Monday, June 8, 2015

The De Smet Statuary at SLU: An Alternative Approach

Editors' note: The meditation below by Fr. Claude Pavur, S.J. describes a sculpture named "Where the Rivers Meet," depicting Jesuit missionary Pierre-Jean De Smet and two Native Americans.  In late May 2015, the sculpture was removed from its location outside Fusz Hall.  The sculpture has long been viewed as controversial. In particular, some have expressed concern that the work reinforces the idea of Christian and white supremacy. As the title of his piece indicates, Fr. Pavur suggests an alternative way to imagine the work and its message.  Following the meditation are further reflections from Fr. Pavur. 

Image of the sculpture by Mark Scott Abeln.

The two natives, robust, proudly upright in frame, and clearly fit for battle, are transfixed now in peace, enthralled at the spirit of the man before them.  Neither is kneeling.  One of them rests on his right calf and raises his left knee.  The other stands nobly, holding his spear vertically as a staff, to receive a blessing through the brotherly/fatherly gesture of a hand resting on his shoulder.  The stranger, someone truly Other, is speaking words that raise their hearts and minds to the Great Spirit in a way they had not ever experienced before.  The man in the robe is looking the standing chief full-square in the eye, giving him his complete attention, seeing into his soul, loving him.  The stranger makes both of them feel more noble, more truly who they were meant to be, more truly themselves.  He points to a higher way than they have ever known.  That is what they sense.  That is why they keep looking.  They feel the Spirit coming through this man's words.

The Stranger stands on higher ground, as is customary for preachers and for those who are honored.  He lifts a cross above his head, showing that he too is under the Lord of All.  Look there, look up.  Grace comes from above.  To receive it there must be lowliness, humility, the ground.  Even warriors must look up.  Even powerful kings from across the sea must look up.  Even heroic preachers must receive their graces from above.

The stranger is a friend, not a warlord, not an aggressor.  The stranger has suffered many trials and gone many miles to meet them.  They realize that they are the ones who are being honored.

A spectator happens upon the scene.  His eyes travel from the figure seated on the ground to the noble chief, along the arm resting on his shoulder to the robed figure of the preacher.  But the eyes do not stop there.  They follow the upraised left arm to the crucifix held high.  What can this mystery mean?  Perhaps this is a breakthrough into another world, another way of being, one that is higher.

We are glad this blackrobe has come to us.  He offers us what we could never have attained on our own.  Not with all the battles we might win in a thousand years.  This stranger is our friend and brother.  He carries grace.  And he serves us.


This meditation flowed through me in one continuous stream between 2 and 3 in the morning on June 2, 2015, as I wrestled with Saint Louis University’s decision to remove the De Smet statuary from campus and put it in a museum.  The words of the critique that provoked the move were stinging: colonialism, white supremacy, racismnative Americans not welcome here except in submission to our culture. Could there be a more twisted misreading of this work? Did the critique perhaps arise from another agenda, another culture that ultimately wishes to annihilate something of the original native culture of Saint Louis University?  SLU has its own indigenous people too, its own ancestors, its own ways, its own understandings and expressions of itself, its own historical events and stories and rituals and symbols.  Was this critique working in cahoots with a secular progressivism that ultimately wants to severe all ties with the past, dump religion and tradition, and self-righteously cast off all the claims of certain “indigenous communities” with whose visions they stand in conflict?

Or was it part of the perennial, nearly universal adolescent dynamic that says that the generation that made us follow rules and that held up ideals to us is not so good after all. Look at their shortcomings! Look at what white Europeans did to native Americans! (Never mind that the native Americans were not all saints, were not innocent of torture and war and slavery and oppression and invasion and deception and acts of brutality and domination. Never mind that the Europeans were also sometimes good and beneficent and hoping for peaceful mutually beneficial co-existence. Never mind that the story is sometimes told in skewed and tendentious ways by academics with their own atom bombs to explode.)

Or was the critique simply a tone-deaf response to Catholic religious sculpture using traditional means to express a point: the Lord uses some great personalities to mediate grace.  These figures that seem heroic to us stand on a slightly higher platform and, in humility of heart and religious passion and self-sacrificing service, they point us—all of us— to a higher and better way.

For the first time in my acquaintance with this statuary group I began to really appreciate it. There is a beautiful sweep from the seated American native to the cross that makes us look up and think about its meaning. How brave to carry this message.  I become grateful for all the laborers who have brought me the greatest message ever received on earth, despite its vast unpopularity. (Is this really what is feared? Is this what is being removed?)

Liberal education is ultimately about defining, with some particularity, and extending, with some felt understanding, the meaning of the pronoun “We.” And it is about the deepening and broadening of the soul that goes on in that process. The project opens upon the religious realm in which we all recognize our kinship, our oneness, our vocation to compassion and community. It is a mystery that surrounds us and lifts us up.  Let us learn to love it.

Claude Pavur, S.J.
Associate Editor, Institute for Advanced Jesuit Studies, Boston College
Associate Professor Emeritus, Saint Louis University


Related links:
April 23, 2015 University News commentary on the sculpture, by Ryan McKinley.
May 21, 2015 St. Louis Magazine article, by Lindsay Toler.
May 27, 2015 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article , by Koran Addo.