St. Raphael Arnáiz Baron appeared to be nothing in the eyes of humans, but he was holy in the eyes of God, who judges by the heart and not by appearances. His memory is celebrated on 26 April.
Newsroom (05/20/2023 09:00, Gaudium Press) It is often thought that a man’s full development consists in being successful in life, reaching high places, gaining prestige, and obtaining an important fortune. But this is not the teaching that emanates from the Sacred Books, referring to those who hurry to amass riches without using them to glorify God: “The man who lives in opulence will not remain: he is like cattle that are slaughtered” (Ps 48:13). Or: “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses himself, and causes his own destruction?”
God is concerned above all that man conform to His holy will. And He does not ask the same of all souls: to some He will appoint high positions or grant to those the ability to distinguish themselves by works, provided they are always centred on love for God; to others He will call them to renunciation and sacrifice. Both will be great before God, and the latter will have no less merit than the former. The divine tribunal does not judge according to outward appearances, but according to the degree of docility to the will of God.
The story of Blessed Raphael offers an example of this full and unselfish surrender of a life that could have have as easily reached great worldly splendour.
A privileged boy
Raphael Arnáiz Barón was born into an aristocratic family in Burgos, Spain, on 9 April 1911. His parents, fervent Catholics, brought him up with great care in the practice of the Commandments and the love of virtue. At the age of 10, when he could not accompany his classmates to Sunday Mass because he was ill, he begged a priest to bring the Blessed Sacrament to him. Impressed by the piety of the child, the priest agreed, and from then on, Raphael never abandoned Sunday communion.
Before the profound gaze of the young Raphael, his future unfolded in shades of pink and blue. His penetrating intelligence, the liveliness of his conversation and his mild manner won him all of the sympathies of others and increased the natural attraction he exercised over those who approached him. A marked artistic bent added to the charm of his person.
Raphael, however, seemed more made for the contemplation of heavenly things than for the banalities of earthly life. He led a life similar to that of other young men of his age, but his gaze flew easily to God. One might say that his noble soul experienced the exile from this valley of tears and burned with longing for sublime horizons. The response of Providence to these longings, which she herself had planted in that innocent young man, would not be long in coming.
In youth, the dawning of his vocation
At the age of 19, while staying at his uncle’s house in Avila, he was asked to bring a letter to the abbot of the Cistercian monastery of San Isidro de Dueñas. This visit would be for him the clarion call to his vocation.
“What I saw and experienced in La Trappe,” he would write later, “the impressions I had in that holy monastery, cannot be explained; at least I cannot explain them, only God knows… What impressed me most was the singing of the Salve Regina at dusk, before going to bed. […] That was something sublime”.
Indeed, since the time of St. Bernard, it was the custom in Cistercian monasteries to sing the Salve Regina in Gregorian chant immediately after the Compline, in homage to the Blessed Virgin. Faced with the blessing of the chanting of that hymn by more than 50 religious in white habits, Raphael felt invited to imitate them. That day, the project of giving himself to the monastic vocation began to germinate in his mind.
He continued to lead his ordinary life. Given his gift for drawing, he studied for two years at the school of architecture in Madrid. However, grace had wrought a real transformation within him, as he himself describes, “There [in Trapa] alone with God and one’s conscience, one changes one’s way of thinking, one’s way of feeling and, most importantly, one’s way of acting in the acts of the world.”
The decision to embrace the religious life
In 1933, while back in Avila, Rafael surprised his uncle with his news: he had decided to leave the world and join the Cistercian Order, without even telling his parents, who lived in the north of the country, in the city of Oviedo. This is how his uncle describes the impression his nephew’s decision made on him:
Rafael “was physically weak, but the fortitude that his body lacked had in his soul complete and overflowing measure. [His will was of steel; I had the firm conviction that that determination was from God; it was not a whim, nor an impression, nor a mistake; it was the divine fruit of a correspondence to grace, which the Holy Spirit deigned to sustain with one of His most precious gifts: that of fortitude”.
To dissuade him from his previous resolution not to go to Oviedo, his uncle turned to the Apostolic Nuncio, who was in Avila. Faced with the desire of the religious authority, Raphael bent down out of love for obedience, recognizing in that order the first step towards the cross he wished to embrace.
He left for Oviedo and there, after celebrating Christmas in apparent joy, he informed his parents of his decision. They, like good Christians, welcomed him with true emotion, thanking him for the gift that the Lord was giving them.
A new stage in the life of young Raphael
For young Rafael, a new stage was beginning: he was leaving behind the comforts, the family affection, worldly pastimes and the promises of a brilliant future. Above all, he was renouncing that which is most deeply rooted in the human creature: self-will. From now on, this will would be entirely in conformity with the divine will. On 15 January, 1934, the doors of Cistercian opened to the young postulant. His heart was full of good intentions, which he summed up with these words written a few days before: “I want to be holy before God and not men; a holiness that develops in choir, in work, and above all in silence; a holiness known only to God and of which even I am not aware, for then it would no longer be true holiness”.
This holiness would be achieved in the midst of unspeakable sufferings and trials, in apparent uselessness, without anything manifesting itself outwardly.
The first period of his religious life was for Raphael a true paradise. If the fasts and mortifications sometimes brought him to tears, his soul was filled with consolations. The humility he showed in accusing himself of his faults in the chapter of faults and his motionless attitude before the Tabernacle favourably impressed the community, which soon grew fond of him.
The harsh ordeal of illness
For Raphael, the break with the world had already been definitively left behind. But this was not the divine plan. He was enjoying great spiritual happiness when, in May, he felt the first symptoms of the illness that was to lead to his death. The decline in his strength obliged him to be transferred to the infirmary. Shortly afterwards, the doctor diagnosed him with diabetes, which was progressing alarmingly and required appropriate treatment that could only be given outside the monastery…
For him, the ascent to Calvary began, the submissive acceptance of the chalice offered to him. He was forced to return to the world he had so generously renounced!
His confessor, Fr. Teófilo Sandoval, recounts the scene of his departure from the monastery:
“The sighs and tears of the anguished Raphael made me see that in his interior a tremendous spiritual crisis was unfolding that oppressed his heart. When I left the world,” he said, “I said goodbye to everyone until eternity, and the whole Asturian press told me that grace had triumphed in me over nature; I want to die here, I wish this night were the last of my life! Faced with these expressions, I understood that Raphael had penetrated the terrible dark night of the sense, of the heart. “
Rafael returned home. Within a few weeks his health improved and he was able to resume a normal life. On the outside he appeared to be the same as before, with his infectious joy and artistic sensitivity. But a profound change had taken place in his soul and shaped it completely. He experienced another joy, the kind that only souls who love the Cross know.
This is what he wrote to one of his superiors a few days after he left the monastery: “When I went to La Trappe, I gave Him [God] all that I had and all that I possessed: my soul and my body. It is right, therefore, that God should now do with me whatever He pleases and whatever pleases Him, without any complaint on my part, without any rebellious movement […] God not only accepted my sacrifice when I left the world, but He asked me for a greater sacrifice still, that of returning to it… Until when? God has the final word. He gives health, He takes it away.”
These words reflect well the spirit of obedience with which he welcomed the trial sent by Providence. That exile was to last a year and a half, during which time his love for God did nothing but grow and sublimate. On entering the Cistercian Order he had stripped himself of everything, but he still retained the desire to become a good Trappist, to become a priest; he was searching for himself, as he would later affirm. God, as a most good Father, was educating him in such a way as to purify his soul of those rough edges that were so legitimate, but still human.
Finally Raphael begged to be readmitted to the Trappist monastery as an oblate, since his state of health did not permit him to adapt to the monastic regime.
In January 1936 he entered for a second time. There, new tribulations awaited him: isolated in the infirmary, subjected to a diet that provoked criticism from his companions, suffering the misunderstandings of some of his superiors, Raphael felt completely alone. Because of his physical weakness, he was even forbidden to take part in the singing of the Office in church. In addition to these sufferings, there were terrible temptations that suggested to him that he had mistaken his vocation. He faced them all with vigour of spirit and an unchangeable smile on his lips.
Twice more, sickness would take him away from his beloved abbey, but he would return to it again, convinced that it was the place that the divine will had assigned him, despite the obstacles that it seemed to oppose.
The last months of his life
The last months of Raphael’s life were his last steps towards the summit of the Calvary that he had set himself to climb, as reflected in his writings from that period, full of intense spirituality and love of perfection.
His soul attained that indifference recommended by St. Ignatius, by which man desires nothing for himself and allows himself to be led by the divine will. One single passion dominated his heart: God!
“Everything I do is for God. The joys, He sends them; the tears, He gives them; the food, I take for Him; and when I sleep, I do it for Him. My rule is His will, and His desire is my law; I live because it pleases Him, I shall die when He wills. I desire nothing apart from God. [I wish the whole universe – with all the planets, all the stars, and the innumerable systems – were an immense smooth surface on which I could write the name of God. I wish that my voice were more powerful than a thousand thunders, and stronger than the roar of the sea, and more terrible than the roar of volcanoes to only say ‘God’. I would that my heart were as big as Heaven, as pure as the Angels, as simple as the dove to have God in it. “
Meanwhile, his illness was progressing rapidly. Raphael suffered hunger – the brother nurse did not provide him with the food that his illness required – and above all he suffered from thirst. But he let nothing show on the outside, giving everyone the impression that he was better.
At the end of April, he could no longer conceal his alarming state. The delirium of fever was followed by moments of lucidity, during which he appeared serene and resigned. He received the Anointing of the Sick on the 25th, but God asked him to make the sacrifice of being deprived of Viaticum. To the encouraging words that the monks addressed to him, seeking to instill in him the hope of healing, Raphael replied that he was convinced that he would soon leave for Heaven.
He died on the morning of 26 April, 1938, from a diabetic coma. His placid physiognomy and smile reflected the glory that his soul already enjoyed in eternal bliss.
A soul in love with Christ
From the human point of view, his short life seems to have been a monumental failure: he did not complete his career, did not project himself into society, did not fulfill his dreams of the priesthood, and did not even have the consolation of observing the Trappist rule and of taking his vows.
This was not so in the eyes of God, who does not judge by appearances, but according to the heart. Raphael practised a peculiar form of holiness: his soul in love with God attained heroic virtue in the midst of silence, pain and the most complete obliteration.
May his example of humility and ardent charity serve us so that we too may accept with joy whatever the Divine Will wishes to send us.
“I have realized my vocation. I am not a religious … I am not a layman …, I am nothing … Blessed be God, I am nothing more than a soul in love with Christ. […] A life of love, that is my Rule … my vow … that is my only reason for living”.
With files from (Heralds of the Gospel magazine, n. 88, pp. 30 to 33)
Compiled by Sandra Chisholm