Monday, October 15, 2012

Memories of Avila, in Honor of St. Teresa

Most bloggers post some sort of self-description, and I try to keep mine simple. But today I have added a phrase to my profile, “devotee of St. Joseph.” I have done so in honor of St. Teresa, who was devoted to St. Joseph herself and whose feast day we celebrate today. Last summer, after walking the Camino de Santiago, I visited her native city, Avila. Here are some impressions I wrote at the time:

Can you name another city in the world where a Catholic woman saint is so prominent that there are two statues of her outside the city gates? A white marble St. Teresa stands on top of a column facing the entrance to the old walled city of Ávila, with the names of city notables at her feet: military and political leaders, artists and writers, and fellow saints, like John of the Cross. Another marble Teresa is seated in ecstasy to the left of the gate (pictured here).

There are several other places in Ávila where Teresa's memory is lovingly preserved. I was particularly struck by the friendly attentions of the two men who cared for the small museum at the Convent of San José (St. Joseph), the first of seventeen reformed convents founded by St. Teresa. And to be reminded of Teresa's devotion to St. Joseph: In both the church at this convent and in a chapel erected on her birthplace across town, the central icon above the altar is neither Mary nor Jesus, but Joseph.

Yet this is a modern, secular city that may not always remember the saint for which it is famous. Unlike most of the villages we passed through on the Camino, there’s money here. People are prospering, and reveling in their prosperity. We sat in a café on a plaza one evening, stretching dinner to watch the quarterfinal football match between Spain and France. Into the square came a bachelor party blowing horns and singing rowdy songs, while children kicked soccer balls around them and parents turned to laugh and applaud from wide-screen TV's set up in all the cafés. The groom was dressed in drag, and one of the celebrants carried what you might call an inflated female effigy. A far cry from a marble saint.

There is one clear lesson the Camino has given me, and it is something St. Teresa explains in her Book of the Foundations, about her experiences founding new convents. It is the freedom that comes with obedience. While we were walking, Marian and I were obedient to the Camino. We could set our own pace, deciding when to set out and when to knock off each day. But to follow the Camino meant walking toward Santiago, always west, and accepting the seemingly random people we met as fellow pilgrims. This gave us an unusual freedom: from anxiety about present or future life, or even about who to hang out with. Sure, we had blisters to tend and we got tired. But we were following something as unambiguous as a series of yellow arrows on the ground.

This is one of the Camino’s secrets, I think, the freedom that comes with following. Others credit endorphins for the high they feel, or just being “free” from daily duties. Today, I no longer need to obey the Camino. I need to follow something, or I’m certain to get lost.

Now, four months after writing these impressions, I have been reading a book about another Spanish saint devoted to St. Joseph: St. Josémaria Escrivá, founder of Opus Dei. While I’m not a member of this evidently misunderstood organization within the Catholic Church, I am increasingly moved by what I’ve read, especially about one’s daily work being the path to holiness. This has led me to add another word to my self-description, a word that St. Teresa would have taken no exception to. The word is worker.

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