Aug 11, 2008

A Pilgrimage to Fátima

Left: Crowd gathering for mass at the Basilica of Fátima

(Fátima, Portugal) As a Catholic of the Roman persuasion, I was previously aware of the religious apparition known now as Our Lady of Fátima, though admittedly my interest in modern Catholic miracles is something less than intense. Yet I also felt an urge to visit the site in the town of Fátima, especially given its close proximity to Lisboa.

I guess you might call me a conflicted Catholic when it comes to phenomena such as Fátima, as I ascribe to both rationalism and mysticism, depending on the context. In everyday life, I do not spend much time wrapped up in spiritualism and mystic pursuits, as I find these perspectives to be less than helpful for, say, painting a fence or grading exams. However, at the same time I believe that there is much more to the universe than can be fully explained by scientific rationalism, and I thus adhere to an underlying recognition that my five senses and my logical brain are inadequate to grasp deeper realms of existence.

Anyways, it was with a mixture of skepticism and wonderment that I journeyed northeast from Lisboa, anxious to learn more about this place called Fátima.

I noticed quite a few people with obvious physical impairments at Fátima, which is no surprise given the history of purported cures that have occurred here. Some supplicants crawl on their knees from the entrance of the site to the front of the basilica in an act of contrition and humility.

A visitor to Fátima can light a candle from an eternal flame, an act by which special prayers might be made. In addition to traditional wax stick candles, some folks brought with them specially-formed candles in the shape of arms, legs, or hands, ostensibly representing the body part they wished to be healed.

Left: A wax leg left at a side shrine to the Virgin Mary at the Basilica of Fátima

Yet it was the throngs of people - a multitude that had to number at least 30,000 souls on the day I visited - that most left me with a sense of amazement. Here were gathered people from all walks of life and from dozens of countries, all seeking some form of spiritual peace, divine connection, or just a bit of enlightenment. Despite the mini-industry that has evolved in the town with souvenirs, restaurants, and hotels, there was a palpable power I felt that I cannot simply shrug off as mass delusion.

I said my prayers in the basilica and momentarily set aside the cynical doubts I once held about what I used to perceive as ecclesiastical charlatanism. Maybe my prayers will be answered (I hope so, as they were for smeone much more in need of divine intervention than me), and maybe they will not, but I left Fátima with a little more hope and faith than I arrived with.

Even the commercial nature of wax hands, food vendors, and specially-designed Fátima toys could not shake the feeling I had of a fleeting moment of the presence of God this day, and I was glad that I made the trip.

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