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Travel and retreats: In St Teresa’s footsteps

30 January 2015

To celebrate the 500th anniversary of the birth of St Teresa of Ávila, Laurie Vere sets out on a new Spanish pilgrim trail

Spanish tourist board

Birthplace: Ávila, showing the city walls

Birthplace: Ávila, showing the city walls

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 yet fun.

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 (footsteps).

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 wax.

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 contemplative prayer.

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 Counter-Reformation.

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 cells.

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 mother.

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 translation.

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 frailties.

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 pilgrimage.

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, and Ávila.

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: info.londres@tourspain.es

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