Ever since I discovered her (or perhaps, she discovered me) a few years ago, I’ve developed a special connection to St. Kateri. She is the patron saint of Native Americans, ecology and the environment; people and concerns that have played formative roles my life. But, in the past few months, she’s laid a serious claim on my devotions and made herself present in my life in a number of ways. At my current house, I’m almost sure that she is around, watching and caring for the Carolina Chickadee who snatches seeds from my bird feeder and cracks them against the trees. To seal my devotion to her, this Sunday, October 8th, I’ll get in my car and drive North to the town of Kahnawake, on the Mohawk reservation near Montreal, Quebec, where her bones rest.
Now, if you’re not Catholic, the above paragraph will most likely seem strange and frankly, bizarre. There’s a good reason for that. It IS strange and bizarre. Most modern Catholic Churches down play visiting the bones of the saints. We want our Catholic Churches to resemble the local Protestant mega-church, full of smiley, happy people who have their life figured out because the latest self-help Catholic-lite best seller. Death, the contemplation of our death and what might be “beyond the veil” is shoved into a little used corner. And, really, its too bad, because, our culture is undergoing a worldview shift to where we are most interested in Mystery, the dead and all things Unseen. We are missing a serious evangelization opportunity by not letting our freak flag fly, including visiting the bones of the saints.
My road trip pilgrimage will take me to Northern New York, Kahanawake Reserve in Canada (where St. Kateri is buried), and the Shrine of the North American Martyrs. After I visit those holy places, I’ll be taking a turn towards another strange journey. I’ll be exploring the Green Mountains of Vermont, where I’ll be looking into Lake Champlain to see if I can spot Champ, the North American Loch Ness Monster. From there, I’ll head south to camp in the Bennington Triangle, ground zero for monsters, ghosts, spiritualists and the aching sadness of people who’ve gone missing in this region for centuries.
Are these two separate trips with two different purposes? No, they are one long strange pilgrimage to meditate on holiness, the thin veil between worlds, sadness, sorrow, the ache of the Other, lives of the saints, and even my own eventual death, a long journey of Memento Mori.
But, before I get there, there is a lot of preparation and things that I’ve doing to get myself ready. This includes selecting the places, books, music, podcasts and spiritual preparation that anyone might need for a spooky pilgrimage. What does that look like? How can you do your own?
Consider the following:
Daily Mass and The St. Kateri Chaplet
Starting tomorrow (October 3rd), I’ll be attending daily mass at my parish. Mass and the Eucharist is the center of Catholic life. No other devotion, charism or practice can come close. And, I’ll be ending very night, including the pilgrimage, with praying the St. Kateri Chaplet.
The Facial Hair:
Okay, granted, growing a beard is not really a pilgrimage thing. But, altering your physical appearance has always been a sign of a searching soul or a setting apart for a divine purpose. My favorite is found in the Old Testament with the taking of a Nazerite vow.
What is a Nazerite vow? You committed to the following:
- Abstain from wine and eating any sort of grapes.
- Don’t cut your hair or beard.
- Not to become ritually impure by contact with corpses or graves.
I won’t be shaving for the next two weeks nor touching any food made of grapes, including wine. But, strangely, I’ll be violating the last vow by visiting a grave of a saint. The contradiction is appealing to me and I want to explore the redemption of the dead body that comes with the belief in the Resurrection. At the end of the pilgrimage, I’ll be shaving off most of my beard to end my vow.
The Portable Altar: Bourbon and Bacon Candle and Statue of St. Kateri
Medieval Christians would often take portable altars or shrines with them so they could pray on the journey. Mine will be made an old dynamite box that I bought at an antique store. The label on the side reads “Danger-Do not Shake.” On top, I will have a Bourbon and Bacon Candle that a friend sent to me, a Statue of St. Kateri, and a Lil Sickie, made for me by one of our many Sick Pilgrims around the country.
This album came out just a few weeks and it’s ethereal, gorgeous and reflective. Andy Hull uses the album to reflect on the nature relationships, especially through his role as a new dad. But the line that I think is perfect for this journey comes from the very first song:
There is nothing I got, when I die, that I keep.
Sounds just about right for a pilgrimage to meet the dead.
Every time I listen to this album, I go deeper into the contradictions of my own heart. Lamar gazes inward at the state of his would and then gazes up at the threat of God’s judgement hovering over all of humanity. He has stated in many interviews that’s an exploration of his own personality, sins, contradictions and his own standing with God. In other words, it stands in the deep tradition of Christian contemplatives.
You’d think I’m a big Lore listener, but I’m not. Everyone I know loves it and they try to force it on me. I don’t want to be a hater of something just because its popular. But the truth is, Lore doesn’t work for a variety of reasons. First, I’ve spent years investigating, researching and loving the uncanny and strange. Thus, I rarely hear anything new and I hate the presentation of material I love. It just seems canned and manufactured. Plus, and this is probably sour grapes, but Aaron Mahnke’s voice grates on my nerves.
I prefer with people telling their own stories of the paranormal and the disturbing. My two favorites right now are Spooked and The Vanished. Spooked is produced by the folks at Snap Judgement and hosted by the smooth jazz creepiness of Glynn Washington. And it is utterly brilliant. All of the stories are real life encounters with the uncanny and strange, told by the real life people who experienced them. Instead of relying on the ponderous storytelling and over dramatic storytelling of Lore, Spooked gives us the voices of real people who are full of the confusion and mystery of what they experienced which adds to a very unsettling, but beautiful listening experience.
The Vanished, however, is a much more disturbing and unsettling listen. The podcast tells stories of people who have gone missing, usually using interviews with the loved ones left behind. While I get a chill and thrill out of Spooked, The Vanished leaves me full of aches and sadness. These are real people, not legends. They really have disappeared and might never return. And their families may never get them back, a terrible, unsolved mystery taking over their lives.
A friend sent me this book because of our shared passion in the old version of The Twilight Zone. We talked about the show for an hour one night and they ended up sending me this book, insisting it was perfect for a Spooky Pilgrimage. Basically, its a weird little self-help book that uses the world of the Zone to reflect on life, death and everything in-between.
My esteemed co-founder of this blog, Jessica Mesman Griffith, recommended this one to me. It’s the story of an honorable Apostolic Vicar to New Mexico in the year 1851. Basically, the novel follows the good, the bad and the ugly of what happens when the Catholic Church sends missionaries to a far away land and tries to help the local people. While Cather pulls no punches, she also gives a sympathetic picture of Catholic priests and missionaries, something that probably wouldn’t happen in modern literature. It’s a good thing to read for my visit to the Shrine of the North American Martyrs and their work among the Native American tribes of the early colonial period.
Believe it or not, I’ve just stared reading Blackwood, one of the masters of the weird tale. And, to be honest, I’m in flat out awe of his ability to create an atmosphere. But, I’m glad I’m reading this collection on the trip and not The Wendigo, one of the scariest stories I’ve ever read. It scared me so much that I’m glad I read it sitting on my chair in the cozy safety of St. Kateri house and not in the woods of Vermont.
Whenever I visit a new area of the country, I usually book a book about the local legends, lore and monsters. The problem is, most of them are really bad. Not so with this book. Citro is a great writer who knows how to relate facts in a way that keeps your attention and fills you full of unease. This is going to be my road trip guide through the weird.
You can follow my pilgrimage on the Sick Pilgrim Facebook page and all of my own social media outlets. I’ll be updating with live video from various spots and locations with fun facts, observations and a chance to see my morning bedhead. And, I’ll be writing reflections for the blog.
Pre-Order our book, Strange Journey, coming November 2nd.