What does it mean to be a prophet today? What does it mean to be Verbum Dei today in a world that is breaking at its seams and violence seems to be the norm? I would like to offer this personal reflection on our founder Jaime Bonet, as a way of pondering our call to be prophets and disciples of the Word rooted in the silence of profound Love.
I never knew Jaime Bonet, our founder when he was a strong and vibrant preacher. I don’t have any stories to tell you about this time of his life. I only know the ones that have been passed down through the rich Verbum Dei oral tradition. One of my favourite stories that stimulate my imagination is how Jaime would ride around Mallorca on his motorbike going from place to place, giving different retreats or talks whilst preparing his preaching as he rode. I love the stories of how Jaime would have everybody in stiches as they listened to him preach. These are stories that are full of life and energy. But, I didn’t know him like that.
My first experience of Jaime was when I came to Siete Aguas, Spain in the summer of 2002. I was going there for a youth encounter. There was lots of noise and energetic youth from all parts of the world. Jaime would have been 76 at that time. I remember I was walking up towards the plaza of the “acogida”. The memory I have feels like I was alone apart from this man that was walking slowly around the plaza. He caught my attention because he was also alone. I saw that he was a priest, but he was there with brown sandals. I only mention the sandals because it was something strange for me coming from England, “a priest with sandals?” But maybe not so strange for the hot weather of Spain. I didn’t talk to him, but he made an impression on me. It was only later that I discovered that this priest was the founder of the community that I was getting to know. This brief memory has stayed with me; it has marked me because here was the founder of the community, humbly walking, present to all, not trying to get any attention. I somehow felt that in the silence he was present to me. He wasn’t there on the stage rounding people up or preaching to the crowds. He was alone, walking, present to Love, to Jesus, to the Trinity, to Mother Mary.
They say a prophet is a prophet through his or her words and actions. The whole life of a prophet is prophetic. Jaime is a prophet. The vision he had was prophetic. But if he is a prophet, his whole life is prophetic. I only knew Jaime in his last years. He passed away June 25 2017; he had just turned 91 years old.
The last time I went to visit Jaime was just before Christmas 2015. And once again I was overwhelmed by the peace and the presence that he transmitted. As he sat there in his chair, with his grey priest shirt and collar, legs crossed, hands clasped together, he mumbled. It was a continual mumble until another spoke or sung a familiar tune and then he stopped mumbling. He seemed to listen to what I and the other missionary I was with were saying and singing. He listened and let the words or music enter into him and then responded albeit with more mumbling. However, in one moment, I shared my experience of my perpetual vows that I just celebrated in Southampton in the summer. He was quiet as I was speaking and then at the end, he took my hand and kissed it, a blessing, a gesture of love, a tenderness – only when I was speaking about my perpetual vows did he do this, the rest of my news he listened and then continued to mumble afterwards.
But what drew all my attention were Jaime’s eyes. Familiar eyes that I had seen in photos, eyes that smiled at you, eyes that are the entrance to the mystery of intimacy with God that he experienced. When I went to visit Jaime just before Christmas, his eyes were beautiful. He seemed to just be resting in the Love that all his life he had known. He radiated peace. There is so much suffering and violence in the world, but as I contemplated Jaime in his silence, I experienced a certainty in his peace. Jaime cannot change anything anymore through his words, he is not the strong preacher that had inspired and moved people from all corners of the world, but I experienced a certainty in his peace. He rests in the One who captivated his whole life. There was a deep silence, a deep silence that is filled with presence that permeates his being.
Everyone talks about how Jaime would get up and pray in the early hours of the morning at 3 or 4am. I spent a year in Siete Aguas, the beloved “el poblado”; our beautiful spirituality center nestled in the Valencian hills that we have built up little by little since the 1970’s. It was here that I first met Jaime 10 or so years previously. After my year in Spain, I perhaps understood why Jaime would get up at 3am to spend hours in front of the tabernacle. The profound silence at this time of the night is overwhelming. The times when I woke up early in Siete Aguas to pray left an incredible delight within me. I would walk out of the house at 4am and the sky met me with the penetrating depth of the universe. The stars are never so bright as at this time. The night feels alive; the silence is filled with life. It is a silence that I longed for. In the night when we are all finally silent, all that surrounds us can finally speak, can be, can enjoy. It feels like that in the daytime, our harshness, our brashness, our unnecessary noise and words can silence Love. I understand the words that Thomas Merton writes in “Night Watch.”
“Baptized in the rivers of night, Gethsemani has recovered her innocence.”
After those night prayer experiences, I felt like innocence returned once again to Siete Aguas, to our world. All was brought back into perspective and balance. Once again the night washed us in innocence, in the innocence of beauty, of silence, of God. The night is alive with God’s tangible presence.
After a while I would head into the Pesebre Chapel, as Jaime went into so often in the middle of the night. The Pesebre Chapel is iconic for the Verbum Dei. The chapel is built into the old horse stables that were present on the land. The tabernacle is within what would have been the manger. As I stoop my head to enter the chapel, I was met by a deep silence that I longed for in the Eucharist. My body is filled with a prayer of deep presence, with the presence of I Am. A prayer where the presence of I AM sweeps through everything and upholds everything. In those nights of Siete Aguas, of the Pesebre Chapel, in front of the Eucharist – Jaime dwelt in the presence of the I AM, that baptizes again in innocence, the innocence of God.
I come back to my original questions, what does it mean to be prophet today? What does it mean to be Verbum Dei today? As I contemplated Jaime that Christmas of 2015 when he was 89 years old, I experienced that his life radiated a deep contemplative union with Love, with Jesus, with the Trinity and our beloved Mother Mary. His physical presence was sacramental of the Shalom of God. In a world that is breaking with the sounds of bombs, bullets, radicalism, corruption, hypocrisy, nuclear tension, political instability everywhere, power hungry violence, exploitation – I experienced Jaime’s life as Shalom, his life is Verbum Dei, – not only because of the words he spoke, the crowds he inspired, but ultimately because he was present, deeply present to the Silent Presence of the Eternal Love that dwelt within him and within all.
I pray that we as Verbum Dei, disciples of the Word and called to be prophets can root our lives in the Silent Presence of this same Eternal Love that Jaime experienced.