Essays, Featured, Theology

The Very Human Fears of the Saints

“Am I to stay here alone?”

This question, posed by Servant of God Lucia Santos to the Blessed Mother during a 1917 Fatima apparition, introduced a raw, intimate urgency to their dialogue. Having just been informed that her two cousins and fellow seers, Jacinta and Francisco, would soon succumb to illness and pass into communion with God, Lucia learns of her own mission to remain on earth, continuing a hidden life of prayer and evangelization. Her immediate, reactionary question reveals a fundamental human, and particularly Christian, insecurity.[1] Created for communion with God and with one another, the fear of abandonment—of being left to face our existential realities alone—lingers in the recesses of the human heart, surfacing during times of insecurity, transition, and uncertainty.

It is tempting, at times, to convince ourselves that saints like Lucia were somehow exempt from these human insecurities. Perhaps the saints were granted a sort of supernatural clarity to dispel crippling doubts and inhibitions, or a keen sense of spiritual sight that allowed them to identify and respond to human need, sidestepping the fear of rejection or abandonment. While the saints certainly dwelt within the expansive realm of God’s grace, they were not shielded from the ordinary burdens of human life, and we may in fact be surprised to discover the very human fears which persisted within the souls of these beloved ones of God.

“Am I to stay here alone?” Lucia asks.[2] The fears that linger behind this question are haunting. With this one question, she seems to ask a myriad of others: Will I be abandoned by those I love? Will your message, entrusted to my cousins and me, be disregarded? Will I be isolated because of my relationship with you? How can I go on without the friendship and company of the two people with whom I’ve shared the most formative experience of my life?

A Threefold Promise

Our Lady responds, “Are you suffering a great deal? Do not lose heart. I will never forsake you. My Immaculate Heart will be your refuge and the way that will lead you to God.”[3] In her response, Mary offers Lucia, and by extension, all Christians, a three-fold promise which also constitutes a three-fold challenge. First, Mary calls us to embrace a more expansive trust in the providence of God, lover of mankind who has promised to uphold the members of Christ’s body. She then promises her own companionship, offering the same maternal care which formed and nurtured the Son of God to each of us, and challenging us to make bold requests of her intercession. Finally, as our refuge which carries us to God, Mary calms our fear of isolation through the promise of union with Christ and all members of His body, simultaneously daring us to take seriously the oft-repeated invocation of the Gospels: “Do not be afraid.”

Bolstered by the reassurance of Mary, Lucia trusted in the promises of God, communicated by the Blessed Mother, and embraced God’s invitation to live the rest of her earthly days as a religious sister, first with the Dorothean order, and then as a cloistered Carmelite. Hidden from much of the physical world through her enclosure, Lucia chose a life which, on the surface, appeared to be a guaranteed path to experiencing frequent bouts of loneliness, the very state which she feared as a child. Fully aware of her own fear of isolation, Lucia’s chose a life of hiddenness, prayer, and penance for love of our Lord. This surprisingly courageous choice uncovers another layer of this Fatima seer’s identity: the truth of her life as a concrete, fleshy embodiment of Christian hope.

Honest Hope

Unfortunately, our understanding of hope as a virtue can often slip into the corrupting realm of clichés. We say we “have hope” when in reality we have resigned ourselves to failure, or conversely, when we are certain of success but wish to appear humble. But weak, slippery hopes such as these generally do not hold up in the face of death, or the fear of situations as crippling as loneliness or abandonment. The witness of Lucia’s life asks us to re-examine hope, and seek a more honest understanding of this virtue. Her witness demands that we consider a hope which coexists with harrowing uncertainty, and the lack of a guarantee. For without uncertainty, hope would be either useless or foolish—useless if our “hopes” would certainly be affirmed, and foolish if we held onto “hope” amidst certitude of failure. Without doubt, without uncertainty, we would have no need of a hope which bolsters faith.

We must therefore ask, where did Lucia’s hope come from? The birth of her courageous hope, which taught her to laugh at fear’s weakness, was neither the result of randomness, nor of stubborn optimism. Rather, her hope sprung from trust in God’s companionship, mediated through her personal relationship with Mary.

“Do not lose heart. I will never forsake you.”[4] For Lucia, these words carried a weight born of her personal experience of Mary’s companionship, demonstrated through the consistency of her apparitions. Instead of crippling her, Lucia’s fears of loneliness and emotional isolation were relativized by a grace-filled, heightened understanding of Christ’s faithfulness, illumined by her lived experience of the accompaniment of His mother.

Lucia trusts, that is, puts stock in the promises of Mary, and dutifully responds to her invitation to pray the rosary. In doing so, she opens herself to intimate reflection on the earthly life of Christ, allowing herself to experience the illuminating reality of God’s faithful accompaniment of humanity, demonstrated most magnificently in the life of Mary. For Lucia, the life of Mary bore witness to God’s trustworthiness. Mary’s experience of God’s power to raise up, to bless, and to bestow peace and honor upon the world is ours for the taking, so long as we allow ourselves to reflect on the mystery of Christ’s life through her as Lucia did. By engaging in active remembrance of God’s faithfulness in the life of Mary and, by extension, in her Lucia’s own life, Lucia embodied the proclamation of Lamentations 3:

The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall! . . . But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”[5]

Active Remembrance

Like the speaker in Lamentations, Lucia had to call to mind—that is, to actively remember—the moments of her life which pointed to the reality of God’s faithfulness, manifested in the accompaniment of the Blessed Mother. For Lucia, an active trust in the words of Mary, founded on a recollection of God’s faithfulness in the past, allowed her to embrace hope in God’s continued faithfulness.

What might all of this mean for a Christian today? When violence, fear, and despair run rampant in our daily discourse and collective conscience (and often for good reason), how can we, in good conscience, take hope seriously? Lucia’s witness suggests that in order to embrace an honest hope in God’s promise to be with us now and always, we have to take a look behind, actively noticing prior demonstrations of God’s faithfulness. With this comes a willingness to reconsider situations which previously seemed bereft of grace, inviting God to renew, and even reform, our understanding of the ways in which He chooses to move in our lives. Through active remembrance, we take a “long, loving look at the real,”[6] not seeking to purify or distort the realities of our past, but inviting our understanding of the past to be sharpened, that we might notice God’s faithful presence, and walk forward with an honest, confident hope.

Editorial Note: This month Church Life Journal will tackle healing within the Church. The Church is a hospital for sinners. Even if recent media coverage of Catholicism has rightly converged upon the diseases within our communities, it all too frequently overlooks the healing that is simultaneously going on. A hospital is not just a collection of sick individuals, but also the community of doctors and staff around them devoted to helping the sick return to health. Therefore, throughout February Church Life Journal will concentrate upon healing within the Tradition (Bible, liturgy, popular piety, devotions, after scandals, within the home church, and miraculous cures). Please click on the following link to follow us in our exploration of the healing imagination.


Our Children Might Return to the Church, but Our Grandchildren Most Likely Won’t

Featured Image: Michelangelo, Final Judgment [detail], c. 1541; Source: Wikimedia, PD-Old-100.

[1] Leo Madigan, The Children of Fatima (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 2003), 100.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Lam. 3:19-24 NRSV.

[6] This definition of contemplative prayer was first put forth by Walter Burghardt, SJ.

Colleen Halpin

Colleen Halpin is a Church Life Intern at the McGrath Institute for Church Life, who is researching Marian devotions, spirituality, and consecrations throughout the 2017–18 academic year. She grew up in Omaha, Nebraska and is now a senior at the University of Notre Dame, studying Mathematics and Theology.