In his Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer presents a series of charming stories told by his colorful medieval characters. These holy and not-so-holy fourteenth-century pilgrims were on their merry way to the shrine of St. Thomas á Becket, long before the days when modern transit made pilgrimages an easy-going affair. But roughing it for Christ is not a thing of the past. There are even Americans today who still do it the old-fashioned way — on foot. To them, it is the best way, because it is more spiritually rewarding.
In late September, one group of such spiritual wayfarers walks the seventy miles from Lake George, New York, to the Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville. Their journey is called the “Pilgrimage for Restoration.”
Make no mistake, the spartan nature of the pilgrimage is deliberate. Mr. Gregory Lloyd, the pilgrimage organizer, openly declares it “an exercise of penance and prayer.” Lloyd, a philosopher, linguist, and happy father of seven, is the Executive Director of the National Coalition of Clergy and Laity (NCCL), an organization whose members and affiliates “embrace the traditional doctrine and practice of Holy Church, with all its demands.”
Perhaps it is to train these tough-minded Catholics for “all its demands” that they exercise their faith in such a foot-blistering manner.
The pilgrimage, now in its thirteenth year, is no mere athleticism, though. It is a spiritual exercise “for the restoration of a new Christendom, and in reparation for sins against the Immaculate Heart of Mary,” Lloyd says. Pilgrims walk through the woods of verdant upstate New York singing hymns, praying the Rosary, and meditating together in their small brigades, each of which is named after a saint or an important Christian mystery. At night, they camp in tents or under the open sky.
Because of the publication of Pope Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum, the papal motu proprio making the traditional Latin Mass more widely available, pilgrims have been offering heartfelt prayers of thanksgiving the last two years. Since its inception some thirteen years ago, the Pilgrimage for Restoration has always had priests who celebrate that rite of Mass (exclusively) as part of the routine of prayer. In fact, one intention of the pilgrimage has long been “the restoration of the Catholic family and the Latin liturgical tradition.”
The Masses on the pilgrimage trail are offered in a makeshift chapel-tent, while the closing Liturgy is a Solemn Mass, complete with Gregorian Chant and all the austere pageantry of Latin Christendom.
The pilgrimage’s combination of arduous physical effort and interior delight accompanying the spiritual exercises (especially the predawn daily Latin Mass) has been described as “the agony and the ecstasy.” All is not painful, though, and certainly nothing is dour in this journey. In fact, there is plenty of Christian mirth along the way, especially when the young people stage a talent show on Thursday night.
For those not able to handle the constant walking, there are support vehicles equipped to take them to the next stop. There are also nurses, “the blister brigade,” who tend to the pilgrims’ aches and pains as needed. Participants with less time or stamina for the long excursion can join on the final day for the seven-mile stretch from Fonda to Auriesville.
Whereas Chaucer’s pilgrims went to the shrine of St. Thomas at Canterbury, the Pilgrimage for Restoration terminates at the shrine of the Eight North American Martyrs, whose prayers are invoked for the conversion of America. Most of these Martyrs died on the Canadian side of the border, but three of them (St. Isaac Jogues, St. René Goupil, and St. Jean de la Lande) died 365 years ago in what is now New York State. Goupil was martyred in the Mohawk village of Ossernenon (now Auriesvile), where his precious remains were lost. After the Solemn Mass, pilgrims can walk the graceful descent into the peaceful ravine where his body was last seen. A series of plaques along the way narrate the story of his martyrdom at the hands of the Mohawks, and the loss of his sacred remains.
For all its traditional elements, Lloyd insists that the pilgrimage is not about being old-fashioned. For him, retaining the Church’s older, more reverent liturgical tradition is not an attempt at “reverting to some by-gone era.” Rather, he envisions “drawing benefits from the ancient sources and putting them to work in the world today.” This means, practically, that “the Catholic Faith [will] restore every dimension of our lives: our hearts, families, workplaces, parishes, neighborhoods, [and] cities.”
Who knows. Maybe some ambitious young writer will leave posterity with the Auriesville Tales.