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.