Theresa of Avila, the Girl of the Spanish Sierras
It is a stern and gray old city that the sun looks down upon, when once he does show his jolly face above the saw-like ridges of the grim Guadarrama Mountains in Central Spain; a stern and gray old city as well it may be, for it is one of the very old towns of Western Europe—Avila, said by some to have been built by Albula, the mother of Hercules nearly four thousand years ago.
Whether or not it was the place in which that baby gymnast strangled the serpents who sought to kill him in his cradle, it is indeed ancient enough to suit any boy or girl who likes to dig among the relics of the past. For more than eight centuries the same granite walls that now surround it have lifted their gray ramparts out of the vast and granite-covered plains that make the country so wild and lonesome, while its eighty-six towers and gateways, still unbroken and complete, tell of its strength and importance in those far-off days, when the Cross was battling with the Crescent, and Christian Spain, step by step, was forcing Mohammedan Spain back to the blue Mediterranean and the arid wastes of Africa, from which, centuries before, the followers of the Arabian Prophet had come.
At the time of our story, in the year 1525, this forcing process was about over. Under the relentless measures of Ferdinand and Isabella, with whose story all American children, at least, should be familiar, the last Moorish stronghold had fallen, in the very year in which Columbus discovered America, and Spain, from the Pyrenees to the Straits of Gibraltar, acknowledged the mastership of its Christian sovereigns.
But the centuries of warfare that had made the Spaniards a fierce and warlike race, had also filled Spain with frowning castles and embattled towns. And such an embattled town was this same city of Avila, in which, in 1525, lived the stern and pious old grandee, Don Alphonso Sanchez de Cepeda, his sentimental and romance-loving wife, the Donna Beatrix, and their twelve sturdy and healthy children.
Religious warfare, as it is the most bitter and relentless of strifes, is also the most brutal. It turns the natures of men and women into quite a different channel from the one in which the truths they are fighting for would seek to lead them; and of all relentless and brutal religious wars, few have been more bitter than the one that for fully five hundred years had wasted the land of Spain.
To battle for the Cross, to gain renown in fights against the Infidels—as the Moors were then called,—to "obtain martyrdom" among the followers of Mohammed—these were reckoned by the Christians of crusading days as the highest honor that life could bring or death bestow. It is no wonder, therefore, that in a family, the father of which had been himself a fighter of Infidels, and the mother a reader and dreamer of all the romantic stories that such conflicts create, the children also should be full of that spirit of hatred toward a conquered foe that came from so bitter and long-continuing a warfare.
Don Alphonso's religion had little in it of cheerfulness and love. It was of the stern and pitiless kind that called for sacrifice and penance, and all those uncomfortable and unnecessary forms by which too many good people, even in this more enlightened day, think to ease their troubled consciences, or to satisfy the fancied demands of the Good Father, who really requires none of these foolish and most unpleasant self-punishments.
But such a belief was the rule in Don Alphonso's day, and when it could lay so strong a hold upon grown men and women, it would, of course, be likely to work in peculiar ways with thoughtful and conscientious children, who, understanding little of the real meaning of sacrifice and penance, felt it their duty to do something as proof of their belief.
So it came about that little ten-year-old Theresa, one of the numerous girls of the Cepeda family, thought as deeply of these things as her small mind was capable. She was of a peculiarly sympathetic, romantic, and conscientious nature, and she felt it her duty to do something to show her devotion to the faith for which her father had fought so valiantly, and which the nuns and priests, who were her teachers, so vigorously impressed upon her.
She had been taught that alike the punishment or the glory that must follow her life on earth were to last forever. Forever! this was a word that even a thoughtful little maiden like Theresa could not comprehend. So she sought her mother.
"Forever? how long is forever, mother mine?" she asked.
But the Donna Beatrix was just then too deeply interested in the tragic story of the two lovers, Calixto and Melibea, in the Senor Fernando de Rojas' tear-compelling story, to be able to enter into the discussion of so deep a question.
"Forever," she said, looking up from the thick and crabbed black-letter pages, "why forever is forever, child—always. Pray do not trouble me with such questions; just as I am in the midst of this beautiful death-scene too."
The little girl found she could gain no knowledge from this source, and she feared to question her stern and bigoted old father. So she sought her favorite brother Pedro—a bright little fellow of seven, who adored and thoroughly believed in his sister Theresa.
To Pedro, then, Theresa confided her belief that, if forever was so long a time as "always," it would be most unpleasant to suffer "always," if by any chance they should do any thing wrong. It would be far better, so argued this little logician, to die now and end the problem, than to live and run so great a risk. She told him, too, that, as they knew from their mother's tales, the most beautiful, the most glorious way to die was as a martyr among the infidel Moors. So she proposed to Pedro that she and he should not say a word to any one, but just start off at once as crusaders on their own accounts, and lose their lives but save their souls as martyrs among the Moors.
The suggestion had all the effect of novelty to the little Pedro, and while he did not altogether relish the idea of losing his life among the Moors, still the possibility of a change presented itself with all the attractions that the thought of trying something new always has for children. Besides, he had great respect for his sister's judgment.
"Well, let us be crusaders," he said, "and perhaps we need not be martyrs, sister. I don't think that would be so very pleasant, do you? Who knows; perhaps we may be victorious crusaders and conquer the Infidels just as did Ruy Diaz the Cid. See here, Theresa; I have my sword and you can take your cross, and we can have such a nice crusade, and may be the infidel Moors will run away from us just as they did from the Cid and leave us their cities and their gold and treasure? Don't you remember what mother read us, how the Cid won Castelon, with its silver and its gold?"
And the little fellow spouted most valiantly this portion of the famous poem of the exploits of the Cid (the Poema del Cid), with the martial spirit of which stirring rhyme his romantic mother had filled her children:
Theresa applauded her little brother's eloquent recitation, and thought him a very smart boy; but she said rather sadly: "I fear me it will not be that way, my Pedro; for martyrdom means, as mother has told us, the giving up of our life rather than bow to the false faith of the Infidel, and thus to save our souls and have a crown of glory."
"The crown would be very nice, I suppose, sister," said practical young Pedro, "especially if it was all so fine as the one they say the young King Carlos wears—Emperor, too, now, is he not? Could we be emperors, too, sister, if we were martyrs, and had each a crown? But we must be crusaders first, I suppose. Come, let us go at once."
The road from granite-walled Avila to the south is across a wild and desolate waste, frowned down upon on either hand by the savage crests of the grim sierras of the Guadarrama. It winds along gorges and ravines and rocky river-beds, and has always been, even in the days of Spanish power and glory, about as untamed and savagely picturesque a road as one could well imagine.
Along this hard and desolate road, only a few days after their determination had been reached, to start upon a crusade the brother and sister plodded. Theresa carried her crucifix, and Pedro his toy sword, while in a little wallet at his side were a few bits of food taken from the home larder. This stock of food had, of course, been taken without the knowledge of the mother, who knew nothing of their crusade, and this, therefore, furnished for Theresa another sin, for which she must do penance, and another reason for the desired martyrdom.
They had really only proceeded a few miles into the mountains beyond Avila, but already their sturdy little legs were tired, and their stout little backs were sore. Pedro thought crusading not such very great fun after all; be was always hungry and thirsty, and Theresa would only let him take a bite once in a while.
"Don't you suppose there is a Moorish castle somewhere around here that we could capture, and so get plenty to eat?" he inquired of his sister. "That is what the Cid was always finding. Don't you remember how nicely he got into Alcacer and slew eleven Infidel knights, and found ever so much gold and things to eat? This is what he said, you know:
"O Pedro, dear, why will you think so much of things to eat," groaned Theresa. "Do you not know that to be hungry is one way to be a martyr. And besides, it is, I doubt not, our just punishment for having taken any thing to eat without letting mother know. We must suffer and be strong, little brother."
"That's just like a girl," cried Pedro, a trifle scornfully. "How can we be strong if we suffer? I can't, I know."
But before Theresa could enter upon an explanation of this most difficult problem—one that has troubled many older heads than little Pedro's,—both the children started in surprise, and then involuntarily shrunk closer to the dark gray rock in whose shadow they were resting. For there, not a hundred yards distant, coming around a turn in the road, was one of the very Infidels they had come out to meet and conquer, or be martyred by.
He was a rather imposing-looking but not a formidable old man. His cloak or mantle of brown stuff was worn and ragged, his turban was quite as dingy, but the long white beard that fell upon his breast made his swarthy face look even fiercer than it really was, and the stout staff, with which he helped himself over the uneven road, seemed to the little crusaders some terrible weapon of torture and of martyrdom.
But Pedro was a valiant little fellow after all. The fighting spirit of his father the Don burned within him, and few little folks of seven know what caution is. He whispered to his sister, whose hand he had at first clutched in terror, a word of assurance.
"Be not afraid, sister mine," he said. "Yonder comes the Infidel we have gone forth to find. Do you suppose he has a whole great army following him? Hold up your crucifix, and I will strike him with my sword. The castle can't be far away, and perhaps we can conquer this old Infidel and find a good dinner in his castle. That 's just what the Cid would have done. You know what he said:
Let us battle with him at once."
And before his sister with restraining hand, could hold him back the plucky young crusader flourished his sword furiously and charged down upon the old Moor, who now in turn started in surprise and drew aside from the path of the determined little warrior.
shouted the little crusader, charging against his pagan enemy at a furious rate.
"O spare him, spare my brother, noble emir. Let me die in his stead," cried the terrified Theresa, not quite so confident now as to the pleasure of martyrdom.
The old man stretched out his staff and stopped the headlong dash of the boy. Then laying a hand lightly on his assailant's head he looked smilingly toward Theresa.
"Neither prince nor emir am I, Christian maiden," he said, "but the poor Morisco Abd-el-'Aman of Cordova, seeking my son Ali, who, men say, is servant to a family in Valladolid. Pray you if you have aught to eat give some to me, for I am famishing."
This was not exactly martyrdom; it was, in fact, quite the opposite, and the little Theresa was puzzled as to her duty in the matter. Pedro, however, was not at all undecided.
"Give our bread and cake to a nasty old Moor?" he cried; "I should say we will not, will we, sister? We need it for ourselves. Besides, what dreadful thing is it that the Holy Inquisition does to people who succor the infidel Moors?"
Theresa shuddered. She knew too well all the stories of the horrible punishments that the Holy Office, known as the Inquisition of Spain, visited upon those who harbored Jews or aided the now degraded Moors. For so complete had been the conquest of the once proud possessors of Southern Spain, that they were usually known only by the contemptuous title of "Moriscoes," and were despised and hated by their "chivalrous" Christian conquerors.
But little Theresa de Cepeda was of so loving and generous a nature that even the plea of an outcast and despised Morisco moved her to pity. From her earliest childhood she had delighted in helpful and generous deeds. She repeatedly gave away, so we are told, all her pocket-money in charity, and any sign of trouble or distress found her ready and anxious to extend relief. There was really a good deal of the angelic in little Theresa, and even the risk of arousing the wrath of the Inquisition, the walls of whose gloomy dungeon in Avila she had, so often looked upon with awe, could not withhold her from wishing to help this poor old man who was hunting for his lost son.
"Nay, brother," she said to little Pedro, "it can be not so very great a crime to give food to a starving man"; and much to Pedro's disgust, she opened the wallet and emptied their little store of provisions into the old beggar's hand.
"And wither are ye bound, little ones?" asked this "tramp" of the long ago, as the children watched their precious dinner disappear behind his snowy beard.
"We are on a crusade, don Infidel," replied Pedro, boldly. "A crusade against your armies and castles, perhaps to capture them, and thus gain the crown of martyrdom."
The old Moor looked at them sadly. "There is scarce need for that, my children," he said. "My people are but slaves; their armies and their castles are lost; their beautiful cities are ruined, and there is neither conquest nor martyrdom for Christian youths and maidens to gain among them. Go home, my little ones, and pray to Allah that you and yours may never know so much of sorrow and of trouble as do the poor Moriscoes of Spain this day."
This was news to Theresa. No martyrdom to be obtained among the Moors? Where then was all the truth of her mother's romances,—where was all the wisdom of her father's savage faith? She had always supposed that the Moors were monsters and djins, waiting with great fires and racks and sharpest cimeters to put to horrible death all young Christians who came amongst them, and now here was one who begged for bread and pleaded for pity like any common beggar of Avila. Evidently something was wrong in the home stories.
As for little Pedro, he waxed more valiant as the danger lessened. He whetted his toy sword against the granite rocks and looked savagely at the old man.
"You have eaten all my bread, don Infidel," he said, "and now you would lie about your people and your castles. You are no beggar; you are the King of Cordova come here in this disguise to spy out the Christian's land. I know all about you from my mother's stories. So you must die. I shall send your head to our Emperor by my sister here, and when he shall ask her who has done this noble deed she will say, just as did Alvar Fanez to King Alfonso:
"So, King of Cordova, bend down and let me cut off your head."
The "King of Cordova" made no movement of compliance to this gentle invitation, and the headstrong Pedro, springing toward him, would have caught him by the beard, had not his gentle sister restrained him.
"I do believe he is no king, my Pedro," she said, "but only, as he says, a poor Morisco beggar. Let us rather try to help him. He hath no castles I am sure, and as for his armies——"
"His armies! there they come; look, sister!" cried little Pedro, breaking into his sister's words; "now will you believe me?" and following his gaze, Theresa herself started as she saw dashing down the mountain highway what looked to her unpractised eye like a whole band of Moorish cavalry with glimmering lances and streaming pennons.
Pedro faced the charge with drawn sword. Theresa knelt on the ground with silver crucifix upraised, expecting instant martyrdom, while the old Moorish tramp, Abd-el-'Aman, believing discretion to be the better part of valor, quietly dropped down by the side of the rocky roadway, for well he understood who were these latest comers.
The Moorish cavalry, which proved to be three Spaniards on horseback, drew up before the young crusaders.
"So, runaways, we have found you," cried one of them, as he recognized the children. "Come, Theresa, what means this folly? Whither are you and Pedro bound?"
"We were even starting for a crusade against the Moor, Brother Jago," said Theresa, timidly, "but our Infidel friend here—why, where hath he gone?—says that there are neither Infidel castles nor Moorish armies now, and that therefore we may not be crusaders."
"But I know that he doth lie, Brother Jago," cried little Pedro, more valiant still when he saw to what his Moorish cavalry was reduced. "He is the King of Cordova, come here to spy out the land, and I was about to cut off his head when you did disturb us."
Big brother Jago de Cepeda and the two servants of his father's house laughed long and loudly.
"Crusaders and kings," he cried; "why, we shall have the Cid himself here, if we do but wait long enough."
"Hush, brother," said young Pedro, confidentially, "say it not so loudly. I did tell the Infidel that I was Ruy Diaz of Bivar, the Cid Campeador—and he did believe me."
And then the cavalry laughed louder than ever, and swooping down captured the young crusaders and set the truants before them on their uncomfortable Cordova saddles. Then, turning around, they rode swiftly back to Avila with the runaways, while the old Moor, glad to have escaped rough handling from the Christian riders, grasped his staff and plodded on toward Avila and Valladolid.
So the expedition for martyrdom and crusade came to an ignominious end. But the pious desires of little Theresa did not. For, finding that martyrdom was out of the question, she proposed to her ever-ready brother that they should become hermits, and for days the two children worked away trying to build a hermitage near their father's house.
But the rough and heavy pieces of granite with which they sought to build their hermitage proved more than they could handle, and their knowledge of mason-work was about as imperfect as had been their familiarity with crusading and the country of the Moors. "The stones that we piled one upon another," wrote Theresa herself in later years, "immediately fell down, and so it came to pass that we found no means of accomplishing our wish."
The pluck and piety, however, that set this conscientious and sympathetic little girl to such impossible tasks were certain to blossom into something equally hard and unselfish when she grew to womanhood. And so it proved. Her much-loved but romance-reading mother died when she was twelve years old, and Theresa felt her loss keenly.
She was a very clever and ambitious girl, and with a mother's guiding hand removed she became impatient under the restraints which her stern old father, Don Alphonso, placed upon her. At sixteen she was an impetuous, worldly-minded, and very vain though very dignified young lady. Then her father, fearful as to her future, sent her to a convent, with orders that she should be kept in strict seclusion.
Such a punishment awoke all the feelings of conscientiousness and self-conviction that had so influenced her when she was a little girl, and Theresa, left to her own thoughts, first grew morbid, and then fell sick.
During her sickness she resolved to become a nun, persuaded her ever-faithful brother, Pedro, to become a friar, and when Don Alphonso, their father, refused his consent, the brother and sister, repeating the folly of their childhood, again ran away from home.
Then their father, seeing the uselessness of resistance, consented, and Theresa, at the age of twenty, entered a convent in Avila, and became a nun in what was known as the Order of the Carmelites.
The life of these nuns was strict, secluded, and silent; but the conscientious nature of Theresa found even the severities of this lonely life not sufficiently hard, and attaining to a position of influence in the order she obtained permission from the Pope in 1562 to found a new order which should be even more strict in its rules, and therefore, so she believed, more helpful. Thus was founded the Order of Barefooted Carmelites, a body of priests and nuns, who have in their peculiar way accomplished very much for charity, gentleness, and self-help in the world, and whose schools and convents have been instituted in all parts of the earth.
Theresa de Cepeda died in 1582, greatly beloved and revered for her strict but gentle life, her great and helpful charities, and her sincere desire to benefit her fellow-men. After her death, so great was the respect paid her that she was canonized, as it is called: that is, lifted up as an example of great goodness to the world; and she is to-day known and honored among devout Roman Catholics as St. Theresa of Avila.
Whatever we may think of the peculiar way in which her life was spent; however we may regard the story of her troubles with her conscience, her understanding of what she deemed her duty, and her sinking of what might have been a happy and joyous life in the solitude and severity of a convent, we cannot but think of her as one who wished to do right, and who desired above all else to benefit the world in which she lived and labored. Her story is that of a most extraordinary and remarkable woman, who devoted her life to what she deemed the thing demanded of her. Could we not, all of us, profitably attempt to live in something like a kindred spirit to that helpful and unselfish one that actuated this girl of the Spanish sierras?
"Here and there is born a Saint Theresa," says George Eliot, "foundress of nothing, whose loving heart-beats and sobs after an unattained goodness tremble off and are dispersed among hindrances, instead of centring in some long-recognizable deed."
But if a girl or boy, desiring to do right, will disregard the hindrances, and not simply sit and sob after an unattained goodness—if, instead, they will but do the duty nearest at hand manfully and well, the reward will come in something even more desirable than a "long-recognizable deed." It will come in the very self-gratification that will at last follow every act of courtesy, of friendliness, and of self-denial, and such a life will be of more real value to the world than all the deeds of all the crusaders, or than even the stern and austere charities of a Saint Theresa.