Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 739
Fray Lázaro is celebrating his seventh anniversary as a Franciscan friar. His major concern, that he never had a true call to the priesthood, leads him to write a diary. The diary focuses on his life and on the life of Fray Rufino, a friar who has earned the reputation of a saint.
Both men are under considerable stress because of life at the monastery. Fray Rufino trains cats and mice to eat from the same plate. The monks celebrate this event as a miracle. It soon becomes a curse, however, as the cats stop hunting mice, and rodents invade the monastery. As secret punishment for that “miracle,” Fray Rufino begins to flagellate himself and maintains a heavy work schedule; he frequently takes upon himself the chores of his fellow friars.
Fray Rufino’s reputation keeps growing outside the monastery. People from faraway places start coming to the monastery in order to meet the monk, whose miracles include cures of dying animals and the restoration of a blind woman’s sight. Such personal attention creates in him a fear of losing his true Franciscan vocation to achieve total humility.
Fray Lázaro’s fragile confidence in his religious calling suffers a great blow the day he sees in church a beautiful young woman who reminds him of a past love. To his surprise, the woman, María Mercedes, is the sister of Gracia, the former girlfriend, now a married woman living in town. Against his will, Fray Lázaro feels an attraction to María Mercedes, who appears to love him. Her constant visits cause him severe depression as he begins to debate whether he is in love. In desperation, and in order to stop seeing María Mercedes, Fray Lázaro pretends to be ill.
Suddenly Fray Rufino warns Fray Lázaro to be careful; Fray Rufino tells him that he can see that Fray Lázaro is losing his religious vocation. Fray Lázaro, surprised by the advice because he did not confide his secret to anyone, decides that Fray Rufino is right. That very day he will tell María Mercedes that they cannot see each other anymore. When he sees the young woman, however, he cannot resist her innocence and beauty. He also experiences jealousy when he notices that a handsome young man has been trying to attract María Mercedes’ attention. Fray Lázaro happily withdraws to the monastery when he realizes that María Mercedes does not respond to the young man’s flirtation.
Fray Lázaro becomes more interested in Fray Rufino’s well-being. He recognizes that something unusual is happening to Fray Rufino. His suspicions are confirmed one night when he discovers that Fray Rufino has increased his physical punishment to the point of crawling on his knees while carrying a heavy wooden cross. The crawling produces heavy bleeding in the weak old man. At last Fray Lázaro confronts Fray Rufino with the knowledge of the secret physical punishment. In turn, Fray Rufino confesses more terrible news: He says that an apparition, the ghost of a monk who claims to have come from Purgatory, visited him several times in order to warn him about his weaknesses as a monk. Fray Lázaro makes him promise to stop the intense punishment and to seek advice from higher religious authorities.
One day María Mercedes comes to mass accompanied for the first time by her sister Gracia. María Mercedes’ aloofness toward Fray Lázaro makes him suspect that her family has discovered their relationship and forbidden her to speak to him. When María Mercedes speaks to Fray Lázaro, she confirms the monk’s fears. She also insists upon seeing Fray Rufino. Fray Lázaro promises her a visit with Fray Rufino early the next morning.
Fray Lázaro arrives late for that meeting with Fray Rufino and María Mercedes. As he walks into the reception room, he is horrified by María Mercedes’ screams for help as she is sexually attacked by Fray Rufino. In desperation, she manages to run away from Fray Rufino, who is screaming that he is not worthy of his saintly reputation. He also claims that the ghost of the monk makes him behave in such a brutal fashion. To avoid a scandal, Fray Lázaro assumes all guilt for the attack, and he is transferred to a monastery far from the town.
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