quarta-feira, 9 de março de 2011

Our Lady of Sorrows

Póvoa had and has three Marian churches, the Matriz, the Chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows and the Church of Lapa. Alexandrina, who frequented the Matriz with regularity, also showed an attraction towards the Chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows. Here her passion for the “heavenly Mother” became established as did her link with Calvary, which would not only be the name of the place where she was to live, but also her hourly experience.

When I went to the fields with the mistress, followed by the other girls, I ran away from their company and went to gather flowers. I’d pluck off their leaves to make floor coverings in the church of Our Lady of Sorrows. It was in May and I delighted in seeing the altar of our heavenly Mother decorated with roses and carnations, and to breathe the perfume of these flowers. Sometimes, I offered our heavenly Mother so many flowers, that my mother took me there just for that purpose.

In her diaries she tells innumerable times of her personal experience of the Calvary tragedy. Let’s look at a few lines of what she dictated on 9th May 1947, when she was given the title “Alexandrina of Sorrows”:

This morning I could not breathe, I could not live, I was taken by terror.
I felt eyes glued on the blood that sprouted of the great helmet of penetrating thorns that surround my head.
In this way I wound through the dark and narrow streets of Calvary[1]. …
Oh how painful the trip was!
How much it cost me to get to Calvary!
Jesus came; He gave light to my soul and said to me:
- My daughter, my daughter, my Alexandrina, Alexandrina of Sorrows:
Let Me give you this title along with that of My spouse:
Alexandrina of Sorrows!
Take courage!

One day little Alexandrina was sent to Aguçadoura (some kilometres north of Póvoa) to petition donations for the cult of Our Lady of Sorrows. The chaplain of this chapel was then Fr José Cascão (we will speak more of him presently.)
Now we can see that a “bad idea” took the fancy of the little girl of Balasar:

The chaplain of Our Lady of Sorrows decided to organize groups of girls, to get funds for the cult of the chapel. These groups had been allotted various areas throughout the neighbouring parishes of Póvoa de Varzim. I went to Aguçadoura. We accepted everything they gave us, like potatoes, onions, etc… We asked and asked, but we were given little and we had the bad idea to creep into a field and take about 2kgs of potatoes. I was one of those who did this, while the others watched. We delivered all the goods together, not telling anybody what we had done[2].

Another Marian shrine in Alexandrina’s life was Our Lady of Faith, in Laundos, about 6kms from Póvoa. She would also go to Sameiro, near Braga, for the National Eucharistic Congress in 1924 shortly before being confined to bed.
Mountains are also important to her, in this case that of St. Felix. The mountain that appears repeatedly in her writings is that of Calvary.

I remember that I followed my mistress to Laundos, to fulfil a promise she had made to Our Lady of Health. Her daughter and my sister went with us. We helped her, catching hold of her hand, because she covered the way on her knees, and I went on before, removing all the little stones on the path. Her daughter, who was older than us, treated the pilgrimage as a joke. I was very dedicated to the lady and when somebody gave me any good things, fruits, candies, etc., I shared them with her, which pleased us both. I did these things because that was the way my heart wanted it, although I was very bad[3].

In the Autobiography, the writer’s insistence on emphasizing her wickedness is notorious. But these ‘wickednesses’ are never more than minor faults. Here we look at one of the best known.

On one occasion, my sister asked for permission to go to study in house of a colleague who lived close, and I wished to go too. As the mistress of the house did not let me, I cried and called her “poveira” (that is, a poor fisherwoman of Póvoa). I was angry. She did not punish me, but she said me that I could not confess the fault until I had asked her forgiveness. My sister told me the same. This gave me much repugnance and, as I wanted to go to confession and communion, I stifled my pride. I knelt down and, with raised hands, asked for her pardon. She was moved to tears and forgave me. I felt great joy, the following day, to be able to confess and to receive Jesus.

Fr Umberto Pasquale associates the texts referring to towers to the Tower of Hermas, a famous old mystical symbol of the Church which appears in the book Shepherd of Hermas, in the early years of Christianity.
The Lighthouse of Regufe in Póvoa seems to be the nearest approach a model for this luminous tower.

I feel that this tower in me is raised higher each time.
The artist in charge of the work does not stop working.
To what a height I rose,
I keep going up inside this tower,
As before, I am the same tower!
The light goes up with me.
The fatigue of seeing all this makes me faint.
The light is of the world, it is not mine;
It is to illuminate the tower
And also ensures that I see it:
It lays below in such a way!
I feel the distance from the sky to the earth.
This is as I see it!
This light leaves nothing hidden:
It penetrates utterly, and makes all visible.
O, what misery there is in souls,
What silt hides bodies and spreads over all humanity!
What horror! What horror!
O world, as I see you!
The more the tower goes up,
The more light it generates,
The more the world is mud
And more my heart feels the pain of the earth.
I cannot resist this pain… (15/3/45)

Alexandrina uses, as in those excerpts of her Autobiography that have been transcribed here, a mundane prose, without images. In other situations however, as we have also seen, her texts attain great poetical heights.
It would be negligent, when speaking of her time passed in Póvoa, to omit any allusion to storms; and the image of storms and other marine phenomena as these occur in many of her pages, reflecting once again the importance her sojourn on the coast. This example is meaningful:

I am like a shipwreck which sinks to the depths of the sea.
And, in this sea without shores, I sail through the depths,
But with the power of the water, not with my own strength.
Sometimes, this shipwreck, my body which is already a corpse,
Indeed a skeleton, almost disintegrated,
Comes to the surface to receive life,
To dive and to die again.

Jesus, my beloved Jesus,
If you were not You, with Your love,
If  there were no souls,
I would not be a victim, I would not suffer like this!
It is for You, the light and strength of my pain, that I suffer.
It is for Your love that, gladly, I let the pain consume my body.
What a tremendous storm!
From one side, then another, the raging anger of the wind attacks me;
Raging, it attempt to root out the forces which sustain me. 

The fear that Alexandrina showed before the National Republican Guards may seem exaggerated, but this body, a creation of the republican regimen, came to symbolize all the atrocities that were being committed against the Church: religious houses closed, bishops exiled, priests pursued, building religious nationalized… In Póvoa the college of the Dorothean Sisters was converted into barracks, construction work on the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was suspended, priests of the religious orders were humiliated…[4]

After a vacation, my sister and I went to Póvoa de Varzim; we had guardians with us, but only after we had crossed the county boundary. We went by the railway and saw, far ahead, two republican guards. We were afraid of them and hid around a corner. As my sister was carrying a little hemp basket they supposed that she was hiding matches, forbidden at that time, and they pursued us.
We did not run away and we cried out loud.
Some people heard our cries and came to our rescue. They were armed and when they understood that we were not carrying contraband they were prepared to fire. Happily, however, we escaped death that time.

In Christo Gesù in Alexandrina, a quatrain is quoted with which, according to Deolinda, Alexandrina liked to annoy the guards. Its sense is more or less this:

With Alfonso Costa’s beard
We will make a brush
To clean the boots
Of good king Manuel.

Alfonso Costa was a politician of the First Republic responsible for outlandish anti-clerical legislation: King Manuel, who was forced into exile, was the last monarch of the Portuguese Royal Family.

If the times were full of aggression against the Church, it was well known that the faithful took great pains to venerate those who were suffering for it.

I remember that I had great respect for priests and, when I was sitting at the street door, alone, or with my sister and cousins, I always stood up as they passed and they acknowledged this by tipping their hats, if they were at some distance, or giving me their blessing, if they were passing nearby.
I observed, sometimes, that some people criticised this, but I liked it and sometimes I sat outside on purpose so that I could stand up the moment a priest passed by just to show to my devotion and respect for the Lord’s ministers.

Main altar of the Our Lady of Sorrows chapel.
Our Lady of Sorrows Chapel.
Parish Church of Aguçadoura.
Our Lady of Health Chapel, in Laundos.
The symbolic tower of the texts at the side can evoke the Lighthouse of Regufe

[1] Although solely interior, Alexandrina’s experience of the Passion was not less painful than when she relived it visibly.
[2] Alexandrina belonged to the Children of Mary; this association had a nucleus in Our Lady of Sorrows Chapel, which Fr José Cascão had established and directed over a long period. But Alexandrina was enrolled in Cavalões.
She also belonged to the Apostolate of Patients, whose headquarters were in St José of Ribamar. This was a result of the initiative of Dr Abílio Garcia de Carvalho. The priest Manuel da Costa Gomes, who was previously in the parish of St José of Ribamar and had been instrumental in the construction of the parish church, had once, when he was archpriest, made a positive intervention on behalf of Alexandrina.
[3] Although Fr Umberto said that Alexandrina was “goodness personified”, she complains repeatedly of her wickedness. But this does not have to be seen as either exaggeration or mock humility.
[4] On the expulsion of the Póvoa’s Jesuits, see Manuel Amorim, “A Companhia de Jesus na Póvoa de Varzim”, in the Cultural Bulletin of Póvoa de Varzim, n.r XXXIII, 1996-1997, pp. 129 et seq.; on the Dorothians, see António Freire, S.J.’s booklet, A Madre Sá, Glória da Póvoa de Varzim, Braga, 1982.

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