Thursday, December 17, 2015

Painting away the ego: an Icon case study of Kateri Tekakwitha

This semester I took English 961A. It was an accelerated course combing the pre-req and college composition classes. My instructor told me that the CCSF placements are harder than most community colleges use and that I probably should have just taken English 1A. However, the practice and review  this semester has proved to be fruitful. Instead of doing a traditional research paper, I opted to do a creative project for my final paper. The driving question of this class was "How does pyschology effect our environment?" For this project, I wrote an Icon of St. Kateri Tekakwitha. She is the Patron Saint of the Native Americans and the Environment. I modeled this icon from Brother Robert Lentz's rendering of her and tailored it to what I needed the thesis to be. In reflecting on this project, I've never written anything which was this busy and introducing the elements of the paper and transitioning proved to be a challenge. Knowing the instructor, I know it's an A paper. On the other hand, there is an element embedded or implied in this paper and I have been unable to flush out what exactly it is. For this reason I feel it is unfinished.
In any case, getting to research and analyze has been fun and I hope that that shows.

Aaron Conner
Professor Kristen Hren
English 961A
15 December 2015
Painting away the ego: an Icon case study of Kateri Tekakwitha
            Images have the power to point us to a reality which we cannot physically experience. They beg us for an emotional response on some level. We are surrounded by images. Be it in the news, advertising, or a viral picture in social media, images take our attention and lead us to a concept or thought which is intended to bring people together. Images capture a fleeting moment. While the event of an image may be engrained with the person who captured it for years to come, the image’s viewer might quickly forget it as society fills their newspapers and electronics with its next round of images. This is the problem with images: they capture the moment, but fail to capture the full extent of the reality which has taken place.  A religious image, however, is different from the ones we see in secular life. According to Peter Pearson, an Episcopal Priest and Iconographer, the word “icon” is the Greek word for “Image” and an Icon is an image of a person from Christian tradition or the Bible (Pearson 1). In his book, A Brush with God, Pearson writes that “icons aren’t meant to reflect our perceived reality…they are purposefully rendered in a structured way that communicates that things are very different from God’s perspective” ( 3). Icons are painted in a way which reflects God’s reality rather than our own. He goes on to say that, “our way of perceiving the universe can lull us into the illusion of self-importance. Icons contradict this view, challenging us to reconsider things we had previously taken for granted” (4). Icons challenge the status quo. In capturing an inexpressible truth, they call out our own individual egoistic tendencies by challenging us, as it is popularly said, to “be the change you want to see in the world.”
When we look at how our psychology affects the environment, one can see that being this change in the world involves looking at the relationship between human attitudes and behaviors and their effects on our planet. P. Wesley Schultz, Social Psychologist and Associate Professor at California State University San Marcos, has researched this relationship by surveying groups of people based upon their attitudes and behaviors toward the environment. In his studies, he concludes that people are concerned for the environment for either reasons of being egoistic; being concerned for reasons which are associated with the self; altruistic, being concerned for reasons which are associated with the wider community, and biospheric; being concerned for reasons which are associated with all living things (7). Our egoistic tendencies have produced a lot of damage in our world today and these damages are not limited to the problems found in society but are also found in the environment. These damages are particularly seen in the experience of the United Houma People. In their context of Native American spirituality, the Houma are particularly aware of the relationship between humans and their environment. Environmental egoism had its hand in the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in 2010 which threatened the existences of the Houma’s immediate way of life (Martin). But the disruption in the relationship between humans and their environment does not stop with the Houma. Schultz goes on to say that “the once localized damage that resulted from production and consumption has reached global proportions” (3). When plastic, for example, arguably the most produced and consumed material, finds its way into the ocean, the localized problem becomes a global  as the fish who consume this plastic end of up on someone’s dinner plate thousands of miles away. This is known a bio-magnification. But dinner is the least of our worries when we consider that world’s oxygen supply has the potential to diminish as this sea-bound plastic has the capacity to kill plankton; a situation which is worse than deforestation. This specific damage is known as the Pacific Garbage Patch (Humes 132, 110, 131). Truly, the damage displayed towards the environment and other fellow humans is egoism at its best. Rather than seeing the earth and its humans as one entity, Western thought has assumed a dualistic approach in how humans deal with their planet. Through egoism, the world has divided humans against everything else, in particular, the environment. This disorder causes environmental egoism: an attitude or behavior which causes damage to the environment through anthropocentric action or inaction. While one person may not be able to save the environment from utter ruin, one person is capable of inspiring others to take an altruistic or biospheric approach toward the environment and those that inhabit it: Saint Kateri Tekakwitha is one such person. In an Icon I painted of her, St. Kateri provides an opportunity for a viewer or venerator to question their own environmental attitudes and behaviors. When we use the narrative of St. Kateri and the experience of the United Houma People to counter the disorder of Western dualism, one can see that “Icon of St. Kateria Tekakwitha” challenges us to be aware of how egoism influences our perceived reality and helps enable us to embrace the absolute reality where humans engage in better treatment of our planet and each other.
St. Kateri embodies both the identities as a Catholic and Native American. Canonized as a Saint by the Roman Catholic Church in 2012, Kateri is both Patron Saint of Native Americans and Environmental Concerns. She is known as the “Lilly of the Mohawks (IBCA). She earns her patronage from her biospheric attitude toward the environment which naturally accompanies her Native American heritage. In writing for Social Science Journal, Dr. Thomas Hoffman writes that the world which Native Americans experience “is one in which all of creation and the powers of creation are related and interconnected. This is a world in which all beings are created to be treated with the respect due their sacred character” (Hoffman). The world, as experienced by St. Kateri and those who share her Native American heritage, is a balance of power between the created world and humans, and between humans and their fellow humans. The world and its humans are sacred and a balance of power is maintained when this relationship is respected. However, outside the Native American schema, the world has been desecrated by human activity. The United Houma People, many of whom are devotees of St. Kateri, know the consequences of when the balance of power between the world and humans is disrupted (Richard 14).  In 2010, the Deepwater Horrizon oil disaster threatened the Houma’s immediate way of life. When speaking about the implications of the land being damaged, Principle Chief Brenda Robichaux said, “The relationship between the Houma People and these lands is fundamental to our existence as an Indian nation. The medicines we use to prevent illnesses and heal our sick, the places our ancestors are laid to rest…our traditional stories and the language we speak are all tied to these lands inextricably” (qtd. in Rhoan 178). The Houma would not exist with their land being intact. The Houma’s relationship to their land is beyond special: it’s sacred. A disruption to their relationship with the land would incur a disruption in their spirituality. St. Kateri’s icon shows its viewer that there is another reality aside from the one experienced through environmental egoism.
Icons can be seen as a window fusing two realities on each side of the painting. This reality is made apparent through the structure and painting technique used by the iconographer. They are painted in a way where the viewer becomes the “vanishing point” rather than on the horizon. Rather than using light colors first then putting on dark shadows as in regular painting, iconographers start with darker colors first and then build gradual layers of lighter colors and highlights. This can be seen as symbolizing death and resurrection (Pearson 5). The icon of St. Kateri Tekakwitha is painted on a gessoed poplar board with acrylic paint. This icon is a variation which was originally painted by Iconographer and Franciscan Monk, Brother Robert Lentz (Lentz). Although in traditional iconography the use of color is more subtle, I chose bold earth tones to help her appear more environmentally biospheric. In my rendering of her, she is portrayed in a traditional Native American suede colored dress while wearing a green cape with the “recycle, reduce, reuse” emblem. A golden halo surrounds her head. Behind her is a blue sky with brown trees. St. Kateri holds in her hands the World Turtle. The turtle has a tree growing from its shell. The turtle’s shell is the Earth’s continents and seas. The tree appears to be dying and, when looked at closely, the BP Oil Spill and the Pacific Garbage Patch can be seen. St. Kateri is directly center of the painting, but my intention is to draw the viewer toward the World Turtle.
The Bureau of Catholic Indian Affairs (BCIA) offers an account of her life. Kateri was born in 1656 in what is now Auriesville, NY. Her mother, an Algonquin Christian who was raised among the French, married the Chief of the Mohawks. The era and time which Kateri was born into was “period of political and religious turmoil” (BCIA).  10 years earlier, Native Americans tortured and killed three Jesuit missionaries in retaliation for bringing “white man’s diseases” (BCIA). White man’s diseases like small pox were still prevalent and would claim the lives of Kateri’s family when she was 4 years old. Even though she survived, the disease left her face deformed and her eyesight was permanently impaired. Later in life, she was introduced to the Jesuit missionaries and decided to be baptized. The following year in 1677, due to dissentients from her relatives, Kateri fled to Canada and took shelter at the Jesuit Mission 10 miles away from Montreal. The BCIA goes on to say that while she was there, Kateri was known to attend Mass daily and frequently meditate before the Blessed Sacrament. Kateri was known to be someone special. The BCIA states that, “all who lived or served in the mission soon realized that Kateri's holiness was something rare. She existed only to love and praise God, to give thanks to him” (BCIA). Kateri was also known to preform person penances which included the practice of harming oneself, a practice which was common among native women at the Mission. In 1697, Kateri took a vow to remain a virgin for the rest of her life. Her health began to fail in 1680. On April 17, Kateri’s last words were “Jesus, I love you” (BCIA).  After her last breath, witnesses reported that her face, once scarred, was cleared and became radiant; the first of her many miracles. Soon after, the new devottees of Kateri were reporting that their prayers were being answered through her intercession. Her followers grew over the next 300 years to where the Church allowed for her canonization. Along with being honored for her commitment to the church, she is honored for being a teacher of “how to love and care for the world because it too is a gift from God almighty” (BCIA).  St. Kateri represents what it means to engage in the absolute reality of biospherism.
 The story of Kateri Tekawitha has several interpretations ranging from her biographers, who wrote her story in the style of a hagiography for their French magistrate, to her Native American devotees, who carry on her mission to unite all Native Americans (Koppedrayer 280, Holmes 87). K.I. Koppedrayer, Professor of Religion and Culture at Wilfred Laurier University, offers an overview of Kateri’s life as recorded by her Jesuit Confessors and places her story in the context of the New World which the Catholic Church helped create (279). The purpose of this hagiography, the story that makes a saint a saint, was to help the Native Americans become assimilated into the European culture which had come to them (Haigo, 296). Moreover, from this point of view, her story symbolizes what it means to be a Native American and Catholic as told by the Jesuits; a symbol of what it means to be assimilated into another culture. Elizabeth Holmes, a Cultural Anthropologist, on the other hand, offers up what she coins as a “counter-hagiography”, that is, “the ethnology of a saint”, the understanding of what it means to be a Saint from a folk perspective (88). Holmes contends that Kateri’s voice was silenced by the Jesuits; however, she is given a voice through the retelling of her story as told by her devotees. Before her canonization, devotees of Kateri would gather together at her request; Kateri’s “death words” were that all Native Americans should be gathered together as one tribe. When gathered, they would pray that her canonization would bring this unity. For her native devotees, she is a symbol of Native American Unity (93). Kateri is the embodiment of what it means to be a Native American Catholic according to Native Americans; she is the praying definition of pluralism. When her story is told by the Jesuits, Kateri represents success of the Church in the New World. When her story is told by Native Americans, she represents a symbol of unity. Koppedrayer and Holmes might disagree on what her story means, but they both agree on the fact that Jesuits wrote Kateri for political/social reasons. However, interpretations asides, the story of Kateri as told by the Jesuit missionaries is the story that is endorsed by the Catholic Church today.
Despite her reputation for holiness and chastity, Kateri is not without critics. Koppedrayer mentions a modern Mohawkian opponent who refers to her as a “prostitute” and a “leaking pot” (277). The concept of prostitution isn’t meant to be taken as literal, but rather figuratively. In this light, she was “married” to her Native American tradition and cheated on it with the European Catholics; she prostituted herself to the more powerful group in the social clash. By calling her a leaking pot, it is inferred that she leaked important Native American information and strategies to the French and further betrayed her people. It is easy to see how her change of cultural identity could lead someone to a sense of betrayal. By converting to Catholicism, she was seen as casting her Native heritage to the side. However, whether or not the historical Kateri was a double-crosser or a God-fearing saint is a moot point: the bi-tradition of Kateri, as told through iconography, offers a clear picture of what it means to be a saint by challenging the Western dualism which influences the environmental egoism experienced in our perceived reality.
There is a disorder in how Western dualism desecrates the environment. When comparing St. Kateri and the Native American approach to the environment to the environmental egoism seen in our world today, we see this disorder is the lurking variable behind environmental egoism. In Metaphysics of Modern Existence, Vine Deloria Jr. observes that there are five reasons for this disorder: Western religion encourages  humans to  be viewed as being superior to nature, competition is a byproduct of human evolution which doesn’t require humans to be cooperative, immediate experience isn’t valued in the grand scheme of history, the scientific method does not make room for qualitative information, while Western duality allows for modern technology to be created it also leads to a diminished spiritual life (qtd. in Hoffman). This disorder in Western thought reflects our perceived reality, but St. Kateri’s icon challenges us to follow Kateri’s example and engage in the absolute reality of biospherism.
Egoism influences our perceived reality when Western religion encourages the idea that humans are superior to nature. Through this reality, we see that environmental egoism is a byproduct of when the environment is treated as submissive to humanity. St.  Kateri’s icon challenges us to see the absolute reality: humans and the environment have been created equally. The relationship between humans and the environment is symbiotic. Human survival depends on the environment, the environment, in turn is meant to be cared for by humans. In their experience, the Houma are aware that this relationship between humans and their environment is complex and delicate. When the wetlands on the Coast of Louisiana were destroyed in order to dredge canals for the oil companies, the Houma lost part of their economy when salt water from the ocean killed the game that lived in fresh water (Martin). We also see how this relationship is delicate when we see the impact of damage done through the Pacific Garbage Patch and the process of bio-magnification. Kateri’s icon challenges us to be aware of this relationship by holding the World Turtle, a central figure in Mohawk creation mythology (ICS). The tree of the turtle is in bad shape. When looked at closely, one can see both the Pacific Garbage Patch and the Deep Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The world that Kateri holds isn’t the world she lived in, it’s the world today. It’s the world which has been affected by environmental egoism. When we begin to be aware of the complex relationship between humans and their environment, we can start to embrace the absolute reality that St. Kateri shows us. By accepting this challenge, we take on the role of Kateri by being biospheric toward the environment and each other.
Egoism influences our perceived reality through the competition, a byproduct of human evolution, which doesn’t require humans to be cooperative. Through this reality, we see that Environmental Egoism is a byproduct of when humans are not in cohorts with one another.  St. Kateri’s icon challenges us to see the absolute reality: humans were created equally and need to cooperation with each other. In her icon, this cooperation is between her image and the viewer. The interaction between St. Kateri and the World Turtle was purposefully painted to be ambiguous. St. Kateri’s cooperation with her fellow humans can be interpreted in one of two ways: humanity has become so environmentally egoistic to the point where the viewer of the icon is handing the World Turtle to Kateri, perhaps as a symbol of the viewer’s intercession for the environment to St. Kateri, or perhaps as a symbolic confession of sins committed against the environment, or, she is handing the Cosmic Turtle to the viewer, acknowledging that her patronage cannot carry the weight of  environmental egoism. Through her Native devotees, she is seen as a symbol of unity; when this unity is embraced, all are equal. Regardless of which interpretation the viewer feels, Kateri challenges us to cooperate with one another. When we cooperate with each other, we take on her role to be more biospheric toward the planet and each other.
Egoism influences our perceived reality when immediate experience isn’t valued in the grand scheme of history. Through this reality, we see that environmental egoism is a byproduct of when Western thought does not value immediate experience. More specifically, the concepts of past, present, future are seen as not as important. Kateri’s icon challenges us to see the absolute reality: the actions, or inactions, of humans on this planet will begin to affect the balance between humans and their environment immediately. This is due to the delicate relationship that people have with their environment. In her icon, St. Kateri is depicted with a green cape with the “recycle, reuse, reuse” emblem on it. St. Kateri is depicted as being biospheric as the viewer notices the emblem and correctly associated it with her patronage. The emblem evokes the viewer to ask how environmentalism egoism is caused when they do not take proper care of our resources. When waste isn’t handled properly due to environmental egoism, it becomes a problem which damages the planet immediately. Lurking problems like these produce damages such as the Pacific Garbage Patch. When proper protocols aren’t followed due to immediate cost-benefit analysis and fluids aren’t treated properly, millions of gallons of oil can be spilled into the ocean (Safina). Environmental egoism is partly caused by not including the ramifications of present actions into the moment of the action. In noticing the emblem, the viewer is challenged to question their recycling habits and see the immediate effects of how their behaviors damage the balance between humans and their environment. When we are aware of the immediate effects of our actions on the environment we will naturally take care of one another by protecting its resources and providing a world for future humans. 
Egoism influences our perceived reality when the scientific method does not make room for qualitative information. Environmental Egoism is a byproduct of this reality when qualitative information is not a part of Western thought, especially when it comes to technological developments (Hoffman). This is to say that Western thought relies on quantitative information, that is, numbers, specifically, money. St. Kateri’s icon challenges us to see the absolute reality: qualitative information has to be used when making scientific related decisions regarding the environment. The Houma know too well that when information isn’t taken qualitatively then the balance between humans and their environment will suffer damage. For example, according to Mark Davis, director of the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy, the oil companies had a very strong hand in the destruction of the Louisiana wetlands (qtd. in Lyndersen). Had the industry thought about the qualitative information of the Houma people being intrinsically tied to the wetlands, and had made an effort to be cooperative, then a reasonable solution could have been made for both parties.  St. Kateri’s icon shows the World Turtles suffers damage due to qualitative information not being included in scientific processes. The experience of the Houma shows that environmental egoism can be used to manipulate the environment at the expense of other humans. Using qualitative information, in specific regards to the environment, will lead to a biosphereic approach to the environment and to other humans.
Egoism influences our perceived reality when Western duality allows for the spiritual life to be diminished through the use of modern technology. Environmental egoism is a byproduct of when we concentrate too much on the use of technology in this perceived reality rather than the absolute reality of the created world. Kateri’s icon challenges us to see the absolute reality: for one to enhance the quality of their spiritual life they must do so without relying on the use of technology. Hoffman writes that humans are separated from their natural environment because they inhabit so much of their built environment, and that through this separation the there is a loss of spirituality in the Western world (Hoffman). The existence of the Houma today is built on this concept; they are connected to their natural environment and, due to its desecration, stress has been caused in their spirituality. Technology can foster egoism which deters us from engaging in a spiritual life.  In her icon, Kateri is rendered with a golden halo symbolizing her status as a saint. In her life, St. Kateri was known to enhance her spiritual life through Christian sacraments and meditation. Even today, the cloistered life is one of little technological influence. Although she was not a nun, those who would try to follow the example of holiness set by St. Kateri would be less likely to be of heavy reliance on technology if they could absolutely help it. St. Kateri’s icon depicts her in her time, in a forest, wearing typical Native American dress, in a natural environment. When we shift our concentration from technology to creation, then we will become more biospheric in our approach to the environment and to each other. This challenge is best summary of Native American Spirituality.
Saints are meant to inspire and give us courage, but sometimes they can be intimidating to those of us who don’t seem able to overcome our own egoistic tendencies. Aside from being a saint, the basic story of her life provides meaning which can be related to. In Can Psychology help save the world? A Model for Conservation Psychology, Dr. Amara Clayton and Dr. Susan Brook write that social psychology can help the environment by noticing how social and physical environments form a person’s context, how their past experiences form and influence this context, and how this context is formed and influenced by a person’s fundamental motivations of needing to sense belonging, control, and a positive self-image (90). Kateri’s context is formed in her Native American heritage and in her experience with the Jesuits, both being collective cultures. Her Native American Heritage also implies a sacred relationship with the natural environment, while her religious experience with the Jesuits seems to represent that sacredness which she found in the build environment of Roman Catholicism. In her past, she would have been raised to be bioshperic in her approach to the environment. Being disfigured and of poor eyesight, and no immediate kin, she might have felt like an outsider in her community; thus, her fundamental motives may have forced her to take her spirituality and find solace in the new religion brought to her by the French.  Many people can relate to the loss of family, severe illness, and the need to move to a location for the sake of spirituality. But, despite the fact that she can be related to, Kateri remains partly an enigma; Kateri cannot be separated from the environment due to her Native American heritage and she cannot be separated from the Judeo-Christian God due to her status as a saint. The faith she adopted is partly responsible for forming the disorder found in Western dualism today. Thus, we are presented with a paradox: the paint of an icon fuses together two realities, perceived and absolute, egoism and bioshperism, but the absolute reality of the icon challenges us to reconcile this duality by being more biospheric toward all things which inhabit the planet. Just as her devotees reclaim her voice, St. Kateri, in her icon, reclaims Western religion by seeing all of creation holistically sacred and challenging us to do the same. The world is in a damaged state and St. Kateri as both a Native American and a Christian doesn’t just ask us “why?” She tells to act. By allowing Kateri to challenge the egoistic tendencies of our world, we can begin to take responsibility and restore our relationship with our world and with those who live in it. St. Kateri’s icon points to another reality, but it is our responsibility to make that reality happen.

Works Cited
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