Fatima, Portugal – November 11, 2011 (11/11/11)
As I enter through the back gate, thick raindrops begin to fall from the sky. I glance down at my watch. 11:11 a.m. I freeze, then smile. The raindrops lengthen into streams which become buckets. I duck into a church to wait it out. A half hour passes with no sign of it letting up. I open my umbrella and stride into the deserted courtyard, a vast arena that can hold hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. Rivers of rain flow over my feet, drenching my pant legs. Rain soaks through the umbrella. I slow my steps, so that I don’t get swept away.
I have come to light a candle for someone. Sadness and worry keep me awake at night. Helplessness. I don’t know what to do anymore. I am so far away. I buy one of the elegant, rustic tapers from the lady in the booth and await my turn. So many candles here, even now. Some of the flames dance, some burn long and steady. The candles at the front are pelted by the rain. They flicker and go dark for a split second, and then they reignite. So defiant. I move forward, light my flame from another, and place it among the others.
I am an imposter here, and I’m not sure why I have come. I have not been a Catholic since I was a child. My knowledge of Fatima is obscured, probably on purpose. I remember when my little sister Pebby dressed up as one of the shepherd children for a school event. On the day that Ronald Reagan was shot, while my family was gathered in front of the television, she remarked, “Watch. Now the Pope is gonna get shot.” He did, and it was on the anniversary of the first apparition at Fatima. My father, who had slipped away into schizophrenia, saw signs in everything. He never left her in peace after that.
I abandoned the Catholic faith when my father got sick. I had prayed for him, for my family. Please make him better. Please protect us. But things only got worse. No one would protect us, so it became my job to take care of everyone. I was thirteen years old.
Pilgrimage sites, of every kind, have a palpable electricity. It’s as if the accumulation of the faith and awe of millions has charged the air. Something happened here, all those years ago. A crystalline lady, a “dancing Sun”, three prophecies. It is natural for inexplicable events to be interpreted through the lens of the culture and time period in which they occur. Christian God, extraterrestrial visitation, mass hallucination. Does it matter what the explanation is?
The Chapel of the Apparitions is a simple glass box. A statue of the Blessed Mother is the only ornamentation. I sit on a bench. Most of the others are solitary or in small groups. The silence is absolute. A dog wanders in and curls up in the middle of the floor. Faces turn to smile and then settle back into meditation. I watch them. One by one, they are overcome. Bodies tense up. Eyes widen, staring into an endless internal horizon. Gentle nods. Faces melt into wonder, humility, gratitude. There are no histrionics.
My eyes come to rest on the floor. A long sigh of envy, of defeat. I’ve tried for so long to transcend this depression. So many things I’ve tried. Why can’t I get it right? I wish I would have a breakthrough. The air to my right grows heavy. A sound, like a massive wave, fills my mind. As the wave moves through me, I hear, Of all the people who were cruel to you, you are the worst. The wave exits my body to the left. I wrap my arms around myself as the room spins. And then, the light. Flickering, then pure, unwavering illumination. A presence, eminent and kind. A hand on the shoulder. A finger pointing. Look, child. Here. It’s always been right before your eyes. I lean forward, my face in my hands. The hardest person to forgive is yourself. The enormity of it all. The simplicity.
The light. Yes, I remember you from that time, so many years ago. That gloomy winter in Grand Rapids, Michigan, after my father died and I tried to die. Twenty-three years of life, but so very old. I was working in a cavernous old building in downtown. A furniture company, I believe. Alphabetizing invoices. Hundreds and hundreds of invoices. I’d file them in boxes and load them in the creaky wooden service elevator and bring them up to the archives in the attic. I didn’t have to talk to anyone or think of anything but letters on a piece of paper. I didn’t have to think about how I was going to live. And then, the light. There were no words or thoughts, just radiance. And love. And it didn’t matter anymore what I was going to do with my life. Everything was going to be okay.
I sit, now, and listen. To the things I said to myself. My peers shunned me because I am defective. I was sexually assaulted because I wasn’t vigilant enough. People take me for granted, make the least effort possible, and consider me a last choice, because I am not good enough. I deserve every bad thing that ever happened to me. All of it was my own damn fault. I should have known better.
Maybe faith isn’t about how hard you pray, but how deeply you surrender. Of all the people who were cruel to you, you are the worst. Such a simple thought, but it is something I needed to understand. I’ve read similar words in books, heard them from “enlightened” ones, but they beaded up and rolled off. It had to come from within. We hold the keys to our unique prisons. The doors must be unlocked, one by one. Every lock is trickier than the last.
Back outside, the rain has stopped. Into the basilica I stroll. Disheveled and dazed. I drift past the monochrome altar towards the tombs. The austere décor is a perfect tribute to these humble children. So much love in this place. Gentle, motherly love. I sit, once again, and let it hold me. And time passes.
Nine years have passed. Every year, I celebrate this day. The person for whom I lit the candle overcame the struggle very soon after my visit. There has been no relapse. I’ve never told that person of my visit and I most likely never will. With the exception of those who are closest to me, I’ve kept this story locked up in the vault of my memory. A few mornings ago, upon awakening, it drifted back to me and I knew that it was time to share it. “Illumination” was the word I chose for 2020. For most of the year, I’ve felt the complete opposite. As have so many others. My story is not Earth-shattering. I didn’t regain my sight or the ability to walk or conquer cancer. Even so, someone may need to hear it. No flame is too humble to light another.