Fatima and Faith
I saw a woman holding a baby. She was on her knees and she was praying the rosary as she held her baby. Her friend was walking alongside her, I suppose to take the infant if they started to fuss or need a nappy change.
It was only speculation but I had lots of questions about the “back story” to this obvious expression of piety.
Had she had difficulty conceiving or with her pregnancy? Had the fetus experienced some sort of health threat in utero or the neonate a physical insult at birth?
Was she there to give thanks or was she there, with her infant child in her arms, on her knees, saying the rosary, to make a special petition to the Blessed Mother who made a series of special visitations to three small children in the small, insignificant farming village in Portugal?
I was impressed that she, along with so many others, were there at Fatima not as tourists but as religious pilgrims, seekers on a path made by millions of others over the decades, to put their feet - or their knees - in the same place other pilgrims and seekers had before them.
I was surprised by two things: The vastness of the place and the sincerity of the people I saw and spoke with there, at the shrine.
But no. The grotto is a piazza- a HUGE piazza, bigger than the Vatican - with a Basilica of the Rosary on the hill at one end, and a chapel (ahem) that is able to seat 9,000 of the faithful.
In between is a place where you can buy and light candles, right next to a very small chapel which seats about 250 where the rosary is said and Eucharist is observed daily. In front of the Basilica is an outdoor chapel that seats about 150 but can be heard and observed by 10,000 in the piazza.
What’s even more impressive than the vastness of the place is the sincerity of the people. These are not tourists. These are pilgrims. Straight up. Rock solid seekers.
The whole feel of the place is holy. Set apart to bring people together in prayer. Spiritual but also Religious.
There’s no one there hawking religious tchotchkes. No one trying to press rosary beads in your hand for a small price, just in case you forgot yours at home. Or urging you to buy candles or flowers to place at the base of the statues.
Oh, there are places like that. Lots of places. Just not there. You have to go up the hill and around the corner, away from the shrine and the faithful.
The people at the shrine are sincere. Let me tell you about that word that was told to me by a man named Richard, an Episcopalian and retired engineer.
When I used that word several times he told me that the origin of comes to us from the arts: sculpture, In fact.
The word sincerity comes from Latin. A statue that had no flaws and required no patching was hailed as a 'sculpture sin cera' or a 'sculpture without wax. ' The artist would sign the certificate of the piece “sine (without) cera (wax)” which meant it was genuine.
The phrase eventually came to mean anything honest or true. The English word 'sincere' reportedly evolved from the Spanish sin cera—'without wax’.
The folks I met or observed in Fatima are sincere, in the full meaning and sense of that word. They are the real deal.
No, it’s not my spirituality or theology. I do not feel the need or desire to, as Mary Oliver wrote in her poem “Wild Geese”:
You do not have to be good.That does not mean, however, that those who do are wrong or bad or feeble-minded or have an inferior life of faith. Neither is it more excellent or pious nor does it please or displease God. The way they express their faith is different from mine but they are sincere in their expressions and I think that has worth and value in and of itself.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
However, it does raise some interesting questions for me, questions that have been asked since people have been studying the great variety of religious expressions. Like:
Where does faith end and fanaticism begin? Is it okay to light candles to pray but does it then begin to cross a line when those candles are in the shape of a hand or a foot, an eye, a breast or an intestine and pray for an end to the pain or disease in that body part? (see the pictures below of the wax forms for sale)
What is inside the need to concretize belief? Was God onto some deeper, more complicated understanding of human need when the idea of the Incarnation was conceived? Is that not also what is behind religious figures and symbols in all religions, such as Ganesh and Shiva, Buddha, King David, or the Prophet Mohammad?
What is a miracle? What constitutes a miracle? Did the three children – Francisco, Jacinta, and Lucia, ages 10, 8, and 7 – who were tending the family sheep when they saw an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mother make up a story?
Were they just seeking attention? Were they hallucinating? Were the government officials in Fatima justified when they jailed and threatened the children with being boiled alive in olive oil if they did not recant their story?
As a good pilgrim, my journey to Fatima raised more spiritual questions and bid me follow those questions to the answers that lie deep within my soul. I may never get an answer, but that's not necessarily the point.
The question is the point. And, following it faithfully, even if doubts are raised. As Fred Buechner once said, "Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith."
I am so glad I came here to Fatima as part of my Camino. My grandmother told me this story as far back as I can remember. It was pretty amazing to be here for that reason alone.
No, Fatima isn’t on the Camino path, but it has set my heart and my mind on The Way.
I am in Porto tonight, having had supper with four other pilgrims at The Majestic Café, one of the famous gathering places for artists here in Portugal since 1922. I’ll tell you more about that in the morning. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful city. I could honestly live here. I’m going to sleep in tomorrow and then explore more of Porto for myself.
I may not write every day but I will try to share my reflections with you. Truth is, sometimes considering and reflecting on the experiences and the questions they raise take up more time than I have to write about it.
Which, actually, is a wonderful problem to have, eh?
Buen Camino, my friends