The day’s temperature climbed to 77 degrees, quite warm by Segovia standards for a mid-afternoon in October. Not a cloud graced the sky. We didn’t have the benefit of even a slight breeze. And we had little idea of exactly where we were going–not unusual during this Spanish vacation.
My wife Donna and I likely would have worked up a little sweat walking anywhere on that kind of day. But these Spanish cities we were visiting–such as Avila, Toledo and Segovia–were built atop high hills. Any journey to a cathedral or castle or museum automatically meant an uphill workout, especially taxing at times for this out-of-shape man in his mid-fifties.
Alas, our Segovia walk proved more taxing than most. My brow had beads of sweat, and I felt damp under my shirt. I didn’t care. I expected every step to have lasting spiritual value.
Little did I know….
Visiting St. John of the Cross
On all our previous walks, the results ended up more than worth the effort. I knew that would be the case this time as well. We were in search of the Carmelite friary founded in 1588 by St. John of the Cross–San Juan de la Cruz–and where he resided for three years. The site also is the Carmelite saint’s final resting place, with his remains above the altar in a chapel.
The hope of visiting there had become one of my greatest silent desires during our dream vacation. John of the Cross had spiritually guided me for some years through his writings and prayers. He introduced me to the beauty of contemplation and a longing for mystical union with God. He led me to a group of Secular Carmelites, with whom I am currently in formation.
So, yes, I was excited when we decided–with Donna’s blessing–to try to find John of the Cross upon first arriving in Segovia by train from Madrid. We had a map and GPS on our phones. Neither seemed particularly helpful. We got a little lost, so we decided to climb to the top of the town hill and see the castle. While looking down from the castle at the beautiful countryside, I pulled out my map and located the friary in my view. Despite not having lunch yet, after a late breakfast, we decided to trek there right away.
I totally underestimated the walking distance to the friary, complicated more by the day’s warmth. But the thrill I felt was obvious when we finally arrived, my pleasure evident in the picture Donna took of me standing next to the stone marker entering the grounds.
Convento PP Carmelitas
Fundado en 1588 por San Juan de la Cruz
I have often found myself in close proximity to famous people–Hall-of-Fame athletes, successful entertainers, even a future saint. I stood just a few feet from Pope John Paul II in 1983–only for a few fleeting moments, but still I was so very close. Some of those moments felt truly special.
None of them felt like this. I felt a wave of spiritual joy wash over me as we started to walk toward the friary. We first approached the church, climbed the steps, tried the door and… it was locked. I walked around a different entrance–also locked. I was feeling anxious, but hoped we just were trying to enter the wrong way.
We walked a little further down the street. Clearly, something was amiss. And then I realized: it was almost 3 o’clock, time for Spanish siesta. I remembered the warning before our trip that some sites in Spain shut down for a couple hours in the afternoon. The friary had closed an hour earlier. It wouldn’t reopen for another hour. Ugh. I must not have hid my chagrin well.
“We can stay,” Donna said. “We can wait. Or we can come back.”
I loved her so much at that moment. But I knew we couldn’t. This was our vacation, not her pilgrimage involving a saint she didn’t know. It wouldn’t be fair to her or to our trip plans overall. We still had wanted to visit the cathedral. And we had to be back on the train by a certain time, so we really didn’t have an hour to waste. I couldn’t ask Donna to walk all the way back later on such a warm day.
I tried to hide my disappointment. “No,” I said, “we should go on. I know we want to see the cathedral. Let’s start walking.”
Inside, I was distraught. I felt sorry for myself and wanted to cry. My clinical depression stood up to be noticed, whispering so many negative ideas. I wondered if I could get through this; I wanted to complain to God in no uncertain terms. That’s when I remembered a story Father Marc Foley told about St. Therese of Lisieux during our September retreat, a story I later read in the 11th chapter of “The Story of a Soul.”
“Another time, I was in the laundry doing the washing in front of a Sister who was throwing dirty water into my face every time she lifted the handkerchiefs to her bench; my first reaction was to draw back and wipe my face to show the Sister who was sprinkling me that she would do me a favor to be more careful. But I immediately thought I would be very foolish to refuse these treasures which were being given to me so generously, and I took care not to show my struggle. I put forth all my efforts to desire receiving very much of this dirty water and was so successful that in the end I had really taken a liking to this kind of aspersion, and I promised myself to return another time to this nice place where one received so many treasures.”
That story might have taught me the most pragmatic lesson I could have gained from “The Story of a Soul.”
Benefiting from Disappointment
Upon remembering Therese’s experience, I immediately tried to gather all that I was feeling. I thought of the heat of the day and the marathon of walking around Segovia–my Fitbit later told me I took more than 22,000 steps. I thought of how much I enjoyed being with Donna the entire trip and how humbled I felt at her offer to wait for the four o’clock friary reopening. And I thought of my great disappointment, with all the other emotions I was feeling.
I wrapped all that up, mentally and spiritually, and I accepted them as they were–out of the love I felt for my God. Then, I offered the spiritual package back to Him as a sign of my love.
I’m not sure how successful I was. My disappointment continued unabated. I had moments when I wanted to withdraw the gift and regret my decision to see the cathedral instead of stand on the same holy ground as San Juan de la Cruz had once stood, prayed in the same places. Perhaps it’s the kind of thing that takes practice.
But I tried, as hard as I could, to offer God my love in that way. I still do.
“Ah! the Lord is so good to me that it is quite impossible for me to fear Him,” St. Therese wrote. “He has always given me what I desire–or rather He has made me desire what He wants to give me.”