“It was during a daily mass in my parish where I felt that
the Lord, through the
Gospel that the priest read, was speaking directly to me. It was the conversation of Jesus with the young man: 'Lord, I will follow you wherever you go, but let me first bury my parents.' 'Whoever puts his hand to the plow and looks back, is not worthy of the kingdom of heaven'” (Lk 9:57).
Religious Name: Fr. José Luis of
Jesus and Mary
Date of entrance into the Servant Brothers: November 25, 2001
Age at entrance: 19 years old
City and country of origin : Cuenca, Spain
Date of perpetual vows: September 8th, 2012
Date of Ordination to the Priesthood: June 23rd, 2012
Current Community: Las Presillas, Cantabria (Spain)
This is your Train.
J. H. Newman is one of the chief candidates to receive the title Doctor of the Church. However, speaking of his adolescence, he himself stated that, “at fifteen years of age I had no religious conviction.” This is a bit like Albert Einstein failing a math exam in high school before making his mark on history with the theory of relativity. I’m not Einstein or Newman but I can say that at the age of fifteen I had no conviction about pretty much anything. I was not against God. I was neither one thing nor the other. It would be something like little Einstein arriving home having failed eight or nine subjects.
This approach to the grand project of my youth was forged precisely in high school. Failing exams was not something I had ever contemplated in prep or middle school; in high school it ceased to seem such a horrible thing. Everywhere I went –on the streets, at lunch break, on the internet – failing exams seemed to be a sign of maturity and personality, something that interesting people did. There was even a bar where they would treat you to a free drink for every subject failed in your report card. I think they might have lost business on that offer, judging by the report cards that were going around. We were fifteen years old and we thought that we knew how to play the game. But we didn’t have the freedom that we presumed we had. For example: it got to the point where presenting a homework task within the teacher’s rules and deadlines could destroy your reputation. This might seem like nonsense to somebody who doesn’t care what other people think, but to us it was everything. This tide completely swept me along even though I wasn’t aware of it. There were days when I didn’t hand over homework that I was carrying all finished and ready in my schoolbag. Looking back now, I suspect I wasn’t the only one. The alternative was to look like Flanders, and we all wanted to be Simpsons: free as the wind. Zero tolerance for nice kids, or teacher’s pets or chickens; which is precisely what we were, except under a flag we weren’t even aware of. Extremes meet.
Avoid contrast with the rest of the world: that was my battle, and it caused me to drift away from God. Religion was not cool. I convinced myself that faith should be something private, which is the surest way of losing it; although, sincerely, I didn’t have any real motive to doubt God. My soul clearly perceived the truth of God. But stating it out loud was uncomfortable and against the tide, and I was so courageous that I opposed… nobody. It would have entailed being totally alone. I didn’t realize that being a Christian is precisely about going against the tide. That’s what it means to carry the Cross. In fact, when Jesus said that they would “pick up serpents with their hands and not be hurt” (Mk 16:18), He was not saying that they would be fakirs: He was saying that whoever follows Him in the face of all, will not sink. That person is built upon a rock that nobody can overthrow. It doesn’t mean he will not suffer; it means he will overcome.
But I didn’t see beyond the pain of going against the current. And I succeeded in justifying myself. I said to myself: a God who loves man is too good to be true. Without love of God, since God had nothing to say to me, what would become of me? “Alas! How could I dare to say that you, my God, kept silent as I wandered further away from you? Did you really speak no words to me in those moments? Whose words were they but yours, which through my faithful mother you chanted in my ears?” (St. Augustine, Confessions II, iii). Those were dark days. My desire was not to be infantile, so I flung innocence out of my soul. The worst part was that I gave up the hope of ever again seeing an open sky. I came to understand that the world is a jungle. And my philosophy of life? Carpe diem: “Seize the day,” grab the moment. I masked the sadness of my so-called discovery like everyone else did, but the world had lost its enchantment. All that remained was to have a good time. In my heart, however, I still refused to believe that life was all just one big bluff. I grieved at the lack of spirit in everything we did. Surely there was more to youth than this. There had to be something bigger; but I had no arguments. Heaven alone could reveal it to me, and heaven was locked shut. Just as well that there is no wall we can build that God cannot break through if we let Him; there is no wound that He cannot heal. He drops down to rescue us, all the way to the hell itself that we create for ourselves: “If I lie down in the abyss I find You there. Even in the darkness your hand guides me, for not even the night is dark to You” (Ps 138: 8.10.12). That is why He became man. His Passion is the proof that there is nothing He is not prepared to do for man, if man wishes it. As long as there is time, there is hope.
The voice first reached me through a girl. Up to then girls and religion didn’t go together. But this girl turned out to be a lighthouse showing me the way home. Before I met her I wouldn’t have thought it possible. It would have been unthinkable. On the 24th of June 1999 – I was sixteen – the story began. With her everything took on a new value. Everything seemed more clear and life more simple. The things that have value began to seem valuable to me again and the void began to fill, once I got rid of the things I had tried to fill it with. She showed me the greatness of a young heart and what we’ve been given it for: to love.
She taught me that anyone who doesn’t take life seriously doesn’t know how to live. Living is an art. No one who knows what life truly is would hold in contempt something so valuable, so surprising, so new and strong. Life in itself leaps toward eternity. There’s a song that says, “Love is eternal as long as it lasts.” Love demands eternity. It was the irrefutable potency of love that shook me out of my lethargy, more than any metaphysical argument could ever have done. The force of it was spiritual but almost palpable. This love was not about maximal enjoyment. That is nothing compared to true love. But true love demands all. Even eternity seems too short to love, because it fills you so much that you cannot waste it in one-day flowers, in empty pleasures. So, this girl taught me all of this; the way, the journey… and its meaning. How long she had to wait before I got the message! Nonetheless, I could have lived a hundred years and never found it. What a horrible thought! And then, just when I was beginning to change… our paths parted before I was even fully aware of how much good she had done me. I only figured that out a lot later. She disappeared gently, without making noise.
In the aftermath of her departure, in the silence, in the glow of goodness, something was gestating without my knowing it. All that had happened was not the end: it was the beginning. My walls were knocked down, and now… at least I knew. But changing one’s ways is not easy. I had lost the intuition of faith that resolves difficulties. Why was it necessary to suffer in order to be open to God? This terrified me. I thought that having faith meant being taken for a fool, a simpleton, a weakling… when in reality it rescues you from all that (cf. Wis 13:1-5). Love had put me back on track, but there was still a long way to go. I saw that the person who loves is not afraid of not belonging to himself, that love is about giving oneself, not having, not counting the cost, living for the other. But that is not romance. It’s something that has to be reaffirmed every day, and it hurts. But it’s either found like that, entire, or it’s not found ever and one is left with a very poor relation: pleasure. All sacrifice is nothing if one truly loves. Others have seen this very clearly: “No matter what one has to suffer, even though the world may collapse, even if one bursts apart on the way” (Saint Teresa of Avila). It makes sense that the blessed are the poor, those who mourn, the clean of heart… Then earth becomes heaven, becomes beatitude: when and only insofar as the will of God is done on it.
But after all, at this point I did not yet have anything that remotely resembled a serious prayer life. I didn’t even know what serious meant, not to mention prayer life. This too was about to change, thanks to a funny idea: to visit the Blessed Sacrament. I don’t know how I stumbled upon that one. It certainly didn’t tally with the rest of my life. But, well… it didn’t seem like too dangerous a thing to do. I didn’t know what to do with myself there, so I did nothing, said nothing, and didn’t stay for long. I don’t know why I even started doing it, but I did, and not just once; it actually became a regular custom. Maybe it was simply because the door of the chapel was right there on my way home, but I was soon to receive two big graces in that chapel. It was the same chapel where I had made my first confession years earlier, and I hadn’t quite forgotten that a Mystery was hidden there. The fear of being seen going in there was incredibly intense, but if I didn’t do it I felt even worse. So as I got closer to home and saw every day that door, I started going in until it became a habit. I would look sharply left and right several times, and having established that there were no witnesses, I would slip into the dark silence of that chapel and sit on the bench at the back.
The day was approaching when the Lord would cease to watch me loitering at his doorstep without taking any real steps. One bright spring morning, I saw that door on my home as usual. I went in, as usual, but encountered something not so usual. There were about twenty young people there on the front benches listening to someone talk. I pretended they were not there, but I couldn’t help listening; I was fascinated. A young man was talking. He was relating how his life had been turned around by the discovery of God. I was blown away by his enthusiasm and his total confidence in God, his radicality and… his freedom from complexes. He spoke of God with peace, with freedom. He didn’t care whether people liked it or not. He was great; he transmitted values which I hadn’t seen in other kids. He was in love. He was sane and healthy and in my heart I felt a great envy. On top of all this, the guy was funny. I was amazed. Some of his jokes made me laugh and the other kids turned around to look at me, as if I were some kind of exotic bird in a zoo. I got scared that they might start shaking bibles at me so I headed for the door regretting that I was missing the rest of that strange story of conversion. From the world to Christ: incredible. This experience stirred big questions in me. A light reached me that I hadn’t expected. I thought Christianity was lifeless and that the fossilized Church could never fill me. What I saw there was precisely the passion – sane, clean, honest – of young people who had what I was looking for.
Nothing changed on the outside, but a huge crack was formed in my way of looking at the Church. I couldn’t deny that this lesson had been given by children of the Church, which meant that the Church was alive, young and attractive. What a discovery! To think that I had been attending it for so many years without really knowing it!
Holy Week came round. Now that I didn’t have a girlfriend, vacations entailed hanging out at night with my friends. In Cuenca, my hometown, there are beautiful traditions around this time of year, with processions and parades and singing. But there is also a tradition called “las turbas” (the mob) which is a kind of procession of drunks. It consists of thousands of young people wearing purple cloaks and beating drums as they follow Jesus on the way to Calvary, shouting all kinds of things at Him. For my generation this tradition was translated into a night of alcohol and lots of noise, armed with drums and bottles waiting for the commencement of the procession, which is before dawn, at about five o’clock in the morning. Maybe I’m just weird or something, but I never liked the nightclub atmosphere. And even though “las turbas” attracts even more people because of the novelty, in reality it amounts to pretty much the same thing as a nightclub. It’s just like any other weekend. That night I left the party before the procession began, just like I had done the year before. By that time I was sick and tired of parties without a reason.
On my way home I found that little chapel open. This surprised me because it was about four in the morning, but I didn’t realize that it was Holy Thursday night, the night during which the Church keeps God company in the tabernacle as He goes to his Passion for all men. I took off my cloak and put aside my drum. There was no need to look around this time to see if anyone might see me enter: the street was deserted; I knelt as usual at the last bench. Two of the young people I’d seen the other day were there, in silence with Him. I think that in that moment the Lord granted me something like a year of mercy, a year of patience, in answer to the prayers of these young people and of course the prayers of my mother and so many good souls I know. I didn’t deserve it. I was a coward who preferred to fit in with the mob rather than to have a friendship with God. I had no excuse. And yet there I was, having left my cloak and drum at the door but still wearing the scent of the night. I left after a couple of minutes. That’s all the time I had for God: just a moment on the way home.
The following year turned out to be one of many changes. When the changes began I myself was deeply disconcerted because I couldn’t explain what was happening. I remember a conversation I had with a friend in that time. I told him that I had been a few months now living in grace and that I was as happy as a child. At first he looked at me as if he had understood nothing and then he took it as a joke. It was unthinkable to him that living in grace could cause any benefit. In fact, he didn’t consider it possible! Up to recently I had thought the very same, but at least I was now my own reliable witness: I knew I wasn’t lying, even if he thought I was joking. I had the experience of giving up a game that I had considered impossible to leave behind. I was walking out of a playing field that my friend and I – up to recently – had considered an infinite prison. Something was changing from day to day. A new phase was beginning with new challenges. I was becoming a living witness of that light that nobody seemed able to see, but which was so near!
So then I began to see the world with new eyes because my faith was slightly more authentic. Mine was no longer an inherited and dead Christianity but a living faith becoming more and more aware and intimate. It was then that one of the strangest episodes occurred to me, the most subtle test, I think, in my way towards God. Once again a girl came into my spiritual life. This one was very different. The previous one caught me at a low and left me on the way up; this one caught me on the way up and… was a lot like me. At that time I wasn’t interested in a relationship. I really and truly wanted to continue the spiritual path that I was commencing and I was aware that this required that I be alone and without distractions for a time. But nonetheless I said yes to her. She was so beautiful-looking that by the time I worked up the will to say no, we were already dating for a week.
To my surprise I learned that even though she was only seventeen years old she had just come out of a long relationship with a boy much older than us. This had left a deep mark in her. She was disillusioned with life and with love, like I had been shortly before. That in itself wasn’t so strange; what was strange was that when she crossed paths with me it was as if she caught a glimpse of light and innocence that reawakened her hope in life. In any case, whatever it was, she fell in love with me like a little girl, sweetly and innocently. And then she found that I was on another wavelength. My heart was disoriented, on the journey without a compass, and without love. It ended horribly. I remembered the sacred treasure of love that I myself had discovered elsewhere, and I felt like a pig for ending up in this situation. It had all happened so quickly, things had slipped out of my hands. I decided to speak with her and to cut things off, to explain to her that at that point in time I shouldn’t have been dating anybody, that I didn’t know why but that my life was like a journey and I couldn’t fall in love at that moment. I told her this one night, but in such a confused way that she understood nothing and we ended up arranging to meet again the next day. What a nightmare: I had to do it again! However, I steeled my nerves and tried again, still not really knowing why. I don’t know how I succeeded in getting across that we had to end. All I knew was that if I wanted to get anywhere in God’s path, I had to live in purity. I broke up with her for the second time and this time she understood. She asked me, “Is this what you wanted to tell me the other day?” I forget what I answered, but I remember I wanted the earth to swallow me up.
I had nothing clear in my mind but I knew that to discover God I had to be pure; I had learned that you cannot have your cake and eat it at the same time: you have to choose, either God or myself. I felt that if I stayed with her I was going to miss the train. Don’t ask me what I meant by the train, but if that train didn’t get away it was a pure miracle of grace, which carried me forward enabling me to make a renunciation that was really beyond my strength to make. If I had stayed with her just a little while longer, things would have happened, and the chain of graces that has brought me to where I am now would have been broken. That was not my train.
That girl I saw only one time afterwards, and she pretended I didn’t exist as she continued speaking with the boy she was with. I understood that this was profoundly just. It was I who had been unjust, thinking that I could take a soul so lightly. What a shame. When one enters a relationship without the mature intention to give oneself totally, exclusively and forever, one always causes harm. What I did was not unusual. So many couples fail because this spirit of commitment is lacking. That is not the way to love; that is the way to “see how much I can get out of her.” Maybe there’s love at the beginning, but premarital relations destroy the dimension of commitment, breaking in with such force that they impede the maturation of the relationship, weakening the foundations. Sex is an intimate expression of total self-giving. I would go so far as to say that it is something sacred. And when it happens before marriage it puts a strain on the relationship that destroys the dimension of patient, loving and trusting donation. More often than not it makes love wither and die.
This “yes” that I gave to purity, an act of renunciation that was incomprehensible to me at the time, opened a way forward and then events accelerated over the following months. I began to find really good friends, people close to God, who confirmed me in the way of faith, the way of the Eucharist, prayer, a pure life. And I had a great time with them. I began to appreciate the Holy Mass more and sacramental confession as an interior need and not just as an external ritual. Finally, on June 24 2001, I found the Lord in a priest who, in a confession, confronted me with the reality of my incoherent lifestyle. I received the grace to understand in my heart that “Happiness is not something that happens in spite of being Christian: on the contrary, it is precisely in Christ that one finds happiness.” He gave me two mysteries of the rosary to pray for my penance, which for me was like making a pilgrimage in my bare feet to Jerusalem. In a state of shock, I kept returning in my thoughts to that discovery in confession. It changed my way of seeing almost everything.
By this time I was eighteen years old. That summer my new friends and I wanted to do something interesting together, a pilgrimage of some kind, a journey in faith. There were two offers on the table: either to Fatima with a group called “Home of the Mother” which I didn’t know and in which I am now consecrated, or to Lourdes, with girls. I preferred the idea of going with girls, I mean of going to Lourdes; but a friend of mine was dead set on going to Fatima and since deep down I didn’t really care, we went to Fatima. That choice would reveal something new to me: the religious life.
The friend with whom I signed up for Fatima would end up walking the same journey as me. We had met the Home together, we prayed together, we travelled in the car together, and together we were consecrated to God. But neither one of us knew about what was going on inside the other. In fact, when I spoke with the Superior of the community about entering the community, he got all concerned and said to me: “The vocation is something very serious: it has to arise out of a personal encounter between the soul and God; it’s not something you do just because your buddy is doing it.” I was not aware that my friend had spoken with him about the same matter around the same time. I didn’t understand what he meant, but he had nothing to worry about. God had given me, twice, sufficiently clear indication concerning his will for me.
After our return from Fatima I began to understand what had been happening to me throughout the previous year. I fell in love with the community that I met on that trip. From the first moment I wanted to be one of them. And yet I did not take any step. I saw the clues but I didn’t move a finger. The Lord would soon give me a little shove. It happened in my home parish. In the Gospel passage of Wednesday the 2nd of October 2001, a young man, full of enthusiasm, says to the Lord, “Lord, I will follow you wherever you go!” When I heard that I felt that I myself was that young man. Then he adds, “But first let me say goodbye to my family.” Wow, that’s me! The changes over the previous year had taken me by surprise, and I wanted to give myself some time before making a serious decision; time for my family and time to mature. But the Lord answers: “The one whose hand is put to the plough and looks back is not fit for the Kingdom of Heaven” (Lk 9:62). It was as if He was saying to me: “This is how the chain of graces that has guided you up to now continues. This is your train. Will you take it? Or leave it?”
One has to be disarmed of all defenses if one truly wishes to be with Him. It is not possible to love and to refuse to give all to the beloved. Either you love or you don’t: make up your mind. I was a big boy by this time, grown up enough to know that any plan of mine was infinitely inferior to the Lord’s plan for me. God was calling me and if a response was urgent it was because the moment of commitment had arrived: to remain stuck in an eternal irresponsible immaturity is not compatible with a passionate love. “I love you very much, sweetheart, but I’ve got something else going on right now; we can meet some other day.” It doesn’t work that way. As Pope Paul VI put it during the homily at the canonization of Saint Vincent Palloti, “When one hears the voice of God one does not answer, ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’; one answers, ‘Today, this very day, this very hour, now!’ because that is the law of the conscience.” It is the law of love.
Never again did I want to be without Him, but I needed to know what I was getting into. Since love is demanding and there are no roses without thorns, He gave me another light, a little light concerning the trials that I would have to undergo. In the course of the weeks of discernment and visits to the community, He let me see that “a Servant does not belong to himself; he belongs to Jesus Christ.” In other words, there’s no room for selfishness, for freeloading, for just cruising along, sucking your thumb: “This is the train that I have chosen from all eternity for you” – a train of intimate union with Christ; and being with Him implies following Him up close: means being poor with Christ poor, chaste with Christ chaste and – the most difficult of all – obedient with Christ obedient. Will you follow Him? Or leave Him?
“I assure you that no one who has given up house, wife, brothers, sisters, parents or children for the Kingdom of God, will be left without receiving a hundred times more in this present world and, in the world to come, eternal life” (Lk 18:29f).