Of all the pilgrimage destinations in Europe, Avila offers one of the most authentic medieval atmospheres. With its 11th-century walls and cobblestone-lined streets, the Spanish city is filled with age-old churches, Gothic palaces, and a fortified cathedral. Adding to the feeling of 16th-century Spain are the open markets and the ringing of the bells for the midday Angelus.
It is not Avila's antique atmosphere, however, that draws pilgrims from around the world, but a much-admired saint. As the birthplace and religious training ground of the famous St. Teresa of Jesus, the city has quickly developed into one of the most sought out pilgrimage sites in Spain.
St. Teresa, the great reformer of the Carmelite Order, was born into a noble family on March 28, 1515. From her earliest years, she was religiously inclined. At age 7 she wanted to escape with her brother to convert the Moors and suffer martyrdom. When she was 12 and her mother died, Teresa turned toward the Blessed Virgin Mary for maternal care. At age 19, Teresa left home to enter the Carmelite Order in her hometown.
Unknowingly, she entered a convent that had relaxed its rules, and the nuns were living more like people in the outside world. After reading St. Augustine's Confessions, she embarked on a reform of the order. Finding the prayer life of the convent contrary to the Gospels and to the order's rule, she began curbing many of its abuses.
She traveled endlessly throughout Spain, reforming old convents and founding new ones. During one of her journeys, she met St. John of the Cross, who became her spiritual adviser. Together, they worked for the reform of the Carmelite orders, of both men and women.
Both saints reached the heights of mysticism and are world-renowned for their spiritual writings. Both experienced many heavenly visions. The several books that prompted St. Teresa to be named a Doctor of the Church are her autobiography, The Way of Perfection, and The Interior Castle.
Suffering from ill health, Teresa died on her way to her convent at Alba de Tormes on October 4, 1582. She was never to lose her miraculous powers or favored gifts, and when she died her cell was said to be filled with a heavenly fragrance. When her body was exhumed more than 330 years later, the coffin emitted the same sweet-smelling heavenly fragrance (known as the odor of sanctity). In 1622 Pope Gregory XV canonized her, along with Ignatius of Loyola, Francis Xavier, Isidore, and Philip Neri.
Probably the most extraordinary grace she received was the “transverberation of the heart.” In her autobiography, St. Teresa spoke of the angel who thrust an arrow into her heart, leaving her “on fire with a great love of God.” After her death, when her body was examined she was found to have had a perforation of the heart. Thus, science confirmed one of her greatest mystical experiences. The saint's heart now rests in a glass reliquary at the Carmelite Convent in Alba de Tormes.
As there are a number of sites in Avila related to the life of St. Teresa, the city serves as a great Spanish pilgrimage destination. Among the most prominent places to visit for pilgrims is the Monastery of the Incarnation. It is here that the saint spent most of her religious life, and here that she began her reform of the Carmelite convent. Along with visiting the abbey museum, pilgrims can also take a guided tour of the monastery which includes seeing the cell in which the saint resided for many years, as well as places where she received a number of mystical graces and visions. One of the highlights for visitors is seeing the “Staircase of the Apparition.” According to the convent's tradition, this staircase was the scene of the apparition of the Child Jesus to St. Teresa. From an adjacent window, a nun saw and heard a beautiful child ask the holy Mother Teresa: “What is your name?” The saint replied: “Teresa of Jesus. And you, little Child, what is your name?” The Child's answer was: “Jesus of Teresa.”
Another favorite place to visit for pilgrims is the Convento de Santa Teresa, a 17th-century convent and church built on the site where St. Teresa was born. Today, it is staffed by the Carmelite Fathers and features a museum with a number of relics from the lives of St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross.
While in Avila, some pilgrims choose to visit the cathedral. Although the sanctuary has no direct link to St. Teresa, it has played a large part in the lives of local Catholics. A quick stop here can provide the visitor with an inside look at some of Spain's finest examples of religious architecture and artwork.
Medieval Avila was encircled by its famous walls. Today, there are actually “two parts” to the city. Buildings and structures are either referred to as lying “within the walls of Avila,” or “outside the walls.” As regards the pilgrimage sites, the Monastery of the Incarnation lies outside the city walls, while the cathedral and convent of St. Teresa lie within them.
Avila is located just about in the center of Spain, and is easily accessible by car, train, and bus. In traveling there from Madrid, head northwest on A6, then, at the junction of N110, turn left and continue heading west to Avila. By rail, there are frequent daily departures to Avila from Madrid and other major Spanish cities. There is also regular bus service from Madrid to Avila.
For more information on making a pilgrimage to Avila, contact one of the many Catholic travel organizations or contact the Avila Tourist Office at: Avila Oficina de Turismo, Plaza de la Catedral, 4, 05001 Avila, Spain, tel 011-34-920-21-13-87, fax 011-34-920-25-37-17.
Kevin Wright, author of Catholic Shrines of Western Europe, writes from Bellevue, Washington.