When was Ahatsistari saved?

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In the period 1610 to 1791 the Jesuit missionaries in Canada sent an annual report of their activity to their leadership in Europe. In the volume for 1642/3 they recount the following story about Ahatsistari, perhaps the greatest Huron war chief.

“The man of greatest importance among those whom we have solemnly Baptized in this House, has been one Ahatsistcari (Ahatsistari) of the village of St. Joseph. His courage and his Yearly exploits against the Enemies cause him to be looked upon as the chief Warrior in the Country.

It is not yet a year since, having encountered three hundred Iroquois, he put them all to flight, and made some of them prisoners, although on his side there were but fifty, of whom he was the Chief. And during the previous Summer, while crossing a great lake which separates the Hurons from their Enemies, having perceived a number of large Canoes filled with Iroquois who were coming to attack him, his companions thought of nothing but flight, but he said : ” No, no, my Comrades. Let us attack them ourselves.”

As they approached each other, he jumped, alone and quite naked, into a large Canoe full of Foes, split open the head of the first one that he met, threw two others into the water, into which he himself leaped, upsetting at the same time the Canoe and all who were in it. Then swimming with one hand, he killed and massacred with the other all who came near him.

So unexpected a sight filled the other Canoes of the Enemy with fear; and, they, finding themselves vanquished by their own conquest, even before they had fought, took to flight from fear of such Courage. But he, having regained his own Canoe, pursued those who remained in the water, and brought them back in triumph to his Country.

In a word, this Man’s life is but a series of combats, and from his childhood his thoughts have been only of war ; and it was through this that God made him a Christian.

He never manifested any aversion to our Faith, and asked us for Baptism more than three years ago ; but, as he could not make up his mind to abandon some Superstitious practices that are customary among the Infidels, we could not grant it to him.

At last, the Fathers who have had charge of the Mission of saint Joseph gave him the final instructions last Winter, and, as they were satisfied with him, he came at Easter to plead his own case. ” I have Faith in the depth of my heart,” he said, ” and my actions have sufficiently shown it throughout the Winter. In two days I shall leave for the war ; if I am killed in battle, tell me, where will my Soul go if you refuse me Baptism?

If you saw into my heart as clearly as the Great Master of our lives, I would already be numbered among the Christians ; and the fear of the flames of Hell would not accompany me, now that I am about to face Death. I cannot Baptize myself; all that I can do is to declare sincerely the desire that I have for it. After that, if my Soul be burned in Hell, you will be the cause of it.

But, whatever you may do, I will always pray to God, because I know him ; and perhaps he will have mercy on me, for you say that he is better than you.”

“But,” said one of our Fathers, ” what made you first think of believing?”

“Even before you came to this Country,” he replied, ” I had escaped from a great many perils in which my Companions perished. I saw very well that it was not I who extricated myself from these dangers. I had this thought, that some more powerful Spirit, who was unknown to me, gave me favorable aid” (although the Hurons attribute to dreams the source of all their good fortune) ; ” I was convinced that all that was only nonsense, but I knew no more about it.

When I heard of the Greatness of God, whom you preach, and of what Jesus Christ had done when he was on Earth, I recognized him as the being who had preserved me, and I resolved to honor him all my life. When I went to war, I recommended myself to him night and morning. It is to him that all my victories are due ; he it is in whom I believe : and I ask you for Baptism, so that he may have pity on me after my death.”

Was it possible to refuse such a Man ? We Baptized him publicly, with some others, on Holy Saturday, and gave him the name of Eustache.

When he had performed his Devotions on Easter Sunday, he started for the War with some of our best Christians, who had remained solely for the purpose of celebrating that holy Day, although the Troops whom they were to join had already departed. But, before separating, finding that a considerable number of persons were assembled there belonging to various Nations, they wished of their own accord to hold a Council.

Here, in a few words, are the resolutions that they took : ‘ Let us hereafter be but one body and one mind, since we all serve the same Master. Whenever any one of us passes by a Village wherein a Christian dwells, let him not lodge elsewhere. Whenever any one is afflicted, let him seek consolation among the others.

Let us not reveal one another’s faults to the Infidels; but let it be recognized, through the friendship that we shall have for one another, that the Name of Christian is a tie more binding than Nature’s bonds.

” Let us inform our Relatives who are not of the same Faith as we, even if they be our fathers and our children, that we do not wish our bones to be mingled together after our death, since our Souls will be eternally separated, and our affection will not continue beyond this life.””[1]

This is a great story isn’t it !?

But it raises an important theological question; When was Ahatsistari saved?; When did he become a Christian?

Was his encounter with the unknown “Great Spirit” – who he later recognised as Jesus – a saving encounter? Or was he only saved when he responded in obedience to the Church’s instruction, when he brought his life into line with the Christian faith and was baptised?

Karl Rahner the Jesuit theologian famously developed the concept of the “Anonymous Christian” to try and deal with this type of issue. Rahner envisaged that people might have made a saving response to some element of divine revelation in their lives, whilst yet being totally ignorant of the message of Christ and the teaching of Christianity.

I like Rahner’s idea but I am unhappy with his terminology. It seems to imply too much in terms of the Christian identity of those so saved. Or at least suggests that somehow their Christianity is  equivalent to that who have been blessed with fuller revelation.

As such, I would prefer to use the nomenclature “Glimpse Christian”.

A “Glimpse Christian” is someone who has been blessed, or graced, with a tiny glimpse of divine revelation, but a glimpse sufficient to evoke in them a belief in God and a desire to live in relationship with him – a response of faith.

This preserves the possibility that God in his grace may give a glimpse of revelation that can be sufficient to save, whilst preserving the idea that such Christians will necessarily have a faith that is inchoate, adumbrate, basic. This terminology would permit us to preserve the fact of their genuine salvation whilst not making any assumption as to the quality of their edification – the holiness and Christlikeness of their lives.

Given that Glimpse Christians are by nature largely lacking in the revelatory content which would enable the edification of their lives. Such people we can certainly hope might be saved but we must fear that their lives, morals, ethics and mores will fall far short of what God wants for humankind.

The latter part of Ahatsistari’s story shows that he did respond to the fuller revelation that the missionaries brought him.

Not long after his baptism in August 1642 he and the party he was leading were captured by an enemy tribe and were brutally tortured. Ahatsistari has both his thumbs cut off and wooden splinters forced into the wounds up to his elbows. Finally after seven days of unimaginable tortures their captors decided to kill the Hurons in the group, of which Ahatsitari was the greatest. Father Isaac Jouges, the only priest in the group who survived, tells what happened.

“The fortitude of this man (Ahatsistari) was marvelous; and — whereas the others, while in the fire, are wont to have the sentiment and use the words of him who said, exoriare aliquis nostris ex ossibus ultor (May an avenger rise from my bones!) — he, with Christian spirit, entreated the Hurons present, that the thought of his death should never prejudice the peace with the Hiroquois.”[2]

I am firmly convinced that Ahatsistari was right when he told the missionaries;
“If you saw into my heart as clearly as the Great Master of our lives, I would already be numbered among the Christians”
Our God is amazing. His grace has a wideness of reach that we cannot even comprehend. Glory to his name!


[1] Thwaites R.G. (ed.) The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents – Travels and Explorations Of The Jesuit Missionaries in New France 1610-1791, Vol. XXIII 1642-1643, CLEVELAND: The Burrows Brothers Company, 1818, p25ff accessible online at http://archive.org/download/jesuits23jesuuoft/jesuits23jesuuoft.pdf

[2] Thwaites R.G. (ed.) The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents – Travels and Explorations Of The Jesuit Missionaries in New France 1610-1791, Vol. XXXIX 1653, CLEVELAND: The Burrows Brothers Company, 1818, p199 accessible online at http://archive.org/download/jesuits39jesuuoft/jesuits39jesuuoft.pdf

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