My Shrine Visit

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I’m still not sure what to call my Shrine visit. Since I live so close, about an hour, it feels odd to call it a pilgrimage, but really what else was it? Retreats have leaders and in my mind, they last more than one day or part of one day. It was a few weeks ago that I went on a day pilgrimage to the Shrine of North American Martyrs in Auriesville, NY [Technically, it’s the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs]. I couldn’t believe how close it was, practically in my backyard. It is so much of what I run away from home looking for and all the things I picture a shrine should be: pastoral, bucolic, natural, historic. Should I use serene? That seems cliche but it does fit. Strolling the grounds costs nothing but time, and it’s beautiful and quiet, and yes, serene, thoughtful, and thought-provoking. It is the perfect place to think and to pray and to reflect and contemplate on anything; everything.

It’s been sometime since I’ve picked up my journal, but it was the only one I considered bringing. There’s something special about a leather bound, embossed writing book that is used for those special times when a spiral notebook or a Kindle writing app won’t do. It is very much back to basics of paper and pen, stylus on stone. I hadn’t thought much about the writing itself, but I did know that I would be writing about my experiences at the Shrine. This was my first experience going to a holy place with holy intentions. When I came to Auriesville last year, it was with the main idea to visit the Shrine of St. Kateri, and I did that, with a quick side trip to this Shrine without really understanding the significance of this place. When I returned home last fall and spoke to my priest, he asked if I went down to the ravine where the Jesuit martyrs were martyred. I hadn’t. I immediately put it on my next time list.

I didn’t have a choice as to the weekend I’d be able to go. The rest of my family went to Grandma’s house for the weekend, so that was my day. My mother-in-law had surgery the week before, and we all don’t fit in my son’s car, so I had already planned on staying home. For no reason at all, this one day pilgrimage popped into my head. In much the same way, my original visit to church just happened, this shrine visit just happened.

It’s set up as a leisurely stroll and the original village boundaries can be done unhurried, as tourist or as pilgrim. You follow the Palisade which is the border of the old Mohawk village, then called Ossernenon. This is where the Jesuits were martyred. [Link to the Shrine Map]

I knew that there’d be a load of walking and the ravine was down a hill, so I needed to rest and wear good shoes, not that I have a lot of choices there – boots or sneakers; sneakers win. I downloaded the map and the pdf of what was where. The only thing I was worried about was the weather. In all truth, I’m no shape to do something like this, but if I went slow, didn’t push myself, and took frequent rest stops, I think I’d be okay. It is also late August. Too hot and humid and I wouldn’t be able to go down to the ravine. The good news was that I had the whole day, so I could go at any pace that was comfortable.

It turned out the Saturday I picked was the perfect day to spend walking the Shrine grounds. Whatever direction I turned in was one beautiful view after another. Blue sky, pristine white clouds, green trees and grass, hostas, flowers, stones, marble icons and statuary, the sun peeking through. Every color you’d find in a crayon box. The brightest, most expressive, eye-catching colors. The first time I was here, and briefly at that was a dreary, rainy day. The bright, warm sun and cool breeze made today just magnificent. It can only be described as the most flawless weather. It wasn’t buggy. It wasn’t humid. The sun was very hot when I was in it, but no humidity at all, and there were many shady spots to stop and rest, some even with benches. Above those benches, I loved how the branches twist and twine around each other.

I was prepared for walking and for steep hills. It still took it all out of me. Lots of benches for reflecting, praying, and resting helped enormously.

As it turned out, going slow, not pushing myself, stopping frequently to take a breath (and a photograph), It went better than I had expected. To and from the ravine was the hardest, as I anticipated, although I must admit uphill was much harder. I was breathing heavy and sweating, but I took a rest at each bench (only two, but they really helped) and I drank some water. So glad I decided to carry it.

I also packed my journal, my kindle, fully charged camera, and my cell phone. It was silly, but I had just seen a movie of someone stranded and was rescued because they had their cell phone. I figured worst case scenario, I could call for help. I know it’s silly, and randomly neurotic, but it’s a small thing for that little bit of comfort.

The ravine was my main objective, it’s a reliquary. The martyrs aren’t buried there as much as scattered. It is all holy ground. It feels at odds to say what a peaceful, idyllic, contemplating place it is and still know what happened there in 1642. It’s hard to reconcile the brutality of the murder and martyrdom of the three men at the hands of the Mohawk Indians, and yet it is the birthplace of the Lily of the Mohawks, St. Kateri Tekakwitha.

I said my rosary in a beautiful grotto, mostly grass and green trees, just a few statues to pray at, but it’s just so soothing. Calming. Comforting. Restful. Still. The stillness is spiritual in itself, and I don’t mean silent – people are talking, kids are playing, cars drive by, my ears are ringing like cicadas, leaves click to the ground when they fall and they crunch when they’re stepped on. The breeze is perfect on my neck and through all the heat rising from me.

It was easy here to sit in quiet contemplation. For the people who asked me to pray for them here, it wasn’t until the moment, sitting in the grotto, the place where St. Rene Goupil was buried, the trees tall around me, my fingers moving along my rosary beads that the words and thoughts came; so naturally. The Holy Spirit is spontaneous and so strong sometimes that it’s beyond obvious in that moment…sometimes. And this was one of those times.

There are crosses on almost every tree [there’s a history behind that: Isaac Jogues carved crosses and the name of Jesus on the trees to teach the Gospel to the Mohawk children], a reminder that it’s not just sitting in nature, but a reminder that you are in a holy place, holy space. A sacred space.

I’m thinking about my saint, Elen. I’d like to write a prayer for her, an intercession to make a card. She’s the patron of travelers, which of course I love, and she’s from Caernarfon. I wish I could go back and cross that bridge to Angelsey [Ynys Mon] – there’s a burial mound there, a cairn I think that’s somewhat related.

As with my visit to Wales, anything that I didn’t do left me with no regrets. This is an odd feeling for me, wanting more, but not worrying or feeling sorry for myself that I missed something. The sensation of no regrets only adds to the comfort and beauty of the place.

It really is just beautiful here. I wish there was a retreat house to stay in; I’d love that.

It was a beautiful day, full of many things that defy description. There really aren’t words to describe the beauty or the feelings this place provoked in me. It didn’t make me happy; happy wasn’t what I was looking for. I’m not sure I have a word for what I was looking for, but it did make me feel that way.

Read more about the North American Martyrs by clicking.
Read more about the National Shrine I visited.

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