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"Let nothing frighten you or worry you" In the footsteps of Santa Theresa de Avila

FRANCE | Monday, 22 June 2009 | Views [1036]

 

Paul wanted me to title this entry as “Let nothing worry you nor frighten you” which is a saying of St Theresa, the patron saint of Avila, the school at which he teaches and the city which we have just spent 2 days. This statement should not be taken lightly, along with the promise Paul made to me that Avila would be the quietest town in which we would spend time in Spain. He really has been deluded by the Saint. Although Avila appeared a sleepy town, enclosed in medieval city walls. We arrived at 4pm and the saint definitely goes to bed at 10 pm. 10 pm was approximately the time we ate last night and we went to bed but the city didn't. There was a bar situated opposite our hotel that pumped music until 2 am and then all the young people in the city proceeded to drink and party in the street until 5 am. Luckily our hotel was quite small and with lots of hand gesturing and little English we were able to move rooms to the back of the hotel for a quieter night of sleep tonight.

Paul also assured me that there were some things to see in Avila and we would probably have a lot of free time. Again, Avila is full of surprises; a bit like the school in Australia at times. There is a lot to see in Avila. The city is one of the oldest medieval towns in the country and is also the highest in altitude. Therefore the weather was a lot cooler and more pleasant. The town is enclosed by walls which when you climb give you a commanding view of the plains surrounding the town, you see it is really quite isolated. The city is a maze of mediaeval streets with a cathedral or basilica every corner you turn. It is also the birthplace of St Theresa, one of the most important woman in the Catholic church so you would understand how the city is a mecca of relics and a huge religious supermarket of St Theresa icons for those fervent Catholics or teachers at the school dedicated to the Saint.

I must apologise to those people who work with Paul or any other Catholics for my irreverence throughout this story but the two days we have spent here has opened up a whole new dimension of culture for me that I have never really experienced. Having been brought up in the Congregationalist and later Uniting Church, I did work for a catholic school for two years but never quite was fully educated in Catholic intrisincies. However, there are some similarities between the Congregationalists and the Carmelite Order of nuns which St Theresa founded; that of simplicity and abstinence. Many of the churches and monasteries in the town are devoted to St Theresa. You can visit the place where she was born, see a replica of her nuns cell, paintings devoted to her, sculptures devoted to her, chapels devoted to her, gardens devoted to her and there are even cakes devoted to the saint. The main convent where St Theresa lived has been transformed into a museum in her honour. There is a shop where you can purchase every type of religious artefact related to the saint. After visiting this museum in the morning we found yet another museum and convent devoted to the saint. We also discovered a further myriad of rooms with items that belonged to the saint including her coffin in which she was 'laid out' in Avila before being transferred for burial to St Tomas, another religious Spanish city. There was her saddle in which she rode, her log pillow for praying, a facsimile of her writings and even her clavicle bone; both being not Catholic we are debating whether this is the ring finger of St Theresa, that may have been cut off after her death of her clavicle bone. I am sure someone will be able to tell us after reading this. You would think that we would know after all the religious education we have had over the last 2 days.

For those of you who know little about St Theresa, and I admit I knew little before today, she is allegedly to be a mystic who had visions. She also used to levitate when she had these visions from 'Our lord'. Avila is supposed to be a centre of mysticism. What that is, I am not quite sure but we did make quite a few jokes over the last 2 days about the levitative skills of St Theresa. St Theresa was also supposed to get her inspiration via a dove which sat on her shoulder passing on the word of Christ. We didn't see many doves but there are an enormous amount of cranes in the city which have made enormous nests on the spires and bell towers of the numerous churches. St Theresa also wrote with a feather fallen from a dove. I found a feather on the footpath today and wondered if it was a message from the saint. As for mysticism and levitation, I don't think these are necessarily performmed by religious devotees in Avila today, more like the local young people and young Americans experiencing their first bit of freedom since graduating from college. There are an enormous amount of nuns and priests visiting the town and you can spot them wandering around (or maybe floating) in groups.

For Paul, visiting Avila was like taking on a pilgrimage and the photos I have taken over the last 2 days depict his journey. It tends to read more like a drama, with Paul as the main protagonist; we have Paul ascending the wall of the city, visiting the museum, the cathedral, the monastery and the convent. We even got the obliging curator of the small St Theresa convent to allow Paul to take the keys to open the chapel of St Theresa. We were surprised that for such an important woman in the Catholic church some of these sites were relatively uncrowded. Also we discovered that little information is given in English. The Spanish tend to assume that everyone speaks their language even when you approach them in English. It also surprised me how there is so much income generated by selling 'tacky' items devoted to one person. If you are an Avila teacher, watch out Paul has the item for you he has brought back as a souvenir.

Avila is not only devoted to St Theresa. There are many churches, monasteries and basilicas founded by other saints and religious orders. We enjoyed viewing the Basilica of San Vincente on the outskirts of the city walls and the Monastery of Sante Thomas with its numerous cloisters. The latter was used by the kings of Spain as a retreat. There is also a large church with a choir at the back. As I mentioned many of the instructions are often not in English and somehow we stumbled into the front of the church, appearing behind the priest and altar in the middle of a Saturday evening mass. We slinked down the side aisle and pretended that we were visiting the many side chapels in the church. The service had only just begun and a choir was singing in the overhead choir. Apart from our initial mistake the experience was very moving.

After a week in the country we have finally mastered the culture and art of eating meals. It has taken us this long to work out that many restaurants have a bar and a restaurant that both serve food. Fortunately for us we discovered that the bar serves the same food in smaller quantities than a formal restaurant and we have been able to rescue our digestive systems. Avila is famous for its veal steaks, one which Paul tried this evening. The steak was nearly the leg of a small calf and it would take the apatite of two to eat it. The name Avila is certainly associated with food and perhaps the enjoyment of food and many dinners that the staff at Avila school in Melbourne have may come from this initiative. The Americans on the table behind us were quite shocked when their half eaten meal was taken away and disposed of. Apparently there is no word for 'doggy bag' in Spanish. At 11 pm the bars and restaurants are still filled with families eating and drinking and laughing. There seem to be an enormous amount of young families in the city and the children will play around the table and in the square whilst their parents eat. There lives seem happy and relaxed and they are well loved by everyone passing by. One restaurant we witnessed the waiter heat up the jars of baby food for the child and produce them on a white plate with a spoon and napkin.

So at 8.55 tomorrow morning we are off to the capital, Madrid. We now understand that any local train in Spain one must book; and we spent an hour at the railway station this morning doing just that. Maybe with our enlightenment from Santa Theresa we will levitate to Madrid in under an hour. As for the visions, I am hoping for a 4 star hotel for a change.

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