May 13 is the date of the first apparitions of Our Lady in Fátima back in 1917 (see my post Our Lady of Fátima) and a special day for all of us believers.
Although I have been to Fátima many times, I never went on this day because I don’t like large crowds and prefer to make my prayers when it’s peaceful and quiet. Last year, as it was a very special year – the centenary of the apparitions with the visit of Pope Francis to participate in the celebrations – I watched all the ceremonies on TV, both the “candle procession” on the evening of the 12th and the celebration of Mass on the 13th. Both were very touching celebrations and I was moved to tears several times. Even watching them on TV made me feel a special energy that filled me with peace and gratitude for all Our Lady has done for me throughout my life.
The cherry on the cake was the Eurovision Song Contest that very evening, that we won for the first time ever with the beautiful, heartrending song “Amar pelos dois” (meaning something like “Loving for both of us”) by our amazing singer Salvador Sobral. After so many years of terrible results many of us laughed and said it had been a “miracle of Fátima”. So, on the whole, it was a very special day for us Portuguese, having the Pope in our country and winning the Eurovision song contest!
A few months ago in a moment of great anguish I asked for Our Lady’s help once again, as I have done so many times, and promised to go and thank Her on May 13 in Fátima. She heard my plea, and it was with a joyful heart that I prepared to go, always convinced that it would be a chaotic day.
I talked to my friend Beli who had been there last year with her boyfriend Henrique and his brothers and sisters. They have this family tradition of going every year together on May 13, so last year Beli joined them for the first time and this year she told me I was welcome to join them. She told me to bring along some food as they usually make a picnic after the celebrations.
This May having been unusually cold and rainy, more like Winter than late spring, I put on a light sweater and my Barbour jacket (that I bought on a sale in Edinburgh some ten years ago, one of my best buys ever!). Beli and Henrique came to get me at around 8 am (so early for a Sunday…) and inside their car I met his sister Isabel. His other sisters, his brother and girlfriend were going in another car. Only one sister was missing this year, as she was abroad.
An indomitable lady
As you might have discovered by now I am a talkative person and I really enjoy meeting new people, so soon Isabel and I were engrossed in deep conversation. I could see she was a few years older than me, having been retired for a few years. But when she told me her age I simply could not believe her: 75! She looks so youthful, so young and full of energy you’d never have believed it! And she went on to tell me her amazing story: at 21(back in the old fashioned, grey Portugal of the sixties) she defied her ultra conservative father and told him she was going to live in England for some time. He was in shock and forbade doing so but she was adamant and left. She lived in London for several years where she worked as an au pair, taking care of children for several families. She had some good and some less good experiences, but she had earned her independence and it was an enriching experience to live in the London of the sixties, one of the places where the world was fast changing, where the old fashioned order was dying and a new world was opening before the eyes of the young. It was the time of pop music and the Beatles, of miniskirts, of free love… she faced difficulties but would not ask for any help from her affluent family. She was a free spirit, an independent woman, who fought for what she believed in, for the life she wanted for herself. And she won.
She went on to work in Germany; she travelled extensively and finally returned to Portugal to work in Marketing and Communication for multinational companies. She spoke several languages and was bilingual in English – a great asset, then as always. She had the career her family would not had foreseen for her, and then she also had a happy marriage, not a traditional one like her parents would probably have imagined but one based on equality, love and understanding.
As she told me her story I looked at her and wondered at her look of self contentment – she certainly is someone comfortable with her life. But no, she said, it wasn’t always a bed of roses. When she retired she went through a period of deep depression that lasted for five long years. For someone as active as she had always been it was a shock to find herself without an occupation. But then she started taking painting lessons and they changed her life. She found a new interest, more, a new passion. She devoted herself to art and today she not only paints beautiful, meaningful oil paintings and watercolours but she also masters the difficult and most Portuguese art of tile painting. She showed me photos of her work and I was impressed.
And so we talked and talked and in the end the road to Fátima was too short. We found a place for the car without the difficulties I had foreseen and soon were making our way to the huge square of the sanctuary. It was full of people but not in an uncomfortable way; it was easy to make our way to the centre and install ourselves there with our folding stools. There we met the rest of the group and soon Mass began.
It is a custom for pilgrims to bring with them some religious objects – images of Our Lady, rosaries or small prayer books – and have them blessed by the priest who is celebrating Mass; Isabel had shown me a few she had brought, some for herself and some for her family and friends. All of a sudden, in a generous impulse she handed me a small image of Our Lady saying “This is for you!” I didn’t know what to say. We hadn’t had time to buy anything when we arrived for it was almost time for the celebrations but I was content to be there for my prayers of gratitude. Still, I was very happy to have an object for the blessing. I was so moved by her gesture that at first I had no words, and I could only smile and whisper “Thank you” from the bottom of my heart.
The ceremony went on. It was cold and windy but I felt warm inside. The huge crowd was peaceful, praying and singing together. The atmosphere was one of deep faith and I could feel an intense energy flowing. Many times while I thanked Our Lady – and I gave thanks so many times, after all that was what I was there for – I felt tears come to my eyes, because She had heard my anguished prayers, and I felt so happy and so grateful for the grace bestowed on me. The hours went by – this Mass lasts for about two hours – and I didn’t feel them going by, I simply stood there and felt overwhelmed by this intense emotion, and also extraordinary privileged for experiencing it, for what would I be without my faith? Nothing, no one, I would be completely alone, lost and frightened. Faith is something you either have or you don’t. And you cannot explain it, just feel it.
After the celebration I felt at peace. I had fulfilled my promise and lived through very special moments. In addition, I was thrilled to see my dear friend Beli so happy with Henrique who is definitely the most attentive of men! And then came the “mundane” part of our day: the picnic where Henrique’s sisters showed an incredible display of delicacies, ranging from toasts with spicy canned tuna and sardines, and all sorts of cheese, olives, pâté and sandwiches, only to finish with his eldest sister’s famous nut cake that she always bakes for this special occasion. All served on bright red and white checkered tablecloths and accompanied by beer and fruit juices.
Isabel and I talked during the whole way back. We discovered we share a love of Scotland and Italy, of castles and historical books. I promised to lend her a book I recently read – a Scottish mystery story written by Spanish author Arturo Fuentes. I also told her about the Cathars (see my post Cathar Country) and she was very interested as she also loves the beautiful city of Carcassonne. It was amazing to discover so many shared interests, so many things in common.
As I waved back at them and made way to my building’s entrance I thought to myself how life surprises us when we least expect it. I had expected a day of prayer, certainly; a day of faith, a day of thanks; but I had also feared I would have to endure a lot of confusion and an uncomfortable crowd, and there had been nothing of the sort. All had been peaceful, calm, with an incredibly positive energy. In addition to all I had experienced and the peace I felt inside, I had met this amazing lady, who not only shared so many interests with me but had led such a fulfilling, exciting life as well; who had been so generous as to give me a gift that, however small in size, had meant a lot to me. As I usually say, life is full of wonderful surprises. What a wonderful, wonderful May 13 I had this year.