Hagiography is usually a serious business conducted by learned prelates who can spend centuries certifying the saintliness of even the most promising candidates. Newly canonized Kateri Tekakwitha, the Lily of the Mohawks, had been dead more than 300 years before she finally gained her saintly stripes among the Heavenly Host this month.
But no such scruples inhibited the young poet Leonard Cohen when he enlisted the self-flagellating native virgin to play a leading role in his wild, still notorious second novel, Beautiful Losers – by the end of which, in the spirit of the Sixties, she is a virgin no longer.
Described on its own dust jacket as “a disagreeable religious epic of incomparable beauty,” Beautiful Losers was judged by evergreen critic Robert Fulford as “the most revolting book ever written in Canada.”
Kateri suffers innumerable indignities in the mind of Cohen’s narrator, her mortification extending to multiple defrockings in his twisted mind. Yet somehow the serene icon survives unbroken, her sainthood proven and her cult fully equipped to welcome the new generation of worshippers that Cohen anticipated. Their essential prayer is a now-famous, Kateri-inspired passage beginning, “God is alive. Magic is afoot.”
“What is a saint?” the narrator wonders. “A saint is someone who has achieved a remote human possibility. It is impossible to say what that possibility is. I think it has something to do with the energy of love.”
Tekakwitha remains one of his “household spirits,” Cohen once said, represented by a small statue on his bookshelves. “She spoke to me. She still speaks to me.”