From: Pilgrim Road
Salamanca, in northwest central Spain, has been staring down at the River Tormes since the time of the Caesars. Walking on the narrow railroad bridge high over the river, I keep glancing across at the two beautiful cathedrals that stand out against the gray February sky. The winter wind numbs my fingertips as I flip through my stack of homemade vocabulary cards on the way to Spanish class.
From here I can also see a couple of majestic convents lower down on the hillside. Both of these, like all of the towns’ palaces, churches, and university buildings, are made from the same local sandstone; Salamanca looks as if it’s been hewn from a single huge honey-brown block.
At the end of the bridge I turn to my left, spread my arms wide for balance, and slide on tiptoe down the steep embankment, following a well-worn dirt path. I cut across the empty parking lot behind the police station, still studying my flashcards.
Besides hardening with age and weathering into a variety of lovely tans and reddish golds, the local stone has one special feature: it’s perfect for carving. Medieval sculptors working with it could actually imitate the intricate designs used on plates and medallions by Salamanca’s silversmiths. Thus the name given to this kind of stone decoration: “plateresco,” from the Spanish word for silver, plata.
I walk alongside the imposing bulk of the Dominican friars’ Convento de San Esteban, then past the graceful little gothic monastery of “las Duenas” belonging to the Sisters of Saint James, and turn left into a narrow alley that slices straight up the steep hill toward the university.
The University of Salamanca was founded in 1200 as Spain’s first university, and soon made the town the most respected center of learning in all of Europe. Her narrow, almost treeless streets still bustle with clusters of students on their way to class in buildings 600 years old.
At the top of the hill, shoppers, students, and tourists come and go on the sidewalks in the calm, measured rhythm of any small Spanish town. I check my watch. Good! I still have a few minutes before class, enough time to pay a visit to one of the town’s favorite attractions – the frog. I stroll up a street lined with souvenir shops and jewelry stores. There are frogs in every shop window – frogs of silver, frogs of gold, frogs in china, plaster, and plastic. There are frog T-shirts, frog coffee mugs, and frog ashtrays.
I turn a corner and in a minute I’m standing in front of the main buildings of the University of Salamanca. Its ornate façade, made up of carved stone panels towering three stories above the twin wooden doors, is one of the masterpieces of plateresque carving. Commissioned by Ferdinand and Isabella in the late 1520s, it is crowded with floral motifs, royal portraits, characters from pagan mythology, and secret symbols.
Scholars disagree on the exact identity of many of the figures: is that Isabel of Portugal or is it the goddess Hebe? Is that couple in the upper right corner Eve and Cain or Venus and Mars? In any case, it seems likely that many of the figures tell the story of the painful process by which a student in the Middle Ages would, by dint of long, hard work, pass through various stages and long years of study until he finally reached his goal and became a doctor of law or philosophy.
You can easily pick out Hercules, for example, in his lion-skin disguise, holding a club. He’s there to remind the students that university studies are as difficult as the twelve labors of Hercules.
Several young men with textbooks under their arms pass beneath the façade. Embroiled in their own lively discussion, they’re oblivious to the equally animated conversation going on above their heads among mythical heroes, monarchs, prelates, and demigods.
The most beloved of all those carved figures is almost hidden down in the lower right-hand corner: a little stone frog, known as la rana Buena suerte, “the frog of good luck,” is Salamanca’s unofficial mascot. Squatting there on top of a human skull, however, it is not a sign of good luck at all, nor a symbol of gradual success or hard work. This tiny creature is one of the most powerful symbols on the whole façade: it’s a symbol of transformation.
Transformation is the central driving force in the world of living things, yet it is so common that we take it for granted. We’re used to the idea that seeds become flowers, caterpillars turn into butterflies, and acorns become oak trees. As common as this process is, however, it remains one of the great mysteries of nature: a creature actually stops being one thing in order to become something else.
No one thinks of a flower as just a big seed, or an oak tree as simply an overgrown acorn. A flower happens only because some seed stops being a seed. An oak tree happens only when some acorn, buried in the cold, dark earth, stops being an acorn, bursts open, and becomes something new.
This, then, is the symbolism of la rana. A frog begins life as something else, a tadpole. The purpose of a tadpole is to stop being a tadpole one day in order to become a frog. A tadpole whose life’s goal was to become the biggest, fattest, shiniest tadpole in the world would be missing the whole reason for being a tadpole in the first place – and would probably end up a very unhappy little creature. The tadpole has to die to its wiggling tail and sleek shape so that a new frog can come into the pond.
A chilly gust of wind rushes into the stony little plaza, twists itself into invisible tangles, and charges out the far end. I dig my cold hands further into my jacket pockets; my fingers close around my pack of vocabulary cards. Oops! Better check my watch again. Time to head to class.
Jesus uses an image of transformation to teach one of his central ideas: “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just as a grain of wheat.” What’s true of seeds, acorns, and tadpoles, he is saying, is true of me as well. Jesus never challenges me to be a better Christian, never asks me to improve, to become holier or more saintly. He never asks me to grow. He simply keeps asking me to be transformed – to die.
It’s clear enough that a caterpillar is meant to be transformed into a butterfly, and a tadpole into a frog. But what kind of being am I supposed to be transformed into? Saint Basil of Caesarea answers boldly: “A human being is a creature whose purpose is to become God.” Saint Paul announces the same thing to the Galatians, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”
In order to be transformed into a new being, however, I have to follow Jesus’s example, and do what he did on the cross: let go of everything I am, everything I have, everything I’m familiar with. If I try to hold onto the comfortable predictability of gradual growth, I’ll be like the tadpole who just wants to be a bigger tadpole, and my life will have no real purpose. I can become Christ only in the dozens of daily deaths I die to my old self: when I reach out in love to someone at the risk of being rejected or hurt, or when I gamble everything in deep, self-abandoning prayer, or when I surrender to God’s will for me in some disagreeable task.
This is why the monastic vows ceremony is modeled on the baptismal rite – complete with the clothing in a new garment and the praying of the litany of the saints – to remind the candidates that they are leaving behind an old life to take up a new and different one. We become who we really are only when we let go of the security and safety of the known and allow the Spirit to make something entirely new out of us.
Another group of university students saunters past me speaking American English. As I turn to follow them to class, I nod adios to Ferdinand and Isabella, Hercules and Hera, and, of course, the frog.
Lent is still used as a time to prepare adults for baptism, the sacrament in which we are buried with Christ in the saving waters so as rise with him to a new life. Since all of us are continually being called to be transformed into Christ, Lent is the perfect time to discover things that are holding us back: old grudges and resentments for example. Think of something that you need to “die to,” and ask the Lord to help you to let go of it so that you may be better prepared for the transforming event of Easter.
Sacred Scripture (John 12:24)
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
Rule of Benedict (Prologue, v. 3)
This message of mine is for you, then, if you are ready to give up your own will, once and for all.