Fátima and the Desert Fathers

I find myself writing today about a topic which I never thought I would – Fátima; specifically, the message of Fátima (or, at least, how I have come to understand it). Caveat: for those that came here expecting some comment on “the Consecration of Russia”, you can forget about that. That is a topic I’m not at all interested in touching. Let’s just say that I believe that that request was very time-specific, and is not necessarily what the “message” was all about, though it seems to me that to many it carries an almost messianic weight.

Love it or hate it, every Portuguese knows Fátima and has probably been there at least once in their life. In the minds of not a few, Fátima is something quite apart from the Church. How many times did I not hear from people (who even made regular pilgrimages there): “I don’t believe in the Church, but I have a lot of faith in Fátima.” I never understood what that was supposed to mean. What do those who profess such a belief understand Fátima to be? Does it mean you believe in some “miraculous” event, some “force” you keep a mercenary relationship with? Or does it mean that you believe in the message? If so, then you must necessarily believe in the Church. Our Lady cannot be understood apart of the Church; she is a type of the Church. If you believe in her, and not the Church, then there is something seriously flawed with your belief.

But I digress…

Fátima (Cova da Iria) is about an hour and fifteen minutes drive on the motorway from my home city. Now that I stop to think about it, I (providentially?) made my official return to the Church there 10 years ago. For almost two years I drove down every Sunday so as to be able to experience the vetus ordo of the Roman rite (and occasionally the Divine Liturgy at the local Ukrainian Greek Catholic chapel at Domus Pacis). When people found out that I would go to Fátima every Sunday they would say “Wow, you must have a lot of faith in Fátima.”, but it had never crossed my mind, in all those trips, that I was going there because of Fatima; if anything, in my mind, Fátima was accidental: the vetus ordo just happened to be celebrated there. As time went on, I began to have a bit more of a “sacramental” understanding of the place, and so the shrine (or at least the area of the chapel of the apparitions) became a kind of holy ground. The Deipara, the Dei genetrix, had appeared there; she had hallowed the ground (or at least the oak tree) by her contact. In my mind, that made the immediate vicinity a kind of contact relic, and so I would always stop by, even if just for 5 minutes, to say “hello” and entrust to her care my vocation, whichever it might be. Several years later, Sr. Maria do Rosário and I were received as novice Benedictine oblates at Fátima.


During these many years I had struggled to understand just what exactly was the “message of Fátima” or why “the world needs Fátima“. Searching for answers on the internet only served to further the confusion. I had never stopped to read any proper literature on the apparitions; I only got bits and pieces of the story from time to time from speaking with people who had purposely moved to Fátima from abroad, as well as from someone who had known Sr. Lucia for many years and served as an interpreter of sorts for her. However, it was only after Father Prior had spoken with the postulator for Bl. Francisco’s cause that things suddenly start to click in my head. To quote Father Prior’s own words:

I put the question to Dr Coelho. She explained that while little Jacinta was an extrovert, easily engaging with others and concerned in reaching out to all, especially to poor sinners, Francisco was a very interior soul, focused on God alone or, as he himself put it, on consoling the Hidden Jesus. In this way, the personalities and graces of Francisco and Jacinta are complementary. Jacinta is emblematic of the missionary impulse of the Church, while Francisco illustrates the call to the hidden life and total dedication to the “One Thing Necessary” (Luke 10:42). Francisco, explained Dr Coelho, was, from the very beginning of the apparitions, singled out as a contemplative soul.

The Postulator explained that had Our Lady said that Francisco was to become a “contemplative soul”, the meaning of her words would have completely escaped Francisco’s understanding. His was the simple vocabulary of a child, of a boy accustomed to the concrete realities of nature. Our Lady’s words that Francisco would “need to say many rosaries” before going to heaven was, in effect, her way of saying that Francisco was to become an entirely contemplative soul before going to heaven, and this by means of many rosaries. Understand by this that, for Francisco and for most ordinary people, many rosaries are the most simple and efficacious way to union with God.


For some time I had begun to see the message of “penance and prayer for the conversion of sinners” as synonymous with the Gospel, which made me wonder what was so unique about the apparition(s) and its message. Suddenly, with the postulator’s comment about Our Lady adapting her language to her interlocutors/audience, it made sense.

What was Our Lady trying to tell us? What had we forgotten?

Penance – mortifications; prayer for the conversion of sinners – intercession; pray the Rosary – the layman’s office par excellence in the West. Our Lady was reminding a simple people, a people of simple faith, of what it means to be Christian. I don’t mean simple in a pejorative sense; I mean simple in childlike, unable(?) to understand complex theological ideas, but faithful enough to intuit them, with a lively sensus fidelium. In very simple terms, she was reminding them of their baptismal priesthood. Sons in the Son, they could unite their sufferings, their mortifications, to Christ’s, to “make up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ” (cf. Col 1:24). As Our Lord had offered Himself up on the Cross for sinners, so they were to become icons of all mankind, offering in themselves all to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit, especially for those who did not believe. The daily rosary was an injunction to “pray without ceasing”. For a long time the rosary had been an alternative to the Office for those who were unable to read. The Office, especially through the Psalms, shows us the vultus Christi; praying the Psalms helps one to acquire the mind of Christ. Being unable to do that, one turns to Mary, and in contemplating her, one can see in her face the face of her Son shining through.

“Fátima”, in my understanding of it, is nothing “new”. The message is the Gospel. It is the life that finds echo in the life of the Desert Fathers. The Desert Father’s lived a(-n extreme) life of penance, of mortification; one needs only to read their sayings to see how indispensable it was to them, how essential it was to cultivate humility. It was not something negative; rather it was liberating. See, for example, this saying of Abba Poemon:

A brother questioned Abba Poemen saying, ‘I have committed a great sin and I want to do penance for three years.’ The old man said to him, ‘That is a lot.’ The brother said, ‘For one year?’ The old man said again, ‘That is a lot.’ Those who were present said, ‘For forty days?’ He said again, ‘That is a lot.’ He added, ‘I myself say that if a man repents with his whole heart and does not intend to commit the sin any more, God will accept him after only three days.’

Even on their deathbed penance was still (or should that be especially?) on their minds:

It was said of Abba Sisoes that when he was at the point of death, while the Fathers were sitting beside him, his face shone like the sun. He said to them, ‘Look, Abba Anthony is coming.’ A little later he said, ‘Look, the choir of prophets is coming.’ Again his countenance shone with brightness and he said, Look, the choir of apostles is coming,’ His countenance increased in brightness and lo, he spoke with someone. Then the old men asked him, ‘With whom are you speaking, Father?’ He said, ‘Look, the angels are coming to fetch me, and I am begging them to let me do a little penance.’ The old man said to him, ‘You have no need to do penance, Father.’ But the old man said to them, ‘Truly, I do not think I have even made a beginning yet.’

Continual prayer was also a theme on the minds of the Desert Fathers. They knew, through their experience, that it required a great effort to become a habit, especially if one was to pray without ceasing, which in a goal of all Christians, which they will one day do perfectly united to Christ, the Eternal High Priest. The Psalms were their school of prayer.

Abba Agathon said, “Prayer is hard work and a great struggle to one’s last breath”.

Having withdrawn to the solitary life he made the same prayer again and he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Arsenius, flee, be silent, pray always, for these are the source of sinlessness.’

The brethren also asked him, ‘Amongst all good works, which is the virtue which requires the greatest effort?’ He answered, ‘Forgive me, but I think there is no labour greater than that of prayer to God. For every time a man wants to pray, his enemies, the demons, want to prevent him, for they know that it is only by turning him from prayer that they can hinder his journey. What ever good work a man undertakes, if he perseveres in it, he will attain rest. But prayer is warfare to the last breath.’

We find as well stories of the Fathers’ intercession for sinners:

One day Abba Serapion passed through an Egyptian village and there he saw a courtesan who stayed in her own cell. The old man said to her, ‘Expect me this evening, for I should like to come and spend the night with you.’ She replied, ‘Very well, abba.’ She got ready and made the bed. When evening came, the old man came to see her and entered her cell and said to her, ‘Have you got the bed ready?’ She said, ‘Yes, abba.’ Then he closed the door and said to her, ‘Wait a bit, for we have a rule of prayer and I must fulfill that first.’ So the old man began his prayers. He took the psalter and at each psalm he said a prayer for the courtesan, begging God that she might be converted and saved, and God heard him. The woman stood trembling and praying beside the old man. When he had completed the whole psalter the woman fell to the ground. Then the old man, beginning the Epistle, read a great deal from the apostle and completed his prayers. The woman was filled with compunction and understood that he had not come to see her to commit sin but to save her soul and she fell at his feet, saying, ‘Abba, do me this kindness and take we where I can please God.’ So the old man took her to a monastery of virgins and entrusted her to the amma and he said, ‘Take this sister and do not put any yoke or commandment on her as on the other sisters, but if she wants something, give it her and allow her to walk as she wishes.’ After some days the courtesan said, ‘I am a sinner; I wish to eat every second day.’ A little later she said, ‘I have committed many sins and I wish to eat every fourth day.’ A few days later she besought the amma saying, ‘Since I have grieved God greatly by my sins, do me the kindness of putting me in a cell and shutting it completely and giving me a little bread and some work through the window.’ The amma did so and the woman pleased God all the rest of her life.

Is Fátima still “relevant”? I think it is particularly poignant a century later because it obliges us to ask “What have we forgotten?” It seems to me to be quite providential that our Blessed Mother should remind us of this supernatural aspect of the faith on the eve of a revolution of the “anti-Gospel”, of a materialistic “gospel” that promised an immanenitized eschaton. And yet, 100 years later, on the cusp of the anniversary of the apparitions, if one listens to the majority of the “testimonies” about the meaning of Fatima on this website (which is backed by the Sanctuary and a Catholic radio station), one will find that we have forgotten much. The majority of those testimonies of what Fátima means to those individuals is focused to much on me, on vague concepts of love and peace and feeling good with one’s self, a form of spiritual hygiene. God does not figure into the picture. The faith is primarily about the world here below, a convenient ethical system, but little beyond that.

We have forgotten the Cross. It is the Cross, the dulce lignum, that best encapsulates the Faith. In trying to make it more appealing, in applying so much cosmetic to sweeten the pill, we have gone so far as to forget what it is all about.


What is Fátima to me? Fátima is the unbroken tradition of the Church; Fátima is the life of monks and religious and clerics and lay alike; Fátima is the faith of the Desert Fathers –  Fátima is the Christian life in broad strokes, so simple enough even a child could understand it. And it is a reminder to make every day a beginning.


Following the heart – Sursum corda!

In our daily reading of the sayings of the Desert Fathers the following attributed to Abba Isidore stuck out:

The same Abba Isidore said, ‘It is the wisdom of the saints to recognize the will of God. Indeed, in obeying the truth, man surpasses everything else, for he is the image and likeness of God. Of all evil suggestions, the most terrible is that of following one’s own heart, that is to say, one’s own thought, and not the law of God. A man who does this will be afflicted later on, because he has not recognized the mystery, and he has not found the way of the saints in order to work in it. For now is the time to labour for the Lord, for salvation is found in the day of affliction: for it is written: “By your endurance you will gain your lives.”‘


“Follow your heart”. How many times have I heard this? It seems of late to have become a mantra of sorts, a justification for all kinds of actions, especially selfish ones (I’ve heard it employed even in abandoning one’s spouse after years of marriage). The premise seems to be that the heart cannot err, that it is the best compass to one’s happiness. Yet, is this the truth? My take on it would be yes and no.

A saying attributed to St. Macarius sheds some light on my position:

[T]he heart itself is but a little vessel, and yet there are dragons, and there lions, and there venomous beasts, and all the treasures of wickedness ; and there are rough uneven ways, there chasms ; there likewise is God, there the angels, there life and the kingdom, there light and the apostles, there the heavenly cities, there the treasures, there are all things.

First, let us address the No. From what I am able to ascertain, those who use “follow your heart” as their rationale tend to identify the feelings which spring from there as the most genuine, and so they act on them. These are people who tend to simply act on their passions, saying that they are free to do what they want. Generalizations? Perhaps, but not unfounded, I believe, given what I’ve been able to glimpse from conversations. Is acting on the passions an expression of freedom? Is it even wise? Do the passions, as they are, bring us happiness? One need not be a Christian to know that this is not the case. Even the ancient pagan philosophers knew that obeying one’s passions is not freedom, but slavery. If one wanted to live a virtuous life – it is the virtuous life which brings about happiness – then the passions had to be mastered; they had to be subject to reason; they had to be re-ordered.
This kind of “follow your heart” stems from a solipsistic mindset of sorts: man is an island; my actions have no impact on others; I am the master of my destiny; my happiness comes before all other considerations; I am a law unto myself. Has not happiness in this case been turned into an idol? The heart, which is indeed the compass of happiness, is not free; it is a slave of the passions. It is like a compass near which metal has been placed, pointing every which way, acting erratically, throwing one forever off course, making happiness an elusive thing. The happiness sought this way is not happiness at all, but fleeting pleasure.


So will obeying the heart not bring us happiness? It will, but it requires discipline – askesis – and prayer. The happiness that comes from this, however, might very well not be the kind which those who use the mantra envision. One might compare the heart to a garden: if the garden is not maintained, if the weeds are not extracted, if the plants are not watered, eventually the garden becomes derelict, overrun by the weeds and the flowers die. Anyone who has tried to cultivate even the smallest patch will know this is true. The saints show us that purifying the heart, ordering the passions, is a lifelong struggle, which depends not only on our own powers, but most of all on the Lord’s grace.
Do I want to obey my heart? Do I want it to bring me to eternal happiness? As an aspiring Benedictine oblate obeying and listening are very much an integral part of my spiritual life. If I want to obey my heart then it must become like one which I know is the purest heart of all, the humble heart of our Lord Jesus Christ. To follow my heart then will mean to follow the Lord. I will follow my heart because I know that He will be abiding within me.

It is especially during Holy Mass that this is brought home for me. When the priest hauntingly intones Sursum corda (“Lift up your hearts”), that is when I am especially reminded of the need of purification of the heart. Sursum corda – here, O Lord, is my heart. Here is all that I am, here is my totality, which broken and maculate as it is, I offer up to you. Sursum corda – take it, o Lord, into the furnace of your love and burn away the dross. Sursum corda – that I may be able to offer it you, through your Son, ever purer, O heavenly Father.

Sursum corda!

Do you wish to follow your heart? Then follow it on high. Sursum corda!

Wisdom of the desert

During Lent we took up some extra reading (apart from the daily readings of the Rule), and we’ve pretty much tried to keep it up even after Lent. Having read two encyclicals (Arcanum and Casti conubii, both dealing with Matrimony), we have moved on to the Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

DCF 1.0

I won’t go into an explanation of the Desert Fathers (and Mothers) “phenomenon”  simply because I couldn’t do justice to the theme, and there are already enough sources for that on the Internet. If you would like to get a taste of what a modern Desert Father is like, check out the video below, about Fr. Lazarus.

I would like to comment, however, on our impression of them. I was already somewhat acquainted with the Desert Fathers, having read bits and bobs of their sayings over the years, but for my wife this is something new. Reading the sayings with her has helped me to remember the freshness and wonder (and even oddity) I felt when I first discovered them.


What do these men and women of extraordinary ascetical feats have to teach us? While some of the sayings seem to us strange as we don’t know the context in which they were said, others make one reflect deeper on one’s own life. We find the Fathers severe, sometimes coarse even, and yet on the other hand they are merciful almost to the point of being blind to others’ sins. Their lives, if one is able to see beyond the superficial differences with ours, have much to teach us. They remind us that the spiritual life is one of struggle, that it is a battle against the flesh, the world and the Enemy (a message that I was not getting when I returned to the Church). They remind us that severity is not for the other, but for ourselves, as we tend to squander the graces God gives us. They remind us that just as God is merciful with us, so too must we be with our brothers and sisters. They remind us of the need of tears, of compunction, for our sins (I often wonder if frequent confession hasn’t done away with, from a psychological point of view,  crying over one’s sins. Perhaps the thought of knowing one can have recourse to Confession at any time keeps one from dwelling too much on the reality that is sin in our lives.) They remind us that the Christian life isn’t simply an ethical life, a life of “rules”, of dos-and-don’ts, but rather it is about conversatio morum – a conversion of life.

In closing, I would like to leave you with some of the sayings that have caught my attention so far:

[Abba Anthony] said, “Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ.”

Three Fathers used to go and visit Blessed Anthony every year and two of them used to discuss their thoughts and the salvation of their souls with him, but the third always remained silent and did not ask him anything. After a long time, Abba Anthony said to him, ‘You often come here to see me, but you never ask me anything,’ and the other replied, ‘It is enough for me to see you, Father.’

A brother in a monastery was falsely accused of fornication and he arose and went to Abba Anthony. The brethren also came from the monastery to correct him and bring him back. They set about proving that he had done this thing, but he defended himself and denied he had done anything of the kind. Now Abba Paphnutius, who is called Cephalus, happened to be there, and he told them this parable: “I have seen a man on the bank of the river buried up to his knees in mud and some men came to give him a hand to help him out, but they pushed him further in, up to his neck.’ Then Abba Anthony said this about Abba Paphnutius: ‘Here is a real man, who can care for souls and save them.’ All those present were pierced to the heart by the words of the old man and they asked forgiveness of the brother. So, admonished by the Fathers, they took the brother back to the monastery.


Someone said to blessed Arsenius, “How is it that we, with all our education and our wide knowledge get nowhere, while these Egyptian peasants acquire so many virtues?” Abba Arsenius said to him, “We indeed get nothing from our secular education, but these Egyptian peasants acquire the virtues by hard work.”

One day Abba Arsenius consulted an old Egyptian monk about his own thoughts. Someone noticed this and said to him, ‘Abba Arsenius, how is it that you with such a good Latin and Greek education ask this peasant about your thoughts?’ He replied, ‘I have indeed been taught Latin and Greek, but I do not know even the alphabet of this peasant.’

Words from the desert

It was told of a brother who came to see Abba Arsenius at Scetis that, when he came to the church, he asked the clergy if he could visit Abba Arsenius. They said to him, ‘Brother, have a little refreshment and then go and see him.’ ‘I shall not eat anything,’ said he, ‘till I have met him.’ So, because Arsenius’ cell was far away, they sent a brother with him. Having knocked on the door, they entered, greeted the old man and sat down without saying anything. Then the brother from the church said, ‘I will leave you. Pray for me.’ Now the visiting brother, not feeling at ease with the old man, said, ‘I will come with you,’ and they went away together. Then the visitor asked, ‘Take me to Abba Moses, who used to be a robber.’ When they arrived the Abba welcomed them joyfully and then took leave of them with delight. The brother who had brought the other one said to his companion, ‘See, I have taken you to the foreigner and to the Egyptian, which of the two do you prefer?’ ‘As for me,’ he replied, ‘I prefer the Egyptian.’ Now a Father who heard this prayed to God saying, ‘Lord, explain this matter to me: for Thy name’s sake the one flees from men, and the other, for Thy name’s sake, receives them with open arms.’ Then two large boats were shown to him on a river and he saw Abba Arsenius and the Spirit of God sailing in the one, in perfect peace; and in the other was Abba Moses with the angels of God, and they were all eating honey cakes.

  • The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Ward)

arsenius_the_great    st-mosestheblack