Today is the feast of St. Rafael Arnáiz Barón, the young Spanish Trappist about whom I am writing my dissertation. (At least, it’s the anniversary of his death on April 26, 1938. In Spain, a few dioceses have delayed his feast day to April 27 because April 26 is already reserved for St. Isidore of Seville. Of course, April 27 is also already reserved for Our Lady of Montserrat, but I have the feeling St. Rafael would be happier to be overridden by Our Lady.) Anyway, as is my prerogative, I fully intend to simply celebrate him for two days straight.
Celebrating is hard right now, though. Logistically, emotionally. I’m not much in the mood for celebrating, and less so every day of Eastertide in lockdown. It seems wrong to be joyful when people are dying en masse. This is one of the things that annoys me about St. Rafael, actually, his joy in conditions of misery. As I was translating selections from his writings for the St. Rafael novena, I was tempted to replace the one for day six.
Although crosses and sufferings have been unleashed on humanity, how gentle these become when we see that it is the Lord who permits them. If only you could see how pleasant and sweet it is to be in God’s hands! Do not worry or cry or get upset over passing sorrows, for even if they did not pass, and even if we had to remain on the cross until the end of the world, Jesus is so good and loves us so much.
Are you sure, Rafael? I mean, you must be, why else would you say that. But it just irritated me to read that. Must be nice to really believe that a loving God would be content with letting you hang on the cross til kingdom come. Bet you wouldn’t say that if you were living through this pandemic, you bright-eyed weirdo.
But of course Rafael did live through a pandemic. He was seven when the so-called Spanish flu pandemic broke out. He also lived through a couple of civil wars—he wasn’t looking at suffering through rose-colored glasses. More to the point, he spent most of his life sick. Various fevers and infections interrupted his schooling, from elementary school all the way through college. His severe diabetes forced him out of the monastery he had entered several times, before he ultimately accepted a lesser role in the community as an oblate because his body could not keep up with the lifestyle. He spent years in excruciating pain and wild delirium. I mean, not constantly, it was on-and-off, but it’s not like life in a Trappist monastery was cushy even when he was feeling well. San Isidro de Dueñas was a desolate place to live, cold and spare, a place of hard stone and tough vegetables. This is the scarier aspect of Rafael’s gentle writings: they come from a man who spent so much of his life in agony on the bad days and extreme discomfort on the good days. He absolutely remained on the cross, and he has the nerve to write of utter confidence in God’s love? Come on! Complain at least a little, so that I can feel better about wanting to complain a lot with far less reason!
Reading St. Rafael, for me, is like reading the book of Revelation: it mostly makes me worry a lot for the writer. What did St. Rafael or St. John ever do for Jesus other than love him, and his Mother, with the greatest tenderness? Yet here is Rafael cheerful through unspeakable physical torment, and there is John in thrall to terrifying visions as he raves on an island in his final days. How is it this same Christ, who healed bodies and cast out demons all his life, that loves these men in their agony? How can it be possible that he called these two men into contemplation of the final things and laid heaven and hell bare before their souls in such plain terms? Doesn’t he know that human eyes cannot see the face of God and live?
St. Rafael may have asked these very questions, but he was infinitely wiser than me in that he was willing to listen for the answer. He recalls the fruits of one day of meditation:
God takes me by the hand through a field where there are tears, wars, sorrows and sufferings, saints and sinners; He brings me close to the Cross and, showing me all this with His gaze, He says: “All this is Mine, do not despise it; love your fellow creatures, for they are Mine.” What a great joy it is to see that you are loved by God, to count yourself among His friends, to follow him step by step in Jerusalem with eyes fixed on His countenance!
To follow him step by step in Jerusalem: In our suffering we are not being punished by God, but rather coming to know Him. This is a hard saying; I have not yet fully accepted it. But I can see how St. Rafael and St. John did. If there were ever two souls that desperately wanted to know Jesus, to truly know him with the deepest intimacy, it was these two great and holy virgins who laid down their lives for him every day. Man has no greater love than that. Do not despise this world, Jesus said to Rafael, for all this is Mine. How can we possibly resist such a gentle commandment?
As I set out on my dissertation project, translating and writing about St. Rafael, I find myself tempted by the same thing that every overambitious doctoral student is: to establish unfathomable research questions. I face the prospect of contemplating and writing in isolation for a year whether or not these lockdowns ever lift, and such conditions are dangerous for those of us prone to spiritual melodrama as it is. Laboring under a post-it that reads WHAT IS THE POINT OF THE SICKNESS? will lead to nothing but despair. But perhaps it is not so impossible to strive toward a gentler question: “What can we learn in the sickness?” God is teaching us the answer to that one all the time. Do not despise it, for it is Mine.