This past October, my friend Mary and I walked the Portuguese Way, one of the ancient pilgrimage Camino paths that St James followed on his ministry, from Porto, Portugal to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. And, on boardwalks and sand dunes and cobblestone streets along the northern coast of Portugal and then into Spain on ancient Roman roads and bridges and through villages and eucalyptus and pine forests, we were gifted with stories and kindness and magical moments galore. We opened our hands and our hearts and our souls and the gifts landed gently and soaked in deeply. And during an especially mild November back home here in northern Michigan, day after day, I sat on the shore of Lake Superior and allowed these stories to flow through me and onto the page. And now I’m typing them up to share with you in the coming weeks as I allow them to soak in even deeper.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is but I do know how to listen. Mary Oliver
The world is in truth a holy place. Teillard de Chardin
In my ideal world, it is all prayer, the moment to moment living, the intention to allow myself to be filled up with the wonder that I know is available. This type of prayer requires no memorization, no formalities of place and time, just a willingness to pay attention, to be present. And it comes naturally when I relax into it — the way dressing with flair and fun also comes naturally. But give me a formal occasion, say a wedding, an art exhibit, a holiday party, and I freak. What to wear?!? My flip flops will never do, and the layers I usually don with delight suddenly seem juvenile, like something a five-year-old might have thrown together. An invitation for dressing up or for formally praying throws me into a tailspin.
And I was feeling it a bit, the not knowing quite how to do this, when Mary, my dear friend and soon-to-be partner for two-and-a-half-weeks of walking on the Portuguese Camino to Santiago de Compostela announced that members of her very Catholic family had their hearts set on us stopping at Fatima on our way up north to Porto the day before we officially started the Camino trek. Fatima is a holy place in Portugal, the nearest town to the village where three shepherd children, while playing in the field in the spring of 1917, first saw a great flash of light and an apparition of the Virgin Mary who spoke to them, and showed herself to these three children and to many others in that same field throughout the summer and fall of 1917. And ever since, it has been its own pilgrimage destination for the people of Portugal and for Catholics throughout the world.
My friend Mary is from a family with ten siblings, many of them practicing Catholics who were cheering us on to pray for them in this sacred town. And other friends also jumped on board the prayer bus when they heard that we would be stopping in Fatima. “Say a prayer for me!” many a friend exclaimed with excitement. And that’s what threw me into a tizzy. I don’t know the formal rituals. Should I buy a rosary and clutch the beads, one by one, the way I do my Sanskrit strands of gemstones? And what do I say? I don’t know the rosary. I don’t know the Catholic prayers. I don’t even know whether to stand or kneel. It was a weight of prayerful responsibility I was carrying that felt as heavy as my Osprey backpack as we stepped off the bus from Lisbon and into the clear blue noontime sun of Fatima on that October day. Our heavy loads, the physical ones, at least, were lightened considerably and almost immediately when we discovered a storage room in the bus station where our backpacks would be safe and sound for the two hours of this Fatima adventure before picking them up again and boarding the next bus north to Porto and the start of our Camino walk.
And we were still at the bus station, outside at one of the kiosks asking directions to the cathedrals, when the weight of my prayer-tizzy began to dissipate, too, and my comfortable every day spirituality took over. It was the children who put me at ease, the three little shepherd cousins who were the reason that Fatima has become this pilgrimage site. There they were, life-sized, the two little girls in their peasant skirts and scarf-covered heads, and the boy in his baggy pants and stocking cap, staring back at Mary and me from a poster behind the woman giving us directions. Their gaze was relentless, their faces filled with energy, their bodies alive with spunk and sparkle. I loved these kids. And I wanted to know them and the world that they inhabited. “I want to go to the fields where they saw Mary!” I exclaimed to my friend Mary. And Mary, transfixed by the kids, too, agreed. So, that’s what we did. In the bright afternoon sun on this glorious October day, we flip-flopped in our look-a-like Tevas past the center of Fatima and the sacred courtyard square of churches and out onto the road that would lead us to the little shepherds’ village and the field where Mary had made herself known.
“We have less than two hours!” one of us called out. “We had better start praying!” one of us added as we walked as fast as we could toward the village. “How do we do it?” was our call into the brilliant blue sky. We fumbled; we stumbled; and we found something we both — the lapsed Catholic and the pagan Swedenborgian — could do. And, on the country road, we did it, we said it, to the best of our ability, the Catholic/Swedenborgian version of the Lord’s Prayer. And we were moved by our prayer, and we were moved to what came next as we walked along — and I’m not sure which one of us started it, or maybe neither one of us did. It didn’t matter and it felt inspired, as natural as breathing. One of us called out a name, clearly into the rose-scented air, adding an appreciation, a prayer for that person, and then the other did the same. We took turns, during the few kilometers of walking, calling out the names of siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends all the way to the village, to the home of the children and the field that is now an olive grove.
It filled us; that’s what I want to tell you, this conscious act of appreciation. We felt as fragrant as the roses that lined our path. In fact, we felt the presence of Rose, Mary’s only sibling who has passed. We felt her spirit with us, and we felt the children too, the little shepherds who brought us to this place. And on the way back to Fatima, as we scurried along, we continued our turns, and the circle grew and it grew and it grew. We prayed for Hillary, our candidate and we prayed for Donald too. Under that blue blue sky in the presence of the three children and Rose and our parents and our loved ones, no one, not a soul, was left out of our circle. Before we left northern Michigan, Mary, as she contemplated the pilgrimage, boldly had proclaimed to our women’s group that her intention was to love everyone. Oh my!!! What a tall order that is!!! But I can tell you that under the watchful eye of the three children in Fatima and the tiny village a few kilometers down the country road, it was easy.
Fatima, Portugal: October, 2016