Fr. Javier

He was easily my favorite priest that I met along the Camino.  The priest in Santo Domingo was excellent but I never spoke to him.  Fr. Javier, however, was the priest I actually spent time with and I grew in admiration for him.

The first conversation we had with him was brief but it struck my heart.

“Father?” one of my traveling companions called out to him, as he hurried from the albergue to the monastery.
“Hija?”
“English?”
“Yes,” he said with a smile.

The girls I was with missed his first reply.  They simply thought he said, “Yeah?”  Instead, he said, “Daughter.”  After seeing us for a mere two seconds he was calling us by our deepest identity and also responding as our father.

We asked about Mass and he said there would be Mass instead of evening prayer.  We were so excited because this was a change from his ordinary schedule due to the other monk being away.  At Mass he welcomed us in Spanish and English.  He won our hearts when he told people taking pictures after Mass that it was not an appropriate time for that because people were praying.  Typically the tourist-pilgrims are allowed to wander the churches like museums, taking pictures and chatting as they take a self-guided tour.  It was refreshing to have our post-communion prayer time respected.  The people left fairly quickly since they couldn’t photograph the church.

Thankful to finally be in a church that didn’t usher us out within five minutes of the final blessing, we prayed for quite a while.  During this time, Fr. Javier came back and asked for one of us to do the reading for night prayer.  He chose my sister to do it, even though she was resistant.  With a quick smile and a tender firmness, he told her what she was to do and that she would sit by him during the prayer.  It felt like we had finally found a little resting place with a lovely father to look out for us.  His simple presence around the chapel, preparing for the next liturgy, was comforting.

Outside the church was a sign that told pilgrims about the different liturgies offered at the monastery church.  At the end of that was a little blurb about pilgrims being able to spend a few days in the pilgrim house run by the monastery.  During our prayer time in the church I turned this idea over and over in my mind.  My heart was longing to stay in this place for much longer than one night.  I wanted to live there or at least stay another day.  We had budgeted some extra time into a schedule in case of injury.  I had always slightly envied the people who had such an open schedule that they would stay for a couple days at different places just because they felt like it.  Our schedule wasn’t tight but we had to keep moving.  The final words written in my journal during that prayer time were, “Do You want us to stay another day?”  I wrote those words with hope but also knew that it might not be realistic.

A few minutes before we headed over to the church for night prayer, I broached the subject with my traveling companions.  The response was immediate and positive.  We decided we would ask Fr. Javier after night prayer to see if it was possible.  I entrusted it to Our Lady’s hands.  If she wanted us to stay there, then she would make it possible.  If not, then we would move on.

After night prayer we were nervous.  Fr. Javier was puttering around the church, preparing to lock up.  We went outside, planning to catch him on his way out.  He came out and thanked my sister for reading before turning to go to the monastery.  One of my friends called him back saying that we had a question.  Could we stay there for a night?  He thought it might be possible but would need to check with the hospitalero.  There was another catch, though.  If we stayed, it was for a minimum of two nights.  For a moment I thought it wouldn’t be feasible.  The three of us were typically very slow to decide anything and I thought we might need to ask Father for a moment to discuss our options.

“You would be here for the Corpus Christi procession…”
We all began to nod.  I didn’t need to discuss it, my heart was begging me to listen and remain in this peaceful place with this lovely priest.  He smiled and went to go check on the possibility.

He returned within a couple minutes and broke the news to us.
“I’m sorry.  I’m afraid it is going to be….possible!”  We were overjoyed and exclaimed, “Father!” for leading us to believe we couldn’t stay.  He introduced us to the hospitalero and instructed us to bring our things with us to morning prayer the next day and we would be able to move in.

That night we were delirious at the thought of not walking the next day.  It wasn’t necessary to fall asleep as quickly as possible and for a little while I thought I would be too excited to sleep.  The only thing that was less than desirable was that all of our friends would continue on their way.  With two rest days in Rabanal del Camino, it was quite possible that we would never catch up with them or see them again.  There was one lady that had been with us on and off from the very beginning and we were loathe to part ways.  Yet I was so excited for the retreat and rest days we were embarking on.  It felt like the Lord was simply showering us with gifts, perfectly designed for the desires of our hearts.

The next morning we woke up and had breakfast at the albergue.  The hospitaleros told us to come back the next day for tea if we wanted.  Then we wished our friends farewell and raced to the church for morning prayer.  It was peaceful and calming to enter the simple church.  Over the next two days we would transition from sitting in the pews to taking our place in the monk choir at the front of the church.  Finally, we were with people who, for the most part, were walking the Camino as a way to experience God.

Second breakfast took place at the pilgrim house before a tour of the place.  It was simple but beautiful.  A small library, an enclosed garden, a conference room with a beautiful piano, a prayer room, and a church across the road open the entire day.  I reveled in the simple joy of praying and reading in the garden that morning.  For lunch we were invited to eat at the monastery.  Fr. Javier, an extraordinary cook, made the meal and served it in the silence of the monastery refectory.  A brief reading would take place and then Fr. Javier would knock on the table to indicate we could begin to pour our drinks, water and wine.  The first meal I spent watching everyone else to see that I was supposed to do and feeling like a foolish American without any delicate table manners.  The meal was served in courses and I attempted to keep pace with everyone else so as to not hold them up.

While we ate, classical music would be playing in the background.  Otherwise, we ate in silence.  Some were exchanging glances of amusement.  Fr. Javier would wink and smile at us.  But most of the time I would just ponder the reading or take in the swells of the music or turn my eyes to my interior.  The first meal was an interesting combination of peace and anxiety, hoping I wasn’t messing up what seemed to be known etiquette.

The afternoons we would have to our own devices and while it wasn’t required or asked of us, the three of us decided we would have a silent retreat of sorts.  The first day we spent away from each other.  Despite my love for both of them, it had been a long time since we were able to go off by ourselves for most of a day.  It was interesting that while much of my time walking was spent in prayer and silence, my heart was still longing for silence and solitude.

Mass took place in the evening and then we would go to the pilgrim house for supper.  Supper was never as elaborate as lunch, but it was always sufficient.  After supper we would have only a little time before we were off to night prayer.  I began to feel something akin to what the disciples might have felt.  I was one of the few (only six are permitted at a time) to stay in the pilgrim house.  I had been to night prayer before and knew the schedule.  I had the privilege of dining with Fr. Javier, of having a key to the pilgrim house door, of receiving the smiles and attentions of those in charge of the pilgrim house.  I loved being at once a visitor and yet more of a resident of that town than nearly anyone else who was wandering through.

The days passed too quickly but they were beautiful.  We followed Fr. Javier and Jesus around the town during a Corpus Christi procession.  Later that afternoon, as the warm rain poured down through the open garden roof, we listened with delight to Fr. Javier play the piano.  We learned that he had studied classical piano in school and that beauty is what drew him to the Benedictines.  At supper that night we heard his brief vocation story.  He said the short story was that he is a monk because Jesus wants him to be.  That every other reason must boil down to that all important reason.  Nothing else matters and nothing else is a good enough reason if Jesus does not want it.  After supper we all took a stroll around the town, a merry band of wanderers pulled from around the globe.

As we walked a French lady joined us.  She didn’t say much but she seemed to just want to be in our presence.  I didn’t blame her.  I was basking in the joy of following Fr. Javier, of strolling on a day that didn’t find me walking fifteen miles.  The next morning we didn’t want to leave.  We delayed, perhaps foolishly, for as long as we could.  Mass was finally in the morning and we stayed for that and breakfast following.  It turned into a long day of walking, but we wanted to maximize our time with Fr. Javier, our time in Rabanal, and our time in the peaceful oasis we had stumbled upon.

Fr. Javier was willing to pose for a picture with a few of us.  He had asked us earlier that day if we knew the story behind the icon in the refectory.  It was of the three angels that came to Abraham, a representation of the Holy Trinity.  He talked briefly about how three strangers came to Abraham but they were actually angels.  Three of them.  And he looked at us, telling us that we were angels that had arrived there.  Of course, theologically I was certain we weren’t, but I was tickled by his compliment.

A quick hug, a couple lingering glances thrown at the monastery and church, and we were off.  That whole day I thought of Rabanal.  When it came close to two o’clock, I thought of how the little group would be gathering in the refectory for one of Fr. Javier’s delicious meals.  That evening I thought of night prayer being prayed in the church, hearing Fr. Javier’s lovely voice sing the prayer in Latin and Spanish.

My heart longed for Rabanal as we continued our Camino.  It began the interesting fact that when people would ask if I had a favorite place on the Camino, I would quickly reply Rabanal, and then feel funny that my favorite place of my walking pilgrimage was a place I didn’t have to walk much.  It was a little like the transfiguration.  It was good that the Lord called us there but we were loathe to leave.  I wanted to pitch my tent in Rabanal and remain there for the next few weeks, soaking up the peace of the town, becoming Fr. Javier’s friend, living a simple life in the pilgrim house.

Rabanal reignited my desire for Heaven.  I was longing for a place of infinite peace and contentedness but also a place that wouldn’t require me to leave.  I wanted to be near the priest who was quick to smile and tease, but devout in prayer and reverence.  Yet even more so I wanted to be infinitely closer to the High Priest who understands me entirely and loves me fiercely.  If the Camino is life and Santiago is Heaven, then Rabanal was a vision along that way that pushed me onward in body and spirit.

Fr. Javier became the priest who redeemed, in my mind, the fate of the Spanish prelate.  He welcomed, with that characteristic Benedictine hospitality, all of us into the pilgrim house and provided all we needed.  The entire time there was provided on donation basis but I felt the money I left to be insufficient.  I vowed to pray for him along the Way and Fr. Javier promised to do the same for me.  What a great influence he had on my Camino all as a result of us stumbling upon that town, deciding to stay, and asking to stay longer.  The Lord certainly provided.  Greedy as I am, I hope to someday return there.  Perhaps the Lord will provide that, too.

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