01 December 2016
Teresa of Avila: In the footsteps of a saint
Pilgrims who set out to follow the extensive journeys across Spain of this remarkable saint, mystic and reformer are discovering the legacy of a dogged, enterprising woman
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 of Ávila 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 sixteenth-century Spain she may 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.
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