August 15, 2016

Perseverance in Prayer: A Reflection on a Solo Pilgrimage to Fatima

Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, at the Sanctuary of Fatima

After making the trip to Spain as a World Youth Day pilgrim, and a trek to Lourdes one Easter, I thought I knew just how valuable the experience of a pilgrimage can be. Fatima, though, was a pilgrimage of a different nature.

I started the spiritual preparation for my trip several months before, bringing my petitions to Our Lady through a series of rosary novenas, in the tradition of Fortuna Agrelli and Our Lady of Pompeii: three novenas in petition, three in thanksgiving. 54 days in all.

Even this commitment to praying the rosary daily—something seemingly so simple—was not always easy. So many things can distract us from our prayer life. This practice in itself, however, brought me a tremendous amount of peace and I found myself looking forward to it each day.

My trip to Portugal was a solo venture, affording me many opportunities for reflection and taking in my surroundings. As I took the bus from Lisbon to Fatima, rolling through the surrounding countryside, I could just imagine the shepherd children (Jacinta, Lucia, and Francisco) tending to their chores, their lives bound to change forever once they received Mary’s message for the world.

There was a mix of people on this journey, from nuns to older couples, families, and solo travellers like myself. I wondered what had called them to make this journey as I was. Though we may have had different reasons, it was the same God who called us all to this holy place.

Not knowing much Portuguese beyond the basics of hello, please, and thank you (olá, por favor, and obrigada), I smiled as the middle-age man beside me struggled to find his seatbelt, pointing to the right side of the seat cushion, swiftly pulling my own seatbelt, and making a firm click. He smiled back, grateful.

We sat in contented silence during our route, until he noticed me rapidly applying sunscreen to my neck, starting to feel a burn from the hot sun through my window. He laughed and motioned that I could close the curtain if I needed to.

“Do you want it closed?” I asked, forgetting he probably wouldn’t understand me.

He pointed to his arm, leathered from the sun, with a perfectly golden tan. “I’m used to sun!”

I pointed to my pale face. “I’m not!” We both laughed.

It was a short walk from the bus station to the Sanctuary. I expected to feel some magnetic pull or indescribable force when I got there, like the wave of peacefulness that hit me as I took in the grotto at Lourdes, the trickling of the river, the stillness in spite of the crowds. Or the overwhelming sense of joy when I saw Pope Benedict wave my way as he went along in the pope mobile in Madrid. But all I felt was the beating of the sun, remembering I should drink more water, and seeking shade along the fringes of the large open space.

What is wrong with me? I wondered to myself. I’m in such a holy place, that I’ve wanted to visit for so long! Our Lady appeared in this very spot! Yet my spiritual dryness continued.

I spent a few hours on the grounds, getting as close to the chapel and Our Lady’s statue as the crowds would allow. Seeing Francisco’s tomb. Participating in the prayers of Mass. Praying the rosary. Visiting the statue of John Paul II.

Statue of Our Lady, at the Chapel of the Apparitions at Fatima

It wasn’t until I began to leave the grounds that I felt an inkling of why my response to Fatima was so different than I’d been expecting: perhaps the place itself and the journey to get here were not the whole story. Perhaps they were more like a seed, the fruits of which may not be seen immediately.

I was struck by a posting along the path, part of a series of reflections for pilgrims:

“Perseverance in prayer, path finding when walking, feeds the 'pedagogy of holiness' (St. John Paul II), of your holiness, dear pilgrim, and, through you, of the holiness of mankind. [...] Continue praying ... even knowing that through this path many obstacles arise.”

Just as with prayer itself, a pilgrimage is continual. We are all on a journey, serving God along the path of our daily life.

For me, the holiness of Fatima lies not in the place itself—though it is most sacred, but rather in its message: Our Lady’s call to continual prayer and sacrifice. More than anything, Fatima is a call to holiness and faith above all else.

God cares, listens, and tends to his children, just as a shepherd to his sheep. The task for the pilgrim—for each one of us—is to remain faithful in spite of difficulty and to trust.

September 15, 2014

Dreams into Reality

I haven’t written a post here in what seems like forever. I could make a million and one excuses. But the truth is, I let life get in the way. In a good way I think. Over the last while, I’ve been working abroad. It was one of the most amazing experiences. And, while I always scoffed when I read articles that said living abroad will “change your life forever,” it actually does. I’ve become a person who puts dreams into reality instead of in the “maybe someday” box. Once you have done that, you can never go back to wondering “what if?” You know you have the power to do so much more, to be so much more.

Hopefully many of these experiences will filter into my reflections on this site. I certainly haven’t stopped my quest for purpose, as it reveals itself day by day. And I most definitely haven’t stopped trying to soak up as much wisdom as I can from others' experiences as well. So I hope to get back to sharing these thoughts very soon.

October 13, 2012

The Soul is Beyond the Surface

It’s all so superficial. Random texts. Photos. Status updates. We’re more connected than ever, yet we never go beyond the surface. I’m drowning in the surface waves. The air of everything’s-alright.

Everything is alright, on the surface of things. But the soul is beyond the surface. It longs for more.

We busy ourselves with the trivial pursuits, don the suits. Yet the fact remains that this life is fleeting. What can only be felt by the heart will be all that remains. And it’s all that matters.

So focus on forgiveness, kindness, truth, and wisdom. Caring, love, and healing. Being your best each day and helping those God puts in your way. Don’t be swayed by the ways of the world. And don’t compare yourself to every other boy or girl. You’re unique, don’t need to tweak a single thing. Just be yourself and let your soul sing.

July 6, 2011

Let It Be

Isn’t it amazing when it feels like a song or a book was written just for you? Lyrics that cut straight to your heart, a poem whose every line uplifts your spirit, or a book that speaks exactly to your current circumstances. These particulars in the universal remind us just how connected we all are. 

For me, Pete Wilson’s Plan B is one of those books. From the moment I started the first chapter, I was immediately drawn in and I knew I would find just the encouragement I needed in my life right now. In this post, I’ll share some of my favourite insights from the book.

The basic theme of the book is that, in each person’s life, we all encounter times when things are not going according to plan. Moments of struggle, perhaps where nothing seems to be going right and we may feel that God has abandoned us. But as Wilson argues, it is precisely these times that we should trust in God the most. God works these situations for the good, to grow our faith and draw us closer to him and away from the things that distract us from being as close to God as we should.  

As Wilson notes, “Your dreams may not be happening, and things aren’t turning out the way you expected, but that doesn’t mean your life is spinning out of control. It just means you’re not in control. It’s in those moments you can learn to trust the only one who has ever had control in the first place.”

It’s all about surrendering our lives to God and realizing that, even if things don’t turn out the way we expect them to, our lives are still working for God’s glory. Giving up control gives God room to work in our lives. And if we want to see God work in our lives, we have to first take that risk of trusting him. This involves stepping out in faith, before we’re sure of where we’re going. 

These Plan B experiences can make us fearful and paralyzed with indecision, afraid of making any move. Yet, we are “fashioned for faith, not fear and worry.” The answer to this fear is to replace worry with a respect for God and his ways. To illustrate this point, Wilson includes this quote from Oswald Chambers: “The remarkable thing about fearing God is that when you fear God you fear nothing else, whereas if you do not fear God you fear everything else.”

The key, then, is putting all fears in God’s hands and then moving forward in trust. “When you respond in your current circumstances as if you were confident that God is there, you will see God in your circumstances.” It might not happen right away, but eventually it will.

On the question of knowing God’s will for our lives, Wilson is refreshingly frank: it’s a matter of trial and error. “Sometimes we get it all wrong. And sometimes we have no clue whether we’re getting it right until much later.”

Part of the problem is that we’re asking the wrong questions:

Often in life, the what, when, and where are not going to turn out the way you want them to turn out. You don’t always get to choose those things, but you get to choose the why. [...] If you can focus on the why, the what, the when, and the where will come. Hang on to your central purpose, and one way or another, the other details will work themselves out.

Another key point is that it’s as much about the person we’re becoming as where we’re going. God may call you to something that doesn’t work out, but that doesn’t mean you missed his will for your life. These situations can teach us crucial lessons on our journey.

Remember that God knows what you are going through and he is with you every step of the way. “He knows what he’s doing with your life, even if you don’t.”

Some other salient quotes from the book:

“While life is uncertain, God is not. While our power is limited, God’s is limitless. While our hope may be fragile, God is hope himself.”

“God has a perspective on life we don’t have—and God is working in your situation right now, even if you can’t see it.”

Trusting in God, having confidence in him even when times are trying, will give you the hope you need to keep soldiering on. And hope makes all the difference.

May 18, 2011

Fun with a Purpose

I was lucky enough to have a subscription to Highlights when I was a kid. That magazine had it all: stories, hidden pictures, crafts. And who could forget the Goofus and Gallant cartoon, where that zany band of brothers showed us how to navigate family life and the social world at large with their contrasting good and bad behaviour? Those were the days, my friends.

I loved that magazine so much, that I kept most of the issues. I came across my collection recently and as I was scaling it down, took the chance to have a trip down memory lane, combing through the well-read pages.

The letters to the editor were always a favourite of mine and looking back now, I can see that it was like a child’s version of Ann Landers. A random sampling of back issues from the early 90s provides advice on such pressing issues as family feuds, moving away from friends, and how to deal with being too popular.

But I digress. You’re probably wondering what this all has to do with the focus of my blog here, which is all about life purpose. Well, as I was reading through the letters, I came across a couple that offered some advice that seems just as relevant now as it likely was to Danny T. and Marc B. all those years ago.

So here they are. Some illuminating thoughts, straight from the pages of Highlights magazine:

Career Choices

When I grow up, I want to be a writer, basketball player, and an environmentalist. My parents say I should be a lawyer or a doctor. I've tried to convince them I don't want to. What should I do?
- Danny T., Massachusetts

You still have a lot of time before you must choose a career. And you can always change careers if you get tired of one field.

When you enter high school [college/university/post-grad/life*] guidance counsellors will help you look at your interests and skills and explore career options.

Your parents may change their minds about wanting you to be a doctor or lawyer, or you may change your mind about your goals. Until then, read about many different careers. This will prepare you for whatever you do.

Making Decisions

Sometimes I have to make decisions. Why is it so hard?
-Marc B., Michigan

In making decisions, we have to sort out what we really want and imagine the possible results of our choices, both now and in the future. You may be unsure about what you really want, worry you'll regret your choice, or think you can't change your mind later.

It may help to list all the pros and cons for each possible decision. Include how you feel about each choice. Give yourself time to think things through. And talk about options with people you trust and respect.

Surprisingly insightful advice from a kid’s magazine. But Highlights wasn’t just any magazine. It was carefully crafted to be equally fun and educational, and that’s why it's beloved by parents and children alike.

I’m definitely glad I kept my favourite issues. And I can't help but wonder what Danny T. decided to be, after all.

*Aside added by me.