Friday, 11 December 2015

A Pilgrimage to Avila


This year – 2015 – is the 500th anniversary of the birth of St. Teresa of Avila. “That’s an awful lot of candles” commented a (non-Catholic) friend, when I explained why I was planning a holiday in a not-much-visited part of Spain. The holiday was actually a pilgrimage. St. Teresa’s feast day is 15th October, and the pilgrimage group was to be in Avila for this date.

The first time I heard of St. Teresa was during a series of talks I went to in my late teens, on “Mysticism of the East and of the West”. At that time I was not a Catholic, or perhaps I would have heard of her sooner, - or perhaps not; I have discovered that non-Catholics have rarely heard of her, and even Catholics often know her only as a name. I learned about St. Teresa along with other mystics, Catholic and Protestant, Buddhist and Hindu, Sufi and Jewish. And for a long time all I knew about her was that she was subject to intense mystical experiences, sometimes lasting for hours at a time and temporarily incapacitating her; and yet she managed to live a very active life and accomplish an extraordinary amount.

By the time I joined CUT, I had been a Catholic for twenty years or so, and had learned rather more about her. I had read about other Carmelites too, - St. John of the Cross (who was contemporary with St. Teresa), the “Little Flower” St. Thérèse of Lisieux and St. Edith Stein who died in a German concentration camp. Sister Wendy Beckett, who has written extensively about artworks, is also a Carmelite. As all members of CUT know, each of us chooses, or is allotted, a saint to be our patron and companion in relation to CUT’s prayer crusades. When I was asked whether I would like to choose a saint, or to be given one, I said “Give me a Carmelite” – and was given St. Teresa.      

She was born in Avila, and made her profession as a nun at the age of about twenty. In retrospect she condemned herself as “lukewarm”, and she underwent more than one conversion experience during her life. Her supernatural visitations began when she was in her early forties. She was distressed about these for some time, being unsure whether she should regard them as divine or satanic in origin; some of the priests whom she consulted initially felt that they were satanic and advised her to disregard them. Others, however (several of whom are now themselves canonised saints) were convinced that they were from God and not from the devil. Teresa reformed the Carmelite order (in the teeth of opposition), founding the Discalced Carmelites. She was in contact with St. John of the Cross, who similarly reformed the men’s Carmelite order – and similarly in the teeth of opposition. She founded a number of new convents, travelling around the area of central Spain in extremely uncomfortable conditions.  She corresponded with dozens, perhaps hundreds of people, lay and religious, and wrote several books at the request – indeed, at the insistence – of her spiritual advisers. She has been declared a Doctor of the Church. There are not too many of those, especially female ones.

Avila is on high ground in the central plateau of Spain. We travelled there by coach from Madrid airport, passing through land which looked increasingly barren, with frequent rocky outcrops and hardly any trees. When Avila comes in sight on the horizon it is breathtaking, because it is a castellated walled city – the oldest walled city in Europe, apparently – and stands like a beacon against the sky. The walls are complete; you can walk almost all the way round the city on top of them (in two places you have to come down for a short distance, not because the walls themselves are interrupted, but because in those two places they are privately owned).  Avila itself has spread beyond its walls, indeed it had done so even in St. Teresa’s day, - the first convent she entered, the Convent of the Incarnation, is outside the walls. One of the pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela goes right through the middle of the city; if you look out for them, you can see the scallop shell markings on walls and stones. Though clearly attractive to Catholic pilgrims, Avila is far from the normal tourist haunts, and very little English is spoken, though restaurants often have menus in English. St. Teresa is quite the most famous daughter of the city, and shops sell St. Teresa sweets, St. Teresa biscuits, St. Teresa dolls, St. Teresa mugs... You name it.

A church has been built which incorporates part of the house where she grew up, - you can see the room where she was born, kept as it was at the time, and the garden where she and her brothers and sisters played as children. In that church is a statue of St. Teresa, on a huge plinth, and this statue, plinth and all, was carried out of the church on 14th October and taken to the cathedral in preparation for the feast day on 15th. The size and the weight of the statue plus plinth must be formidable, - it took at least 16 men to carry it; there may have been more. Raised to shoulder height the statue was too big to go out of the door, and had to be lowered to floor level and then lifted again when it was outside. On 15th it was carried through the city streets, accompanied by all the local organisations and many from further afield, blaring trumpets, drums, flags and banners.     

What would St. Teresa herself have made of that procession? In her writings she condemns herself as one of the most sinful creatures alive, and praises humility as the essential virtue on which all other virtues depend.  She suffered privations in her life which she does not complain of, but which become evident as one looks at the cell where she passed much of her time. Her pillow was a block of wood. She had no proper wherewithal for writing, but had to kneel on the floor with her paper on the sill of a low window which let in the only light available, - which itself was not much, since it did not look directly out into daylight but only into a larger indoor area. And on this windowsill she produced The Interior Castle, The Way of Perfection, all her letters and accounts (“relations”) of her experiences, and other works.

And what would she have made of the present-day ubiquity of television and other screen-based forms of entertainment? It is almost impossible to imagine.

For a start, the concept of “entertainment” barely entered her life, except in the form of self-adornment, chatting with friends, and reading novels of chivalry – all of which she condemned as sins which she herself had been guilty of. With regard to the novels, Cervantes’ fictional Don Quixote was led astray by reading novels of chivalry, and at the end of his life confessed that these were idle and useless, and had been responsible for his madness. Cervantes was near-contemporary with St. Teresa, having been born only thirty years after her. We are social creatures, and are immediately attracted to stories wherein we can picture ourselves in relationship with others. Stories and plays have been seen as entertainment, but also as instructive and even therapeutic, for millennia. But they can readily be “mere” entertainment, which for someone as austere as St. Teresa probably meant “sinful”; misleading (think: Dan Brown); and positively destructive, the opposite of therapeutic.   

Television (and film, and the ubiquity of coloured moving images) would have been almost beyond imagining in Teresa’s day. The nearest approach to it would have been paintings and statues; even these would for the most part have been accessible only to the wealthy; the majority of people would have seen them only in church buildings. Stained glass windows in churches (the “poor man’s Bible”) must have been a breathtaking revelation to people who spent most of their lives working in fields, with animals, in kitchens and workshops.  It was only the wealthy who would have had access even to brightly-coloured clothing. The human brain is very sensitive to visual input; light, colour and visually-perceived movement make a huge impact on us, and this impact is exploited to the full by present-day media.

Combine the two, - stories which capture our uncritical interest, and images which burn their way into our brains - and we can potentially be manipulated into thinking nothing or anything, a potential which is often exploited by people who make documentaries, plays and so-called soap operas.

St. Teresa, pray for us.  

By the Prayer Crusader - St Teresa of Avila

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