Tuesday, October 18, 2011

In the Ravine with St. Isaac


Although only an optional memorial, tomorrow's feast of the North American Martyrs has special significance for us here in the United States and Canada. Therefore, feel free to use the Common of Martyrs or Common of Pastors for your Office tomorrow, rather than just the current psalter weekday with the concluding prayer for these saints in the Proper of Saints.

If ever you are in the vicinity of Albany, NY, don't miss the Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville.  It was built on the actual site of the Mohawk village of Ossernon where several of these martyrs--St. Rene Goupil, St. Isaac Jogues, and St. John LaLande--were martyred. Although shrine itself is kind of Standard issue Catholic shrine (Church, outdoor stations of the cross, gift shop, various statues) there is one very moving feature: the Ravine. Kept in its natural state of forest and grassy glades, this is the spot where the body of St. Rene Goupil was thrown after he was tomahawked. St. Isaac returned at night to locate the body and try to preserve it from carrion eaters and/or further insult by the Indians. 
As the pilgrim descends the path into the ravine, there are stations for meditation: excerpts from St. Isaac's account of that night are tacked on signboards to the trees. (At least that is how it was on my last visit 20 years ago.)  It's an opportunity to follow a via dolorosa  of sorts. The quotations on the signboards are taken from the following account, so as you read this, imagine yourself with St. Isaac, climbing and slipping down a steep woodland path with a stream at the bottom: 


"After René and I had been captives in Ossernenon (Auriesville, New York) for six weeks (September 1642) we lost all hope of again seeing Three Rivers (the Jesuit mission). We consoled one another at this decree of Divine Providence and kept preparing ourselves for anything that God might ordain. René evidently did not perceive as clearly as I our present peril. For this reason I kept warning him to be prepared for the worst...
"One evening with sad hearts, René and I went beyond the village stockade to pray more reverently apart from its noise. Two Indian youths came after us ordering us to go back to our long house. I sensed some foreboding of what would happen and said to René: 'My dear brother, let us commend ourselves to our Lord and to our dear Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. I am afraid these Indians have some evil design...
"A few minutes earlier René and I had offered ourselves to Our Lord with intense devotion. We begged God to accept our lives and our blood, and to unite them to His life and His blood for the salvation of these pagan tribes. We were returning to the village, praying our Rosary, of which we had already said four decades...
"We paused at the gate of the stockade to hear what the two Iroquois had to say. One of them drew a tomahawk from under his blanket, and dealt René a blow on the head. René fell prostrate to the ground, uttering the holy Name of Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. We had often reminded each other to end our speech and our lives with that most holy Name...
"At the sound of the blow I turned around and beheld the tomahawk dripping with blood. I fell to my knees to receive the blow that would unite me to my dear companion. The Iroquois delayed. I rose again and rushed to René's side as he lay expiring, but not before I had given him absolution. Since our captivity I had absolved him regularly every other day after his confession...
"It was the Feast of St. Michael, September the 29th, 1642, that this angel in innocence and martyr of Jesus Christ, René Goupil, gave his life for Christ Who had offered His life on the Cross for him. The Indians ordered me to go back to my long house. There I awaited that day and the next the same deadly tomahawk. Everyone believed that I would not have to wait long. But Our Lord averted this...
"Early the next morning I eagerly inquired where the Indians had thrown that blessed body. I wanted to bury it, cost what it might. Some of the Iroquois who wanted to save my life said: 'Do you not see those young braves leaving the village? They will kill you once you are beyond the palisade.' This did not stop me. I went out, I searched, and with the help of a captive Algonquin Indian, I found the body of René...
"After René had been killed, the Indian children stripped him. They tied a rope around his neck and dragged him to a torrent which flows through the ravine beyond the village. The dogs had already gnawed at his thighs. At this sight I could not hold back my tears. I lifted up the body and, with the Algonquin Indian's help, lowered it into the stream. I weighted it down with large stones to hide it from view. I intended to bury René the next day..."
"The next day, as the Indians were seeking to kill me, my Indian "aunt" sent me to her friend to escape them. This forced me to delay the burial until the next day. It rained all that night, and the stream became a raging torrent. I borrowed a hoe from another long house, the better to conceal my plan. On approaching the spot I could not find the blessed body of René. Alas, my brother's body had been carried away...
"I waded into the torrent already quite cold. I plodded back and forth. I sounded with my feet to see whether the torrent had not risen and carried off the body. What groans did I utter then! I found nothing. How many tears I shed which fell into the torrent! I sang as best I could the psalms which the Church chants for the dead. After all I found nothing. I searched the woods on the opposite bank. All, all in vain...
"The young braves had taken the body up and dragged it to an adjoining wood, where during the Fall and Winter it became the food of the dog, the crow, and the fox. When I had been told in the Spring that the body had been dragged there, I went several times without finding it. Finally on the fourth trip I found René's head and some half gnawed bones. These I buried. Reverently did I kiss them as the bones of a martyr of Jesus Christ."



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