By MARIA J. CIRURGIÃO
In preparation for this Christmas 2013, many of us will have engaged in traditional decorating — strings of lights, green trees, candles and pine cones, elaborate Nativity scenes. Certainly not forgotten are the angels, those celestial creatures we delight in visualizing as bridging the great divide between Heaven and Earth on a pair of wings.
We know better, of course. “Angel,” from the Greek angelos, means simply “messenger.” There is no mention in the New Testament of celestial messengers equipped with celestial wings to navigate Earth’s atmosphere. (I’m excluding here the Book of Revelation, or Apocalypse, as best left to trained exegetes.)
It is also worthy of notice that when, in her mature years, Sr. Lucia of Fatima was asked to set down in writing her account of the well-known events of 1917, she acknowledged three preparatory visits to her and her cousins — Blessed Francisco and Blessed Jacinta — by a luminous youth who said, “I am the Angel of Peace.” They saw and heard him, imitated him by prostrating themselves on the ground, and repeated and retained the prayer he taught them. But they saw no wings.
To set aside all thought of wings is necessary. If, common mortals that we are, we also set aside the need to be dazzled by luminosity, we are then free to ponder whether we may have in fact encountered our share of angels, clothed in human flesh and blood. I am certain that I have, and it is of one such angel that I wish to write this Christmas.
I was about 13 when I knew Ana Maria; if she had a last name, I did not learn it. Neither a playmate nor a schoolmate, she was already “old” when I first met her — which means that she was perhaps 20. Ana Maria was an orphan, maybe a foundling, and had been raised and educated by the Servants of Our Lady of Fatima, a 20th-century religious order.
The Servants, as they were popularly known, had a number of houses throughout Portugal, including a Center of Social Assistance in the town in which I was born. Not knowing where Ana Maria came from was entirely irrelevant. She lived with the nuns and was an essential part of their presence in town. Exercising the function of cook, she shouldered a colossal responsibility since the nuns operated both a day-care center and a soup kitchen. Like other employees at the center, Ana Maria worked for wages. Very humble wages in her case, certainly, since room and board were taken care of.
Ana Maria looked like no other 20 year old. She was, to put it bluntly, rotund, and her blond hair was closely cropped. Instead of shoes and stockings, she wore durable, wooden clogs on bare feet — no doubt to spare expense — and her bulky skirts descended almost to her ankles. Her gentleness and ready smile kept us teenagers from even thinking of giggling, let alone whispering any comments.
I have two very special memories of Ana Maria. There was one summer day, a particularly hot day, when I answered a knock on the door of our home and there she was. She was passing by on some sort of errand, and asked for a glass of water. I invited her in and handed her the water.
She stood in the kitchen doorway, illuminated from behind by the midday sun — the door faced south — and she sipped her water slowly, watching me as I returned to my occupation: feeding my younger brother. He and I were the only persons in the house, at that moment.
Hardly an event worth remembering? Perhaps. But that non-event left in me an indelible impression of having been visited.
The other memory is of a truly dramatic incident, and I cannot account for the privilege of having witnessed it. I was in the nuns’ reception room, where two of the sisters were dealing with an emergency that had arisen: A little girl had been dropped off for day care who shouldn’t be there; she should be in the hospital. (There was a hospital some 12 miles away, for those who could get to it.) Obviously the little girl’s mother knew how ill she was, but was too poor to do anything about it.
Having examined the child, the Sister Infirmarian greatly feared that the onset of tetanus was eminent. A specific shot was called for, and promptly. Yes, she had all that was required in stock, but her stock must be self-replenishing. Bandages she could give away without charge, but not expensive injections. Mother Superior could lift that restriction, but Mother Superior was absent.
As the two nuns stood there watching the little girl and wringing their hands in true affliction, a clattering of wooden clogs against wooden floors was heard and Ana Maria burst into the room:
“Give her the injection, Sister; please give her the injection,” she implored. “Eu pago. . . . I’ll pay!”
I’ve had many years to reflect on those words — “I’ll pay, I’ll pay!” — and they grow more significant with the passing of time. The orphan, or foundling, could not remain at her stove, safe in her kitchen, and allow death to claim that little girl, whom perhaps she did not even know. And how did she hear, in the kitchen, of what was taking place in the reception room? How many months’ worth of wages did she forfeit? It’s a safe bet that Ana Maria would not be buying any stockings for a long while.
Whether translated into English as “I’ll pay!” or retained in the only language Ana Maria spoke, “Eu pago! Eu pago!,” her words of intervention at that moment tore asunder the dark cloud of death that was closing in on an innocent life and, by extension, paralyzing two well-meaning adults. The two sisters sprang into action, fetching and administering the injection.
Do angels dwell among us, disguised as common mortals? I’m certain of it. Those were angelical words that Ana Maria spoke, evocative of the timeless “I’ll pay!” that purchased eternal life for sinful mankind.
For what is the lived journey from Bethlehem to Calvary but the fulfillment in time of an eternally spoken “I’ll pay”?
Mere mortals raise all manner of opposition to such words, favoring instead the addictive “I’ll take,” or the contentious, doubly addictive “You’ll pay!” The dark core of human history bears unrelenting witness to such a propensity for exacting payment. If the “fittest” are to prosper, the “unfit” must bear the cost of that prosperity. This age-old confrontation has acquired new respectability by appeal to Charles Darwin, a name that Ana Maria would not have been able to spell. She knew nothing of the prerogatives claimed by “science,” but was entirely clear-headed on the subjects of love and life.
This Christmas, I will set up again in the front yard a weather-beaten, metallic “angel,” holding a trumpet to invisible lips and equipped with wings powered by electricity; it’s cheerful. But I shall also thank God for having been born in a rural Portuguese town, where it was perfectly acceptable for a thirsty passerby to knock on a door and ask for a glass of water.
One of the few details I once knew about Ana Maria, and have retained, both complements and illumines what I’ve related above. Those who, for some special reason, attended Mass on a weekday, at 7 a.m., could not miss the presence in the virtually empty church of a rather robust female figure, clothed in long skirts and wearing wooden clogs instead of shoes.