ÁVILA, Spain — Between Madrid and Ávila are mountains, run over with dirt roads, shacks, and cattle grazing under pine trees. Every other train station seems closed, boarded-up; houses sport windows covered by corrugated aluminum. The only people who pass by rocket up a hill on a 4-wheeler, chased by a white dog. The place feels faintly disastrous, as if it has survived some calamity, barely.

From the train, this desolation gives way to the broad flat plains from which Ávila rises with so much beauty. It has sported fortress walls since the 5th century BC, and the current battlements, from which the old city looks like so much pottery broken and reassembled, are Christian in origin, built during its repopulation from the 11th to the 15th centuries. It is known as the coldest place in Spain, and in mid-March weather, we step onto the platform with hands shoved down into our pockets, breath misting under gray skies.

Altar Piece, Basilica San Vincente (Robert Rubsam for Crux)
Altar Piece, Basilica San Vincente (Robert Rubsam for Crux)

Christianity dates here possibly from the 4th century, when legend says the Roman authorities executed three siblings who refused to deny their faith. The place of execution, a small ridge, is today marked by a Romanesque cathedral with Gothic eaves and an Isabelline belltower, begun in the 12th century and finished over the next two. Inside is a carved wooden sepulcher dedicated to the martyrs Vincent, Sabina, and Criesta, and it is etched with their story as well as biblical scenes. The whole basilica, from the golden altar piece to the crypt, is outfitted with automatic lights with such bizarre timing that a more-paranoid mind might conclude a human presence causes them to turn off, not on.

But if you visit here, it is likely because of Saint Teresa.

Born in Ávila in 1515, she went on to reform the Carmelite nuns and produce a profound body of writing on mystic and ecstatic experiences before her death in 1582. Ávila is the modern home of the cult of Santa Teresa de Jesus, and it seems as though every important building in the city is dedicated to her or played some significant role in her life.

For those seeking to follow the Teresian path, the Conventa de Santa Teresa is the logical place to start. Built over the house where Teresa was born, its public portions consist of a reliquary, a church, and a museum. Go to the museum first, housed in the convent’s basement under vaulted arches, and full of period manuscripts and displays about the saint’s life. It is very informative – if you understand Spanish, that is, as no English translations are available. Still, it will get you in the right mood, with plenty of religious art and a quiet, hushed air.

Upstairs the church is dark, empty in the off-hours, with a sparsely-lit altar piece displaying scenes from Teresa’s life, including a birth scene heralded by angels. A further chapel allows you to see a re-creation of her birthplace: just a bed, a couple of chairs, a washbasin. You look through a door set in a lavish rococo wall, all of it at odds with the asceticism the saint promoted.

In a side room is a gift shop and the convent’s reliquary, with a text of Saint Teresa’s, a walking stick from her later years, and, most significant of all, a preserved finger with a bold red-jeweled ring still on it. A British couple and their daughter lean in really close. “Is it wood?” the girl asks. No, just desiccated bone, a relic apparently much favored by Franco during his reign.

At the age of 20, Teresa entered the Monastery of the Incarnation, today on the outskirts of the old city near the hospital and university. She studied there as a Carmelite for 27 years. As you wind your way down the hill, look up! Cranes blot out the sky and roost on everything here, from belltowers and church naves to the eaves of government buildings. They look like dinosaurs when silhouetted above.

Today the monastery is still in operation. After paying a two-euro fee and picking up an English language guide, a worker unlocks a tall wooden door with a cast-iron key, and locks you into the museum; you have to ring a bell on a long string to get back out.

The inside space is almost entirely without information, and so the laminated sheet, which sets a route through the museum’s three stories, traces the intimate details of the objects on display. We see a cell set up to resemble Teresa’s, antique instruments from her time, and the staircase where she had a vision of the child Jesus – when asked her name, she answered, “I am Teresa of Jesus,” to which the child replied, “I am Jesus of Teresa.”

Unfortunately, there is not much about the specific teaching she began to establish there. These revelations, which today are Teresa’s gift to posterity, are based on two primary precepts: total poverty of body, coupled with a direct and ecstatic relationship with God.

Block of wood used by St. Teresa as a pillow, Monastery of the Incarnation (Robert Rubsam for Crux)
Block of wood used by St. Teresa as a pillow, Monastery of the Incarnation (Robert Rubsam for Crux)

She slept with a block of wood for a pillow, preserved still in the museum, and prayed constantly over books such as St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. Tormented and beguiled by visions whose divinity she debated, at various points she engaged in physical torture to fight off what she was convinced were demons. This was not the benign and penitent St. Teresa one finds in so many Spanish portraits.

In the 1550s, she constantly perceived encroaching figures, including an invisible Christ, for well over two years, most famously climaxing in the sensation of being pierced in the side by a golden lance wielded by a seraph, an immaculate bond of fervent ecstasy and catastrophic pain that would come to define the meaning of revelation for the saint.

She established a Discalced – shoeless, in reference to the total poverty of the order – Carmelite monastery in 1562, but was so firmly reprimanded by the local clergy that she only lived there at a later date. Nuns had to be barefoot, and ritual flagellation was proscribed at Mass. The original church from the Monastery of San Jose Las Madres is gone now, replaced by one from the 17th century, and is hidden in a maze of side streets. Its museum is not so thorough as the previous others, with only a few artifacts and not much information.

Teresa was formally investigated by the Inquisition in 1576, and before successful pleas to King Philip II in 1579, was prohibited from founding any new monasteries. She also received frequent rebukes from the pulpit of Santo Tome el Viejo in Ávila. Today, appropriately enough, only the edifice remains, and the inside is devoted to an archeological museum currently displaying a beautiful series of Visigothic and mudejar sarcophagi.

To surround oneself in so much devotion to Teresa reveals a profound disconnect between Teresa’s excruciatingly ecstatic quest toward transcendence and its staid preservation. Some of the art at the Conventa de Santa Teresa depicts her as calm and serene, even when stuck through with arrows and lances, her penitence remolded into the conservative, counter-reformatory impulses of the time. This is a far cry from the woman who reached the heights of her understanding while bedeviled by visions whose origin she could not always comprehend, and who was said to actually levitate during Mass. Mysticism has always coexisted with mainstream Church doctrine – the prominence given to a desert ascetic like St. Jerome ought to speak to this – but becomes somewhat defanged when subsumed within it, as with current Doctor of the Church Teresa de Ávila.

If one does truly wish to probe at this most mysterious of Teresa’s reforms, end your Teresian tour at the Centro de Interpretacion de la Mistica. Set into the hill south of the city walls, looking out on the plain, it is a simple, unassuming structure poorly signposted, easily missed. The woman working the desk hands me an English guide and, probably seeing my camera, points to her chest, saying, the worth of this place is internal.

The museum, a brand-new building, attempts to not only explain Teresa’s teachings, but also connect them to other cultures and time periods. The wall plaques quote Rumi, Dōgen, Emily Dickinson, and Rainer Maria Rilke. Each floor has a designated spiritual purpose, from an initial descent into the dark night of the soul to the ultimate clarity of enlightenment, illuminated by sculptures and expanses of nothingness.

This museum seeks less to educate than to nudge and provoke, and so is information-light and atmosphere-heavy — a little like a contemporary art gallery. I am the only person huddling in here out of the rain, not a sound beyond cars rumbling at street level to distract me. Alone, I sit on an unvarnished bench and compose my thoughts, of this place, of St. Teresa. A little lost in all this quiet.

As the day edges into night, the clouds come down as rain, and old men shuffle down the sidewalks leaning on canes. I step into the Cathedral, a massive Gothic structure whose apse is composed of a beautiful “blood” sandstone that looks a little like faded calico. A statue of St. Teresa stands, ascendant, as if about to take flight from her pedestal. Opposite from her, in one of the transverse arches, a piece of stained glass has been broken or removed, and the pure half-light pouring through is hard to look at.


Stay at:

Hotel El Rastro, Calle Cepedas, s/d €35/55. Phone: 920 35 22 25. In the center of the old walled city by the Conventa de Santa Teresa. Good budget option.

Hostal Arco San Vincente, Calle de Lopez Nunez 6, s/d €40/66. Phone: 920 22 24 98. Attic windows and, most importantly in the summer, air conditioning.

Eat at:

Meson del Rastro, most main dishes in the €15-20 range. Castilian cuisine with a €30 meal for two people.

Trattoria Roberto, most main dishes €8-10. Tasty Italian food with vegetarian options and a helpful, friendly staff fond of 70s music and as-fluent-as-you’re-going-to-get English.


A map. The tourist center, located right outside the old city walls, has maps with up-to-date ticket prices – most places mention include a €1-2 fee – and directions to some of the sites outside the city center. Follow the signs.


City Walls — €5, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday

Catedral del Salvadore de Ávila — €4, 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, Noon to 6:30 p.m. Sunday

Convento de Santa Teresa — Museum €2, 8:45 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Reliquary and church free.

Monasterio de la Encarnacion — €2, 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 to 6 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4 to 6 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.

Centro de Interpretacion del Misticismo — €3, 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 4 to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.

Robert Rubsam is a freelance writer based in Galway, Ireland. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared on Roads & Kingdoms, the Rumpus, and Flavorwire. He is features editor at notedmusic.co.uk.