“You, Chiara, are the one who helped us understand what marriage truly is: openness and the fulfilment of the plan of God on us. We will use all our strength for the family and the world to become what they should be”. Maria da Conceição, known to all as São, wrote this to Chiara Lubich at the start of our joint adventure – recalls Zé Maia. We got married in Braga in 1981 and from our union six children were born. Then the grandchildren started arriving, nine so far. Chiara Lubich had proposed to São a particular phrase of the Gospel to guide her life: “He must increase and I must decrease. (John 3:30)’. How many times São repeated this to me over the years!”
In 2002 Zé and São, both Portughese, moved with their children to the nascent Focolare town “Arco Iris”, 50 km from Lisbon, to help in its foundation. In November 2016, São went to the Mariapolis Centre of Castelgandolfo near Rome, to participate in the “Together for Europe” event.
“Before she left for Rome, she said to me, Zé recounts, ‘I’m happy to be part of this meeting; I believe this is the way we should follow”. It was to be her last act of love, joyfully living her life for others. Completely unexpectedly, on 11th November, she had a heart attack and God called her to himself.”
Today, what I am going through is living her, whom I find within me, as “one flesh” but now between heaven and earth. Her last words remain fresh in my mind, when she challenged us to “go ahead together, courageously”. So I start again every day, with the encouragement and help of the Focolare life. At home with my family, we’re discovering a “new us”, and experiencing how all we’ve built with love remains. It continues because eternity is perfect love.
I’m constantly seeking how to become both father and mother. I’m living as if São was here with me, welcoming other people to our home, or out doing the shopping. Together with her I go to get flowers, or cook a nice lunch for the children or prepare those special treats the grandchildren love. Together with her I’ll speak to someone to correct them if need be, or support them or encourage them. It’s a constant dialogue between earth and heaven. Since São’s death, I’ve made a new discovery of Jesus in the Eucharist, as the moment in which we meet.
Certainly, I feel so sad at times, but I find those moments are helping me to open up my heart towards my neighbours. I do feel the dark shadow of loneliness. But I realise I need to turn away from this and follow the light. At the end of each day I can find gratitude in my heart in the moments I lift up my gaze towards the invisible. Yet fear can still creep up on me like a thief, poised to steal away my peace of mind. And at times it’s as though my soul yearns to fly away to somewhere else. But in those moments I allow that ray of light to speak to me, it greets and welcomes me».
“Sometimes I write to my children to tell them what I’m living with their mother. ‘Each day, through the kaleidoscope of the soul, I see her with a new kind of beauty, like a blue sky in which I can contemplate the mystery of he’. Life goes on in the family and in communion with others around me. I most assuredly miss her, I miss her company, I miss her companionship and I miss sharing everything with her. No-one can ever be ready to lose their spouse, to be left alone without the beloved voice and loving glances. The loss is felt at all levels, emotional, psychological and relational, as well as practically with the children, with the family as a whole and at work.”
In 1967 Chiara Lubich addressed this issue. “The sacrament of marriage makes of two persons one, spiritually as well as physically”, she said. So when one of a couple “departs” for heaven “the marriage is ‘broken’, in the Will of God.
It is a divine something – if you can say this – like a small Trinity that breaks”. So it is a real purification which can be best approached by setting oneself to love the people around.
This year I seem to have discovered the meaning of God as Love. Love, more than being “of” God, is God himself. Only love remains. We found a short prayer São had written: “Help us to become the family you want us to be. Give me the grace to overcome all difficulties with wit, wisdom, intelligence and goodness. Help us to see everything in your own light”».