My mother booked an Airbnb for the 100th anniversary of the Miracle of the Sun in Fatima, on October 13th, 2017, two years in advance. No matter where we would be, or what our circumstances might be like then, it was certain that we would be in Fatima to celebrate. When I say we, I mean that my mom called me to inform me that I’d be going with her.
I’m not sure what lies at the heart of my mother’s fondness for Fatima, except that she is a superfan of every Marian apparition and Mary herself. I was her first child, and when I was born she gave me the name Mary and, carrying me out of St. Mary's hospital at a few days old, dedicated and entrusted me to Our Lady in front of a mural of her in the lobby. Growing up, she would take my brother and I to meet what seemed like everyone within driving distance who claimed to see visions of the Virgin Mary, from small apartments in Indianapolis to farms in Kentucky and supernatural light shows in Northern Kentucky. She helped arrange speaking engagements for visionaries and carted us to day-long conferences about apparitions. As a child, I was jealous of the visionaries, and always tried to pray, be a good girl, and squint hard at the sky, and always felt disappointed that I wasn't chosen to see Our Lady.
Adulthood has given me a sort of distance from Marian apparitions, associating excessive devotion with the innocent faith of childhood. It's not that I don't believe in them, I just don't find that meditating on them brings me that much closer to God or helps me develop spiritually. Part of me wonders why they are even necessary, or why people find them so important, when we have access to the Bible, centuries of Church teaching, and the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. The messages of the apparitions don't figure too much into my daily life and, while I'm willing to accept Church approval for them, I also find comfort in the allowance for doubt in them. I believe that God is constantly working in our lives, but also find it hard to wholeheartedly embrace this as one of the ways in which He does, and swallow without complaint all of the myths, legends, and cults that have sprung up around each one. There seems to be a perilously fine line between authentic visions and hallucinations or psychosis, making it even harder to sort out the meaning of apparitions for their time and for us today. The sentimentality and sappiness surrounding them is often sickeningly-sweet, overly focused on prophecy, so celebratory of works that it's an inch shy of depending on those works for salvation, and seems somewhat distant from anything Jesus ever actually said in the Gospels. In fact, their following seems to take priority over the Gospels at times in a way I find almost vulgar, like when I see profile pictures featuring Our Lady on social media spouting insults and expressing outright contempt for the poor. When I've toured apparition sites in the past, there also seemed to be a very off-putting ongoing contest of who could show off their faith in the most pious and devout, yet simultaneously flashy, way. This kind of “Who Does It Best: Catholic Edition” turns sincere and genuine faith in God’s love into a grotesque, pharisaical competition where prayers, clothing, and trinkets give us a chance to signal our superiority in all things Catholic. The tools of our faith become more like prizes in a game, an inventory we collect as we go from Basic to Expert Level. I want to believe that the people that buy these things do so out of an honest love of their faith, but it’s overwhelmingly difficult for me to not wonder why there’s a market for them in the first place.
Fatima is one apparition that is particularly difficult for me. I don’t have anything against Our Lady of Fatima, but I come up short when I dig for some sort of emotional tie to her or the apparition. I look at the pictures of Francisco, Jacinta, and Lucia and wonder why God needed to show them Hell, or why they felt they needed to impose such harsh penances on themselves when their lives seemed hard enough to begin with. It doesn't make sense to me why that would be the only way to get a message across - a message that, for all intents and purposes, did not seem to sink in. Despite the warnings, the miracle of the sun, days the children spent without water or food, and rosaries prayed, the world still endured World War II, the Soviet Union, and all of the other crimes of the 20th century. And then there is the division caused today by speculation and conspiracy theories: what has been revealed of the secrets and when, whether Russia really has been consecrated and whether the popes have been avoiding fulfilling a request from Our Lady on purpose, even though the reasons why they might do so are murky at best. At worst, the conspiracy theories seem to amount to an unnecessary frothing up of mankind’s desire to have something to fear and blame for calamity, an easy go-to for those who would rather preach paranoia, doom, and fire-and-brimstone than love and care for the poor, with convenient tie-ins to politics and nationalism.
Despite my misgivings about the apparitions and their fan clubs, I wonder if part of my disgust comes from hardness within my heart that keeps me from appreciating them. When I turn my magnifying glass for other people’s underlying psychological issues onto myself, I realize that there may be something deeper to my feelings and apprehension, blind spots holding me back from spiritual growth while I luxuriate in moral self-satisfaction and good taste. Thus, I begin this trip by eagerly anticipating what I might learn from Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, Our Lady of Lourdes, and Our Lady of Fatima, knowing that the task of absorbing their messages has not been completed in my life, and wondering what they have to teach me. I try my best to be open to the idea that the thing we might need the most is an uncomfortable encounter with the things we dislike, and leave room for the possibility of grace to transform me.
Even from the very beginning of this trip, it is clear that God considers the fancy European vacation I planned for myself to actually be a pilgrimage. By that, I mean that God almost immediately starts throwing events and people at me that will test me and show me where I am lacking in virtue, in order to remind me that this is not all about me and that there are greater things at work.
When I travel, I prefer to blend in as much as possible, attempt to communicate in the local language, get almost everywhere on foot in order to absorb all that I can, leave room in my schedule for wandering and spontaneity, and divert from the beaten path, avoiding hordes of tourists at all costs. As an independent, slightly-introverted person, I detest all of the complications of sticking with a group: planning, waiting, deciding what to do, disagreeing, and trying to negotiate a conclusion, dealing with inconveniences and attending to each one's needs, all the while mortified at how obviously we're drawing attention to ourselves. I've lived on three continents and consider myself to be somewhat more sophisticated, educated, and capable than the average traveler. I do loads of research online and am always in search of an "authentic", rather than a "touristy", experience.
As it turns out, God will ensure that this trip is exactly the opposite of what I would want for myself. I am immediately forced to confront the luxury of indulgence in selfishness that is my life, the sense of superiority and pride in which my ideas about myself are deeply rooted, my desire to control both events and other people, and how much weight I give to the opinions of strangers. From the moment we started planning, the group has ballooned to eight people: Me, my mom, and six members of my mom's prayer group - all of whom are grandparents, have varying degrees of travel experience (the least amount of experience being none at all) and physical capacities. None of them speak more than a few words in the local languages, and it is more or less immediately obvious that I will become the default tour guide as the only multi-lingual and tech-savvy young person. The plans I made for myself instantly became the plans of a group that I never really had any desire to lead.
This is my second trip to Lourdes. My first trip was as a young grad student kicking off six months of living in Europe. I went for the feast day on February 11th, overjoyed that I had such an amazing opportunity to be able to arrange my travel around a feast day celebration, but I quickly found myself overwhelmed by the pushy, loud, and often rude crowds. I have some fond memories of the trip, especially the feeling after getting dunked in the baths that I described at the time as a “jolt of espresso to the soul” to an American reporter for a magazine that happened to be standing right outside. I also had fun seeing all the sights associated with St. Bernadette and collecting stamps in the “passport” provided to tourists, learning the Hail Mary in Italian as I waited in line, and seeing the glow of thousands of candles in the procession. I did feel more connected to the story of Lourdes and the person of St. Bernadette, but more than anything Lourdes ended up as a destination that I could cross off my list. I never felt like I needed to go back, like there was more waiting there for me to discover. In fact, it’s more like a place that I don’t really want to go back to, associated forever in my mind with excitable sentimentality and appalling tackiness.
On my second trip, it appears that nothing has changed. Rather than being a place of meditation and communion with God, I feel like I'm at Catholic Disneyland, waiting in exasperation for the next thrill ride and fighting off uncharitable thoughts about the moneylenders in the Temple. I can't relate to the candy-colored trinkets, the lacy, diamond-studded veils, glow-in-the-dark statues, or rosaries which double as jewelry. I have no emotional reaction to those things, at least not like my mother, who passes through the streets in a constant chorus of "ooh" and "ahh" and "awwww". To me, they all look more or less the same.
However, because I had already seen the major sights on my first trip, I’m able to relax a little more. I ignore the pressure to see and do everything, and find myself using the opportunity to observe the personal interactions among the pilgrims. I find that it’s much easier to be charitable when I’m not stressed about whether I’m able to fit everything in and how I can maximize my experience. Not caring too much about this leg of the trip, in the end, gives me different eyes that take everything in and are able to appreciate the humans in the crowds for the people they are. Amidst all the commotion, it is comforting to see all of the mothers and grandmothers and their wild, passionate devotion. I see a grandmother from Spain turn to her son and insist that she's going to buy a trinket for his daughter. He tries to refuse, but she insists. I see this kind of insistence, this no-nonsense, this-is-how-it-is kind of attitude toward the faith reflected in the faces of the women in the crowds from all over the world that flow and pulse through the streets. I recognize something in their faces and voices that I remember from my grandmother and see in my mother. In that moment, I feel a deep kinship with other Catholics around the world, raised in faith by generations of grandmothers in a faith passed down from their grandmothers. It's a pure faith, one you can't argue with. Any arguments ultimately end in yielding to a definitive proclamation of truth, and that's that.
The crowds, overwhelmingly older women, rub the rocks of the grotto with their hands, eyes closed, prayers dancing on their lips. They fill jug after enormous jug with water with special water. They elbow each other to advance in line to get closer to the baths that for generations have been praised as a miraculous cure-all. They light giant candles with colorful, intricate designs that represent their towns. In all of these actions, one thing is clear: we long for physical manifestations of faith and closeness with God. Even though many of us may have a rock-solid faith and volumes of intellectual knowledge, there is still a persistent hunger for things to kiss, touch, feel, and smell, earthly reminders of the articles of our faith and the relationships we cherish with God and Mary, and we thrive on seeing the workings of supernatural grace in the world. Even the baths are a true sensory experience. Whereas on my first trip the water flowing from the streams had been warm, this time it was so shockingly cold that it was impossible to focus on anything but the freezing water. It reduced me, for a moment, to the most primitive part of my brain, as it forced the breath out of me. There was something invigorating about it, though, as if every cell in my body awoke in delight.
Seeing this devotion to the physical sheds a new light on Marian apparitions for me: perhaps God, knowing our human need for the tangible, has given us the gift of these visits to give us more things on Earth that we can touch, a means of connection to His love that goes beyond those found inside churches. Still, their age makes me wonder if Lourdes will continue to see the same hordes in future years, or if the crowds will thin along with the hair of the pilgrims.
Of course, there are also young people here, many of whom lead the older ones by the hand, or push lines of pilgrims in wheelchairs. It occurs to me that this, too, is part of carrying on the faith. We uphold the legacy of generations before us by grasping hands that have prayed thousands of rosaries, as part of the gift and duty of receiving the faith from those hands. It is the union of young hands with old that lets me hope in the passing down of traditions, and it also gives a striking visual of obedience, the older people allowing themselves in complete trust to be lead in the right direction. As I lead a group of my own, and get frustrated with the members in my charge when they wander off on their own and I have to go searching for them, I think about how frustrating it must be for God to direct me on where to go, and give me all the tools to get there, and then watch me wander off on my own. And yet, somehow, He persists in loving me. I pray for patience and the obedient faith I see before me, and well as gratitude for all that I have.
While we're in Lourdes, my mother tells me of a time when I was a child, and rushed home on my bike, declaring that Blessed Mother told me to pray a rosary. I have no memory of this, but she is proud that at the time she believed me at once, more quickly than other visionaries' mothers. This reminder leaves me in a strange place, not believing that I made it up, but not trusting myself entirely, either. I remember how, as a child, I loved the mystical. I talked to God and heard from Him as naturally as a conversation with a friend. I remember how, when I prayed the Rosary, I would try to imbue the words with as much emotion as possible, stare tearfully at pictures of the Virgin, sing hymns from church for fun, excitedly describe the pageantry of liturgical seasons to my non-Catholic father, or look for signs of the supernatural all around me.
As I survey the crowds that embrace the walls of the grotto, tears falling from their eyes, I wonder if I have dismissed too easily as childish a vital part of my faith from that time: purely sentimental, emotionally-charged affection. Could part of my difficulties be due to attempts to over-intellectualize my faith? Do I see this kind of affection as silly or weak? Could I be distancing myself from my feelings out of embarrassment or shame? While I haven't abandoned attempts to talk to God and still seek after mystical experiences, I do notice that much of my faith rests on the ability to have arguments, know the right answers, or at the very least have other people think I'm smart. I realize how numb I walk around feeling in my daily life, and how near-constant arguments on Facebook only contribute to the guard I put up and the distance I put between myself and the live, beating heart at the center of our faith. And it's here, in Lourdes, that I see the great treasure that we have gotten from women throughout the centuries: the open displays of sentiment which balance the often cold intellectualism of theology. Both reveal truths of the works of God in the world, and for me to dismiss affection as childish has been to turn my back on one of the easiest ways to be childlike before God.
In Confession, a priest from Africa stares into my eyes as if he were staring fixedly at my soul, and he tells me: "there has never been a second when you haven't been loved by God." Tears stream down my face.
I can say without any exaggeration whatsoever that Fatima, and Portugal in general, was the most stressful trip of my life. God answers my prayers of patience with what seems like infinite tests of it, and my prayer of gratitude with the incomparable gratitude I feel when it's all over.
To the general stress of playing tour guide and making arrangements for travel, activities, and lodging for everyone, add interpreting during a medical emergency in a language I don't speak, and understand only a fraction of. Then add to that waking up with bedbug bites, the beginnings of a cold, and 440 wildfires that surround us on all sides, that produce a snowfall of ashes, and shut down the highways, stranding us and forcing me to find an emergency hotel for all of us for the night. I only get the chance to do about half of the things I had laid out in my plans, I'm exhausted the entire time, and feel the stress from my responsibilities pumping constantly through my body, which causes inflammation and intense aches and pains that the baths at Lourdes did nothing for. Even during the moments when I manage to be alone, and I think that I can finally pray in silence, the members of my group, I'm discreetly trying to escape from, manage to find me in the crowd of thousands, by complete chance. My last night in Portugal was spent throwing up from food poisoning I got from a fancy food market in Lisbon, which, because of delays from traveling with a group, was the only thing in Lisbon on my list of plans that I got to do. Throughout the experience, I grit my teeth at the comments I get on Instagram and Facebook expressing enthusiasm and jealousy at my carefully-curated photos. My pictures start to feel somewhat like a socially-obligated lie, since I can’t broadcast the reality, and yet somehow it’s a lie that I’m addicted to.
I spend most of the day of the 100th anniversary of the Miracle of the Sun overwhelmed and trying to find a way to escape the crowds and noise and get my hands on a bottle of good, cheap wine. Despite the commotion and my sour attitude, though, I am charmed by the groups of people from all over the world, holding signs that represent where they came from and wearing traditional dress. I continue to marvel at the same lessons of Lourdes, and wonder where I'd be if I hadn't had my own no-nonsense grandmother to teach me about Marian apparitions and other lessons. I watch the crowds, during the night vigil, light candles and raise them while singing to Mary, and follow with intense devotion the statue of Our Lady of Fatima that holds in her crown the bullet that shot John Paul II. Their song is pure feeling and expression, with no self-consciousness, a clear message that the thing that matters here is faith and the expression of it. I don't necessarily understand the attachment to and celebration of the statue itself, and don't seem to feel the same sentiment everyone else does, to the point where I feel like an alien getting an introduction to the religious customs of Earth. I'm grateful, however, for the beauty of this enormous gathering and for the opportunity to witness pure faith in action. The enthusiasm is somewhat contagious, and I feel that I'm part of something bigger that I don't need to understand. The pilgrims throw all of themselves into their worship with the assurance that they are loved completely, returning the love they have experienced from God, and sometimes I guess that looks like raising a candle and singing while you follow around a statue, because it bears the closest resemblance to what we are trying to arrive at in heaven.
A few days later, the crowds have dispersed. The season is officially over, and wildfires threaten Fatima from less than 4 miles away, sending an eerie smoke to surround the church and grotto that burns my eyes and throat. I buy large wax candles that I throw into a flaming pyre next to a giant poster of Jacinta that reads "Stop Offending God." It is strange to cast the representation of a prayer into a violent, roaring fire. This act seems to have no relationship to the gentle, collected one of lighting a single flame in front of a statue and meditating for a few cool minutes.
It is then, in the creepy stillness, facing flames and under threat of wildfire, that I finally start to appreciate and understand the message of Fatima. Our Lady's words are frightening and extreme, but they are ultimately a desperate plea made out of love. Suddenly, I see the humanity of Mary's heart for the world in the way she expresses herself to the children. And since the world didn't listen, we see now what she was trying to prevent, violence upon violence, each act breaking her mother's heart. She tells us truths the way the mothers and grandmothers have done throughout generations, with a firmness that feels harsh, but represents concern and care. The stress and responsibility she felt for her flock must have been infinitely stronger and more urgent than the stress I felt for the protection of those under my care, and yet she was, and is, able to serve God and all of us with the purity of an unselfish heart.
I stand in the shadow of the grotto, hazy in the smoke, and I long for a heart like hers, one that enjoys service and doesn't merely tolerate it, one that is unafraid of the vulnerability of revealing itself to humanity. I think about how it was the look of sadness on Mary's face that motivated Francisco's desire for penance. I marvel at how it must have been the saddest look he'd ever seen, and realize that the penance that seems extreme and unnecessary represents his childlike love for her and wanting to cheer her up with one of the few things he could do at the time, like the rosary I once rushed home on my bike to pray. I realize that I block myself off from feeling, and harden my own heart, because of how difficult it is to accept love and all that love means, and give love in return. Part of my lack of connection with Mary in particular is fear of my own failures and imperfections, of being compared to her and never failing to come up short. I look at her obedience and see my disobedience, her service next to my selfishness, and project my own disappointment onto Mary's gaze upon me.
The secret of this passionate devotion then reveals itself to me as consisting of the radical love we must have the bravery to let into our hearts. I feel suffering at that moment as God granting me opportunities to grow in the capacity to give and receive love. I see that part of me has been clinging to stress and anxiety as a sort of trophy for all that I was bearing on my shoulders, and contemplate how Mary pondered much more sorrowful things and kept them in her heart without allowing herself to be overtaken by bitterness, questioning of God's motives, or pity-parties. The sorrow she felt was God's own, and I pray that I may take joy in service and think only of God. I am also suddenly grateful for the mercy of never being chosen as a visionary, despite my youthful earnestness, and it suddenly becomes so obvious the way that God gives us only what we need.
In the following days, I feel my heart softening. I begin to appreciate the traits that had annoyed me about my travel group and cherish my ability to serve them in this experience so that they can lean back without worry and be lead. I drink in their enthusiasm and innocent wonder. While it had previously irked me to have most of the weight of responsibility, while they remained unaware of the work and stress that went into each decision, I start to admire their ability to remain unaffected by the pressure and make the most out of things. I witness the miraculous transformation of anger into tenderness when I miss out on almost all of my remaining plans because the group takes the time to pray over our Airbnb host. I watch the minutes tick by and put all of the suitcases in the car, perhaps because it's the only thing I can do, and I go back to find our middle-aged, normally cynical host sobbing and embracing everyone. Later he writes to tell us that, despite having lived in Fatima all his life, that was the first time he had felt what people go to Fatima to experience. When I see how much more beautiful God's plans are than mine, my grip over my life and future loosens. I feel my body releasing internal tension, I breathe in and out, and trust that things will be as they should be, if only for a few minutes, before I have to coordinate our next check-in.
The food poisoning and sleepless night of throwing up is one final lesson in letting go. God doesn't seem to want to let me leave this country without emphasizing both suffering and renunciation. After I've left, I am alone, my illness resolves, and I am able to feel the most intense gratitude and joy for having lived through the experience. I eventually go back to my Los Angeles apartment with a renewed desire to listen carefully for God's voice, find the moments of living grace and divine work among the mundane and banal tedium and all of the small and unimportant things that worry us constantly. I find prayer easier, and my life magically falls into a balance that allows for silence, rest, and joy. I also find myself more sympathetic to outward displays of religious sentiment, rather than lumping them all into a “holier-than-thou” competition. The dissonance I felt between my Instagram feed and my lived experience highlights a constant internal struggle that I feel between my faith and how much of it I can show to the world, but now there is a new, unique comfort in letting that struggle dissolve and embracing the vulnerability of transmitting my inner truth to the world. The unapologetic displays of faith I saw in Europe, along with the inability to avoid looking like anything other than a clueless tourist, force me to confront the times that I don’t fully embrace myself, or care more about others’ perception of me, and how well I am blending into my environment, than appreciating the value of who I am.
Most of all, I sink into the rediscovery of divine love, and allow myself to feel it filling up my body without feeling guilty or overly conscious of unworthiness and imperfection, and relinquish my desires to manipulate or control my future, able to trust more than ever that God holds all things in His hands.
This article was originally published on FemCatholic.com