If you find yourself in New York driving from Albany to Syracuse as I did last week, it’s well worth your time to stop off in Auriesville. There you’ll find the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs.
The church itself is a testament to the complex history of the early Jesuit presence in North America. Established by Jesuits in 1884 on the site of the 17th century Mohawk village of Ossernenon, its dedication is twofold: The Shrine commemorates the three Jesuit missionaries who were martyred in that place — Isaac Jogues, René Goupil and John Lalande — and celebrates the life and legacy of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, who was an Algonquin-Mohawk born on that land.
But past the Shrine, across the street and a little way down the hill is what’s called the ravine. This, I think, is a poignant destination for any would-be pilgrim. It’s a simple, sloping pathway down into the woods. Trees tower along either side of the path, and the pilgrim can hear the persistent sound of water trickling all around. The way is marked by signs on which brief excerpts of Isaac Jogues’ own reflections can be read. And at the outset of the short journey is an image of Our Lady of the Way — the patroness of the Society of Jesus and an apt reminder of our own life’s many and winding pilgrimages.
What does Isaac Jogues invite the pilgrim to consider on that walk into the woods? That ravine, it’s believed, is the final resting place for Jogues’ dear friend, René Goupil. Goupil was martyred suddenly and brutally. After being held captive for some time, the two men had been brought from their prison and forced to their knees; only one would stand again.
Jogues recounts on those simple wooden signs his search for his friend’s body. After the execution, Jogues attempted to recover Goupil’s remains so that he could bury his companion. But after trying and failing, after finding the body only to lose it again, Jogues eventually gave up.
He declared the whole of that area a reliquary. The remains of René Goupil, who would become the first canonized martyr of North America, had seemingly been scattered throughout that ravine.
It’s a powerful pilgrimage. In the Catholic tradition, we venerate the remains of saints, items they touched or wore, what we dub relics. Think of the reverence with which we approach a single bone of, or a piece of cloth worn by, a long-dead saint! And then think of that ravine: The very ground itself held bits and pieces of a holy man; anywhere I stepped could have been hiding a relic.
A poignant moment indeed.
I was deeply moved by Isaac Jogues’ search for his friend, his determination to bury the body and his eventual concession that the body would not be found and the entire grounds could instead be called a reliquary.
And then my mind went elsewhere. Because Isaac Jogues is not the only person who desperately sought the body of a loved one, who simply wanted the opportunity to say one final goodbye. That ravine in New York is not the only place where holy people are left scattered, bits and pieces of once full and flourishing people, struck down in a bloody moment of violence.
How many people today the world over mourn the loss of loved ones without ever being able to find the closure they so desperately want? How many people step across grounds seeded with the bones and blood of the innocent?
We may hear the story of René Goupil, this final scene where his body is literally torn apart so thoroughly that it is impossible to recover in its entirety, and we may look away in shock and horror. But when we turn on the news, when we read our history books, we realize that Goupil’s fate is tragically not unique.
And so, as we journey into the many hidden ravines in our own lives, do we stop to realize that the planet itself is a reliquary, that the remains of so many holy women and men are scattered about, perhaps forgotten but there just the same? Do we offer our own prayers of remembrance, or do we hurry on without paying them any mind?
What most moved me in that ravine was the lament so palpable in Jogues’ written words. The mourning and desperation. The eventual reverence toward the very ground that held his lost companion.
It’s not hard to gaze out at our world and see Jogues’ journey reflected in the suffering of countless communities. How are we called to respond?
Eric A. Clayton is the award-winning author of Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith (Loyola Press) and the deputy director of communications at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. His essays on spirituality, parenting and pop culture have appeared in America Magazine, National Catholic Reporter, U.S. Catholic, Busted Halo and more, and he is a regular contributor to Give Us This Day, IgnatianSpirituality.com and Dork Side of the Force, where he blogs about Star Wars. His fiction has been published by Black Hare Press, Small Wonders Magazine and more. He lives in Baltimore, MD with his wife, two young daughters and their cat. Sign up for his Substack “Story Scraps” here. His next book, My Life with the Jedi: The Spirituality of Star Wars, an exploration of Star Wars through the lens of Ignatian spirituality, is due out in February 2024 from Loyola Press.