While the Second Vatican Council made clear that the call to holiness is universal and holiness means to be whole, the word holiness also suggests separation from the world. Perhaps that is why one’s feelings are mixed on encountering a person whose fervor is genuine but seemingly extreme. Such is the case with Rafael Arnáiz Barón, a little-known Spanish Trappist who died at age 27 in April 1938 and was canonized on Oct. 11, 2009. Readers of his brief writings cannot but be struck by the young saint’s singular love of the cross. (Quotations are from notes he made on instructions from his spiritual director.)
To savor the Cross...to live sick, unknown, abandoned by all—only you...and on the Cross. How sweet the bitterness, the loneliness, the grief, the pain, wolfed down and swallowed in silence, without help. How sweet the tears shed next to your Cross.
Ah! If I knew how to tell the world where true happiness is! But this the world does not understand, nor can it...because to understand the Cross...one must love it. To love it one must suffer; and not only suffer but love the suffering...In this, Lord, how few follow you to Calvary.
Here is a soul talking to other souls. Many can relate to the saint’s candid admission: “I do not know how to pray; I do not know what it is to be good.... I do not have a religious spirit, for I am full of the world.” Many of us have similar thoughts. On the one hand, we may be drawn to Christ; on the other, put off. An unwritten popular dictum says it is all right to be religious, but not too religious.
Paul speaks of the cross as a stumbling block to Jews, but it is a stumbling block to Christians too. Frequently we make an offering of our difficulties, our own cross, but rarely do we look for opportunities to make sacrifices. Something in the embrace of avoidable suffering strikes us as folly. Yet Christ himself tells us to take up our cross: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mk 8:34). We know these words but cringe before self-denial and dread suffering. So did Brother María Rafael, as he was known. Just weeks before his death he confided:
I am always beginning and I never see that I do anything. I go on with my easy life, comfortable, and unmortified...partly (and only partly) because the superiors will not allow me and partly (the major part) because I do not make up my mind, and austerity frightens me.
An Architect Turned Contemplative
Who cannot sympathize with St. Rafael’s hesitation, his fear of austerity? He is like us in the immediacy of his response but unlike us in his total embrace of the cross. A biographical note can clarify some of this difference. Rafael was a Jesuit-educated architect, who originally intended to become a monk, but the onset of Type 1 diabetes forced him to withdraw. In December 1937 he re-entered the monastery for the last time as an oblate, a layman who shares in the spiritual life and prayer of the community. There he lived in the infirmary until his death four months later. During this time he noted:
When I left my home, by my own deliberate intent, I left behind a series of treatments that my illness required and I came to embrace a state in which it is impossible to care for so touchy a sickness. I knew perfectly well what awaited me.
Nevertheless...sometimes, poor Br. Rafael, without your being aware of it, you were suffering, seeing yourself deprived of many necessary things, stripped free of the liberty of giving into the weakness of your illness and giving it the remedies that out there in the world you did not lack.
Here we are confronted with the folly of the cross. St. Rafael is set apart from us by his special vocation, but even more by his freely chosen decision to abjure the care available to him for love of the cross of Christ. Even now, 72 years after his death, such a choice unnerves us in our contemplation of the cross. Yet this saint does not evade the quandary that suffering presents:
It is difficult to explain why one loves suffering! But I believe that it can be explained because it is not suffering in itself, but rather as it is in Christ, and whoever loves Christ loves his Cross.
We read St. Rafael’s outpourings of soul with contradictory feelings. Still, we can see ourselves in his reflections:
If at times God is not in the soul it is because we do not want him there. We have such an accumulation of things to do, of distractions, of interests, vain desires, conceit, we have so much world within us, that God distances himself...but all we have to do is want him.
Yet when we read, “there is no merit in desiring nothing when one loves God,” we feel like outsiders confronted with a reality we cannot quite grasp. “If we are united in love to his will, we will desire nothing he does not desire...all he might want from us will be to our liking.” He tries to explain such an extraordinary turnabout:
Every day I am happier in my complete abandonment into his hands. I see his will even in the most insignificant and tiny things that happen. In everything I find a lesson that serves to make me understand better his mercy toward me. I love his designs with my whole being, and that is enough.
One of St. Rafael’s most succinct expressions of love of the cross is this: “Longings for heaven, on the one hand, and a human heart, on the other.... In short, suffering and Cross.” He expresses this in a drawing sent to his brother of “a humble lay brother who has chosen the road of truth in the dark night of the world...only the Cross of Christ sheds light on the path of his life.” Rafael is this lay brother who looks on the cross with unfaltering love. It is a symbol of the love Christ has for us.
God is in the detached heart, in the silence of prayer, in the voluntary sacrifice to pain, in the emptiness of the world and its creatures. God is in the Cross, and as long as we do not love the Cross, we will not see him, or feel him.... If the world and men knew.... But they will not know; they are very busy in their interests; their hearts are very full of things that are not God.
Strict With Himself
Rafael could be very hard on himself. Two weeks before his death, he found fault with how poorly he served God, his lack of humility, his disposition to follow his own whims. Who cannot identify with Rafael’s self-assessment?
My prayer is not good. I neither pray nor meditate nor do my lectio well. At work...I hardly work: when I eat and sleep I do nothing else—eat and sleep like a little animal. I cannot go on that way.
What one does is nothing in itself and is worth nothing; what is of worth is the way in which it is done.... When will you understand that? How stupid you are! When will you understand that virtue is not in eating an onion but in eating an onion for love of God? When will you understand that sanctity is not in doing external things but in the interior intention of any act whatsoever? If you know it, why don’t you practice it?
Rafael appeared like a meteor that burned out in the dwindling months of the Spanish Civil War and the charged months that preceded the start of World War II. We too live in calamitous times of wars and a global economic collapse. God’s ways are beyond our understanding, but the mystery of God’s will and plan for salvation continues to play out in the world. It is no accident that Rafael’s impassioned love of the cross should be brought to our attention by his recent canonization. Perhaps Rafael was sent to restore the meaning of the cross to a generation for whom it has become emptied of meaning. He sums up his message of the cross in homage to simplicity:
With Jesus at my side nothing seems difficult to me, and I see more that the road to sanctity is simple. Better still, it seems to me that it consists in continuing to get rid of things instead of collecting them, in slowly boiling down to simplicity instead of becoming complicated with new things. In the measure that we detach ourselves from so much disordered love for creatures and for ourselves, it seems to me that we are getting closer and closer to the only love, the sole desire, the one longing of this life...to true sanctity, which is God.
Perhaps this is St. Rafael’s message for us.