"God so greatly enlarged the soul of his servant"

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The painting depicts New Amsterdam (Manhattan) circa 1668.

David and Mary Ann went on pilgrimage last week to the Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville, New York, about three hours away from here. Auriesville is the site of the martyrdom of Saint René Goupil on September 29, 1642, of Saint Isaac Jogues on October 18, 1646, and of Saint John de La Lande on October 19, 1646. The New Haven Colony had been founded by John Davenport and Theophilus Eaton only eight years before, in the spring of 1638, two years after the ordination of Isaac Jogues to the priesthood.

Captured by the Mohawks in 1642, Isaac Jogues was forced to follow them to their winter hunting grounds, where he did the hard work of the squaws and slaves. After his labours, he wandered about the forest, chanting psalms or praying before the symbols he had carved into a tree: the Holy Name of Jesus and the sign of the Cross.

It was during this captivity that Saint Isaac wrote the following magnificent text. I thank David for having brought it to my attention.

“On another occasion, hidden in my retreat in the woods, with the snow piled high about me and my body tormented by hunger, cold, and nakedness, considered the scum of the earth, the vilest of men, by these degraded barbarians, I endured intense agonies also in my soul because of all my sins and culpable negligences. All the bitter pangs of death and the terrors of Hell invaded my heart at the thought that the savages were about to kill me, as they had so often threatened. The following then transpired bringing me peace:

Very distinctly, I heard a voice that proved to me how false this distress of my heart really was and advised me to think of God only in his goodness (cf. Wis I:I) and to cast all my anxiety on him (cf. I Pet 5:7). I heard also those words that I had noted long ago in the letters of Saint Bernard to his monks: ‘Serve God in that charity and love that casts out fear; such love does not seek any reward.’ These two counsels were given to me very opportunely, for my soul was burdened with an excessive fear – not a filial, but a servile, fear. I did not have sufficient confidence in God. Besides, I was lamenting because I was being hurried to judgment, in the middle of my life, as it were without having paved the way with any good works. I should rather have been grieving because of my multitudinous offenses and negligences toward God.

This advice indeed reanimated my sorrowing soul and stirred up within me a burning love of God. That fire of love was so vehement that in the fervor of my soul, even before I had returned to myself, I added to what had been told me, using once more the words of Saint Bernard: ‘It is not unjust that he claims our life for himself since he gave up his own for us.’ After this, God so greatly enlarged the soul of his servant that I could even joyfully return to the village where I firmly believe I would be beaten to death as soon as I entered.”

Against all hope, Dutch settlers succeeded in helping Jogues escape. They brought him to New Amsterdam, the present city of New York, where the account of his sufferings and his mutilated hands moved even the governor and the Calvinist clergyman to compassion. Saint Isaac was the first Catholic priest to set foot in what today is Manhattan. Saint Isaac Jogues left a vivid description of New Amsterdam as he knew it:

“This fort which is at the point of the island about five or six leagues from the mouth, is called Fort Amsterdam . . . . Within this fort stood a pretty large church built of stone; the house of the Governor, whom they called Director General, quite neatly built of brick, the storehouses and barracks.

On this island of Manhate and in its environs there may well be four or five hundred men of different sects and nations; the Director General told me that there were persons there of eighteen different languages; they are scattered here and there on the river, above and below as the beauty and convenience of the spot invited each to settle, some mechanics however who ply their trades are ranged under the fort; all the others were exposed to the incursions of the natives, who in the year 1643, while I was there actually killed some two score Hollanders and burnt many houses and barns full of wheat.

The river, which is very straight and runs due north and south, is at least a league broad before the fort. Ships lie at anchor in a bay which forms the other side of the island and can be defended from the fort.

No religion is publicly exercised but the Calvinist, and orders are to admit none but Calvinists, but this is not observed, for there are, besides Calvinists, in the Colony Catholics, English Puritans, Lutherans, Anabaptists, here called Muistes.”

From New Amsterdam, Isaac boarded a vessel to England and from there made his way back to France. He appeared at the door of the Jesuit residence and, without identifying himself, told the porter he was recently arrived from New France. The porter summoned the superior. The superior, not recognizing him, asked if had might have any news of Father Jogues. “He is alive and well, I assure you, Reverend Father,” he said. “I am he.” And then he knelt down to receive the superior’s blessing.

Canon Law prohibited any priest having a physical defect from celebrating Holy Mass. Several of Father Isaac’s fingers had been eaten or cut off by his captors. Isaac thought that he would never again offer the Holy Sacrifice. Pope Urban VII, hearing of his situation, said, “One who has shed his blood for Christ should not be prohibited from offering the Precious Blood of Christ.” The Pontiff granted him the exceptional privilege of celebrating Mass with his mutilated hands: the first recorded concession of this kind in the history of the Church.

In the spring of 1644, Father Jogues returned to New France. In 1646 he was sent to negotiate peace with the Iroquois. As he passed by the body of water that today we call Lake George, he named it Lac Saint–Sacrement, Lake Blessed Sacrament.

In September of the same year On 27 he began his third and last journey to the Mohawk. Illness had spread in the tribe and a blight had fallen on the crops. The Indians blamed this double misfortune on Jogues whom they had always regarded as a demon or a sorcerer. They attacked Father Isaac near Lake George, stripped him naked, slashed him with their knives, beat him and then led him to the village. On October 18, 1646, when entering a cabin he was struck with a tomahawk and afterwards decapitated. The head was fixed on the Palisades and the body thrown into the Mohawk.

All of this happened a mere three hours drive from this monastery. Think of it. And now, let us go the altar where the blood of the martyrs is united to the Precious Blood of Christ in one single and life–giving oblation.

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About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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