Born in 1911, Rafael Arnáiz was a young architecture student in Madrid when he first visited the Trappist monastery of San Isidro de Dueñas in Venta de Baños, Spain, and fell in love with the contemplative life. After entering the monastery, which he affectionately called “La Trapa,” as a novice in 1934, Rafael was forced to leave formation several times for medical treatment for his diabetes. He ultimately returned to La Trapa as an oblate, unable to take vows and spending most of his time in the infirmary. An artist, mystic, and writer, Rafael kept illustrated journals detailing his spiritual life. Rafael died of diabetes in 1938 at the age of twenty-seven, and his posthumously published writings contributed to his reputation for holiness. He was canonized in 2009 by Pope Benedict XVI.
When Rafael wrote the following entry, he was twenty-five years old. He had just been found medically unfit to serve in the Spanish army, into which he had been drafted during the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War earlier that year. With the monastery empty of its other young men, and threatened by anticlerical violence, Rafael wondered how his silent suffering as a sick Trappist oblate could still serve God. In this entry, God gives him a response.
Three in the afternoon on a rainy December day. It’s time to work, but since it’s Saturday and very cold, we aren’t going out into the fields. We’re going to work in the warehouse where we wash lentils, peel potatoes, chop collard greens, etc. We call it the “laboratory.” There is a long table there, with some benches, a window, and a crucifix up above.
It’s a melancholy day. The clouds are rather gloomy, and the winds somewhat strong. A few drops of water begrudgingly lap at the windowpanes. Pervading it all is a chill befitting the country and the times.
Truth be told, other than the chill—which I can feel in my frozen feet and frigid hands—you could almost say I’ve imagined all this, since I’ve hardly even looked out the window. The afternoon that faces me today is murky, and everything seems murky to me. Something is disturbing my silence, and it seems as if some little devils are determined to aggravate me with what I’d call memories.... Waiting with patience.
A knife has been placed in my hands, and a basket in front of me, full of some kind of big white carrots that turn out to be turnips. I had never seen them raw, they’re so big...and so cold.... Well, nothing to be done about that! All we can do is peel them.
Time passes slowly and my knife does too, moving between their skin and flesh, leaving the turnips perfectly peeled.
The little devils continue to wage war on me. To think that I left my house to come here in this cold and peel these stupid turnips!! It is a truly ridiculous thing, this business of peeling turnips with the seriousness of a magistrate in mourning.
A tiny, shrewd devil infiltrates me and from deep within it reminds me subtly of my house, my family, and my freedom...which I left behind in order to lock myself in here with these lentils, potatoes, collard greens, and turnips.
It’s a melancholy day...I’m not looking out the window, but I can guess as much. My hands are chapped red as the little devils; my feet are frozen solid.... And my soul? Lord, perhaps my soul is suffering a little. But it doesn’t matter...let us take refuge in silence.
Time kept on going, along with my thoughts, the turnips, and the cold; then suddenly, quick as the wind, a powerful light pierced my soul.... A divine light, lasting but a moment.... Someone saying to me, “What are you doing?!” What do you mean, what am I doing? Good Lord!!... What a question! Peeling turnips...peeling turnips!... “But why?”.... And my heart, leaping, gave a wild answer: I’m peeling turnips for love...for love of Jesus Christ.
Now, there’s nothing I could say to make anyone understand this clearly, but I can say that somewhere inside, deep inside my soul, a very great peace took the place of the turmoil that had been there before. All I can say is: just thinking about the fact that in this world, we can make the smallest actions into acts of love for God...that closing or opening our eyes in His name can earn us a place in heaven...that peeling a few turnips for true love of God can give Him as much glory, and give us as many merits, as the conquest of the Indies; thinking about how only through His mercy do I have the great fortune to suffer something for His sake...it fills the soul with such joy that if I had let myself be carried away by my interior impulses at that moment, I would have started flinging turnips in the air, trying to communicate the joy of my heart to these poor root vegetables...I would have made a miraculous show of juggling the turnips with my knife and apron.
I laughed at those little red devils until I cried, and frightened by my change in attitude, they hid among the sacks of chickpeas and a basket of cabbage that was sitting there.
What do I have to complain about? Why should I be sad over what is a cause for joy alone? To what more can a soul aspire, than to suffer a bit for a crucified God?
We are nothing and we are worth nothing; one moment we’ll be overwhelmed by temptation, and then the next we’ll be flying on the wings of consolation at the smallest touch of divine love.
When work started, clouds of sadness covered the sky. My soul was in pain at finding itself on the cross; everything weighed it down: the Rule...work...silence...the absence of the sun on such a sad, grey, cold day. The wind rattling the windowpanes, the rain, the mud...the absence of the sun. The world...so far away, so far...and all the while I was peeling turnips without thinking about God at all.
But everything passes, including temptation.... Time has passed, it is already time to rest, there is light again, and I don’t care anymore if the day is cold or cloudy or windy or sunny. All I care about is peeling my turnips, peaceful, happy, and content, contemplating the Virgin, blessing God.
What does a moment’s regret matter, an instant’s worth of suffering? All I can say is that there is no sorrow that will not be repaid, if not in this life then in the next; and in reality, so little is asked of us in order to gain heaven. Perhaps it is easier in La Trapa than it is out in the world—but not because of this or that state of life, for in the world they have the same means of offering something to God. It’s just that the world is distracting, and a great deal goes to waste.
People are the same there as they are here; our ability to suffer and to love is the same; wherever we go, we shall carry a cross.
May we be able to make the most of our time.... May we be able to love that blessed cross that the Lord places in our path, whatever it may be, no matter what.
Let us make the most of the little things in our everyday life, our ordinary life.... There is no need to do great things to become great saints. Making the little things great is enough.
In the world, people waste many opportunities, but the world is distracting.... It is worth just as much to love God by speaking as it is to love Him in Trappist silence; it is a matter of doing something for Him...keeping Him in mind.... Location, place, occupation are irrelevant.
God can make me just as holy through peeling potatoes as through governing an empire.
What a shame that the world is so distracted...because I have seen that people are not evil...and that everyone suffers, but they don’t know how to suffer...
If they would lift their eyes a little to look beyond the frivolity, beyond that layer of false joy with which the world hides its tears, beyond their ignorance of who God is, if they were to lift their eyes up above...surely what happened to that monk with the turnips would happen to them too.... Many tears would be wiped away, many sorrows would become sweet, and many crosses would be embraced as offerings to Christ.
When work ended, I placed myself in prayer at the foot of Jesus, dead on the cross.... There, at his heels, I left a basket of clean, peeled turnips.... I had nothing else to offer him, but anything offered with one’s whole heart is enough for God, be it turnips or empires.
The next time I peel root vegetables again, whatever they may be, even if they are cold and frozen, I ask that Mary not allow those little red devils to get near me and afflict me. Rather, I ask her to send me angels from heaven, so that as I peel, they might carry the work of my hands in theirs, and place red carrots at the feet of the Virgin Mary; at the feet of Jesus, white turnips, and potatoes and onions, and cabbage and lettuce.
Anyhow, if I live in La Trapa for many years, I will turn heaven into a kind of vegetable market...and when the Lord calls me and says to me, “that’s enough peeling, drop the knife and apron and come enjoy the fruits of your labor”...when I see myself in heaven among God and the saints, and so many vegetables...my Lord Jesus, I cannot help but laugh.
Excerpt from Saint Rafael Arnáiz: Collected Works, edited by Sr. María Gonzalo, OCSO, and translated by Catherine Addington, forthcoming from Cistercian Publications, spring 2022. Reproduced with permission from Liturgical Press. The translator acknowledges Fr. Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist., for the title “The Antics of the Turnips.”