TO VISIT St Teresa's convents is to come almost face to face
with her. Talking to nuns who follow her reformed rule - that of
the Discalced Carmelites - gives a real sense of Teresa's presence,
like the faint rustle of a habit disappearing round a door.
This lively, extrovert, intelligent woman seems simply to have
left for one of her other foundations a moment before, leaving her
equally intelligent and funny Sisters in charge.
And listening to the women and men who support her communities
from outside, by running the museums or acting as guides, I became
aware of a deep affection for the Carmelites, and for Teresa
herself. As a Catalan friend once remarked, Teresa is like
everyone's favourite aunt: down to earth, full of common sense, and
To mark the 500th anniversary of the birth of the saint, also
known as St Teresa of Jesus, the 17 towns that contain the convents
she founded, the Cuidades Teresianas, are inviting
pilgrims to come and follow in her huellas
This is a rather different camino from the ancient pilgrimage to
Santiago de Compostela for several reasons. One is that it is a
very 20th-century pilgrimage, probably best made by train or car,
although a part of the route, between Ávila and Alba de Tormes (the
"Life Route"), can be done by bicycle or on foot.
A second difference is that Teresa, who could be called a legend
in her own lifetime, is by no means a legend. St James may or may
not have been brought to Santiago de Compostela; Teresa was a
flesh-and-blood woman, whose sayings and memorabilia were cherished
both by her nuns and the distinguished churchmen, aristocrats, and
relations who sought her company and advice.
TERESA Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada was born 500 years ago on 28
March 1515. Her clothes and books, and even her incorrupt (and much
manhandled and displayed) body parts were treasured by her Sisters.
She was a woman of Counter-Reformation Spain. Her birthplace and
her first cell are incorporated into two churches, and the 17
convents still persist. You can follow in her footsteps today.
Consider, if only in worldly terms, her achievement. Teresa
guiltily admits to reading novels as a teenager, and had little
formal or theological education. She had been propelled into a
convent at the age of 16 by her own fear of hell, and found herself
a much sought-after spiritual director by the age of 24, after
recovering from several years of serious illness - at its worst,
her family and her convent dug a grave, and sealed her eyes with
Then, in her late forties, she experienced a deeper conversion,
with the mystical experiences famously associated with her.
From that time, until her death in 1582, she began a life of
Christian paradox: a mystic, with not a trace of mystique about
her. An advocate of a much stricter, enclosed, discalced Carmelite
rule, she was almost constantly on the move, travelling vast
distances through Spain to found new palomarcicos,
or"dovecotes", for other women who wished to live a life of
She knew the most eminent men of her generation, and,
recognising the qualities of the young Juan de la Cruz, became his
close friend and colleague. Although she grumbled about having to
leave her spinning wheel for the comparatively unimportant task of
writing books, letters, and poems, and was diffident about her
ability, she was an important theological voice of the
Though she was, and is, a model of contemplative prayer and
austere living, she was adored for her cooking, her love of music
and dancing, the plays she wrote for her Sisters, her pithy
sayings, her lack of pretension, and her humour.
THERE is thus a great attractiveness about Carmelite
spirituality, which, glimpsed obliquely through the grilles near
the altars of their churches, gathers women together to pray in
domestically square rooms furnished with polished wooden floors and
stalls round the walls, or in the solitude of their individual
Perhaps it is not surprising that there is a waiting list of
young and well-educated postulants for the convent in Ávila. The
town guide tells us of the dramatic entrance of a young and wealthy
Spanish girl, a few months earlier. She had trained as a lawyer in
the United States, but was admitted to the order in July 2014,
accompanied by 500 roses bought by her distressed but proud
Perhaps she was the jolly nun who spoke to us through el
turno, the grille. Asked about contemplative prayer, she
giggled, and said, unnervingly, as my own children might: "It's
mental!" There was a pause, and we realised that she was groping
for words. "It's mental prayer."
To learn about prayer and the spiritual life from Teresa
herself, it is possible simply to go to her writings. These were
generally written to satisfy the curiosity of the pious or the
suspicious, though some were for her own nuns. They exist in
But to visit the convents and travel through the Spanish
countryside is to appreciate the mature Teresa more deeply.
Travelling in her footsteps - along safer roads, and in far more
comfort, and not, alas, by foot - we nevertheless catch glimpses of
the woman depicted in the sculpture of her outside the Convent of
the Incarnation in Ávila, striding out with staff in hand: an
elderly (for the time) woman, in a hurry, and impatient of her own
We also glimpse - much has been opened up to visitors for the
first time for this year - Teresa's living legacy: the Sisters who
follow her life today. The writings and Carmelite life are
expressed in Spanish 16th-century idiom, but the universal message
they carry is the central reality of God, and the astonishing love
that reveals this majesty in loving, suffering humanity.
ANYONE who visits at least four of the 17 cities where Teresa
founded her communities, and has their credencial stamped
at each tourist office, may present themselves to the Centro
Recepción de Visitantes in Avila, and collect a certificate of
The route and method and extent of the pilgrimage is not set,
although it might become, in time. But the website
huellasdeteresa.com suggests some routes, one of which links three
staggeringly beautiful World Heritage Cities: Segovia, Salamanca,
Medina del Campo, where Teresa first met Juan de la Cruz, and
where some of the ancient convent rooms can be visited, is not to
be missed. Nor is Alba de Tormes, where Teresa is buried. And
cities such as Burgos, Toledo, Seville, Granada, and Valladolid are
also abounding in religious drama; important art collections;
cultural life; cathedrals; Roman, Jewish, and Moorish history;
ancient universities; and glorious food and wine.
A new wine has been created for St Teresa's fifth centenary.
"Santa Teresa", with the saint shown in ecstasy on the label, can
be sampled, alongside the region's epicurean meats and cheeses, at
Gustavo Callo's vinotecas in Palencia and Valladolid. To
order a case, visit www.vinotecamalauva.es.
Because this is a new initiative, there are no packages as yet.
Flights to Madrid, within striking distance of Ávila, are frequent
and cheap from the UK. Alternatively, it is possible to travel from
London to Madrid by train in a day. The best thing is to book your
own itinerary with the help of the following
websites: www.huellasdeteresa.com, www.teresaofavila.org and
www.spain.info. To contact the Spanish tourist office, email: