Excerpt • The Life of Father Isaac Jogues
ECAUSE Father Jogues was ordered by his superiors to write an account of his captivity, we have the vivid record of his life, which Francis Parkman [an atheist historian] has described as a living martyrdom. The priest was assigned the most degrading work and treated with greater contempt than the most despised squaw. He was made a beast of burden; heavy loads were placed on his bruised shoulders, and he was compelled to tramp 50, 70, or even 100 miles after the Indians. They paraded their prize exhibit wherever they went. His wounds were gangrened, his bare feet left tracks of blood on snow and ice, the deerskin he wore was alive with vermin. He could well have said, with Saint Paul, “We are fools for Christ’s sake… We are made as the refuse of this world, the offscouring of all.”
Late that fall, a band of Mohawks set out on their annual deer hunt. Father Jogues was ordered to accompany them. Loaded down with burdens, half-famished, he trekked through the November cold and shared the Mohawks’ mountain bivouacs. The game they caught was offered up to Areskoui (god of the chase) and eaten in his honor. Father Jogues, in consequence, would not taste the meat, because to do so would be to participate in the worship of the demon. At night, when the kettle was slung and the savages were celebrating their success in the hunt, Jogues would crouch in a corner of the hut, shivering and starving in the midst of plenty.
His conduct mystified and annoyed the Mohawks, and if they returned in the evening with no game, they blamed it on the Blackrobe: he had offended Areskoui. Like a squaw, Father Jogues brought in firewood; he carried their loads; he was their slave in all things but one: when they mocked at his God—or when they ordered him to worship theirs—the slave would assume a tone of authority and a steadfast attitude that astonished them. While humbly submitting to every caprice of his tyrants and appearing to rejoice in abasement, a derisive word against his Faith would change the lamb into the lion, and the lips that seemed so tame would speak in sharp, bold tones of menace and reproof.
At times Father Jogues would escape “this Babylon,” as he called the camp site. Wandering off into the wilderness, he would recite the Rosary, repeat passages from the Scriptures, and read from The Imitation of Christ. In some lonely spot, he would carve the figure of the Cross into the trunk of a tree and there kneel in prayer for long periods. “This living martyr,” observes Parkman, “half-clad in shaggy furs, kneeling on the snow among the icy rocks and beneath the gloomy pines, bowing in adoration before the emblem of the Faith (in which was his only consolation and his only hope), is alike a theme for the pen and a subject for the pencil.”
From Parkman’s external portrayal, Father Jogues himself allows us to penetrate into his interior condition:
In this sadness, I had recourse to the help of the Scriptures, my accustomed refuge. The passages that I recalled in memory taught me how I should think of God in His infinite goodness. Although I was not upheld by sensible consolation, nevertheless I would know that “the just man lives by faith.” I searched the Scriptures; I followed their streamlets, desiring, as it were, to quench my daily thirst. “In the law of God I was meditating day and night,” and, indeed, unless the law of God had been my meditation, I would then perhaps have perished in my abjection.
In his forest retreats, Father Jogues would experience a desolation of soul that reflected the intellectual and spiritual isolation of his lot, intensified now by the loss of René Goupil. Having no contact with his fellow countrymen, without the consolation of the Mass, without altar or chapel or any of the conventional aids to formal religious worship, physically beaten and mentally harassed, Jogues yet did not break down. So deep and unshakable was his supporting faith that he often cried out with Job, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in Him.”
[This excerpt was written by Father John A. O’Brien, S.J.]