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A pilgrimage in the footsteps of St John of The Cross and St Teresa of Avila   

30th September - 7th October 2013

Clad in Teresian Joy!

‘The Little White Butterfly Comes Forth.’

Monday morning, in the departures lounge at Heathrow airport, and we are greeted with such warmth and delight by Caroline our organiser and already Teresa is making her presence felt. Decorating the cocktail bar we notice a beautiful array of shiny, sparkling white butterflies and the scene is set for some divine inebriation. In the 5th dwelling place Teresa tells us of the little white butterfly that comes forth from its cocoon, the silk worm dies, transformation takes place and now it has wings…it is ready to fly. Indeed Teresa exclaims; ‘how can it be happy walking step by step when it can fly?’

So we prepare to take flight, our pilgrimage has begun and we have come together to follow in the footsteps of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, through Avila, Segovia and Toledo. We will be led by Fr Matt whose familiarity with these places will give us the privileged position of seeing behind so many closed doors, so many thresholds to cross, as we are welcomed by our Carmelite family…’this house is your house’ was the word of hospitality offered to us by the friars of Toledo. Our Pax tour guide Ericsson will have the difficult job of ensuring all of Teresa’s flittering butterflies are in the right place at the right time.

So at last we catch our first glimpse of Avila, set on a hill with its striking city wall punctuating the barren landscape, its beautiful granite so easy on the eye, against the blue of the sky. We arrive at Las Moradas  which means ‘resting places’ or ‘dwelling places’ and this will be the place from which we will explore and experience the city. Already it is easy to see where so much of Teresa’s and John’s imagery comes from as we wind our way through the narrow streets of this walled city and begin to be aware of the quality of light in the Castilian landscape.                              


We celebrate our first Mass together at la Santa, the church built on the site of the house where Teresa was brought up with her family. We hear the gospel of the Samaritan woman at the well and how in Teresa’s home there was a painting depicting this gospel scene and the way she longed to drink the water from this well…the water of life, offered by Jesus. “How many times do I recall what the Lord said about living waters to the woman from Samaria” (V30, 19). Water we are reminded is a metaphor for life and prayer used so often by Teresa.

‘Those who live in love, live in God’

The convent of San Jose (St.Jospeh) and Teresa’s first foundation of discalced nuns. The bells are rung before Mass in the little chapel, just as it would have been in Teresa’s day and indeed on the day the community was founded on the feast St. Bartholomew’s in 1562. The sisters make a lovely gesture to the group and we each receive the gift of a miniature scapula and are invited to be community to each other for the week ahead. None of us is here by accident, each of us has listened to Jesus and responded to his call and we thus find ourselves in this place. Already connections are made as we accompany each other on the journey, moments of joy, of laughter of sharing and of hearing the other’s story. And our story becomes intertwined with Teresa’s; she encourages us to embrace our humanity because she was as human as she was saintly. God we hear is not confined to the chapel and times of ‘prayer’ but is to be experienced in every ‘ordinary’ aspect of our lives. Indeed she famously tells us; “The Lord walks in the kitchen, amongst the pots and pans.” (Found 5:8)

The sweet smell of baking

It seems the nuns in Alba de Tormes understand this well and as we made our way around their Convent church which houses the Tomb of St. Teresa, the delicious smell of freshly baked cakes permeated through the walls, as did the warmth of their welcome. The sisters were eager to meet us and sell their wares, so carefully wrapped with a delightful attention to detail. In a lovely intimate Mass in the chapel here, Fr Matt invites us to reflect on Teresa’s death and what heaven is to her – we hear that for Teresa heaven is all around, but most truly it is within, within each and every person... how beautiful!

There was no wanting it to stop

At the convent of the Incarnation entered by Teresa as a young woman, we passed through the very door she went through. Here we saw the little cell where John of the Cross heard the confessions of the nuns. We were told of two significant mystical events in Teresa’s life experienced in this place. The Transverberation famously depicted by Bernini, Teresa in ecstasy. It was pointed out that Bernini reveals something very important in his image which shows the arrow as it is being removed.  The moment of ecstasy, of union is beyond comprehension, beyond awareness, consummation is so total that one is completely absorbed and it is only afterwards, on reflection, when the arrow is removed, when the moment has passed that the person becomes aware.

As he withdrew it (the arrow)… it left me all burning with a great love of God. So great was the pain, that it made me give those moans; and so utter the sweetness that this sharpest of pains gave me, that there was no wanting it to stop, nor is there any contenting of the soul with less than God”. (St. Teresa, Life…Chapter 19).

Then there was the charming story of the Child Jesus appearing to Teresa on the staircase of the convent, he asks who she is and she tells him, I am Teresa of the child Jesus, in return he says and I am Jesus of Teresa. It was so homely to see the very staircase where this little encounter had taken place.

Night is as clear as day

“Jesus be in your soul…truly I desire your good forever…God ordains all and where there is no love, put love and you will draw out love…” These are a few of the words John of the Cross penned to Ana of Jesus and Maria de la Encarnacion in Segovia. Here in Segovia we discover the tomb of St. John of the Cross and celebrate Mass in the presence of the saint.

We hear from the prophet Isaiah 43:1 “fear not, for I have redeemed you: I have called you by your name you are mine…” Our response to the psalm ‘Night is as clear as day’, reminds us of John’s image of the Night where so much is revealed, night the place of encounter, of beauty.

 “O night more lovely than the dawn! O night that has united the lover with his beloved.”(The Dark Night, stanza 5)

John’s love of the Eucharist is powerfully depicted in the glorious altar screen with the fountain flowing and the bread of life, the tabernacle within. It is so hard to leave this place!

Beware of the Bulls! 

A coach journey to Medina del Campo and Fr Matt endears us with another story of Teresa’s intricate web of friends and family, cousins, brothers-in-law and all the complex negotiations of how another foundation comes into being; we hear of a secret journey by mule and a narrow escape from some unexpected bulls! Founding was never straight forward for Teresa, though she was aware that each foundation was a work of God and this work is on-going. We all have the potential to be founders and we are invited in Fr Matt’s homily to consider where we are asked to found, to bear fruit, to bring forth, to give life, to pass on. “We must receive without self interest, and pass on without reserve.” This is not for the faint hearted.

 It was here in Medina del Campo that Teresa and John met and where John’s mother lived and was taken care of by Teresa’s nuns. The square at the heart of the town provides us with a place of meeting, to relax in each others company and share a beer and enjoy the attention of the charming Spanish waiters. This will be our last night in Avila a chance to party with Teresa, with a little help from the Spanish red wine, served in abundance in the restaurant where we have been so well catered for! Pope Francis makes an unexpected appearance (on somebody’s T-shirt!) and some are to be found enjoying the wine of the Pomegranates well into the Dark Night! 

St. Augustine and an abundance of tissues

Before we say goodbye to Avila, we gather for Mass in the Augustinian convent where Teresa had spent time studying, we are offered an extract from Teresa’s Life (chapter 9) where she refers to her love of St. Augustine and the consolation she found in knowing that he had been a sinner, though she notes that after the Lord had called saints such as Augustine they did not fall again and of herself she exclaims; “I had fallen so often that I was distressed by it. But when I thought of his love for me, I would take heart once more, for I never doubted his mercy…”  Augustine it seems helped Teresa to be herself, to discover an inner freedom, but first she must plunge the depths of her lack of inner freedom. Is this not true for all of us! We share a moment of tears, of care and concern, of rejoicing and laughter, so many versions of what is happening and so many tissues!

En una noche oscura…One dark night

Toledo and it is here that John was imprisoned for 9 months, we are taken to the place of his escape, we hear and see how desperate John must have been and how he feared for his life. On the wall is a tile plaque containing the words of the first stanza of The Dark Night. John wrote some of his most sublime poetry in the darkness of his prison cell including, The Spiritual Canticle and The Fountain. As one sits at the foot of the wall apart from the constant roar of traffic, there is the living sound of the River Tagus, this is the sound John would have heard and the Discalced friars in Toledo described the sound of the river Tagus as their ‘relic’ of John of the Cross. What a joy and a mystery to hear what John heard, to feel so close to him.

The fullness of God is everywhere

More doorways, more thresholds, a glorious sunrise over Toledo, the weather has been so warm and perfect. We visit Teresa’s foundation in Toledo and the discalced friars, we have Mass in each place. We remember that Teresa tells us that she only writes from her own personnel experience, she writes only what is real and in a language people can understand. What is given to her is for everyone and she is bursting to communicate…she cannot not communicate what is going on inside her.

This is how I feel after our pilgrimage, so full, bursting to communicate, so in love with Carmel and with a heart full of gratitude! I offer this glimpse into my experience and hope it resonates in some small way with yours. Though words are so limited in the face of such beauty and gift and all we can do as suggested by the Jewish poem found in a little garden nestled beside the City wall in Avila is; bow down in reverence.

“Y ante la cual se inclinan reverentes”

May Jesus be our way, our truth and our life. Wherever our journey takes us, wherever the pilgrimage of life takes us. Amen.

Gillian Coxhead

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