José María Méndez of Seville, Spain, will go from painter to Trappist monk, at 53 years old, thanks to the movie “Libres.” / Credit: José María Méndez
ACI Prensa Staff, Feb 3, 2024 / 09:00 am (CNA).
After lying dormant for decades, the seed of a calling to monastic life has sprung to life in the soul of Sevillian painter José María Méndez after hearing a line in the film “Libres” (“Free”) on monasticism. Méndez will become a Trappist monk at the end of February.
“All this glitter of our society is capable of distracting — and sometimes, for a person’s entire life. It doesn’t fulfill your life; it distracts it,” said one of the monks in the documentary film about the contemplative life that became an international success.
The line struck Méndez, and he responded by saying yes to the monastic life; however, he explained that “the thought of doing it, the restlessness was latent, abandoned, or eradicated so as not to get frustrated by not being able to attend to it” due most of all to his family obligations.
The 53-year-old painter from Seville explained how the documentary impacted him to the point of clearly hearing that call: “‘You’ve already had everything, you leave it and come with me.’ That’s how I understood it at that moment, and there has been no going back. Simply a search for how to go through with it,” Méndez told ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner, in a phone conversation.
Becoming a Trappist monk
At the end of February the painter will enter the priory of Santa María de las Escalonias of the Cistercian Order of Strict Observance (Trappist), located in the mountain range of the same name in the southern province of Córdoba in Spain.
“There I have found my home,” he explained; a monastic community that is “serene and like a family” awaits him — the only one for men in Andalusia — consisting of eight other men who have received him “with open arms, in a way that surprised me,” he said.
It’s a place that he learned of 27 years ago, when he withdrew there to prepare an exhibition: “It dazzled and fascinated me,” he admitted, which is essential because the novice master explained to him that “you have to be in love with the place because of the vow of stability.”
Not only was the environment attractive: “The monastery has some magnificent cooks in the guest house, who are the ones who serve us. And well, it has also helped me decide that it is the right place,” he commented.
“When I set foot there on the first day of the monastic experience, I said: This is my place,” he added, which will be the case for the rest of his life unless they ask him to go to another monastery. In any case, that’s not what Méndez, who clearly sees himself staying in the place forever, hopes: “This way I can keep my tomb ready for that time,” he said.
The simple and profound way of referring to death is typical of those who have experienced it up close with faith: His brother was the victim of a crime and his family always dealt with the event with serenity and forgiveness.
That experience “confirmed my faith; it made me see that faith helps in difficult moments,” he explained, because with that certainty “death is seen as a liberation and an encounter with the beings you love. What I want at this point in life is to guarantee myself that secure future.”
‘It’s clear to me that God has called me’
The Sevillian painter noted that his period of discernment has not been painful because “it has to be a form of suffering not knowing what to do, where to go… it’s clear to me that God has called me.” This is not an escape for him. Méndez said he has lived “a full life” up to now in his family and professional life.
Until recently, he taught painting classes to 50 people and had numerous commissions. When the film awakened his vocation, he was in the middle of very normal everyday life: He had a bathroom renovation halfway done and was about to move to the town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda located where the Guadalquivir River empties into the Atlantic Ocean.
Before entering the monastery, he still had numerous professional commitments to attend to, such as sending several portraits to Luxembourg and Belgium.
‘My new job is to pray’
In any case, he has to let go of material things, which is not always easy, especially because of the sentimental value. Méndez emphasized that “it’s been a very beautiful process, not without very emotional moments,” since it’s not just a matter of his belongings but also of family mementos of all kinds.
However, the process isn’t making him hesitate: “The decision is so radical that there’s a specific emotional shock, and that’s it,” said the monk-to-be, who has preferred to give away some paintings and to give his books to friends.
He still doesn’t know if he will be able to continue dedicating himself to religious painting, as he has already done in the past within the walls of the monastery, although he’s not worried. “Painting is secondary and the prior will decide at the time, but it is not my intention, because my new job is to pray,” he said.
“Libres,” the first documentary film that managed to go beyond the walls of 12 Spanish cloistered convents in an unprecedented journey into the interior of these communities and the lives of their inhabitants, was released in Spain in April 2023.
“Libres” soon became an international success that has captivated thousands of viewers around the world. The movie was directed by Santos Blanco and produced by Bosco Films in collaboration with the DeClausura Foundation, which is helping the monastic communities in Spain survive the many challenges facing them.
This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.