Just last weekend, the Annual Pilgrimage for Restoration took place in upstate New York. For those not familiar – it is a 60 odd mile, 3 day hike to the Shrine of the North American Martyrs. We also call it the “Auriesville Pilgrimage”, as the Shrine is in Auriesville, NY.
For the last 4 years I’ve really been intrigued by the idea, especially as many of my Institute and Sursum Corda friends and acquaintances made the journey year after year. Sursum Corda has even had their own brigade of marchers from both the mid-west and east coast for the last 2 years.
Well, guess what!
This year I didn’t make it either…
Two friends of mine here in STL were unable to go as well. So as we waved some of their siblings off on their long journey to the real pilgrimage in NY (well… they did. I imagined I was there), we planned a little pilgrimage of our own to join them in prayer and penance from afar!
We picked one of the pilgrimage days and planned to walk for about 24 miles on the Katy Trail. We figured it is a little longer than the pilgrims walk in one day, but nowhere near the 60+ miles they walk altogether. I had made a 25 mile hike before in about 7 1/2 hours and, while it was incredibly tiring, it wasn’t overly painful; so we were pretty sure we would at least survive. I guess I must admit that maybe we were a little naive… as it turned out to be a lot (did I stress that enough?) more difficult than expected.
We set off at about 7am by the foggy river, with rosaries in our hands and prayer petitions in our hearts… and headed the wrong direction (of course, this would happen with me around). But don’t worry – we only walked about a half mile before I got us straightened out. Once we actually got going in the right direction, we set ourselves at a good pace and in good spirits. We spent some time in prayer, some time chatting and laughing… they taught me how to sing the Rosary in latin and I (tried to) teach them how to sing the Salve Regina.
Eventually lunchtime started to roll around and we realised we should be getting close to our halfway point (about 12 miles). We had been counting the mile markers and as we approached the 12 miles, we looked around for that stop supposedly nearby; but not seeing anything, we just kept walking a little bit further. “Maybe it’s just around the bend.” echoed a few times over the next mile or so. Finally, we stopped a runner coming from the opposite direction, who informed us that the stop wasn’t for another 4 or 5 miles!!!
Well… that was just soul-crushing news.
We were really dragging our feet by this point. Our muscles were burning and weak, our feet were cramped, and we were really getting hungry. We decided that we absolutely had to turn around right then or we weren’t going to make it back to my car. So, we plopped ourselves over to the nearest bench, threw our socks and shoes off, ate lunch, and tried not to think about the fact that we were only half way through!
The second half of this trip was quite possibly the hardest physical task I have ever endured. My friends had kept an astonishing pace (we had a 12 minute mile in there somewhere!), our muscles were killing us, we had several large blisters, I had a migraine coming on, very little to no water, 85 degrees in the sun, and with “only” 5 hours of walking to go. However, throughout all this we started discussing our sufferings as we speed-waddled back (yes, that is a completely accurate description), and I realised these few things which made this mini-pilgrimage… not any easier, but certainly more bearable.
1. A Purpose
People often are attracted to Christianity in their darkest hour because it gives their suffering a meaning. It gives them hope to know that in the end, goodness reins. However, more specifically as Catholics, our suffering not only has meaning… but a concrete purpose: Sanctity.
“No great mortification, no great sanctity!”
Suffering and mortification (whether we choose to or not) offers us an opportunity to do penance for the punishment of our sins and the exercise of many virtues, bringing us closer to Christ. Particularly choosing to perform small acts of penance and mortification train us to persevere in situations where suffering is not of our control. Further, in suffering our prayers are the strongest and more closely united to Christ suffering on the cross. Throughout all of the walk we kept joking that somebody must have had a serious prayer petition, to require all these little sufferings. However, it wasn’t really a joke and the thought of my suffering being put to good use helped me power through. The more painful and exhausting the step I took, offering it up for my prayer petitions meant the stronger my prayer would be. My suffering had a purpose to endure (not just tolerate for the end result) for my own sake, and particularly for my petitions.
- Our Suffering was Nothing
Quite often we discussed the suffering of the saints, martyrs, and those whom are afflicted in their lives; particularly how minute our suffering was compared to theirs. We talked of Pope St. John Paul II (then Karol Wojtyła) when he fled 120 miles – only to be stopped by the Russian army and forced to turn around and go back. Golly, and we thought 24 miles was a killer (albeit, we found out later we actually walked 30)! Towards the end, while we were wincing as we stepped on our tender feet and numerous blisters, I commented on the torture of Bl. José Sánchez del Río; particularly the cutting and flaying of the soles of his feet, before forcing him to walk through the streets to his grave.
Obviously our suffering was of some degree to us. However, thinking of how much worse things could be and how much others have endured was slightly relieving.
- Joy in Suffering
For the reasons mentioned above, suffering is not a bad thing… it’s actually a blessing. This is why the saints talked so much of embracing their sufferings with joy. I don’t fully grasp the concept of putting that into practice, but if there is one thing we learned it’s how to have joy despite suffering. Looking back, I am truly impressed with how well we handled ourselves. The temptation to be cross with one another and to complain was perpetually poking us like an annoying little brother. I certainly didn’t conquer all of them and there were times when I just needed a few moments to compose myself. However, at the same time, we were pretty much always laughing to keep our spirits up – especially on the way back.
Despite the trials and temptations on our journey, our conversation was just as light-hearted and humerous as if we were sitting on couch. And singing – we sang just about everything: From the rosary and various hymns to a wide range of Disney songs (sigh yes… we even sang “Let it Go” – what a shame we actually know the lyrics) to “Home on the Range” and “Git Along Little Dogies”. Anything to encourage each other and keep us from dragging our soul along with our feet!
And you know what? We survived!
After 10 hours, we finally got back to my car, made a beeline for home, and crashed on the floor not even 4 feet inside the door. Well… after a pit-stop at a local McDonalds to get LOTS and LOTS of water – and then another pit-stop at Dairy Queen for a celebratory ice-cream (had to find a place with a drive through, cause we weren’t sure if we’d survive getting out of the car). I’m quite impressed that the pilgrims walk for 3 days in a row, because we couldn’t even walk normally to the communion rail at Mass the next day.
I can truly say it was a valuable experience – offering many lessons and (hopefully) spiritual growth. Although you may want to wait a bit before asking if I’m ready to do it again…
St. Isaac Jogues and the North American Martyrs, oráte pro nobis!