I’m not much of a camper. I chalk it up to traumatic Girl Scout experiences as a kid — think rain, mud, latrine duty, French toast cooked over a coffee can. But as I write this column, I am simultaneously washing my winter sleeping bag in anticipation of a weekend camping retreat at the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in Auriesville, N.Y., with Noah’s Boy Scout troop. And I’m actually looking forward to it.
The Boy Scouts, and Auriesville in particular, have done for me what nothing else has been able to do since my first failed tent experience: They’ve made me want to become a camper, a hiker, an outdoorswoman. That last one might be pushing it a bit, but I can dream.
I’ve done the Auriesville retreat once before. It was my first camp experience since those early Girl Scout days. As I huddled in my little tent on the grounds where Kateri Tekakwitha was born and where Isaac Jogues, Rene Goupil, and John LaLande were martyred, I suddenly felt my camping angst recede, replaced by a powerful sense of what it means to be a pilgrim on sacred ground. I could feel the holy history all around me. Frost and dampness and sleeplessness were insignificant in this place where Catholics before me were willing to die for their faith.
So when this year’s retreat was announced, I threw my name in the ring immediately. How could I not during this monumental year, when Kateri Tekakwitha finally becomes a canonized saint? Imagine the special graces we Scout pilgrims will receive as we spend two days walking the ravine, going to the sacrament of reconciliation, attending Mass with our bishop, and soaking ourselves in the powerful stories of faith lived amid persecution just 40 minutes from our home.
Because of these camp experiences, Auriesville has become a special place for me. Every chance I get, I head in that direction. The ravine doesn’t lose its shine just because I’ve walked it a dozen times. The coliseum church doesn’t seem less impressive even though I’ve dusted statues and polished pews there with our parish youth group. The beautiful natural scenery hasn’t lost its awe factor because I’ve seen it through every season year after year. That’s because this isn’t just a campground, and it’s not just a historical site.
This shrine is a living, breathing piece of our faith, a place where we can feel the courage of the people who walked here before us and share the spiritual journey with those who walk with us today. So often we think we need to travel to Rome or the Holy Land or Lourdes to make a true pilgrimage, but the reality is that pilgrim moments, opportunities to experience God through the lives of holy men and woman, are close to home and around every turn.
Tomorrow night, when I join five Scouts and one other adult leader on the grounds of Auriesville (along with other troops from all over the region), I will sit by the flickering light of a campfire, just 50 yards from the ravine where the martyrs suffered, and I’ll imagine what it must have been like to be in this exact spot more than 350 years ago, what it must have been like to believe so fervently and know that those beliefs would come at a very high price. It’s sobering, powerful, inspiring.
Noah, who has done this retreat four times, has been so moved by the experience that he plans to take Isaac as his confirmation name this year. On the surface that choice will probably seem insignificant to others, but I know that his choice comes out of experiences gained in this holy place, which is so much more than a geographical destination in upstate New York. It’s a spiritual destination on the pilgrim path we are all called to walk, even if the farthest we ever travel is deep within our own hearts and souls.