I still remember being eleven years old, watching in wonder as Pope Benedict XVI gave the declaration of canonization for St. Rafael Arnaiz Baron. At the time I thought monks only existed in Buddhism, and was pleasantly surprised to find that monks are a vital part of the Catholic Church as well, and have been even from the beginning.
By Dan Dellamarine
18 April 2018
St. Rafael’s brief earthly career was characterized by great suffering amidst great joy. After attending school for architecture, he decided to become a Trappist monk in Palencia, Spain. During this time he suffered from diabetes, which caused him to be shifted from the monastery to his home multiple times with hopes for an improvement in his health. At one point he was drafted into military service during the Spanish Civil War, but was released because of his poor health. Eventually, he was forced to live as an oblate of the monastery and would never take monastic vows. Through all of this, although pained greatly, he lived peacefully and happily until he went to his heavenly reward at the age of twenty-seven.
In the documentary, “What’s It Like to Become a Monk?” released by Journeyman Pictures, one of the Fathers of a Carthusian monastery said the monastery is not a place for weirdos, for people who want to run away from the world, or for misanthropes. This is firmly stated on the website for a traditional community of Carmelite monks in Wyoming. What many people do not realize, is that monks engage in recreation regularly. Because St. Rafael died in 1938, the world possesses contagiously jovial photographs of him. Even in the silence of the monastery, St. Rafael never lost the grin he often donned in photographs from his secular life.
All this being said, St. Thomas Aquinas asserted that no person can reach true happiness in the world. Aside from our call to fulfill the Virtue of Justice (giving God what He deserves to the best of our ability), we are called to live as if we were already living in Heaven. This does not mean we are without pain or humiliation. St. Raphael said, “The angels and the saints rejoice at the sight of men on earth who struggle, suffer, and labor for love of Christ.” This is a very monastic ideal, and one only has to touch upon the works of the Desert Fathers and great monastics in order to understand this as the pinnacle of spiritual life – that is, when it is taken with joyful humility.
While the world seeks to avoid being crucified to Our Lord, the saints understood extreme humiliation as the spiritual summit to reach. And yet, we never find these saints becoming bitter. St. Rafael, who once again comes to mind, was without a doubt saddened at the prospect of never being able to take vows in the monastery he loved so dearly. Oblates of the day probably felt like they were missing out on something important. And yet, he took this as the will of God. Isn’t it painfully ironic, that he wanted to live a life stripped of almost everything we take for granted, and yet he wasn’t able to do that because of obedience?
Perhaps one of the hardships of any twenty-something would be the surrender of independence, especially because he is supposed to be independent and self-sufficient. St. Rafael was twenty-seven when he died. He had graduated college at twenty-two and entered the Trappists around age twenty-three. He had a close relationship with his parents (albeit a reasonably detached one) until his untimely death, and part of this relationship was due to his being so ill. It is difficult enough to surrender one’s will to God. In my own experience, I have convinced myself I was totally surrendered to God only to be hilariously humiliated interiorly. Such is life, because we don’t know everything.
And yet this lack of completion in our purification should serve as a reminder for Lent. Lent is supposed to be intense, even gung-ho as long as one isn’t hurting himself. Lent isn’t about giving up candy and losing weight. It’s about sacrificing oneself to God and letting Him “take the wheel,” as it were. These forty short days are in part supposed to act like a miniature version of life. We are supposed to realize just how much farther we have to sojourn. But if we trust in the roadmap of Scripture and Tradition, we will find we have reached the final destination of sanctity.
St. Rafael’s life, whether he knew it or not, prepared him to be raised to the Altar as a glaring exemplar of contemplation. St. Rafael lived his final years silently as a Trappist monk, and after his perpetual Lenten crucifixion found his soul ascending into the eternal beatitude.