‘Bienvenido, caballero, al museo del Convento de la Encarnación,’ the old man says in a quavering voice. ‘Por favor, sígame a través de esta puerta.’
I do as bidden and find myself in a spacious antechamber filled with antique furniture and statues of saints. I had been expecting to find other tourists gathered here for the tour – but no, I am the only person being shown around by the bereted octogenarian guide. After pressing a light timer switch embedded in a wall, he begins telling me that this is the first room that Saint Teresa saw when she was accepted into the convent at the age of twenty. He says that at the time the convent was full of ‘unruly females’ and that Teresa, catching sight of them, was supposed to have remarked that there is nothing more difficult to bring under control than a house filled with young women. I detect a hint of sexism behind his words and this is confirmed a few seconds later when he cracks a mildly anti-feminist joke about ‘estas mujeres de hoy en día’ and how easy they’ve got things. To add to my discomfort, he is now telling me that the convent has very proud links with the Spanish crown and that there is a rumour going around that one of the nuns currently cloistered within the building is ‘una de las grandes de España’ (one of the highest-ranking members of the Spanish nobility). I smile politely at this revelation, but deep down I am starting to feel a little worried. If this ultra-conservative católico y apostólico finds out I’m from Gibraltar, I tell myself, seguro que me la arma!
Leaving the antechamber, we ascend a creaking wooden staircase and enter an unlit, low-ceilinged hall. The old man presently switches on a light and walks to the centre of the room. ‘Esta sala,’ he tells me in a hushed voice, ‘es donde Santa Teresa de Jesús tuvo su primera experiencia mística.’ As if to prove the point, he shifts a couple of steps to his right and presses a second light switch fitted into one of the walls. At that moment a hidden spotlight comes on and a model of Saint Teresa appears behind a glass partition. She is on her knees and with her arms thrown forwards, her yearning eyes focused on a waxen Christ Child placed a couple of yards in front of her. I hadn’t been expecting to see such a dramatic tableau materialise out of the shadows – and for a second I can only stand there in the semi-darkness, listening to the sound of the light timer switch slowly ticking away in the background. Then the light suddenly cuts out and the tableau is swallowed into the gloom. As I turn around, the main light also switches off, leaving both of us stranded in the darkness. ‘Estas luces temporizadas son un verdadero fastidio,’ the old man says, his disembodied voice sounding curiously otherworldly in the absence of either natural or electric light.
In the final room of the tour, there are more relics associated with the saint – including the block of wood she used as a pillow, the chair on which Saint John of the Cross sat while listening to her weekly confession, as well as several letters written in Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada’s own hand. I already know that the saint’s heart isn’t kept here in Ávila, but because I haven’t spoken much so far, and because I don’t want to give the impression of being un ingrato, I formulate a question about its whereabouts.
‘No, caballero,’ the guide replies courteously. ‘El corazón de Teresa de Jesús – que, por cierto, todavía sigue incorrupto, aunque, para decirle la verdad, hoy en día parece más un pimiento seco que un corazón – está en el convento de Alba de Tormes, a unos treinta kilómetros fuera de la ciudad de Salamanca, donde tambíen se puede ver el famoso trozo de brazo que Francisco Franco Bahamonde mantuvo siempre a su lado durante sus casi cuarenta años en el poder.’
He then guides me to a small display cabinet, which he says is the last thing he will show me before we retrace our steps downstairs and finish the tour. Inside this case there are what look like a pair of cotton bloomers; they are fixed to a red cloth board by a series of pins and spotted here and there with discoloured purple stains. Coughing softly, the old man explains that throughout her life Saint Teresa suffered from very debilitating gynaecologic haemorrhaging – hemorragias vaginales, as he calls them – and that they are lucky enough to have a set of her undergarments in the museum stained with her precious blood. Looking at these yellowing pieces of clothing – so faded and so threadbare that even the bloodstains are starting to vanish from sight – fills me with the type of sadness experienced by animal lovers when confronted with stuffed birds and mounted butterflies. But more than anything else it makes wonder what Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada herself – the real flesh-and-blood woman, I mean, and not the canonised Saint – would have thought had she known that her bloodstained drawers would one day end up being displayed in a glass cabinet…
M. G. Sanchez has written nine books on Gibraltarian subjects, among them novels, short story collections, books of essays and autobiographical memoirs, all of which are available on Amazon. More information on his writing can be found at www.mgsanchez.net/media or on his Facebook page. He also tweets under the handle @MGSanchez.