Avila is about halfway between Madrid and Salamanca, and I’m so excited I had the opportunity to go! I can’t say I’m an expert on St. Teresa of Avila, but I’ve recently started learning more about her and reading some of her writings, and after seeing Ávila I’m inspired to learn more!
After arriving in Avila on Sunday, we started the day with Mass at the cathedral, which is pretty much the best way to get into beautiful churches for free! The Mass wasn’t in the main nave, but rather in a side chapel, which was still gorgeous but smaller and probably a bit warmer (it was really cold, especially compared to Portugal the previous day!). It turned out that they were presenting two catechumens who will receive their sacraments at Easter, which was cool.
Mass was in Spanish, and unlike the previous Sunday, I hadn’t remembered to look at the readings beforehand, so I had low expectations about what I would understand. But, to my surprise, I was willing to make out key words in the 1st reading and the Gospel that clued me into what was going on! The Spanish words for “serpent” and “fruit” are cognates, so I pin-pointed the 1st reading as Genesis right away; everyone in Texas at least knows that “diablo” means “devil,” and my 1 semester of Spanish allowed me to understand “40 days and 40 nights,” so I made an educated guess at the temptation of Jesus in the desert for the Gospel.
I thought about this pleasant surprise as I followed the Mass under my breath in English, and I realized an important skill I’ve developed since living in Germany… the ability to tolerate not understanding everything I hear and to focus more on understanding what I can instead of getting frustrated. I know this probably sounds like small potatoes, but if you understand what I’m talking about, you know that this is a big deal. Not every word is always important, and once you’re okay with understanding only the general gist of things instead of being a perfectionist all the time, getting along in another language is much easier and lower pressure!
After Mass we took to the walls! Avila is a medieval city that’s still completely walled, which is actually pretty rare, from what I can tell. So for about 7 Euros with a student discount, we were able to walk about 60% of the city’s perimeter, taking in gorgeous views of the old city inside the walls, the new city outside, and the surrounding countryside. Our walk was narrated by these only-somewhat-functional audio guides:
We were most entertained by a story about a local town hero/saint from the medieval days, who, after his death, was put on the back of a burro that was then charged with deciding on an appropriate burial place for the holy man. It just sounded like such a ridiculous premise that I joked mid-story that the burro probably died once arriving at the place… and it turns out that I was right! History is strange, or at least what we choose to remember of it is.
Also entertaining was the fact that “Teresa of Avila” narrated about half of the tour… for a 16th-century Spanish nun, she sure spoke impeccable English!
Once we had walked the touristic portion of the wall, we debated between getting lunch and going to see the Carmelite convent where St. Teresa had lived. We decided on lunch (and it ended up being quite the ordeal finding somewhere affordable to eat) and, after a typical, long, filling Spanish lunch, we finally headed to the convent… to find that it was closed for siesta. Spain…
Luckily, the convent would open soon enough for us to have time to see all the rooms and exhibits and still make it to the bus station in time for our return trip. We took a short little siesta on a plaza bench and enjoyed the beautiful, and by then warmer, weather.
Eventually the church opened back up and we looked around inside. The sanctuary was simple and beautiful. I lit a candle for a family member who’s been in my prayers lately, and then we moved on into the reliquary, where we could see a number of St. Teresa’s relics (first and second class), some of her personal writings, and the document by which Pope Paul VI declared her a Doctor of the Church.
Finally, we entered the convent, which has been converted into a St. Teresa museum. We got to see lots of artistic depictions of “La Santa,” some more of her personal effects, and learn about her biography. One fascinating thing I learned about was a particular spiritual gift she received during her lifetime: the transverberation of her heart. This basically means that she received the grace to feel her heart pierced as Jesus’ was; this was part of her Spiritual Marriage with Christ. (As I was just researching this online, I found out that when St. Teresa’s heart was examined after her death, they found an actual puncture wound in it!) There were some really fascinating artistic depictions of this.
Many parts of the exhibit were also dedicated to St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa’s co-founder of the Discalced Carmelites during the Carmelite Reform. I think it’s so fascinating that two great saints and Doctors of the Church were able to have such a close friendship during their lifetimes. It makes me wonder which of my friends will be this generation’s great saints! Pressure’s on, peeps!