictory readings?

You are right – I have often thought to myself, if an alien were to land at the Our Lady of Martyrs Shrine in Auriesville, New York, and then at the Midland Martyrs` Shrine in Midland, Ontario, and watch the religious rituals unfolding there, it is likely that the alien would conclude it had seen two different religions being enacted, so contrasting are these contemporary martyrs` cults.  Both ultraconservative and liberal Catholics tend to `read` in the martyrs reflections of their own contemporary preoccupations.  Thus, ultraconservatives see the martyrs as the champions of doctrinal purity, and attempting to counter and confront spiritual `tepidity,` `luke-warmness,` and `adulteration` with their own zealous urgency. They tend to read the missionaries` engagement with native people as being an absolute confrontation of right versus wrong and truth versus a benighted ignorance (or even demonic resistance).  But most often, ultraconservatives focus on the martyrs` deaths, rather than their lives, seeing in their violent, sometimes protracted suffering the true glory of faith (this is one reason ultraconservatives typically resist efforts to censor the typically gruesome, violent martyrdom art on exhibit at shrines founded in their honor). 

By contrast, for theologically liberal Catholics, including the Jesuits who run the Midland Shrine in Canada, it is the missionaries` engagement cross-culturally with native people that is their most significant and distinctive feature, and one that should be emulated today.  At Midland, the martyrs` supposed engagement with native culture becomes the inspiration for the celebration of the various facets of ethnic Catholicism featured at the shrine. Thus, while ultraconservatives glory in the martyrs` deaths, liberal readings of the martyrs` legacy often de-emphasize them in favour of putting the emphasis on lives of ``intercultural engagement`` or ``multicultural dialogue.``  They attempt to encourage ``ethnic pilgrims`` to the shrine to see the Jesuit martyrs as powerful new Canadian patrons who work in concert with the saints of their homeland.  In some cases, the link or segue as provided by Jesuit activity in both places – thus Goan pilgrims are encouraged to include the Jesuit martyrs in their already strong devotion to Saint FrancisXavier.  In others, the martyrs of the old country, be it the Philippines or Japan, becomes the link.  The grounds of the Midland Shrine are littered with statues of other, international martyrs, making this link visually explicit.        

How would you compare the journey of the martyrs to that of the “Mohawk Saint,” Catherine Tekakwitha? Given that the latter has a relatively thriving cult compared to the former, does she seem predestined now to take first place in North American sainthood for the people in the era of Jesuit-Native mission contact? 

Catherine (or “Kateri” as she is more popularly known) makes several significant ``cameos`` in Death and Afterlife.  I really had not anticipated that Kateri would muscle her way in to my narrative to the extent that she did.  But often, when I would introduce the subject of the martyrs in interviews with many native Catholic respondents, they would change the subject almost immediately to Kateri.  One native Catholic nun I spoke to compared the Jesuit martyrs to Good Friday and Kateri to Easter, associating the Jesuits with sacrificial violence, but Kateri with spiritual rebirth. To speak of one without the other, she suggested, was to rob both of their most profound meanings.  Many native Catholics I interviewed confided that they felt more comfortable with Kateri than with the martyrs’ cult, which many felt was unfairly exclusive.  What about the native Catholics who fell alongside the Jesuit martyrs, they repeatedly asked.  Why haven’t they also been canonized?

So it does seem as if something of an eclipse is taking place, in which Kateri, fresh from the glory of her canonization, is overshadowing the drained, stale cult of the North American martyrs.  It is also extremely fascinating to see the ways in which Kateri is being interpreted (and contested) among indigenous Catholics and traditionalists.  But one thing that writing this book has taught me is to never underestimate the fecundity of the religious imagination or the power of the martyrs’ cult.  After all, if we were having this conversation back in 1800, and you were asking me a similar question – is it game over for the martyrs’ cult? – I probably would have felt equally pessimistic, and history would then have proved me wrong in spectacular fashion.  As a general rule, it seems that saints’ cults thrive only when they can link the (perceived) themes of messages of their lives or deaths with contemporary preoccupations and problems.  For example, in the Cold War era, the North American martyrs were reinterpreted as spiritual bulwarks against Communism.  The martyrs, it was argued, knew first-hand what it was like to have one’s religious faith challenged by those threatened by or inherently hostile to it, and could thus intercede for Christians trapped behind the “Iron Curtain.”  Many wildly popular martyrs’ pageants in the 1940s traded in on the most ephemeral of links between the two eras.  Just as the martyrs had been put to death by the first “red menace” – the Iroquois – so Christianity was now imperilled by the second “red menace” – Soviet Communism.  Who knows what historical waves are just around the corner which could bear the martyrs, once again, to now-unforeseeable new heights of popularity?
Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

There are so many, including your own recent book, The Color of Christ, co-authored with Edward Blum, which is phenomenal.  I also really wish I could take credit for David Hall’s Worlds of Wonder, Robert Orsi’s Between Heaven and Earth, Bruce Trigger’s Children of Aatahansic, and Allan Greer’s Mohawk Saint.  But perhaps the book I most wish I had written is Marina Warner’s stunning 1976 classic Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary, which is the book most responsible for luring me into the study of religion in the first place (the book was re-issued in 2013 with a new preface).  When I first read it, at age 20, I knew that I had found what I wanted to do with my life.  In this masterwork on the evolution of Christian veneration of the Virgin, Warner seamlessly marries erudition with a lively, engaging, trenchant, and occasionally deeply personal voice. I found her ability to (seemingly so effortlessly) span the millennia in such a scintillating and authoritative way so impressive.  And I think that her ability to show how religious figures are inexorably shaped by the times in which they were venerated left a lasting impression on me which is visible in Death and Afterlife, which takes on the more modest saintly afterlife of the North American martyrs from the seventeenth-century to the present.

What’s your next book?

My next book is actually conceived of as something of a companion volume to Warner’s Alone of All Her Sex.  Tentatively titled God’s Grandmother, it will explore the cult of Saint Anne, the Virgin Mary’s mother and the grandmother of Jesus from its inception to the present.  I say a companion volume because, of course, the rise of the cult of Saint Anne, a completely apocryphal, rather than biblical figure, was initially predicated upon that of her increasingly august daughter, and the relationship between these two female saints, particularly in early and medieval Christianity, is simply fascinating. Anne, in a sense, is the sturdy, earthy contralto that grounds and supports her daughter’s increasingly unearthly soprano.  She is more grounded and more corporeal than the Virgin, and helps in important way to define this more prominent female saint.  For one thing, Saint Anne serves as a favorite Catholic explanation for the existence of Jesus` scriptural ``brothers:`` as Mary becomes defined as the ``Ever-Virgin`` (a virgin before, during, and after the birth of Christ) Anne is brought in as their progenitor through her ``trinubium`` or three successive marriages, each of which produces a daughter named Mary, who themselves become the mothers of the Saviour and important disciples and apostles. Anne is linked with corporeality in another way too, because her relics serve as a comforting link, standing in for the missing, heavenly remains of her daughter and grandson, respectively ``assumed`` or ``ascended`` into heaven.

Saint Anne is fascinating to me because, throughout her history, she has been equally appealing to the meek and the mighty.  She was repeatedly used by Church fathers as a formidable chess piece used to check heresy, particularly heresies which questioned conventional definitions of her grandson`s incarnation.  But, even as she was used to define orthodox theology by the elite, Anne was also appropriated by ordinary Catholics, serving, at various times, as the patroness of pregnancy and childbirth and as a powerful rescuer during storms, particularly at sea (famously, she was called upon by Martin Luther after he narrowly avoided being struck by lightning).  She remains a popular saint in Canada, particularly in Quebec and among aboriginal Catholics. However, while scholars have written on the various periods of her veneration or different aspects of her cult (her imagery in late medieval Germany and the Low Countries being a particularly attractive focus for recent scholarship) no one has yet brought all eras of her cult together into a single volume. 


Trevor Burrows said…
Thanks so much for this interview series - can't wait to check out the book!
Tom Van Dyke said…
Interesting take, and no doubt a valid dividing line between those who find the most meaning in the martyrs' deaths while others emphasize the living social dimension of their ministries.

Still, that the opposite of "liberal" is "ultraconservative" is not self-evident.


Popular Posts