Candles in the Rain

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. 

66 thoughts on “Candles in the Rain

  1. “No flame is too humble to light another.” Just what I’ve been needing to hear over and over again. This year, so often, it has felt like the small efforts are not enough, the individual cannot do it alone. And while I believe in the power of the collective and the necessity of community, I’m also learning to accept that just because we can’t see our tiny impacts doesn’t mean we shouldn’t illuminate our candles. Wishing you light and love as we whirl through to the next year.

    • I believe that the obsession with “changing the world” is one of the main things holding back real progress. We are taught, from childhood, that if we aren’t out to save the world then we are not doing enough. We are too distracted by the outer world to deal with our inner selves, and, as a result, we are easily manipulated and make poor decisions that perpetuate cycles. It may have been this experience, here at Fatima, that made me begin to turn away from trying to save others and focus on my own self instead. I no longer care if people see me as selfish. 🙂 Hold your flame high, dear one. Shine on.

  2. Dear Julie, your post is abolutely touching and full of light and unputdownable, despite the many closed doors!:) You know, I have missed you and your very special posts a lot these these last years and hope that you are better, wherever you are. Very best regards Martina

    • I have missed your presence, too, Martina. I’ve stopped by your blog from time to time and it seemed like you went a very long time without posting. Thank you so very much for saying hello. I am well here, in Michigan, and I hope you are well wherever you are. 🙂 Warmest wishes to you.

      • This is really good to hear:) Last time you said that you were living in France and Michigan must be, if I am not wrong, near where you started your world tour with stopovers in New Caledonia. I am fine here in Ticino, where nature’s autumn costume is in full splendour! All the very best Martina

  3. Ah, how lovely to sit in the quiet of afternoon and read this exquisite and heart-opening account. The message of cruelty to oneself struck deep, Julie. Truly forgiving ourselves is indeed hard, so hard that sometimes that simple act can take a lifetime if ever achieved at all. We surrender our sorrow, and surrender to love. Sometimes I think we need to be in the right place and time for that to happen. There’s a readiness that can’t be forced. I also believe that sacred spaces and their rituals have the power to thin the barrier enough that we can sometimes break through. Enjoy your beautiful day.

    • “That simple act can take a lifetime.” So true. I began the process that day, but it continues. I was indeed in the right place at the right time. The barrier is very thin there, but even so, I needed to let go enough to allow that force to work its magic. It’s impossible to describe that feeling of pure love. That presence that still fills me, every once in a while, in different ways. I wish everyone could feel it, at least once in their lives. Wishing you a wonderful autumn afternoon, my friend.

  4. November 11, 2011 – a very important point in my life too, Julie. That was the week that we laid my father to rest. We remember the details in those profound and transformational moments. Your ability to bring all the senses alive in your writing takes us to where you are, in the past. I feel the drenching rain, the sadness as you light the candle the inner reflection, and redemption. “No flames is too humble to light another.” Those are words to live by, my dear friend. Sending hugs!

  5. Poignant recollections of events that agonised your past and, perhaps, rankling into the present. And no better setting to let go than a place of worship brimming with prayerful energies offering cathartic relief. The name Fatima evokes image of the pristine white statue of Fatima prominently positioned in the campus of an educational institution, in my hometown, known as Fatima Mata National College. ‘Mata’, pronounced ‘Maata’, is a Sanskrit word for mother. The visual of candle flames crowding on the stand is for me an endearing reminder of a similar spot in Mount Mary at Bandra where I used to visit during my career years in Mumbai. The inner world, Julie, is the only domain within our control. May you dwell in happiness there…

    • What a striking sight that white statue must be in colorful India. The inner world is so rich and vast. I hope that this transformative time that we are now experiencing leads many home to themselves. Thank you for your kind words, Raj.

  6. A lesson for everyone – be kind to yourself. A moving post, Julie. well done for continuing to write – so much for my New Year resolution of a post/week, I realise I haven’t produced anything since August! My excuse, among others, is working on GITW #2 – hoping you are still intending to publish your memoir. All the best, R

    • Thank you, Robin. I’ve written much more this year than last and hopefully that will continue. I noticed you’ve been absent for a while but working on a book takes a lot of energy. I will eventually publish the memoir and an edited version of Blue. But I’ve got a cabin to finish building first.🙂Hope all is well in your world.

  7. What I love about this is that you remind us all to work on ourselves, because far too often we’re focused on changing what’s around us, many of them beyond our control. I’ve only realized this in my 30s, that I have to work on myself first, because once you’ve begun doing ‘right’ to yourself, you’ll start to see a clearer path ahead. And often all we need to do is walk down the path, one step after another.

    • It’s good that you’ve realized that at a relatively young age. So many go through their entire lives without understanding that the most unselfish thing one can do is be “selfish”. Simply following our own path is a tough thing to do. The instinct to control outcomes and to follow the crowd is very strong. Sometimes everything has to be taken away and we are left with no choice but to have faith. Then the magic happens. Thank you, Bama, for sharing your insights.

  8. I let your post marinate for a day, as I almost always do, because there’s so much in there. This morning I find myself wanting to merely echo your and many others’ thoughts about working on ourselves and, though it seems the same, not being cruel to ourselves, which is altogether harder, for me at least. I fall all too naturally and regularly into self-derision, and I am heartened to see that Bama in his 30s and even my own kids in their 20s are much kinder to themselves. I guess it remains to be seen if that in turn makes the world a better place, something those of our generation are still programmed to try to do.

    When it comes to you (I always seem to turn your musings into thoughts on ME!), I am happy that there have been times and places, from mysterious Fatima to a random furniture company job in Grand Rapids, that have provided points of light for you. I think illumination can happen anywhere, anytime, and you are proof positive that even in the darkest times, we just have to be able to see it, sense it, let it in.

    • You are always welcome to share what my writing brings up for you, Lexie. I’m always very pleased when readers turn their musing on my posts to themselves. 🙂 That is really one of the main reasons why I share my stories. When others share what it brought up for them, it also gives me new facets to contemplate.

      Yes, that light has appeared at the most random times. It’s not something that can be summoned. In fact, wanting it too much actually drives it away. Like you, I hope that future generations recognize the importance of caring for themselves, truly caring for themselves as opposed to being self-centered narcissists. I believe that’s what has kept those of us who are so hard on ourselves from taking care of ourselves first. We’ve been programmed to believe that beating up on ourselves is admirable. Pretty sick, when you think about it.

  9. So many threads of beautiful thought throughout this post, Julie. From a message which seems so important these days, “They flicker and go dark for a split second, and then they reignite. So defiant.” a reminder not cower when those in power preach. To the message which was a bit heart-wrenching when reading this incredible piece of yours, “The hardest person to forgive is yourself. The enormity of it all. The simplicity… Of all the people who were cruel to you, you are the worst.” It is putting your personal experiences out there for others to share and understand, and in all gives me another piece of insight into the wild range of emotions/feelings we ride throughout a lifetime. Thoughts we all can relate with. And then you sign off with a perfectly surrendering final thought, “No flame is too humble to light another.” It is OK to surrender, and having the humility to surrender is a gift all too rare in the world today. Even the littlest thing to make the world a better place is an incredible life lived, and it starts (and perhaps ends) with surrendering so you are able to understand yourself. Wishing you well ~ take care.

    • Yes, the world seems to be lacking in humility these days. And, ironically, much of the pride/ego is coming from those who claim to want to save the world and help humanity. I was there once, so I don’t judge, or try not to. Now I can see the fear hidden in the piety. Fear that the mask will be torn off and the real self will be revealed and the world will see them as “bad”. In most cases, there’s nothing to fear. We are all perfectly imperfect. Our shadows are there to liberate us. But it takes incredible courage to face them, surrender to them, learn from them, and forgive ourselves. Frankly, most of the time it really sucks to do the work. Many times, I’ve wished I’d never even started, but once you begin there’s no turning back. The tunnel seems eternal and lonely, but the light and clarity and peace and, most importantly, the heart expansion that awaits makes it so worth the struggle. Thank you so very much, Randall, for your insights and your kind wishes. Hope you are enjoying the autumn. Take care.

  10. “Maybe faith isn’t about how hard you pray, but how deeply you surrender.” Thank you for this simple but accurate description of faith. what or who we are willing too surrender too makes all the difference in our lives. I to struggle with forgiving myself, but I choose to have faith in the one who freely offers me grace, although I am not always so good at surrendering, He reminds me that if He can forgive me than who am I not too. Your word always seem to strike a cord somewhere within me, Thank you for recalling this story and bleeding I out for us to read and connect with, thank you for lighting flames.

    • Surrendering is both the easiest and most difficult thing to do. I’ve found that once I finally let go, I wonder why it took me so long. 🙂 “If He can forgive me then who am I not to.” Very wise and humble words. Thank you, Kyle.

  11. This judgement of myself, this cruelty to myself I know it well. It’s such a simple thing to see once you let it in. I’m so sorry for all you’ve been through. And for all I’ve been through – I didn’t lose my father as a child but all the rest resonates. I think faith is absolutely about how deeply you surrender.
    I found freedom from the inner judgement one day when the thought arose that I don’t choose my thoughts, followed by a shocking understanding that I didn’t choose any of it – body, personality, thoughts, parents, family. It was deeply liberating.
    I’m so moved by your story, and by your willingness to be vulnerable and share it, and by your unerring ability to express yourself in words. Illumination for 2020. How radical!
    Much love
    Alison

    • It really is such a simple thing, but we can only understand it when we are ready to surrender. People always told me that I was so hard on myself, my own worst enemy, etc, but I wasn’t capable of hearing it. All of these flashes of pure illumination that we receive throughout a lifetime are indeed so liberating. I’ve had many more since this experience at Fatima, and I know that I’m far from finished. Sharing this story was not easy, for sure. I never intended to share it publicly. But I now know to heed that nudge when it comes. Much love back to you, Alison.

  12. ‘I have a cabin to build’! I love it 🙂 🙂 It’s hard to keep track of another’s journey, Julie. I thought you were anchored once, with a loving partner. Now I’m not so sure. But you seem to have found a kind of peace, and I’m happy for that. We can only relate to our own experience, can’t we? And just today my Polish family reached out to me, with photos and news. They are deeply religious and made the journey to Fatima on the drive back from the Algarve to Poland several years ago. A close family friend and business partner now has Covid, and they are working hard to shelter my diabetic cousin Marta from the virus. A candle at Fatima would mean a lot. Stay safe, sweetheart.

    • Le ex-Monsieur is still loving and I am loving in return. Our roles in each other’s lives have changed, that’s all. I couldn’t ask for a better outcome in that respect. Our union was (and is) a success. 🙂I’m now centered in another way, focusing on myself, my family, my cabin, my wilderness. And soon, hopefully, a new bunny rabbit. 🙂 Peace comes and goes. It’s been a very tough year. However, I have never slipped back into the deep darkness of my time before the Fatima trip.

      Have you been to Fatima on your trips around Portugal? It is truly a beautiful sanctuary.
      Take care, dear Jo.

      • That’s good to hear, Julie. 🙂 🙂 No, I never have. I think I would be happy to visit on a peaceful day- not one of those full of pomp and ceremony. The Catholic faith is an enigma to me.

        • I was very pleased to find it very quiet on that November day, and also completely captivated by how austere and white it is compared to most Catholic places. Very tasteful and elegant. I hope you can make the trip one day.🙂

  13. It was raining even in the time, as 11:11 could be drops of water falling from the sky as little angels defeated in a war that distract them to pay attention to what happens here. It has happened so much since I read about Fatima, I was twelve years old when I read in a magazine of curiosities about it, reading you it was as extraordinary as the magazine. Of course the magazine was about apparitions and intense blaze and a pope knowing the future but this still happening; and here there are drops of rain matching the flames in a row of candles, and a person that has to be quite strong and as surely others would see her smiling would think it was easy despite them maybe failing to endure a tenth of her ordeal.
    I am wishing you calmer times, kinder people around you, take care, Julie, kind regards from across the mountains n.n/

    • Angels falling from the sky. How lovely, Francis. Those numbers show up constantly in my life, even today. And often they are connected to something very important. When I see them, I see 4 candles and I pause for a second and remember. Thank you for your kind wishes, dear amigo. May you always have peace and light in your life. Warmest wishes from the deep forest.

  14. Thanks for this one, Julie. I’m glad the person for whom you lit that candle got out of whatever bad situation he or she was in. I’m sort of grappling with the aftermath of a dear friend not having managed to do that… or perhaps he did. Only he knows.

  15. This is powerful, moving, beautiful Julie. I was with you in every moment. Somehow the dog walking in and curling up connected me to that place. I don’t think it does matter whether we call it God or something else, but I do think maybe it’s right that there has to be an element of surrendering to wherever we need to be. Thanks for sharing such a personal experience.

    • Thank you, Andrea. The dog was, for me, one of the most memorable details of the whole experience. After a while it got up and trotted across the huge courtyard and out the front gate. It’s as if it had made a visit just to soak up some energy. Just like the humans. 🙂

  16. Ma chère Julie
    I knew I needed time to read your text with calm.
    13 is quite little to take care of everyone… And it certainly took its toll. You have found a very useful insight on yourself. Sometimes we can be our worst ennemy, right?
    I threw away the “little belief” I still had on a beach in Los Cabos when we learnt my son-in-law had died. On that very minute that my daughter broke down. And fell on the sand. When the hope we both had all day flying to Los cabos was just… swept away.
    All I can “hope” now is a little light every day, as I watch her coming out slowly of darkness. She is a tough cookie. She will make it. But neither of us will ever be the same.
    I hope your “little light” shines on. I think it does. Almost 10 years since that day in Fatima. I am happy for you.
    Truth of the matter is, all we can really do is watch for the little light in those we love.
    🙏🏻 💡

    • Mon tres cher Brian,
      There are things that we never get over. Events that test our faith and change us forever. We emerge from the darkness when we are ready, if that time even comes. And yes, the only thing we can do is see the light in our loved ones. Wishing you so much peace, mon ami. Que la lumiere soit. Je t’embrasse.

      • Merci Julie. Ne t’inquiète pas. Ça va chaque jour un peu mieux… Even if we will always miss him. C’est comme ça.
        Peace does come. Slowly but it does. Been there done that. 😉 (And you too). Peace back to you. Je t’embrasse aussi.

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