by Robert Trabold
Originally printed in the MAY-JUNE 2008 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Trabold, Robert. "Explorations: A Pilgrimage of Silence in the Land of John of the Cross."Quest 96.3 (MAY-JUNE 2008):108-110.
IN RECENT YEARS, I HAVE MADE PILGRIMAGES of silence to the places in Spain where John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila lived, worked, and died. I call them pilgrimages of silence because I go alone and in visiting the various sites, try to be open to how the two saints might assist me in growing in my contemplative path. When making pilgrimages, I am conscious of walking in a long tradition. In most religions of the world, including Christianity, pilgrims take a long trip to holy places. They break their daily routine of work, home, and recreation in order to encounter the holy during this time. I begin in Segovia where John of the Cross worked, and is buried. Next, I make a short day trip to Avila where Teresa of Avila lived and worked most of her life. I finish my pilgrimage in Alba de Tormes, a small agricultural town where Teresa is buried after becoming very ill and dying during her travels. As pilgrims, we step out of and over our boundaries to encounter something deeper in our life.
Also, in making this journey to Spain, I realize that it is a paradigm of the pilgrimage of my human life on earth. I know that the world is not my true home and that this life is one of homelessness. In the pilgrimage, I am making a trip to my true home—an encounter with God. I make this effort because when I return to the United States, my temporary home, I hope to be renewed and have the strength to continue my human pilgrimage in a more authentic way—a way more oriented to God which helps me survive the ups and downs of my life on earth.
The city of Segovia, my first stop in the pilgrimage, is an hour and a half bus ride west of Madrid in the mountain country. Segovia a lovely medieval city surrounded by fortified walls, has many lovely architectural monuments. It also boasts of having the largest, still operative Roman aqueduct; it was built without the use of cement, the stones being precisely chiseled to rest next to and on top of one another. The chapel and church where John of the Cross is buried lies outside the city walls in a lovely river valley with beautiful parks which give way to agricultural fields and countryside. The burial chapel has an ornate baroque style and when the lights are on, the gold and the decorations dazzle the eyes.
While visiting Segovia and John of the Cross' burial site, I do two things he suggests for our contemplative growth. He was very enamored with nature and used to sit in prayer for many hours in the quiet of natural beauty. He often took his students to the country and encouraged them to walk alone in nature to experience God's presence. I am also fond of nature and have been a hiker in mountains most of my life, so following the example of John of the Cross, I spend much time walking in the lovely park land along the river close to the church. I also take long walks in the agricultural fields behind the church where I can see the lovely city of Segovia on a hill and enjoy the snowcapped mountains in the distance. There is a certain peace there and I feel God's presence; I might be walking on the same paths that John of the Cross traveled with his students. On these walks, I am reminded of the lovely stanza from his poem "The Spiritual Canticle":
Love, let us now
Rejoice and through your beauty
Travel hills and mountains
Where clear water runs;
Let's push into the wilds more deeply.
John of the Cross also says that we should have an attitude of silence and listening waiting on God to lead us on. In contemplative prayer, it is God who takes the initiative to touch us with His/Her presence. It is something that comes into our life not of our own will and the divine calls us to a new relationship. There is a phrase in German, "Gotteswirken ist ein Wirken der Stille und der Nacht"which translates as "God's works are works of stillness and the night"(Jodl 36). In this silence and at the core of our person, we encounter a presence calling us to a relationship of love. There is a sitting and waiting on our part as God reveals Himself/Herself more deeply and intimately to us.
As time goes on, I have found this waiting and listening that John of the Cross advises to be a cultural shock. It is so different from my life in the world where I am always busy and producing more in my education and work. I have always taken the initiative to do things and to get ahead in the world. Now, I am called to sit in the darkness and the quiet to encounter God, the Beloved, who touches me at my core. In that touch, there is a peace that the world cannot give, but nevertheless, I feel the tension of this new path in my life. In this situation, I lose something but gain something else. The presence I meet at my core and center is a mysterious one because the divine is transcendent and completely other.
We humans will never grasp the absolute with our intellect and senses, but can only touch the divine in a relationship of love. On earth, our relationship with God is incomplete and we will be able to be fully in His/Her presence only in eternal life. That is the reason why the encounter of the two lovers in the poem of John of the Cross, "The Dark Night,"takes place at night and in the darkness. In walking in the lovely fields around Segovia and sitting in the chapel of John of the Cross, I ask him to help me grow in silence and listening and to adjust to the contemplative path. Encountering God in nature and in the church of John of the Cross, I realize that I am participating in the second movement of the pilgrimage, an interior journey. In contemplative prayer, I meet a presence—the Beloved at my center.
My external trip to Spain leads me to an interior dimension of encountering the divine. The two pilgrimages, the exterior and interior, compliment each other and teach me that my outer and inner lives are one totality and my whole life is one of "being on the way"—making a trip to my true home. In my total being, I am a homo viator, as Marcel states. The root of my inner and outer pilgrimage is the desire to reach my true home, the encounter with God. To accomplish this, I break out of my daily routine and boundaries.
During my stay in Segovia, I take the opportunity to make a day trip to Avila, an hour's bus ride away. Teresa spent most of her life, and did most of her work, in Avila. It is also a beautiful medieval city situated on a hill, surrounded by impressive walls. Like Segovia, there are snowcapped mountains in the distance. It has beautiful architectural buildings and many places connected to the life and work of Teresa of Avila. When I visit the city, I am drawn to visit the Convent of the Incarnation. One can see the room in which she lived complete with her personal possessions, the room where she and John of the Cross discussed the reform of the Carmelite Order. I particularly like to go the chapel because I can visit the spot where, in the presence of John of the Cross, Teresa had her spiritual marriage to Christ on November 18, 1572. It was a momentous occasion in her life and friendship with Jesus, and it is also a goal for us traveling the contemplative path.
In her book The Interior Castle, Teresa of Avila describes beautifully the intimacy of her union with God. She says that in this interior marriage, Jesus prepares a room for Himself in the soul of the person where He will be present. He is a companion who will never leave.
Everything about the union of spiritual marriage is unique. . . . I mean the spirit of the soul is made one with God, who is also spirit. God desires to show us how much he loves us by revealing the vast reaches of this love to the soul so that we may praise his greatness. All he wants is to be joined with his creature so completely that they can never be torn apart. He doesn't want to be separated from her! (269)
Teresa of Avila goes on to say that this companion, Jesus at our center, gives us great confidence because we know that He will look after us (276).
The spiritual marriage of Teresa of Avila to God may be a goal in our contemplative path, and spiritual writers mention that this is what we are called to. Dr. Jacques Vigne, in his book Le mariage interieur en Orient et en Occident, describes how this call is present in both western and eastern contemplative thinking. God enters the core of our person and is present there. We are called to have a loving relationship with the divine and become ever more conscious of this presence.
As I stand close to the spot in the chapel in Avila where Teresa of Avila had her interior marriage with Jesus, I think of another Christian mystic, a Frenchwoman, Mary of the Incarnation, (1599-1672). She experienced a mystical marriage with the Trinity and Jesus on three occasions in her life. Shortly thereafter, she took the name Mary of the Incarnation, to honor her husband, Jesus—the Incarnation. Like Teresa of Avila, in her letters and writings, she writes beautifully about the intimacy of her marriage to Christ.
The last leg of my pilgrimage of silence is a visit to Alba de Tormes where Teresa of Avila died. It is a three-hour bus ride from Segovia to the university town of Salamanca where I have to change to a commuter bus for a short twenty minute ride to the small town of Alba de Tormes. It is an agricultural village surrounded by lovely fields situated on the river Tormes and like Segovia and Avila, there are snowcapped mountains in the distance. Teresa of Avila is buried in a small church and her remains are above the main altar. Upon entering the church, there is a small window in the wall where one can see the room where she died.
On the several occasions that I have visited Alba de Tormes, she has touched me through her famous poem "Solo Dios Basta"(Only God matters). Here is my translation:
Nothing should bother you.
Do not let things get you down.
Keep in mind, patience accomplishes all.
If you are with God,
you will lack nothing.
Only God matters.
This poem gives me confidence because my life, just as any human life, has had its problems and trials. Also, the world we live in is a far cry from the justice and peace we would like to see manifest in it. There are constant upheavals of injustice and violence. In visiting Alba de Tormes, Teresa of Avila invites me to place my confidence in God and not be overwhelmed by the problems I encounter. For the day or two of my visits, the poem stays with me helping me grow in this confidence. It is a struggle and a challenge. If the goal of the contemplative path is an interior marriage with the Beloved, I know with time that the divine will give me this confidence and trust. God is our companion in life.
In my pilgrimage of silence to Spain, I follow the footsteps of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, visiting the places where they lived and worked. My growth in the contemplative path is a process of the revelation of the Divine Someone to me, and hopefully these two saints help me in this process.
Victor Turner, in his book, Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors, describes a pilgrimage as a threshold experience. The pilgrim visits a pilgrimage center—a place in and out of time—and hopes to have a direct experience of the sacred or the supernatural order. The pilgrim often wants some help in the material order, a healing for example, or an inner transformation of his person and character in the immaterial order. I have taken time out from my ordinary life and experience to visit a foreign country in order to make this pilgrimage, have this threshold experience, and touch the divine. There is a rupture, a breaking out of and going beyond my daily boundaries to meet the holy. I am trying to get a glimpse of my true home.
As the pilgrimage draws to a close, I feel deeply that it is a paradigm of my whole life on earth and I am involved in various passages and rituals in life to become what I am called to be—a person. However, this is incomplete because as a traveler on earth, I am homeless. Yet, due to my faith in the absolute ground of my life, the God who travels with His/Her people in exile, I will ultimately meet the divine in my situation of homelessness. The pilgrimage teaches me to be steadfast in my life's journey with its crisis and uncertainties and to grow in my ultimate goal to be a child of God. I also realize that this trip on earth will never stand still. Life is a continuum of experiences that runs from the easy and satisfying to the difficult and tragic. The challenge of my life's journey is always to try to encounter God's presence in these realities so that He/She will give me the strength to face up to the unforeseeable future. I may have an experience of being on Mount Tabor with the transformed Christ on my pilgrimage to Spain, but I cannot stay there. I have to return to my homeless situation, my life in the world, and always try to encounter God who also lives in time and will show me new horizons of growth and maturity for myself and the world.
On our contemplative path, John of the Cross counsels us to be "silent and listen"and be open to a revelation of the Divine Someone. Hopefully, all of us who make this pilgrimage of silence will become more open to the Presence who calls us, and is present as our companion.
The role of contemplatives in the world is to witness to the presence of God in the world, His/Her closeness and to point out the signs of the divine footsteps. We are like watchmen in the night always knowing that the dawn will come. Our relationship with God is beyond us because the divine is transcendent, but we can touch the absolute through love and so have a mutual relationship. If I look for a few words capturing and summing up the whole pilgrimage, I think of the opening stanza from the poem "The Dark Night of John of the Cross,"
On a dark night,
Afflicted and aflame with love,
O joyful chance!
I went out unnoticed,
My house lying silent at last
Robert Trabold has a Ph.D. in Sociology with specialties in urban issues and the religious expressions of people in transition, especially immigrants. As an adult, the contemplative dimension of his character has grown stronger, and presently, Robert is active in many prayer movements. His reflective poetry and articles on contemplative prayer and its path have been published in Quest and other journals. He lives in New York City.