I have been immersing myself in the life and writings of St. Rafael Arnáiz Barón (1911–1938), the first Trappist saint, and perhaps the only non-martyred saint who died during the Spanish Civil War. I will confess that when I learned about Rafael from a friend at a nearby monastery—a Trappist, you guessed it—those dates made me nervous. The 1930s were not a good time for the Spanish Church. On the one hand, you had religious getting martyred left and right (but mostly left); on the other, you had a murderous dictator using the Church’s name and resources to legitimize himself. So when my friend approached me about a potential translation project involving Rafael’s writings, my stomach dropped. I couldn’t imagine Rafael’s life wasn’t touched by the war—and if it was, how he could have handled it in a way such that he ended up canonized without being complicit in fascism. She suggested I take some time to think about it. So I am.
It turns out Rafael was called up for military service twice. As a layman, before the civil war, he did that early-twenties hat-wearing barracks-sleeping student kind of soldiering. As a monk, during the war, he was yanked from his monastery only to be found medically unfit. Skimming his writings for the words “España,” “nación,” and “guerra,” I was extremely on edge, because of course, he has said any number of things I take issue with. (Imperialism is not a metaphor, my dear friend!) But that’s not why I found myself getting so tense about this. No, I found myself anxious because I could not stop smiling at so much of what he wrote, so giddy with divine contemplation, but also so young and awkward and innocent, clearly struggling to articulate his first and only love. I was really moved by his writing. And the more I read, the more inevitable it felt. Whether this translation project was going to happen or not, Rafael and I were becoming friends, and I was—and am—deeply uncomfortable with it.
Even so, providence put him in my life, so I stopped skimming and started reading in earnest. Eventually I circled back around to his 1934 notebook, written in Oviedo, which he called Apología del Trapense or The Trappist’s Apologia. At one point he shares a reflection he had walking home from church, taking in the destitution of the city’s poor, and lamenting how all of society was turning away from God. Reading it, I understood why God had introduced me to Rafael. For if my desire to engage only unproblematic faves is stronger than my eagerness to see God at work in every time and place, it is not God I seek, but procedural unassailability.
But that’s for me to work out with my confessor. For you, I have translated that bit of Rafael (Spanish below):
The poor are just as much children of God as the rich, all have the same misfortunes and the same sins, but one day, when God judges, how many surprises await us! The desperation of the hungry can be justified, but the selfishness of those who have money, that cannot be forgiven.
If the powerful forget God, why are we surprised that the powerless rebel? 1 It is not necessary to preach patience and resignation to the poor, but rather it is the rich to whom it must be said that if they are unjust and do not give of what they have, the wrath of God shall fall upon them.
As I walked through these poor neighborhoods, I was seized by thoughts of indignation and shame. The more God is banished from society, the more misery there will be; and if in a place that calls itself Christian, people hate one another because of class and self-interest, and they separate themselves into rich and poor neighborhoods, what will happen on the day that God’s name is cursed by both one and the other?
If the idea of God is taken from the poor, they have nothing else left; their despair is justifiable, their hatred for the rich is natural, their desire for revolution and anarchy is logical; and if the idea of God bothers the rich and they do not heed the precepts of the Gospel nor the teachings of Jesus, then they should not complain; and if their selfishness hinders them from coming near to the poor, then they should not be surprised that the poor plan to take what they have by force.
Seeing society as it is today, what Christian soul does not feel pain? When I think that all social conflicts and differences would be smoothed out if we turned our gaze slightly toward that abandoned God I just visited in church…When I see such an easy solution to man’s happiness, but these are blind or crazy or do not want to see it, then I cannot help exclaiming: Lord, Lord, look on your suffering people. Men are not evil, Lord, but if You abandon them, who, Lord, shall be able to survive? What can we do on our own? Nothing, absolutely nothing. If you were to look away from the world for just a moment, the world would be thrown into chaos. Forgive us, Lord.
The Trappist’s Apologia, St. Rafael Arnáiz Barón, 1934
N.B.: Of course, as soon as I finished translating this, I realized Pater Edmund had already done so, with far more grace. But that’s Lent for you.
Y tanto los pobres como los ricos son hijos de Dios, todos tienen las mismas miserias y los mismos pecados, pero algún día, cuando Dios juzgue, ¡qué sorpresas nos vamos a llevar! La desesperación del que tiene hambre se puede justificar, pero el egoísmo del que tiene dinero, eso no tiene perdón.
Si los de arriba olvidan a Dios, ¿por qué nos extrañamos que se rebelen los que están abajo? No hay que predicarle al pobre paciencia y resignación, sino que es al rico al que hay que decirle que si no es justo y no da lo que tiene, la ira de Dios caerá sobre él.
Al ir caminando por estos barrios pobres, me asaltaban pensamientos de indignación y vergüenza. Cuanto más se destierre a Dios de la sociedad, habrá más miseria, y si en un pueblo que se llama cristiano, las criaturas se odian por razón de castas y de intereses, y se separan en barrios ricos y pobres, ¿qué pasará el día que el nombre de Dios sea maldecido por unos y por otros?
Si al pobre le quitan la idea de Dios, ya no le queda nada; su desesperación es justificable, su odio a los ricos es natural, su deseo de revolución y anarquía es lógico; y si al rico la idea de Dios le estorba y no hace caso de los preceptos del evangelio, y las enseñanzas de Jesús, entonces que no se queje; y si su egoísmo le impide acercarse al pobre, no se extrañe que éste pretenda arrebatarle a la fuerza lo que tiene.
Al ver la sociedad tal como está hoy día, ¿a qué cristiano no le duele el alma? Cuando pienso que todos los conflictos sociales y las diferencias se allanarían si mirásemos un poco hacia ese Dios abandonado que estaba en la iglesia y que yo acababa de visitar. Cuando veo tan fácil la solución para que los hombres sean felices, pero éstos, ciegos o locos no lo quieren ver, entonces no puedo menos de exclamar: Señor, Señor, mira a tu pueblo que sufre. Los hombres no son malos, Señor, pero si Tú les abandonas, ¿quién podrá, Señor, subsistir? ¿Qué podemos hacer nosotros solos?, nada, absolutamente nada. Si Tú apartases tu mirada del mundo por un solo instante, el mundo se hundiría en el «caos». Perdónanos, Señor.
Apología del Trapense, S. Rafael Arnáiz Barón, 1934
- Here Rafael uses the expressions los de arriba, literally “those who are above,” and los de abajo, literally “those who are below.” There are many English equivalents—those on top and at the bottom, the one percent and the underclass, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat for that matter. They all boil down to the powerful and the powerless. ↩︎