We began just after daybreak. One by one, the brigades filed out of the parking lot, each singing a different hymn. Turning away from the water, the lengthening line of pilgrims snaked up the hill toward a colossal statue of St. Isaac Jogues.
This St. Isaac was not the bashful youth of prayer cards. His stance was gaunt but upright, boldly advancing, and he looked out on the lake with the unblinking gaze of charity. His left hand held a crucifix, while his right arm was extended, in greeting or defiance, to display a mutilated hand, missing the thumb and forefinger used to confect the Eucharist. Perhaps the Mohawk brave who gnawed his fingers to nubs meant to stanch the font of charity at its source, but here we were, more than three hundred fifty years later, gathered for Mass at St. Isaac’s feet on a hill above the Lake of the Blessed Sacrament.
Well, almost. Lac du Saint Sacrement is indeed the name St. Isaac bestowed on the lake he discovered. But in time came the British, who on an evil day disgraced the water with the name Lake George. Yet the Mass we were about to hear was indeed St. Isaac’s Mass—in form and not substance only, for I was among traditionalists.
I knelt in the cold and wet by the edge of the woods as the priest began the ancient rite with all due love and precision. We twenty-first-century Americans were here to continue the mission of seventeenth-century Frenchmen. The traditional Roman liturgy (the “shape in chaos,” as Evelyn Waugh put it) both symbolized and created unity across the countless changes from their day to ours.
The austere sermon, an exhortation to suffering charity, matched the noble vestments and the serene choral music sailing through the silence of the woods. To perfect it all, there was a human, humorous touch in the lone, buoyant tenor voice perpetually a half-note off. Thus strengthened in spirit, we were dismissed for a quick breakfast before the march.
In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,
Comes up along a winding road the noise of the
After inaugural prayers, we set off along the dirt path from the campsite to the paved roads—singing, as we would all weekend. To me, the first mile was like walking on the moon.
Thirty minutes later I no longer felt so light, but I took comfort from our ministering angels: young women distributing water bottles at intervals; young men running to and fro to direct traffic and carry information; older people in motor vehicles toting porta potties, tending to the blistered and the worn-out.
The celebrant of the morning Mass began hearing ambulatory confessions. To make a proper pilgrimage you must confess your sins, so I made a quick examination of conscience and fell back as soon as the priest was free. During Mass—because it was the old Mass—he was simply The Priest, but up close I recognized him as a member of the traditionalist Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, undoubtedly a man with criteria. But he proved less judgmental than my dentist. Freed from my sins, I caught up with the group with a lightness in my step.
Although it was late September in upstate New York, the fall colors were dull, and I felt a twinge of disappointment. But when St. Isaac blazed our path, he did not come as a sightseer.
The Mohawk attacked Jogues’s party of French and Indians on the St. Lawrence River and herded the sick, starved, and bloody captives toward the tribal heartland. Their path was up the Richelieu and Lake Champlain, up the steeps of Ticonderoga and up Lake George, and then a final grinding march down to the little line of villages along the Mohawk River, not far west of the Dutch at Fort Orange (today’s Albany). The Mohawk killed the Huron warriors during the ensuing festivities, but Jogues and the former surgeon St. René Goupil survived to be slaves in Ossernenon, not far from present-day Auriesville, the terminus of our pilgrimage.
At midmorning we halted at a roadside clearing. The policy for every stop was to wait for the entire crew of pilgrims to assemble while singing Latin hymns in rounds. Meanwhile I spied the toilets, and when at last we were dismissed I forced my wobbly legs into a run toward the goal, like St. Paul forgetting that which lay behind.
Back on the road, in between sung Latin rosaries and hymns, I got to know my brigade. They were disturbingly wholesome. Almost everyone was from an intensely Catholic family, yet no one, it seemed, was here out of inertia. Some had come on pilgrimage to mark a new, deliberate seriousness in their life of faith. One woman told me that her traditionalist community had shunned and slandered her after a broken engagement and she was here in part to reevaluate her beliefs.
Vehicular traffic was scarce, but wherever we encountered it we stopped it or slowed it down. Many motorists honked and waved encouragement; many scowled, some defying our Romanism with choice Anglo-Saxon words; and many (perhaps the greatest number) fixed us with confused stares.
We carried on till lunch, which we took at a pleasant park. A moment to rest was welcome, but it allowed our legs to freeze up. As we limped back to the road, I didn’t see how I could do this for two more miles, let alone two more days.
Near 3 p.m., we began the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy. I had always disliked this devotion, but to my surprise I joined in the recitation now with tremendous feeling. Physical pain, that concrete experience of my own limitations, softened my heart and brought home my need for mercy.
We arrived at our first bivouac as night fell. After setting up our tents, we were served a restorative dinner. Inhaling a good but peppery soup, I forgot my pain and delighted in the motley humanity at table with me: the Melkite priest, the man with the honest-to-God Mayan wife, the former Pentecostal sporting Carlist symbols and dressed like an alpinist. Chaucer could not have assembled a better cast.
The next morning, a Saturday, we heard Mass and began walking in the light drizzle under a gray sky—melancholy weather, but perfect for hard walking. Having used up our store of Catholic songs, my brigade turned, at my instigation, to the great common national treasury, freely mixing sacred and profane. After we had sung “Dixie” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” back-to-back (thus healing sectional divisions once and for all), we calmed down with the Joyful Mysteries.
Though we had returned to devotional themes, I remained in a reverie of patriotism. I realized that I had shaken off an anxiety that had clung to me for years. Like many Catholics of my generation, I had long wondered how I might rightly love America, having renounced the commercial, individualistic social philosophy called “Americanism.” Now, meditating on our North American Martyrs, I embraced their dream of a new Catholic civilization to be planted right here, in this land we were traversing, using their methods of husbandry: to respect, study, and refine existing virtues and institutions and order them to the Prince of Peace. What vision could be grander, or better inspire private and public virtue? Where should we find nobler Founding Fathers to revere and to imitate?
I had so far shirked the hard job of carrying the brigade’s banner, but now I wrested it from my startled neighbor and bore it aloft a full ninety minutes, until we stopped for lunch.
Magnificat, magnificat anima mea!
Cantate, cantate Domino! Gloria!
Alleluia, alleluia semper!
Until you have heard the undergraduates of St. Thomas More shout those words with the rhythm of a war-chant and the panache of hip-hop, with steady young basses bearing up ecstatic sopranos; until you have felt those words engulf you and buoy you over an impossibly steep slope like a wave of joy, you do not know why God made song or youth, nor why he made them male and female.
The afternoon remained cool, and the scenery grew more lovely. Thanks in part to the boxed wine distributed furtively by an impish Thomas More student, the rest of the day’s walk passed swiftly and pleasantly. As we entered the campsite, the proprietors greeted us with a pealing of bells, as though we were an army dragging ten caravans of Moorish booty home to Castile.
Euphoria was general. We prolonged our round (Salvator Mundi, Salva Nos) for at least five minutes until, seeing us flagging, a furiously enthusiastic brigade leader stepped up as self-appointed hype-man. When at last we were exhausted, the hoarse brigade master reminded us that this was the evening of the talent show.
I was too tired to watch the talent show, let alone join in. After enjoying a hot soup (very welcome), I took my first shower of the weekend and retired to the tent. Settling in to my sleeping bag, I turned on my phone to check in with my wife and children. When I had said good night, I scanned my new messages and saw that one of my best friends had extracted a promise of matrimony from some poor girl.
The talent show had begun. I overheard an excellent folk band and skits with mildly funny jokes made hilarious by exhaustion and fellowship. Outside my tent was Holy Church as all her children should know her: raucous and diverse, living in uncreated joy that welled up from an infinite source. My heart was full, and I slept like a child.
Sunday did not begin with Mass; that would be postponed to the afternoon, when we would reach the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in Auriesville. We emerged from the long, dark road out of the campsite into a brilliant sunrise scene, full of sparkling dew and misty hollows. But lines of derelict properties, Trump signs erected in protest, threw me into a malaise. The gloom broke only when I glanced up and met, suddenly, the smug gaze of a llama.
Belatedly, I had learned the trick of saving your knees by going backward down slopes, but as the morning wore on, the agony of the first afternoon returned. I was certain I had damaged something, if not everything. Still, I was able to absorb two perfervid talks on devotion to Mary, the first given by a Franciscan priest and the second by a sister from a group of indeterminate canonical status. As we drew closer to the Mohawk River, the land grew greener and hillier. The splendid vistas brought joy to my heart, muffling the pain like morphine.
After a long lunch on a wide plateau (where some bionic youngsters found the energy to play Frisbee), we completed our descent of the Mohawk Valley. Anyone who had no blisters by now could be morally certain he would survive this last march, but the closeness of the goal only made the journey harder. Like women in labor we breathed through it, but with the divine respiration of our sung Ave Maria—truly “breathing Mary,” as that hyper-Marian priest had urged us to do.
At last we reached the bounteous Mohawk, where we waved to newlyweds taking wedding pictures on the banks. We crossed and met families with strollers who had come to join us for the final forty-five minutes. The mood was festive, but intense. A hot and ugly stretch of highway led us to within sight of the shrine, a squat colosseum on a hill.
The day before, someone had asked me why I had converted to Catholicism, and I had not known what to say. I don’t rightly remember, any more than I remember why I got married—alternatives no longer occur to me. But just as, from time to time, some virtue of my wife’s will draw out a surge of tenderness, so now I felt an almost demented love for the Church, so clearly God’s Israel renewed, ascending Mount Zion unto the real presence of the Lord.
When we arrived at the top we did not pause but descended to a ravine where, according to tradition, the Mohawk had thrown the body of St. René Goupil.
Sobered by prayer in that still and eerie spot, we entered the odd church (arranged in the round and, like a theme park, bedecked with Native-American motifs) and heard Mass, which featured a homily against “bitter zeal.” Before dismissal, we heard final remarks from one of the organizers. Beaming like a new father, he praised us all for bearing pain with so much joy. Almost crying, he begged us to invite others for the following year. Should we not, he asked, share what we had received? Should we not strive to make Love loved?
The next day was Monday, and a return to the pursuit of happiness, which for me begins around 8 a.m. on a commuter train in the suburbs of New York. The pilgrimage had followed the overland leg of St. Isaac’s first visit to Ossernenon. The Dutch arranged his escape from the Mohawk, then sent him down the Hudson to Manhattan, where I was now going. My train ran due south along the river, and I imagined the saint on his parallel path. As my train crossed through Harlem into the heart of the metropolis, I recalled with emotion that St. Isaac had been the first priest to set foot on this island.
From the forced intimacy of the subway I emerged with relief into the concourse of the Oculus, and on through the shops of the World Trade Center. I was altogether at home in this temple of luxury—one plump, warm, and vaccinated body among a thousand. Still, had I grown a thin layer of resistance to the carnal mirage? Since I was limping, I fancied myself changed, like Jacob.
In my office, I glanced at the television and saw that the previous night, a maniac had killed fifty-eight people in Las Vegas. I turned away from the news, horrified but not really surprised, and went to a window overlooking the harbor, and thought of St. Isaac Jogues.
I pictured him sailing away. Back to the heart of Christendom, back to a thousand safe, beloved things: the silhouette of Notre Dame, his mother’s cooking in Orleans. He might have stayed, but he had returned. As ambassador to the Mohawk, he was again made a captive in Ossernenon where, on October 18, 1646, the blow of a tomahawk sent him up to receive an imperishable crown.
Even by the standards of the saints, he had earned his reward. And yet. All these centuries later, he and his Jesuit brethren still had not realized their vision of social order. But I was, and am, convinced that God has stored up the merit of that heroic age to aid the next generation willing to embrace Jogues’s American Dream. The Church Militant runs a relay, and it is up to us to go the next mile.
Stefan McDaniel, a former assistant editor of First Things, writes from New York.
Photo by Andrew Balet via Creative Commons. Image cropped.