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    Learning to Wait on the Lord

    Rafael Arnaiz, the young future saint, thought he was doing God’s will. Then diabetes forced him to return home from the monastery. Had he been mistaken?

    By Sr. María Gonzalo-García

    August 1, 2022
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    Who likes to wait? Honestly, waiting is not something I’m good at. This is why I need the school of community, which for me is Our Lady of the Angels Monastery, a community of Trappist-Cistercian nuns in Virginia. When the Lord delays – as happened to Martha and Mary of Bethany when their brother was dying (John 11:6) – and I’m stretched by desire, I become more aware that I’m a disciple, a servant and not the master of my life or the lives of those I love.

    Rafael Arnaiz, the most recently canonized saint of the Trappist-Cistercian Order, has shown me that only those who hope know how to wait. But what happens when hope is scarce? Simply put, we suffer. Such was also Rafael’s experience, the practical way in which he learned how to wait and to accept God’s plan for his life.

    Like many other saints, Rafael would have passed unnoticed after his brief lifetime if he had not left behind a significant number of journals and letters that rapidly caught the attention of many readers. Rafael synthesizes the knowledge he received during his monastic journey in these words, “Our entire science consists of knowing how to wait.”

    In my personal experience and also as vocation director of my community, making the effort to stop and take time to pray and discern is now harder than ever. Everyone seems to move so fast around us that it’s easy to feel pressed to move on, even if this means ignoring a profound ache in our hearts.

    Rafael waited because he knew that nothing but God alone could satisfy his deepest desire. He was consumed by this yearning as he experienced more and more how God also longed for him. The encounter of these two thirsts is at the core of the monastic vocation. Rafael expressed it very simply, “Jesus needs souls who listen to him in silence.”

    Community life is the school where we learn to listen to the Word and to channel our interior desire in constant praise and mutual service. Obedience, humility, manual labor, and a simple way of life are means of getting rid of anything that may hinder our complete union with God in love. In intercessory prayer, we bring all people before Christ so that they too can experience God’s longing for them, just as Rafael wrote on his last Holy Thursday, “Lord, take me and give yourself to the world.”

    Rafael Arnaiz was born in Burgos, Spain. He lived through some of the most difficult and violent years of Spanish contemporary history, including the severe religious persecution that started during the Second Republic (1931–1936) and continued during the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939). In his early youth, Rafael seemed to be destined to succeed. The firstborn of a wealthy family connected to the Spanish nobility, he was also rich in personal talents: a brilliant sense of humor, great charm, and natural gifts for painting and music. As a lover of beauty in art and nature, he decided to study architecture. But on January 15, 1934, he left everything to become a Trappist monk. He was twenty-two years old.

    For four months he followed the strict observance of the Rule of Saint Benedict that characterizes all Trappist monasteries. Despite the tremendous change of lifestyle, he wrote in a letter to his parents that the monastery, which he called La Trapa, had been made for him and he for La Trapa, and that the only hard thing in Trappist life was his bed. The monastery was “the threshold of heaven.” But a diagnosis of diabetes forced him to return to his parents’ home to receive immediate medical treatment. It was then that his intensive lessons in waiting began.

    At the core of the Rule of Saint Benedict is a chapter on humility. In it, the father of western monasticism describes the attitude of one who is following Christ by climbing what he calls “the steps of humility”: “his heart quietly embraces suffering and endures it without weakening or seeking escape.” As a senior sister explained to me at the beginning of my monastic journey, this step is a stumbling block for many monks and nuns: “obedience under difficult, unfavorable, or even unjust conditions.” This profound acceptance of suffering goes beyond compliance. It is the expression of a total surrender in love and trust. On the cover of one of his journals Rafael drew a simple sketch of a monk kneeling before the cross, its shadow falling over the monk’s habit. Saint Rafael knew well how costly it is to remain under the shadow of the cross, but he also harvested the fruit it yielded in his soul:

    I don’t know if this will make sense, but I’ve learned to love people as they are, and not as I wish they were. My soul – with or without a cross, whether good or bad, wherever it may be, wherever God places it, as God wishes it – has undergone a transformation.

    … I can’t explain it, I don’t have the words … but I call it serenity … It is a very great peace that allows you to both suffer and rejoice … It is knowing you are loved by God, despite our littleness and misery. … It is the sweet, serene joy of truly abandoning yourself in his hands.

    sketch from Rafaels diary of a monk kneeling before a cross

    Sketch from the cover of one of St. Rafael's journals Used with permission

    The whole of Rafael’s writings give witness to the change God can produce in any soul if we cooperate with him by taking up our cross daily. The challenge is, as Rafael puts it, that “yes, all of humanity suffers, but there are so few who know how to suffer.” For Rafael, to suffer well means to take up the cross God is giving us, not the one we choose. Learning to suffer and learning to wait go hand in hand, because it takes time and stillness to be able to discern and embrace God’s will for our lives. When I wait on the Lord, not in frustration or procrastination, I’m intent on listening to God’s heart and my own at a deeper level. Rafael explains this process in a letter to his abbot requesting his second entrance into the monastery, this time as an oblate, that is, a person who follows the monastic life with some restrictions and without making public religious vows.

    When I requested that you admit me into the community two years ago, writing from this same Ávila, my desire was good and holy; I was searching for God, and God gave himself to me so freely … I suffered, but when it’s for his sake, it’s not suffering … I had hopes and dreams, I wanted to be holy, I thought with delight about the choir, about being a real monk someday … There was so much happening within me, Reverend Father … I was searching for God, but I was also searching for his creatures, and I was searching for myself; and God wants me all to himself … My vocation was from God, and is of God, but it needed to be purified, its rough edges needed smoothing. I gave myself to the Lord generously, but I still wasn’t giving him everything; I gave him my body, my soul, my career, my family … but I still held on to one thing: my dreams and desires, my hopes of being a Trappist and making my vows and singing the Mass. That kept me going at La Trapa, but God wants more, he always wants more. I needed to be transformed. He wanted his love alone to be enough for me. With a novice’s zeal, I offered him … I offered him something, but I didn’t know what. I thought I didn’t have anything left to give him, that my life was the one thing I had left, and that he already knew it was his. Reverend Father, I have nothing else to tell you; God sent me a trial, and at first I thought it meant that God didn’t love me, that his will was different, but he doesn’t ask for our opinion or explain himself when he sends us something that’s good for us. Weak creatures, what do you know of God’s designs! He’ll handle doing the work without consulting us. All we have to do is let ourselves be shaped in his hands, and hold still, very still; later, the time and light he has sent us will allow us to see his work clearly, and then we will give him infinite thanks for his loving care. How many tears must be shed before one is willing to kiss the cross!

    Part of Rafael’s cross was the uncertainty and instability of the path on which he was called to follow Jesus. His vocation didn’t fit any regular pattern, and this defied not only his expectations but also those of others, causing him to be misunderstood by many, including the brothers of his own community. In September 1936 he was called up for military service with all the young monks. Declared unfit because of his diabetes, he returned to the monastery, but the lack of proper medical attention forced him to leave again when his health deteriorated. He returned for good in December 1937. Rafael was never able to make religious vows because his illness prevented him from following some elements of the monastic discipline such as the diet; however, on April 17, 1938, his abbot, Fr. Félix Alonso García, granted Rafael the habit of the professed monk, the cowl and black scapular. Nine days later, Rafael unexpectedly and quietly passed away.

    Words cannot contain the love that finds in silence its perfect shelter and expression. In his prayerful silence, Rafael expressed what his heart, filled with love for Christ, struggled to put into words. His prayer was waiting with the humility of the publican in the temple (Luke 18:9–14) and the persistence of the man knocking at night at the closed door of his friend (Luke 11:5–8). He waited with burning desire, just as Saint Paul describes in the Letter to the Romans, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (Rom. 8:19). Rafael has taught me that this kind of waiting is not a passive attitude; on the contrary, it takes discipline, detachment, and courage.

    At the beginning of the Book of Acts we read that the risen Lord told his apostles “not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4). Why wait, and precisely there, in Jerusalem, under the shadow of the cross of their Master? No explanations were given; what we know is that they waited “constantly devoting themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:14). After the initial onset of his diabetes, Rafael waited and prayed for a cure that didn’t come. He so longed to return to his monastery to follow what he thought was God’s plan for his life. His waiting was painful, and so is ours when we don’t see how to follow paths we don’t understand. From a human perspective, his situation made no sense. He was told that he was mistaken and that he should move on in another direction. Still, he clung to the faithfulness of God in his promises. As he waited, he realized that only his own plans had been frustrated, not God’s. His illness was not only his cross but his treasure, because it opened him up completely to receive what he could have never achieved through his own efforts: an unimaginable love.

     
     
     
     

    Learning how to wait is learning how to suffer. And learning how to suffer is learning how to love, yes, to love more and more, and even more. Truly, we may feel like we are losing our mind in the process – this happens to me at times – but it’s the right kind of madness, according to Saint Rafael:

    Blessed is that foolishness, which makes us live beyond the bonds of this earth, which helps us see the sorrows of our exile through the dazzling lens of hope, the certain hope of a splendid, resplendent day that will not delay … Blessed is that foolishness for Christ, which makes us realize how vain and small our suffering is, turning our bitter tears into the sweetest of songs, the pain and heartache of this life into the gentle fetters that bind us to Jesus.

    This is the ultimate fruit of waiting: foolishness for Christ, a love so passionate that it doesn’t know the limits of suffering and fear. This is the miracle that Rafael experienced and to which he invites us: to remain still under the shadow of the cross, where grace will transform us, leading us to a place we could never reach on our own: a new logic, a boundless love, the fulfillment of our deepest desire.


    This article contains passages from Saint Rafael Arnaiz: The Collected Works, edited by María Gonzalo-García and translated by Catherine Addington, © 2022 by Our Lady of the Angels Monastery (Cistercian Publications). Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.

    Contributed By Sister Maria Gonzalo-García

    Sister María Gonzalo-García is a Trappist-Cistercian nun and vocation director at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Crozet, Virginia.

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