On Professor Carson’s Calumny against St. Jean de Brébeuf
By Christopher O. Blum
“Notre espérance est en Dieu et en Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ, qui a répandu son sang pour le salut des Hurons, aussi bien que pour le reste du monde.”(1) The son of Normandy and son of Ignatius Loyola, Père Jean de Brébeuf, found his identity in his mission to bring the Gospel to the Wendat peoples of what is today southern Ontario. It was on March 16, 1649, that his life came to a premature end at the hands of the invading Iroquois, the People of the Great League of Peace and Power; like Isaac Jogues and René Goupil, whose deaths preceded his, Brébeuf has long been venerated as a martyr. Yet now James Carson, a historian at Queen’s University writing in a recent issue of The Canadian Historical Review, bids us to “reimagine” his story and to accept that Brébeuf was “never martyred” but “died for reasons indigenous to the time and place he inhabited, for reasons that rest squarely on the deep beliefs of the people who had welcomed him.”(2)
Carson’s argument turns on his interpretation of the name given to Brébeuf by the Wendats. The reader of Brébeuf’s biography first learns of the name in a touching scene, when, after an absence of nearly five years, Brébeuf returned to the Hurons and was greeted with these words of exquisite humanity and warmth: “Why, there is Echon come back again. Well, well, my nephew, my brother, my cousin, you have finally come back to us!” The notoriously difficult Wendat language lacked hard consonants; was Echon the best that the Hurons could manage of the French “Jean”? So many have thought, and the theory has the advantage of agreeing with the way they named several other Jesuit missionaries. There have been other accounts, however, and Carson seizes upon one that identifies the name Echon with a kind of tree used by the Wendats for its medicinal powers. “Echon was not Jean, then, but, rather, Medicine Tree,” he writes, and “likely represented an older name of a powerful healer.”
Once we understand that the Wendats gave Brébeuf a name proper to one of their shamans — and perhaps even a name that had formerly belonged to one of them — we can appreciate the Jesuit’s true significance. He had quite literally gone native, embraced the Huron culture and mentality, and become what he had been named, a medicine tree, a shaman. We are asked to see this transformation as colouring Brébeuf’s death, which was marked by the acts of ritual defiance expected of a captured tribesman on his way to torture and slaughter: he would tell his story bravely and only cease when his tongue had been cut from his mouth. Brébeuf’s storied death — who does not know that the Iroquois tore out his heart and ate it, in the hope of gaining a share of his courage? — is just that, Carson tells us, a story told by the Jesuits eager to promote their missionary work and the Christian myth upon which it was based. “The first death — can we call it the real death? — happened when an adopted son and nephew and brother and uncle met his death with all of the equanimity required of a son of Aataentsic, of a Wendat man, and of a Medicine Tree, which, at bottom, was all that Echon ever was and is.”
Professor Carson’s theory has the virtues of simplicity and boldness. It is not, for that, convincing. To appreciate the poverty of his reimagining, it suffices to recall the leading features of the great Brébeuf’s life. He was born in the spring of the year that Henri IV brought the French Wars of Religion to an end by declaring “Paris vaut la Messe.” As a youth, he entered the Society of Jesus when it was attracting the best and brightest of French youth to its mission to put God’s glory before all other things. The spirituality of the Jesuit order was militant. At the heart of the Spiritual Exercises that every Jesuit underwent and annually renewed was Ignatius Loyola’s meditation on the “Two Standards.” The participant in an Ignatian retreat was asked to picture in his mind an immense battlefield with two opposing armies arrayed, one following Jesus, the other Satan. Having contemplated the enormity and finality of the pitiless struggle between these two captains, the retreatant was expected to make a resolution to fight for Jesus, to lay down his life like the apostles of old.
Brébeuf was not quite thirty years of age when he was ordained a Jesuit priest, and three short years later embarked on the first Jesuit mission to Canada, to answer the call of Samuel de Champlain to bring Christ to the natives of New France. Père Brébeuf spent most of the next twenty-four years as a missionary to the Wendat peoples; during that time he had two opportunities to trade in his dirty, tedious, often-fruitless, and always harrowing work for a more comfortable and sustainable post. The first was after the Kirke brothers chased Champlain and the French from Quebec in 1629. Back in France, in the safety and comfort of a Jesuit residence, Brébeuf was stirred in prayer and wrote in his diary: “I sense within myself a consuming desire to suffer something for Christ’s sake.”(3) The delusions and over-heated interiority of a still youthful priest? Perhaps.
A decade later came Brébeuf’s second chance to retreat from the rigours of his mission. In March 1641, about the time of his forty-eighth birthday, he slipped on the ice and broke his collarbone during a missionary journey. When he arrived back at the Jesuits’ compound, Fort Sainte Marie, on Georgian Bay, his superior discerned that it was time for Brébeuf to rest and so sent him down the Ottawa and St. Lawrence Rivers to the settlements in Quebec. Père Brébeuf spent the next three years as a chaplain at Sillery, a model community of Christianized Indians closely sharing a life with devout French immigrant families. With the violence of the Iroquois on the rise — René Goupil was martyred in 1642 — such a settlement would seem to have been the ideal missionary strategy, just the way to encourage the leaven of the Gospel to grow in Canada’s native soil. It was not enough for Père Brébeuf. At the lowest point of his missionary labours, during an entirely frustrating and even bitter expedition to the Neutrals, he had found deep consolation in the twelfth meditation of the second book of Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ. There he read these words: Tota vita Christi crux fuit, et martyrium, et tu tibi quæris reqiuem, et gaudium? (“The whole life of Christ was cross and martyrdom, and you seek peace and joy?”) He could not remain safe and comfortable at Sillery while his brothers the Wendats lived under the threat of extermination by the Iroquois. In 1644, at fifty-one years of age, Père Brébeuf ascended the Ottawa River one last time, to serve the Wendats and to die with them that they might know God.
The calumny levelled by Professor Carson is not new. The unsympathetic among the Wendats, the Neutrals, and the Iroquois said the same things: that Brébeuf was a medicine man, a shaman, one who communed with Ondaki in his dreams and consequently had power over life and death. It was to repurpose and reinvigorate that calumny that Carson wrote. His article is evidence of the truth of Alasdair MacIntyre’s judgment in After Virtue that “the barbarians are not waiting beyond our frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.” From the halls of academe comes the authoritative judgment: the great Brébeuf was no martyr, he was Medicine Tree. We are asked to believe that he had traded his faith in Christ for the dreams of a shaman, so that he might enjoy the power and privileges of a Wendat medicine man. What are readers to think about a tenured proponent of such a story? How should we who are not so credulous as to believe it as his mere “reimagining” respond? It is the patience of Job that is required of people today who would keep alive civilization in North America, just as it was of Brébeuf among the Hurons. As he wrote, “Never will this field produce fruit except through mildness and patience.”
Christopher O. Blum is Academic Dean of the Augustine Institute in Denver. He is the translator several volumes from the French, including St. Francis de Sales: Roses among Thorns (Sophia Institute, 2014). This article was originally published in The Dorchester Review Vol. 7 No. 1, Spring/Summer 2017, pp.108-110.
1. René Latourelle, Jean de Brébeuf (Montréal: Bellarmine, 1993), p. 112.
2. James Taylor Carson, “Brébeuf Was Never Martyred: Reimagining the Life and Death of Canada’s First Saint,” The Canadian Historical Review 97 (2016) pp. 222-43.
3. Quoted in what remains the best biography in English, Joseph P. Donnelly S.J., Jean de Brébeuf, 1593-1649 (Chicago: Loyola, 1975), p. 102.