Today we keep the memory of a Cistercian saint of the 20th century, St Rafael (1911 – 1938). A gifted young man, who studied architecture and showed himself a talented and perceptive artist, he was captivated by the Cistercian monastic life and entered the Spanish monastery of San Isidro. However, he soon became ill with diabetes, then an unmanageable and incurable disease, which finally claimed his life. Although St Rafael could never profess vows as a monk he strove with every fibre of his being to embrace his Cistercian vocation and so rightly stands alongside other saints of the Order.
During his time in the monastery Rafael committed his thoughts, struggles, joys and reflections on Cistercian monasticism to writing in his notebooks, and littered these meditations with wonderful illustrations. His writings have be recognised and received as rightly inspired and inspiring, and serve as a wonderful introduction, and more, to this young saint’s extraordinary life and lived vocation. Today we would like to offer an extract from a single passage, written in July 1936, in which St Rafael reflects on his own journey to the Cistercian life and his monastery. The passage serves not just as his own personal testament and vocation story but as a sounding board for others: what strikes one person can strike another, what answers one person’s question can provide clues to resolve another’s questioning. The vocation story of one man or woman very often provides a sounding board for our own discernment: we lead each other, consciously and unconsciously, in the definitive search for God. Through these words of St Rafael we invite you to consider what it is in your life that sounds of vocation, that sounds of the divine, which attracts you, delights you, satisfies you above all other things.
There are some outstanding attitudes contained herein which are worthy of pause. In the first instance we might remark that Rafael is extraordinarily observant and attentive: he notices what is around, and his heart is moved by what he sees and how it invites him to further consideration. It’s a classic journey, in a way: the beauty which surrounds us and in which we participate by delight cannot be an end in itself – it leads us, if we are open to it, to the Beautiful One himself, beauty’s author. This openness to be led further reveals a deep desire within: who gives my life completeness, meaning, content?
The question which lies at the heart of St Rafael’s narrative is addressed to each of us: what am I prepared to give in my search for God? What I am prepared to surrender, recognising that God is searching for, and has found and called me? It’s a tough question: for St Rafael nothing could be held back for oneself: the only way to God was to put everything aside, so that everything that was given back would speak of God. This is the essence of the monastic attitude: until I really give away all that I am, nothing will be permitted to speak fully of God, who is all that I need!
Throughout the passage St Rafael uses the alternative term, Trappist, for speaking about things Cistercian of the Strict Observance:
How difficult it is to express the impression made by a Trappist monastery on one who is not a Trappist! Some years ago a worldly young man stopped at the abbey, his head full of … well, I don’t know what that man’s head was full of.
He spent some days as a guest among those good monks, and as he was enamoured of music, of colour, and of all that was in any way intrinsically artistic, he was profoundly struck on hearing the psalmody in choir (the monks chanting the Work of God, or Divine Office, at the regular times during the day in the monastic church) … he was deeply moved by the silence of these men who far from the world were living a holy life, and he was filled with an inexpressible joy at the sight of men clad in white (while our habit is a white robe and a black scapular, held together with a leather belt, the distinguishing garment of the Cistercian monastic is the white, long sleeved cowl, which is worn now in Choir, and often at more formal moments), working in fields that were decked out in full fruit and flower, who by the sweat of their brows and calloused hands, struggled to support themselves while in this exile, and at the same time work to earn rest in the true homeland.
When that young man of the world saw what he saw, his soul underwent a change, and perhaps the Lord of the Trappists took advantage of the impression made on his senses to make him think.
And that young man did think.
Today he is one of the Trappists in the choir, one labourer more in the field, a man who, wishing to forget the world, seeks silence from creatures and the peace of God.
In that tableau, which he saw at the abbey some years ago, he found art and cause for rejoicing; everything served to impress him: the austere monks dressed in white, their silence, the sometimes grave voice of the large bless, the gay tinkle of the small bell, the cloisters bathed in sunlight, and the fields of grain crossed by that long line of the inhabitants of the monastery returning to work.
That young man thought.
God made use of all that was exterior to penetrate his somewhat dreamy soul with his divine light. How great is the mercy of the Lord!
Some years passed, and that man exchanged his worldly clothing for the habit of a monk of Cîteaux. He exchanged his old ways of a man of the world for the simplicity of the Rule left to us by our father St Benedict. He changed the direction of his life, turning aside from the winding paths that in the world lead to well-being, fortune, perhaps even to glory, leaving his career, and directing his steps and his thoughts along the way that leads to eternal life by the road that was followed, and is followed, by the lovers of God.
Everything underwent a transformation, and so that nothing would remain of the past he also changed his way of perceiving.
Now, seeing himself as an integral part and not a spectator of the tableau he admired years back, he realised with great surprise of soul that something had been lacking in his mode of perceiving, just one thing – the presence of God was missing from his viewpoint. Art touched his deepest self, but he still had not seen God in the external.
Today it is different: today he is a Trappist, this former giddy and dreamy young man; now he does not care about the bells, or the birds, or the sun. Now he has seen, with Mary’s help, that the main thing in a Trappist monastery is God. Now he no longer sings the praises of the art of creatures, but of the art of God. Now he is no longer impressed as such by the colours of the fields, unless it be to see in them the Creator. Now he has come to understand that all that is exterior is vanity … that all that makes an impression on the senses alone is ephemeral and like a vapour drifts apart and is gone. Flowers fade, the sparkling sun of springtime pales and becomes sad in winter, the birds of the air hide away, and the emerald-green fields lose their colour.
Everything passes; man ages and finally dies. Herein is the only truth.
God alone endures.
All the impressions made on that young man of the world contemplating a Trappist monastery are turned into one thing only, something that was lacking before: God! If a man’s soul is in any way artistic he will revel in the silence and the peace of the monastery, but let him not believe that God is in all of this, but rather that in order to find God he must set all of this aside.
Only God should absorb the soul! Peace does not lie in silence, or in the cypresses of the cloister, or in the song of the birds. Peace for the Trappist is God, and outside of him there is nothing in a Trappist monastery worth a damn.
Help me, O Virgin Mary, to obtain that which alone can satisfy my soul, which is Christ Jesus! Amen.