The Veil of Paradox

I once overheard a woman on a bus say to her companion, “We get a better quality meat from this new butcher than we got from the old one. The old one had a red nose.” I mention this abrupt non-sequitur to illustrate the compulsion we have for making comparisons. One thing, or person, has to be better, or prettier, or more successful than another. No two things are ever equal.


But green isn’t better than blue; Greeks aren’t better than Turks. We have to shed our prejudices and sacrifice our judgements a little to be able to say, “These things, these people, are each on the way to fulfilling the unique function or destiny orchestrated for them by their Heavenly Father.”

Francisco Oct 13th 1917.
Francisco Oct 13th 1917.

There is a tendency among devotees of Fatima to think of Jacinta as superior to Francisco, as if Francisco, although Jacinta’s elder brother, was spiritually a poor cousin who happened to be present when The Lady appeared to the girls, and has been borne along on the tide of the events ever since. “The Church is only beatifying Francisco,” some people say, “because of Jacinta; she suffered longer and her body was incorrupt. By himself Francisco would never be remembered.” It is as if the siblings were a double act with their agents squabbling over billing.


By himself Francisco would never have been remembered. No sweeter words could have been heard by the boy as he lay on his deathbed in the family cottage in Aljustrel, because the workings of grace had transformed his soul into a vessel such as centuries of contemplatives, of monks and nuns and a great army of lay folk, have striven and yearned and mortified themselves for – the bliss of being kidnapped by God.


The contemplative soul is not looking for a life of ease, for an on-going smorgasbord of spiritual delights. Nor is it looking for dark nights and great tempests of the soul, nor for a sweet disposition, friends, an aura of sanctity, martyrdom, elevation to the altars. It is looking for its Creator to give itself to Him, a quest which would be futile and vainglorious except that the Creator wants it too, and runs the length of the universe to make Himself available. There He hovers under the guise of bread, offering love, a love so fearsome to the timid, flawed soul that it can only be caught in brief glimpses, yet so compelling that the soul is stunned to rapture.

Words like clever, entertaining, famous, haven’t got a entry in the contemplative’s lexicon. Fashion, excitement, novelty, are bizarre concepts. Love is the only word that identifies with The Word, the only word worth uttering and the only word worth listening to. To understand the motivation, the workings, the essence of contemplation, love is the word we must look up and ponder, but the only really satisfactory definition is in the loving.


Francisco, an illiterate peasant in ill-fitting trousers, who hadn’t reached adolescence and had never heard the word contemplative, met these criteria, through grace, and in doing so achieved that unique position his Creator had designed for him.


The more one studies Francisco the more clearly he comes into focus as a true contemplative. He couldn’t hear what The Lady said and expressed no desire to do so because for some reason she didn’t want him to. He didn’t fret about the reason; her will was enough and he abandoned himself to it. The insults, the disbelief, the misunderstanding of the neighbours no doubt affected him as much as they did Lucia and Jacinta but Lucia records no memorable comment from Francisco on the subject because, we might assume, he was too preoccupied in burning his humiliation as fuel to console the offended Jesus.


He never analyses. He senses love and in responding to this love he seems, in some extraordinary way, to disappear from view. His complete absence of worldly ambition, his own assumption that he is the least important of the seers, conforms with a mentality prescribed by St. Benedict for the formation of contemplatives.


Francisco ́s lack of self-interest together with his secret prayer life are of a piece with the prototypes of the Christian contemplative like Benedict Joseph Labre, Charles de Foucauld and Therésè Martin. The symptoms are the same. The thirst for solitude, the hours hidden camoflaged in prayer, the absorption in the divine that goes unremarked by those around because of the veil of paradox, the veil that enables the contemplative to disappear into prayer, into the very wood of the cross, to contemplate the sun at midnight and to stake all on a virgin with a child.


The symptoms are crystallised in the steps of humility as written down by Benedict for his monks....when these steps have been mounted he acts now, not through fear of hell, but for the love of Christ, out of good habit and delight in virtue. All this Our Lord will work by the Holy Ghost in his servant. Here we have the proof of the true contemplative, the touchstone of canonisable sanctity. Miracles and wonders aren’t often the province of the true contemplative. Should they be associated with him after his death this is but the joy God has of him, spilling over.

Father Edwin Gordon. R.I.P.

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