Beyond the Walls, a Sanctified City
Looking ahead to the Oct. 15 feast of St. Teresa of Avila, a pilgrim’s visit to ... Teresa’s Avila (in Spain). By Angelo Stagnaro.
Any friend of God is a friend of mine, but the Spanish Carmelite Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582) will always have a special place in my heart.
Hagiographic accounts relate the story of St. Teresa making her way to her convent during a fierce rainstorm. She slipped and fell into the mud. Looking up toward heaven, the irrepressible nun called out: “If this is how you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few!”
Only a true friend of God could speak to him with such easy familiarity while also honoring him with a life of reverence, sacrifice and holiness. It’s fitting that her feast falls squarely in the middle of the “Rosary month” — on Oct. 15, to be precise — because something of her unique mysticism seems to spice the entire month.
Here was a feisty little woman who, even as a small girl, said she’d received visions that astounded her family and friends. Her Interior Castle is a brilliant, soulful and at times humorous love letter in book form, replete with penetrating psychological observations and sound spiritual instruction.
The book, along with her other writings, helped earn her the title Doctor of the Church. Only 33 individuals in Church history hold that honor. In plain and simple language, Teresa explains how to navigate, by prayer and contemplation, the soul’s interior landscapes as we make our way toward ultimate union with the Lover who called us into being.
Her book and her life were enough to inspire both Thérèse of Lisieux and Mother Teresa to take her name as their own. For these reasons, and many others, I decided to include Ávila, Spain, in my 2005 pilgrimage and lecture tour across Europe.
This small town of 50,000 inhabitants, approximately 60 miles northwest of Madrid, on Spain’s meseta (the vast plateau that encompasses nearly half the country) is more than 2,000 years old. It retains the best preserved medieval walls in Spain.
Classic-movie buffs will recall seeing these as a backdrop in the 1961 film El Cid. King Alfonso VI built the walls to after he wrested the city from Muslim invaders in 1090. The wall, two kilometers long, has nine gates and 88 towers. It represents the state of the art among 11th-century urban-defense systems.
If only those walls could talk, what tales they would tell. So much has happened inside their gates.
At the Plaza de Santa Teresa is the Convento de San José. Built in 1562, it was the first monastery Teresa founded. The convent contains numerous Teresian relics.
Construction on the nearby Cathedral d’Ávila was started in the 12th century. Technically, it still isn’t finished: Its main entrance is in need of a tower. No matter. It is a delightful mélange of Romanesque and Gothic forms and elements. The church is infused with a holiness that works on all willing to open themselves to it.
I made my way to the parapet overlooking a part of Ávila that spilled from these walls so many years ago. In the midst of that urban sprawl, like a jewel in a sea of leafy greenery, shone the terracotta roof of the Convento de la Encarnación — one of the many monasteries Teresa created. It’s also the one the Church chose as her final resting place.
Since it was midweek, only two other people showed up for the tour that day — two Mexican Carmelite priests, as it happened. As I walked though the halls of the magnificent monastery, seeing the spots where the saint wrote, sang, prayed and slept, I naturally thought of her holiness and the sanctity of the other men and women she guided through her example and her writings. Not least among them, of course, was St. John of the Cross who wrote Dark Night of the Soul.
The four of us walked through the rooms as the tour guide pointed out the places described in St. Teresa’s Castle and in her autobiography. I thrilled at the sites where she received her mystic visions of Christ, Mary and the Trinity. I think that, if it weren’t for these two Mexican Carmelite priests, I might not have recognized or appreciated the spiritual treasures before us. But, either way, the experience amounted to a pilgrimage that I will never forget and can warmly recommend.
The culmination of the tour was the Chapel of the Transverberation. “Transverberation” is a word St. Teresa created specifically to describe the experience of her soul being permeated and overwhelmed by God’s love. In her autobiography, she described an angel piercing her heart with an arrow. It is a moment of Christian spiritual history that has been immortalized in Bernini’s sculpture “The Ecstasy of St Teresa” (which resides not here but in Rome, at the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria).
Off to the left of the main chapel was the cave-like niche in which St. Teresa experienced her ecstasy. The chapel in which I stood was built to accommodate the pilgrims that come to visit this holy spot. I could hear the soft chanting of the cloistered nuns who live at the monastery.
Emanating from behind a dark wooden screen that keeps our world of bustle out of their world of prayer, the sound was too beautiful to describe. I was grateful to take a seat in one of the pews and offer my prayer of thankfulness for the beauty and holiness around me.
As I made plans to leave Ávila, I wanted to make sure I saw Los Cuatro Postes, a chapel about a mile down the road toward Salamanca. When she was a precocious 7-year-old, Teresa convinced her brother to run away with her to be martyred at the hands of the Moors. One of these spots where they were found by concerned grownups is marked by a four-posted oratory.
I turned around to admire the city walls of Ávila once more, thanking God for showing me to this place so graced by the close memory of a great and favorite saint of mine.
Angelo Stagnaro is based in
New York City.
Ávila, Castile-Leon, Spain
The cathedral, an active church, has no website. For general travel info on traveling to and within Spain, go to Spain.info.
Planning Your Visit
The Sala de Reliquias contains relics of St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross. Available for veneration are a finger from Teresa’s right hand, the sole of one of her sandals, her rosary beads and a cord she used to discipline herself. St. Teresa’s incorrupt heart and arm are enshrined and displayed at the Carmelite convent in the nearby town of Alba de Tormes.
- September 30 - October 6, 2007