The life and death, and consequent beatification and canonization of St Rafael are proof, if we needed it, that the Cistercian-Trappist vocation and life is not a ‘one size fits all’ calling. Born on 9th April 1911 – Palm Sunday that year – Rafael’s life was to be the shortest burst of energy expressed through intense suffering in his love for God and his patience and perseverance in our Cistercian life. He died at the age of just 27 on 26th April, 1938 – Easter Sunday that year! In a sense, his life and its span were a complete living out of Christ’s Passion Week and journey from triumphant entry, to the complete acceptance of suffering, and on to resurrection.
Born in Burgos in Spain, Rafael Arnáiz Barón is remembered as a man of extraordinary intelligence and talent, a jovial character, always happy, despite the burden of illness, yet at the same time a man of great simplicity, and wholly centred on following Jesus Christ. His entire approach to his life, from an early age, can be summed up by a phrase which he made very much his own: “God alone!”.
Having completed his secondary education, Rafael enrolled to study architecture. He had displayed a prodigious talent for drawing and painting, but while at the School of Architecture in Madrid it was his spiritual identity which began to come more and more to the fore. His uncle had brought him to visit the Cistercian monastery of San Isidro de Dueñas, and this first visit was to have a lasting impression, flowering quickly into vocation. But as a student the other areas of his devotional life continued to grow – adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, membership of Catholic Action and St Vincent de Paul Society, and his own private prayer and obvious piety.
A chance viewing of a film about the famous French Cistercian abbey of Sept-Fons seems to have definitively set Rafael on the course of his Cistercian vocation. He made his mind up to enter Dueñas, and did so on 15th January 1934. Little did he know that, within a few months, the joy of his novitiate would be transformed into another type of conformity to Christ.
Br Rafael’s health collapsed very suddenly in May 1934 with the onset of diabetes mellitus. Because of the gravity of the illness and its effect on him, Rafael had to leave the monastery and return to his parents to recover somewhat. He himself wrote:
“When I left the monastery, I surrendered to him everything I had, everything that I possessed: my soul and my body. My soul was absolute, total; it is quite right, then, that God should now make of me whatever seems good to him, whatever he pleases, without my making any complaint, without any rebellion…. God is my absolute master and I am his servant who obeys without a word. The trial he has demanded of me is hard, but with his help I shall come out ahead … without looking back.”
Rafael was able to return to the community at last in January 1936, but now as an oblate – a monk who would not make public vows. His diabetes, effectively, meant that he could not follow the strictures of the Rule, but he could live the life to some extent. As we said above, the Cistercian life seems to be able, in these ways, to make room for those who truly want to live it, and so the Rule tries to embrace those who wish to embrace the life. The word ‘oblate’ means ‘offering’, and this was how Rafael saw himself:
“My vocation is exactly that: to want to forget the world and its creatures, … so that I might offer myself to the Lord in the silence and the humility of the oblate’s habit”.
Thus his great desire was to be an offering to God, but without the world knowing it, and a light shadow that passes through life, loving God completely, and as quietly as possible.
His diabetes continued to play havoc with the life which he had claimed and he left the monastery again twice more to recuperate at his parents home. But he cast all cares away from him, entrusting himself to God:
“Away with worries about what may happen in the future! Away with human fears, because it is Jesus of Nazareth who guides me! What have I to fear? Doesn’t it seem to bother you, Brother, that you might have followed him, and nothing in the world, not even your own self, would have been important? Well, this is what happened to me. I feel that glance of Jesus deep in my soul… I feel that nothing in the world fills me … except God alone, … God alone, …God alone! And Jesus says to me: ‘You can come when you wish… it is not important that you should be the last… would I love you any the less for that?… perhaps more.”
Br Rafael died in his monastery on 26th April, 1938. He was beatified in St Peter’s Square by Pope, now Saint, John Paul II on 27th September, 1992. Fr Aelred Magee ocso of our community assisted the Holy Father that day as deacon at the Mass. Pope Benedict XVI canonized Blessed Rafael on 11th October 2009. In his homily on that day, the Holy Father said:
He said yes to the proposal to follow Jesus, in an immediate and decisive way, without limits or conditions. Thus he set out on his path, which from the moment in the monastery when he realized that he “did not know how to pray “, led him in just a few years to the summit of spiritual life, where he describes with great simplicity and naturalness in many writings. Brother Rafael, still close to us, continues to offer, through his example and his works, a fascinating journey, especially for young persons who are not satisfied easily, but who aspire to the full truth, the most inexpressible joy, reached for the love of God. “Life is love… This is the only reason to live,” said the new Saint. And he insists: “From the love of God come all things.” May the Lord receive one of the last prayers by Saint Rafael Arnáiz, while he gave his entire life up to Him, pleading: “Take me and give Yourself to the world.” May he be given to reinvigorate the interior life of Christians today. May he be given so that his Brothers in the Trappists and the monastic centres can continue to be a beacon that reveals the intimate yearning for God which He placed in every human heart.
May St Rafael intercede for us and lead many young men and women to seek God alone in the Cistercian life.
-Part of our ‘Celebration of the Saints’ series-