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Spanish steps: The remarkable life of St Teresa of Avila

Extraordinary life

Pilgrims who set out to follow the extensive journeys of St Teresa of Ávila across Spain are discovering the legacy of a dogged, enterprising woman. Catherine Pepinster tells her story in The Tablet.

There is a pomegranate tree growing in the garden of the Carmelite monastery in Toledo. As we look out across the city to the mountains, we pluck and eat fruits rich with symbolism. For medieval Christians like Teresa, the pomegranate represented resurrection and eternal life. “Thy plants are a paradise of pomegranates with the fruits of the orchard”, Teresa wrote in one of her poems, echoing the Song of Songs.

To enclosed nuns and monks of the Carmelite order, the garden was a place for domestic tasks and relaxation in the heat of the Spanish day, but it also represented a return to the lost ideal of the garden of Eden, the original paradise.

And as Teresa of Ávila set about reforming the Carmelite order in 16th-century Spain, she might well have thought of another garden – Mount Carmel, where Elijah’s followers lived as prophets. The mount’s Hebrew name was Hakkarmel, which means the orchard or garden.

So it seemed appropriate to pause awhile in the Toledo garden and contemplate the remarkable life and work of a woman who, with determination and conviction, defied her father, challenged her Carmelite superiors, faced down the anti-Semites who murmured about her Jewish roots, stood up to the Inquisition, and pragmatically worked with the influential and wealthy to fund her life’s work.

And all this took place amid the religious turmoil of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.

Teresa was clearly mentally tough, and as we bounced along Spanish roads for hour after hour, following her journey across the country as she founded her convents, I began to realise that she must have been physically tough, too. The three-hour journeys by bus were hard going; it would have taken Teresa days to cover the same distance by donkey and cart. Despite debilitating ill-health and a desire to live as a contemplative within an enclosure’s walls, she was constantly on the road, founding 18 convents.

Teresa’s life and vocation began in Ávila, the walled town west of Madrid, where she was born in 1515. Her paternal grandfather was Jewish but had converted to Christianity, and her prosperous father assimilated into Spanish society. Always strong-willed, Teresa ran away from home with her brother to fight the Moors when she was just seven.

Photo: Statue of St Teresa in Ecstasy by Bernini in the Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome

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