Last year, our parish pilgrimage took in the ancient saints of North Wales. This year, by way of contrast, we journeyed to Avila in central Spain to honour the 500th anniversary of the birth of St Teresa of Avila in that small but very beautiful city. As well as the St Helen’s contingent, we welcomed friends and family from Bargoed , Blackwood, Llanishen, Pontypridd, Devon, London and Italy. As usual, Angela Jones organised it all with her usual efficiency and Father John gave us his own insight into St Teresa and guided us through the spiritual aspects of the pilgrimage.
While the North Wales saints were very inspiring men and women I always felt that they were essentially of their time with a mainly local appeal. We soon found out that St Teresa was in a different league, a real A-lister whose example , teaching and holiness reach down through the centuries to influence Christian thinking across the world to this day. Unlike the Celtic saints, her life, teaching and philosophy are very well documented not just in her own extensive writing but in the descriptions by contemporaries and through research by biographers and theologians. Her living personal relation with God and the visions which accompanied it continue to inform and nourish our faith and the Church but despite these awesome gifts she comes across as a really human down- to- earth woman to whom we can all relate.
Naturally enough, we began our visit in Avila itself. Our first Mass was celebrated in a chapel of the Cathedral del Salvador which is both a house of worship and a fortress with its apse forming the central bulwark of the city walls. In talking about the cathedrals and churches we visited it is hard to avoid the word magnificent so I might as well start with it—this Cathedral is magnificent. The Convento de Santa Teresa was built in 1636 around the house where St Teresa was born in 1515. There is a church here with a gold adorned chapel built over the room where she was born, a museum and a relics room. Rather gruesomely, the relics include the saint’s ring finger. Indeed , we learned that after her death there was an unholy scramble to detach bodily parts for relics—we Northern Catholics tend to recoil now from such practices but people then were less squeamish, it seems.
The Monasterio de la Encarnacion just outside the magnificent ( told you!) city walls is where St Teresa fully took on the monastic life and where she lived for 22 years. She realised her true mission quite late in life and decided that religious orders had to return to the simplicity of the early Christian years. She set about reforming her own order , the Carmelites. She turned their convents from being a sort of comfortable gap-year choice for daughters of the nobility into disciplined austere engines of prayer and worship. Like all reformers she met with fierce resistance from church and civil authorities but with great skill, determination , charm and humour she overcame it all to achieve her aims. Through it all, her down- to-earth attitude, unassuming ways and lively, pleasant personality made her and her writings very popular with the ordinary people.
Our journey in St Teresa’s footsteps led us away from Avila to Salamanca, the site where she established the seventh convent under the new Carmelite rules. Salamanca is a magical place. Larger than Avila, it boasts golden sandstone buildings, two Cathedrals side by side ( the Old and the New) and the oldest university in Europe. Here we encountered the first site associated with St Teresa’s fellow reformer St John of the Cross who studied at the university. More of him later.
On the way back to Avila we visited the town of Alba de Tormes where St Teresa is buried in the Convento de las Carmelitas , her eighth foundation. When you hear of all the relics that were pillaged you wonder what there was left to bury but it is this remarkable woman’s spirit which we are concerned with here and it pervades all these places.
Valladolid was our next pilgrimage site. A much bigger city, it is still a very attractive one. Mass was at the famous English College which down through the centuries has educated Welsh and English priests and carries out the same function today. The vice-rector greeted us and before and after Mass told us of the history of the College which numbers many saints and martyrs amongst its past pupils –including two Welsh saints St John Lloyd and St John Roberts. The Carmelite convent here was the fourth founded by St Teresa. The cathedral is not quite the best one we saw– though it has some impressive features—so I don’t need to use the word magnificent again.
On the way back to Avila we called in at the town of Medina del Campo where St Teresa founded her second convent. Even more importantly , it was her first meeting with St John of the Cross. This saint, scholar and Doctor of the Church deserves a pilgrimage of his own but for the purposes of this article I shall simply say that his collaboration with St Teresa set off a similar reform movement leading to the setting up of monasteries for men to complement her convents for women religious. We were able to pay a short visit to the small chapel closely identified with St John.
Our last formal pilgrimage act in Avila was to attend Mass in Spanish at the Convent of St Joseph . Father John concelebrated and, this being an enclosed order, a choir of nuns sang from behind a screen in one of the side chapels. As this was St Teresa’s first foundation under her reformed rules it was a fitting place to honour her and say farewell to Avila.
Our last day and a half were spent in Madrid and apart from Mass at the Convent of Mary Immaculate this final period was more of a sightseeing tour . I should mention our stop en route to the city to take in the awe-inspiring Escorial Palace with its attached Monastery of St Lawrence. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Founded by Phillip II it is crammed full of famous works of art and among other things contains the graves of almost all Spanish monarchs from his time onward. The surrounding village is also a very attractive place.
My personal view is that this pilgrimage was an outstanding success. I have done St Teresa scant justice in this article but it might help to redress that if I say that for almost the first time I felt that a saint had really become alive to me as we journeyed through the places associated with her. Having short readings from her works on the coach and at Mass really reinforced the image of this Doctor of the Church who could walk with kings yet keep the common touch. Thanks to Father John and Kate Duffin for the readings idea—it worked brilliantly.
Successful pilgrimages have three strands to them, as I see it, and the three strands are intertwined. Obviously, the main purpose is to honour the saints involved, get closer to them through visits to places associated with them and through prayer and attention to their works. As I’ve said above, I thought this aspect was a great success.
A second aspect is to learn more about the country through general sightseeing and information on places as we pass through on pilgrimage. I don’t think anyone in the party will forget the wonderful sight of the walls of Avila illuminated with the sky black with hundreds of beautiful screaming swifts or the storks and their nests on roofs and church towers. Nor will we forget the friendliness of the Spanish people or the sheer majesty of Madrid. We came away understanding Spain just a little bit better through all this.
Finally, the communal breakfasts , evening meals and socialising afterwards helps break down barriers between people who might have seen each other at Sunday Mass but never spoken. Those who are already friends learn a little bit more about each other’s faith, opinions and enthusiasms. This plays a real part in building up the parish community back at home.
It is these three strands which gave me the title for this article. In his book about St Teresa – Let Nothing Trouble You: Teresa: The Woman, the Guide and the Storyteller: St Teresa of Avila 1515 – 2015 – Fr Eugene McCaffrey recalls the time that St Teresa with some nun companions visited the house of a noblewoman. She accepted a plate of succulent roast partridge only to see a horrified expression on the face of one of the nuns who thought this was self –indulgence. St Teresa said to her “There is a time for penance and a time for partridge” and tucked in.
This story sums up our pilgrimages perfectly and so I propose that we adopt “ Penance and Partridge “ as our pilgrimage motto from now on