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.