Susanna Spencer has a masters in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer and the theological editor for Blessed is She, and writes on her own blog Living With Lady Philosophy. She is a homeschooling mother of four and lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota.
It was sweltering in the train compartment I shared with my travel companions the night 12 years ago that we traveled into Fatima, Portugal, and every stop ended my feeble attempts at sleep because, as far as I could tell, people don’t sleep at night in Spain. What was supposed to be 40 hours straight on trains from Gaming, Austria to Fatima had turned into three nights on trains interrupted by a day sightseeing in Paris and a day on the beach in San Sebastian, Spain. And while the unexpected breaks from travel were fun, the fact that I could not sleep on trains was a problem. So, by the time I got to Fatima, I was exhausted.
Our party consisted of three men and three women, and we shared our train compartment with two young women from Australia who had never heard of Fatima. I can’t remember where they were going. We got off the train at an empty platform, and hired two taxis to take the six of us into the hills of Portugal to the little town of Fatima. The countryside was green and the air was warm that October day. We arrived at the site of the shrine, and went first to a restaurant to find food and coffee. Many of our meals on this trip consisted of peanut butter and Nutella sandwiches, as we were all thrifty college students. Eating out this morning, however, was essential after our long journey. After we had eaten our fill, we set out to see the shrine.
There was nothing going on that day besides the usual activities of pilgrims. Mass had already been said, and the pilgrims were flocking to two places in the large paved gathering space that had once been the field of the three shepherd children. It was strange to see what I always pictured as a large grassy field where St. Jacinta (age 7), St. Francisco (age 8), and Servant of God Lucia (age 10) had seen the apparitions of the Blessed Mother. The first main attraction was a large fire into which pilgrims were casting wax limbs in petition for healing to Our Lady, and the second was a covered outdoor shrine where the apparitions had taken place. The burning of wax limbs struck us as quite visceral as we watched pilgrims walk on their knees across the paved ground to the sight of the apparition. And tried as I might, my 19-year-old, American self could not quite relate to the spirituality of reparation that is such a part of the Fatima message.
I look back now at myself — at the time I was undergoing the first great suffering of my life — waiting in hope with a broken heart for the man I loved to discern his vocation. He was one of our party at Fatima that day. And while I did not walk on my knees praying the Rosary to the apparition site, I knelt that day before the statue of Our Lady of Fatima and offered myself, once again, to her, come what may with the man for whom I waited.
Twelve years later, as I reflect on the centennial year of the apparitions, I think that I am starting to understand the message of reparation of Fatima. I am learning how to live Our Lady’s invitation to offer sacrifices for the conversion of sinners and make reparation for sins. It has been a long journey to learn to unite my sufferings with Christ — the great and the small — and it is not over as I still find plenty to complain about.
Bodily mortifications do not always make sense to the modern first world person; our lives are pretty comfortable in many senses. Most of us have plenty of food, a heated home, access to air conditioning on the hot days, clothes to wear, comfortable furniture and beds, and not to mention all of the gadgets that make our lives easier. Yet, there are a lot of things I will go out of my way to ensure will happen for me. I look for the best seat while traveling. When our minivan came with heated seats and power sliding doors, I became accustomed to using them. I like my coffee hot and freshly brewed. And I love, love a hot shower and an actual bed to sleep on — air mattresses are the worst, let alone the hard floor!
I recently went to the clothing day of a Carmelite sister — the daughter of a fairly well-to-do family. The clothing occurred one year after she entered Carmel and gave up her comfortable life to sleep on a straw tick, live without air conditioning, eat the strict diet of a Carmelite nun, and wake up before six to pray her daily office all for the love of her Bridegroom. These bodily mortifications are meant to be united with Christ’s sufferings and offered for those for whom they pray. When we spoke with her through the grate, she was glowing in the life she had chosen. Yet, the life of mortification is not only for those in a cloistered convent.
I find hourly opportunities for mortification. When I wait in a long line, I can mortify my impatience with a prayer. When my children do not cooperate, I can offer my frustration for their salvation and exert myself to instruct them to behave well. When my workout is painful, I can unite it to Christ on the cross. When I am hungry between meals, I can offer a prayer for others and wait. I can forgo that bacon cheeseburger on Friday in remembrance of the day that Christ was crucified. I can see the penitential days of the Church as an opportunity to fast and pray for the conversion of the whole world. I know many women who have chosen to offer up labor pains for the petitions of others. When I have a cold, I can choose not to complain but intercede for others instead. Any slight discomfort, instead of being fixed or ignored, I can embrace as Christ embraced his passion for the sake of the conversion of sinners. None of our sufferings are too little to unite with Christ at the foot of the Cross beside his Blessed Mother.
When I think about my daily struggles in this way, I see how the wax offerings and kneeling-walking Rosaries of Fatima are not so foreign to my life after all. When I experience any kind of suffering I can embrace it as an opportunity to pray for souls. I look back again at my heartbroken 19-year-old self offering myself to Our Lady of Fatima, and wonder, perhaps I was learning even then about suffering for others as I waited for my future husband to discern his call to me in marriage. And marriage, as all couples learn, comes with many opportunities to offer up our suffering. Every vocation comes with great suffering of some sort or another, but that suffering has been redeemed and can be used for good.
Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us.