PILGRIMAGE: Alba de Tormes, Spain—Being Humble by Albert Holtz

A Benedictine Journey Through Lent

Alba de Tormes, Spain—Being Humble by Albert Holtz

From: Pilgrim Road

Old Padre Angel believes that no self-respecting Christian should spend a month studying in Salamanca without at some point traveling to the nearby town of Alba de Tormes to visit the tomb of Saint Teresa of Ávila.  So this afternoon I’m riding in the front seat as he drives me on my mandatory half-hour pilgrimage across the gently rolling farm country of Castilla y León in north-central Spain.

Alba lies on a gentle slope above the River Tormes.  A drive up its winding streets reveals hardly a shade tree or a blade of grass along the way.  We park near the single, squat tower that is all that is left of the castle of the once powerful Duke of Alba.  I remember reading somewhere that the present Duchess of Alba has more titles after her name than the Queen of England.

We stroll up a long, narrow alley that, like much of the rest of Alba, still has a medieval feel to it.  We emerge onto La Plaza de Santa Teresa, a slightly sloping rectangle bounded on four sides by tan stone buildings.  Several ten-year-olds are charging recklessly over its cobblestones in a lively game of soccer.  Weaving our way warily among the oblivious players we cross the rough pavement to the Carmelite Convent of the Annunciation and its adjacent Church of Santa Teresa.

After glancing for a few seconds at the almost windowless façade of the convent, we turn to our right and enter the church.  At the far end looms an ornate main altar, flanked on either side by large gold-framed paintings.  High above the altar table, behind wrought iron grillwork and sparkling in the glare of fluorescent lights, rests a black marble coffin surmounted by two white marble angels.  Still higher up, almost at the ceiling, stands a statue of a Carmelite nun with a halo, her hands and eyes lifted in prayer toward Heaven.  This is Alba’s main attraction: the tomb of Spain’s most beloved saint, Teresa of Ávila.

We join a small group of other visitors gathered at the altar rail around a tired old priest.  He takes out a ring of keys that jangle as he unlocks a tiny compartment built into the wooden paneling to the left of the altar.  Reverently pulling out a tall glass tube in a gold holder, he explains, “This is the actual heart of la Santa.”  Some of the visitors crowd closer to get a better look.  Not me.  “She died over 400 years ago, yet this heart is practically incorrupt.”  After feigning interest in the grisly relic for a few seconds, I start to look around at the rest of the quiet, peaceful church.  It occurs to me that Teresa’s life was anything but quiet and peaceful.

After some years and many spiritual struggles as a Carmelite nun in her native Ávila, Teresa realized that her order was in dire need of reform.  Despite being a woman in a man’s world, she, with the help of Saint John of the Cross and others, began the difficult and thankless work of reforming the Carmelites; she founded several new houses, including this one in Alba de Tormes.  Incredible as it sounds, all during this turmoil she was also writing some of the church’s deepest and most enduring works on mystical prayer.

Teresa was a towering figure in her day, venerated by many as a saint while she was still alive.  Within a few decades of her death the Roman Catholic Church officially proclaimed her a saint, and in 1970 Pope Paul VI declared her a Doctor of the Church.

Many people admire the great saint’s courage, others her deep mystical insights, and still others her remarkable personal holiness or her intense love for God and for humanity.  The noble statue, the black marble sarcophagus, the sparkling silver and gold, all celebrate the importance of this renowned historical figure: a courageous reformer, a great mystic, and a Doctor of the Church.

It occurs to me, though, as we follow the old priest to the back of the church, that there ought to be some reminder somewhere of a virtue of hers that is often overlooked: her heartfelt and intense humility.  As Teresa began to receive great spiritual gifts from God, she also became more acutely aware of her unworthiness and her imperfections.  Who was she, after all, she said to herself, that she should be receiving such divine gifts?  Because she sincerely believed that everyone else was more virtuous than she was, Teresa never had a harsh word to say about anyone.  In fact, she once insisted that her detractors were the only people who really knew her well.  When her attempts to reform the Carmelite order attracted vicious, slanderous attacks from enemies who questioned even her chastity, she commented, “If they really knew me, they would say far worse things than that about me!”  She always followed the spiritual advice she gave to her nuns: never make excuses when you are at fault, never grumble, and despise every mark of social rank or privilege.

Teresa’s simple, down-to-Earth realism and her deep sense of personal unworthiness seem forgotten amid the glittering gold, sparkling silver, polished marble, and elegant paintings in Alba de Tormes.

My thoughts are interrupted by Padre Angel, who is whispering to me, “¿Tienes dinero, no?  You have some money with you, don’t you?”  Our priest-guide is bidding us good-bye, and Padre Angel figures that I, being an Americano, can surely afford to give the old fellow a generous tip.  I dutifully reach for my wallet.

As we head for the church door, I start thinking about Teresa’s sense of playfulness.  I recall reading that once she had her nuns stand up and dance for the Lord right in the chapel.  I turn and look back down the long nave, imagining Teresa and her sisters tossing a white volleyball back and forth.  Too bad no one has found a way to memorialize that side of her either, I think, as we step outside.

Whack!  I’m startled by the loud crack of the soccer ball smacking solidly against the church wall.  The boys, still totally engrossed in their game, barely notice the intruders sneaking across the middle of their field.  A swarm of raucous shouts and flying elbows swoops past us chasing the white ball alongside the Church of Santa Teresa – the church wall is evidently considered in-bounds.

I suddenly realize that I have just discovered the missing piece of Teresa’s memorial: the little Plaza de Santa Teresa itself, and the irreverent, boisterous game these noisy kids are playing in front of her convent.  Yes!  The simple sun-drenched plaza and the passionate soccer match counterbalance the cold, mute marble and the elegant gold of the church, completing the memorial to this very complex woman.  I picture la Santa smiling down approvingly on the spirited boys from her perch high above the solemn, silent altar.

As we turn down the alley toward the car, Padre Angel asks with pride, “Well, what did you think?  Pretty impressive, no?”

“¡Si Padre, si!” I answer.

Wham!  Behind us, the ball whacks against the church wall.

“Yes, Padre Angel,” I answer with a straight face, “it’s a very fitting memorial for la Santa.  Very fitting indeed!”

Reflection

During this first week of Lent we have been journeying with Jesus into the truth about ourselves, trying to see who we are in God’s eyes, including both our strengths and our weaknesses – this is called humility.  To many people humility is synonymous with self-hatred and “putting yourself down,” the opposite of self-esteem.  In fact, humility is simply the opposite of the illusion that I am perfect.

Teresa came to her deep sense of humility when she saw the tremendous gifts that God was giving her.  Look at the specific gifts God has given you.  Besides making you feel thankful, perhaps they can move you to a sense of how undeserving you are.  Ask God to deepen your self-knowledge and grant you the gift of authentic humility.

Sacred Scripture (Luke 18:11-13)

The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.”  But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to Heaven, but beat his breast saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”

Rule of Benedict (Chapter 4, “The Tools for Good Words,” v. 62)

Do not aspire to be called holy before you really are, but first be holy that you may more truly be called so.

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