Dear friends of St. Rafael,
I have so much good news to share with you all.
First, an excerpt from my translation ran in Commonweal Magazine’s March issue! You can read it here:
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.
Some of you may already be familiar with “The Antics of the Turnips,” which is definitely Rafael’s most well-known piece of writing . . . not that anything he has written is particularly well-known. It’s the first thing I ever translated by him, and it has meant a lot to me over this past year as I’ve struggled to “peel my daily turnips” (so much lovelier than “take up your daily cross,” no?) by chipping away at this translation day after day. In fact, I wrote about this for Ave Maria Press’s #AveExplores: The Saints series last fall:
Wonderfully, the day that was posted, I got surprise turnips!
In fact, this story recently inspired the iconographer Matthew Conner:
This story resonates with so many people because it speaks to the heart of the lay vocation—which, yes, Rafael shared, even though he lived in a monastery. (He was an oblate, not a monk.) Day after day, we have to offer work to God that is not always obviously God’s work. It can be depressing and dispiriting to try to find meaning in that, as Rafael shows us, fending off those little devils. But it is amazing what one simple gaze at the crucifix can do.
“What are you doing?!”
What do you mean, what am I doing? Good Lord!!... What a question!
Peeling turnips...peeling turnips!...
And my heart, leaping, gave a wild answer:
I’m peeling turnips for love...for love of Jesus Christ.
All year long I have been translating, and delightful as it is to spend time with Rafael, he wasn’t always the wise little turnip-peeler you see before you today. He was an obnoxious kid, a rowdy undergraduate, a naive novice, a profoundly depressed invalid, and a thousand other things that are hard to face, hard to capture lovingly. I have done my best to look on him as Christ did. It is impossible not to grow to love him. And yet, I hate to say it, work remains something God punished us with. It sucks. It’s tiring. I generally did not want to do it. (I talked about this on an episode of Intersessions last fall.)
But wow, do I love having done it. This week, I finished my dissertation. My turnips are done. Sure, I’ll still have edits to do. Sure, I still have the book to finish. But I’m graduating in May, come hell or high water. Or, you know, more plague.
Ah. Plague. No wonder it’s a little hard for me to celebrate. I finished my dissertation the same day that the United States marked 500,000 deaths from COVID-19. I couldn’t think about anything else all day. All I had left to do was my opening paragraph, actually. (Those are always the hardest.) I fretted about it from morning until evening and then sometime around midnight I realized I should stop trying to fight it. This is what I wrote:
Each saint is a mission, planned by the Father to reflect and embody, at a specific moment in history, a certain aspect of the Gospel. [. . .] Every saint is a message which the Holy Spirit takes from the riches of Jesus Christ and gives to his people. To recognize the word that the Lord wishes to speak to us through one of his saints, we do not need to get caught up in details, for there we might also encounter mistakes and failures. Not everything a saint says is completely faithful to the Gospel; not everything he or she does is authentic or perfect. What we need to contemplate is the totality of their life, their entire journey of growth in holiness, the reflection of Jesus Christ that emerges when we grasp their overall meaning as a person. –Pope Francis
What is the message spoken by the life and writings of Saint Rafael Arnáiz Barón? To a certain extent, this dissertation seeks more to facilitate the study of this question than to answer it. Even so, by translating the writings of a monk whose life was so devastatingly interrupted and redefined by disease, who struggled with depression from isolation and trauma without the vocabulary to describe it, and whose final years were defined by the search for meaning in the midst of civil war, I do aim to make Rafael speak to “a specific moment in history.” These writings were translated from spring 2020 to spring 2021, a time of pandemic and political violence, in isolated contemplative conditions that might be called monastic. This year, when everything was called “unprecedented,” I read Rafael and knew it was not. His writings pursue classic questions at the heart of Christianity—the spiritual meaning of the Cross, the sanctifying power of unrelenting suffering, the nature of a God who would mandate such a thing—but with the unexpected joy, humor, and insight of a young man in love. In these pages, we will witness Rafael coming to love first his monastic calling and then his illness and isolation as God’s ways of drawing him into greater intimacy with the divine. Was he just coping? Was he delirious? Was he naive? Or was he more desperate than anyone to face the truth of things?
I don’t think I’m coping, delirious, or naive when I say that I’m grateful for the plague year. Not the death of 500,000 of my fellow citizens. Not the heartbreak and the isolation. Not the exhaustion. But the time alone with the Holy Spirit and this particular message of His. For that, Lord, I thank you.