Lucia of Fatima, Part II: The Vow of Perfection

Editor’s note: The following, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the apparitions at Fatima, is Part II of a four-part series by Jonathan and Clara Fleischmann. Parts I and II were originally published by Missio Immaculatae Magazine and are edited and reprinted here with the authors’ permission. Read Part I and Part III.

Lucia’s Vow of Perfection

“Maximalism” is a curious term. In the arts, a common definition is the “aesthetic of excess and redundancy” [1]. Such a definition is implicitly derogatory, since “excess” according to any one of its several meanings is always in some sense opposed to “perfection” or “perfect quantity.” It is perhaps because of this unfortunate connotation that Pope St. John Paul II – himself a student of the arts – made the following statement:

With regard to the measure and balance to be maintained in both Marian doctrine and devotion, the [Second Vatican] Council strongly urges theologians and preachers of the divine word “to be careful to refrain … from all false exaggeration” (Lumen Gentium, n. 67). This exaggeration comes from those who adopt a maximalist attitude, which seeks to extend systematically to Mary the prerogatives of Christ and all the charisms of the Church. Instead, it is always necessary in Marian doctrine to safeguard the infinite difference existing between the human person of Mary and the divine person of Jesus. To attribute the “maximum” to Mary cannot become a norm of Mariology, which must make constant reference to the testimony of Revelation regarding God’s gifts to the Virgin on account of her sublime mission. Likewise, the Council exhorts theologians and preachers to “refrain … from too summary an attitude” (ibid.), that is, from the danger of a minimalism that can be manifest in doctrinal positions, in exegetical interpretations and in acts of devotion which tend to reduce and almost deny Mary’s importance in the history of salvation, her perpetual virginity and her holiness. Such extreme positions should always be avoided through a consistent and sincere fidelity to revealed truth as expressed in Scripture and in the Apostolic Tradition. [2]

No such restraint regarding “the maximal” needs be shown in mathematics, where many problems are solved by finding the maximal element of a particular set of choices. This maximal element is often unique, as well as eminently useful in solving the problem at hand, and certainly no exaggeration is involved in declaring said element “uniquely maximal.” (This is not an abstruse idea; concrete examples abound!) We have argued elsewhere [3] that “Marian Maximalism” considered rightly – and in total accord with the two-thousand-year-old tradition of the Catholic Church – is just a straightforward application of a perfectly objective and theologically verifiable “Marian Maximal Principle,” which is no more a matter of false exaggeration than any of the maximal principles commonly used in mathematics or the physical sciences.

There is still another kind of maximalism, which is not fully captured by the maximalism of the arts, or the maximalism of mathematics, or the proper maximalism of theology (which is merely to allow those things of God and His creation that are truly maximal – not falsely maximal – to be truly maximal). This other kind of maximalism is the intense emotional longing that can be found in certain characters. For some, this longing leads to abandonment to sin. For others, it leads to painful perfectionism – and often extraordinary genius, as we find in the fictional characters of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. Lucia Santos was such a character. Such emotional maximalism can sometimes be found in individuals together with the maximalism of the arts, or the maximalism of theology, but this is not necessarily the case. What is almost always the case is that such emotional maximalism, or perfectionism, leads to great spiritual and psychological suffering.

Perhaps the best evidence of Lucia’s own spiritual perfectionism can be found in the personal vow she took as a novice of the Dorothean Sisters, sometime between 1925 and 1929, which she referred to as her “vow of greatest perfection.” In this, Lucia followed a highly respectable tradition in the Catholic Church, following in the footsteps of great saints such as St. Teresa of Avila and St. Claude de la Colombière, S.J. (who was the confessor of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque). The vow is typically expressed as follows: “to always think, say, and do what one judges to be the most perfect, or the most pleasing to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary.”

The first time Lucia mentions this personal vow is in a letter to her spiritual adviser, Fr. Aparicio, dated March 31, 1929: “In the vow of greatest perfection, I continue ever hesitatingly” [4]. Indeed, it appears that this vow was taken at first by Lucia as a temporary vow only, as she implies in another letter to Fr. Aparicio, dated ten years later (December 3, 1939):

With respect to the v. of P. [vow of perfection], in the retreat which I made just now from 14-24 November, under the direction of the most Reverend Father Celso, I resolved to renew for a little longer. Let the Lord help me since I am only with Him. [5]

This is totally in keeping with Lucia’s character, since the taking of such a vow was a serious matter for her, and she was not going to commit herself to it lightly! However, to relieve Lucia of some of her mental anguish regarding what she felt was her lack of knowledge of the will of God, Fr. Aparicio recommended that she should make her vow without any “time limit” attached, especially after having remained committed to the vow for over ten years. Lucia responded: “As for the v.P. [vow of perfection] without time limit, I don’t know, I ponder very much on this. Let us see what the Lord will make me see in the retreat. Up until then it is already done. Afterwards? I know He is who performs everything; thanks be to God. If my character were not so overpoweringly alive perhaps it would animate me. But as things are, I don’t know” [6].

In this letter, we see in Lucia a remarkable self-awareness: “If my character were not so overpoweringly alive…” What is more, we hear from her own lips that this overpowering “aliveness” of her character paradoxically tends more to debilitate her than to animate her toward concrete decisions! Here we have a true key to understanding Lucia’s character and other characters like hers.

She continues in the same letter:

In truth I also fear an infidelity to grace. I cannot deny Our Lord’s and Lady’s help. I feel it in all my senses, even when I seem to be alone.

It seems that there is no way to be diverted other than to ask and give in order to receive. But it does me good. I am grateful to Him for this.

It seems that He [God] goes on outings to other lands from time to time but He doesn’t stay there long. I have never knocked on His study door without finding Him there, but always with His hands outstretched asking. So far so good. The times so much need someone who gives to so many poor people, and the most miserable am I. May God grant that someone remembers to give me something as well. [7]

Finally, in 1940, Lucia did make her permanent vow of perfection, but she wisely – and totally in keeping with her character – added that the blame would be on Fr. Aparicio if she failed to remain faithful, as she wrote to him on September 1, 1940:

With respect to the v.P., I performed it following what you said to me in the last letter. And I told Our Lord that after putting into it everything possible on my part, it was on Your Reverence’s responsibility. Now look just how much is arranged with Our Master. He is so good that there is no reason why we should be afraid of Him. But at the same time He asks for so much! He never gets tired of asking and sometimes I feel tired of giving or saying yes. And He doesn’t take no for an answer, I’m afraid. [8]

Though Our Lord can be demanding, Our Lady always gives comfort. By her own admission, it was upon taking refuge in Mary’s Immaculate Heart – the channel of God’s Grace – that Lucia’s salvation depended.

The Immaculate Heart of Mary is my refuge, principally in the most difficult hours, and so I am always saved. It is the Heart of the very best mothers, always attentive, sitting up for the last of Her daughters. How much this certainly inspires and comforts me. I find strength and consolation in it. This Immaculate Heart is the channel through which God gushes the multitude of His Graces on my soul. [9]

However, despite the help of her Marian maximalism, Lucia’s own maximalism of character – or perfectionism, or “overpowering aliveness” – continued to gnaw at her good resolution to remain faithful to her vow of perfection, as she repeatedly expressed to Fr. Gonçalves, who succeeded Fr. Aparicio as her spiritual director after the latter left Portugal in 1938 to become a missionary in Brazil. Indeed, her perfectionism even led her to make her permanent vow of perfection several times (as though once was not enough)! She wrote to Fr. Gonçalves in 1941:

Most Reverend Father Superior,

I received Your Reverence’s letter this morning. I thank you most sincerely for it.

I could do what you indicate to me (vow of perfection), at the moment of blessing, in the afternoon, but, as you said to me that you wish to know for sure the day, in order to celebrate Holy Mass and also to take an oath on that day, and, as I have until the end of year, I choose to wait for the 26th of August, the feast of the most pure Heart of Mary.

It seems to me opportune to go into my annual retreat beforehand and, so, I will prepare myself better or Our Lord will prepare me, and I will thus ensure a greater protection from the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

I know that nature feels, regarding this act [the vow of perfection], a repugnance for death but I recognize that it is God who wants it.

He asks it of me in all ways, by Himself and by means of obedience. It is not possible for me to resist more. Until now I have not met a Mother Superior or any confessor who says the contrary to me. Sometimes these acts are so easy to be prohibited to other souls and, to me, no one feels inspired to such a prohibition. So far so good! It is necessary to die in life to live in death[.] …

To my knowledge, I have succeeded in not refusing a single thing. But the Lord is asking me to be completely attentive at all times to the Rule which at this moment indicates his will to me, and that I must embrace it unhesitatingly in the light of the more perfect part that it prescribes. I think it is a lot for my weakness. The Lord is not asking me in a general way, as St. Teresa says, for a disposition of soul in embracing the more perfect thing. He is asking for it every instant, at every moment. I need, therefore, charity to dominate my nature completely. But I give everything over to the action of grace in my soul and to the protection of the Immaculate Heart of my so dear Mother in Heaven. She will help me, so I hope.

I am very weak in the practice of charity with those close to me. It is one of the areas where I have most to do and which presses itself to me as more difficult for various circumstances. It is necessary not to forget, not even for a single moment, the maxim that commands to see, hear and hold one’s tongue, within and without.

Good! God will help me. I don’t want to say more lest I again lose my good spirits. Your Reverence commands me to be trusting. I trust, then, out of obedience. [10]

Once again, in keeping with her truly maximal character, Lucia declares that the vow of perfection taken by St. Teresa is not perfect enough for her, but that, despite the repugnance of her character, she must do even more to respond to God’s call. As she wrote to Fr. Gonçalves in 1942:

Life for me is difficult, very difficult; but that’s the way it has to be until God decides otherwise.

Pray a lot for me, to see if I will attain, shortly, this level of love that God wishes, so that I fly, in the near future, to Heaven. Oh, that I would be there now, right now! [11]

Lucia was not to “fly to Heaven” for another 63 years.

Ascending the Mountain of the Lord

As a Dorothean sister, Lucia, or Sr. Maria Lucia das Dores, occupied herself with a large variety of tasks – as a sacristan, cook, doorkeeper, awakener, refectory caretaker, linen-keeper, and nurse’s assistant. Lucia abandoned herself to these tasks with the full spirit of her vow of perfection. Such tasks were difficult to reconcile with such a vow, however, as Lucia discovered when some mothers wanted windows opened and other mothers wanted the same windows closed. Added to this was the trial Lucia faced due to her temperament, since several Sisters complained that “she was a little bad-tempered, and her answers caused discontentment.” Moreover, it is difficult to maintain a vow of perfection when those around you have not made a similar vow themselves. Once, when a sister was cleaning the convent cesspit, this sister exclaimed, “It is said that God is everywhere. Is he here too?” Lucia replied, “Why not?” Then she fished a rosary out of the cesspit and said, “Here’s the proof!” Later, when the communists arrived at Tuy in 1936, Lucia gave them the task of piping the cesspit, which they did to her great satisfaction [12].

Moreover, Lucia was by nature a practical joker. On one occasion, we have this testimony from her fellow, Sr. Sara Fernandes de Castro:

One sister was feeling very cold. Sr. Lucia filled six water-bottles with cold water and put them into the bed. But there was one with warm water in it. [13]

On another occasion, Lucia put bells in the bed of one especially timid sister and attached the bells with string to a sewing machine, which she started running in the middle of the night (during the Great Silence). Lucia also found herself on the butt-end of practical jokes, as when she related to the Mother Superior: “Do you want to know something? The young girls cut off pieces of my wimple” [14].

Despite her giving herself with all her energy to her life as a Dorothean nun, Sr. Lucia longed for more time in prayer and contemplation, especially after the intimate visions of Jesus and Mary she was granted at Tuy in 1925, 1926, and 1929. Her brief times in the chapel were like Heaven for her. Indeed, she dreamed of becoming a Carmelite, even before she made her perpetual vows as a Dorothean sister in 1934. Shortly before that event, she wrote to Fr. Aparicio, “Today I am a little better. Once when the storm was much stronger, and I was striving to calm myself by obedience, I picked up the Life of Blessed Gemma to distract myself somewhat, and, on opening the book, I came upon these words of Our Lord: ‘A little more self mortification and this disquiet will disappear.’ (Those were more or less the words I read.) I closed the book and said to myself, ‘A little more mortification of my self-will and I will recover peace of mind’” [15].

In May 1946, Lucia was summoned to Fatima to point out the spot where the angel had appeared to Francisco, Jacinta, and herself. After that, she was not allowed to return to the convent at Tuy, but was instead assigned to a new home in the College of Sardão. For this and other reasons, Lucia’s patience began to be sorely tried. After nearly a year in Sardão, Lucia wrote to her former superioress at Tuy, Mother Cunha Mattos, who remained her dear friend: “The Dorotheans were happy enough to deceive me from start to finish[.] … I will continue to make use of heaven, which is what matters” [16].

In 1948, Lucia was permitted by Pope Pius XII to leave the Dorothean Order, of which she was a professed sister, and to enter the Carmelite convent of Coimbra as a Novice of that order. Before she left, she wrote a letter to the mother provincial of the Dorotheans, in which she explains her reasons for leaving – not that she was leaving because of “any lack of esteem for the Institute” or the mother provincial, but that she felt the necessity of “withdrawing as much as possible from the world.” She also added, “As regards the supplication that I wanted to make to His Holiness asking for a day of prayer and reparation throughout the world, on behalf of Russia, according to the request of Our Lady, I am sorry … and it is probable that in the near future the Institute is going to regret this refusal. My words to the Mistress General, when she was leaving for Rome, were referring to this” [17].

Indeed, the supplication that Lucia wished to make of the Holy Father, to fulfill the requests of Our Lady regarding the consecration of the world (and Russia) to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, as well as to read and publicly reveal (in the year 1960) what came to be known as the “Third Secret of Fatima,” would worry Sr. Lucia for the next several decades.

 

Notes:

[1] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maximalism.

[2] Pope St. John Paul II, General audience of January 3, 1996.

[3] Jonathan Fleischmann, Marian Maximalism, Academy of the Immaculate, New Bedford, MA, 2016.

[4] The Intimate life of Sister Lucia, ed. by Fr. Robert J. Fox and Fr. Antonio Maria Martins, S.J., Fatima Family Apostolate, Alexandria, SD, 2001, p. 158.

[5] Ibid., p. 159.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., pp. 159-160.

[8] Ibid., p. 160.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., pp. 165-166.

[11] Ibid., p. 174.

[12] Ibid., p. 189.

[13] Ibid., p. 275.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., pp. 269-270.

[16] Ibid., p. 292.

[17] Ibid., pp. 293-296.

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