Sunday, September 10, 2017

Avila, Citadel of Spanish Mysticism.


47 years ago, as a young man of 21, I took an unforgettable 4 day bus trip along the Mediterranean coast from Rome, having just finished my first year of Philosophy there, up to Torino and on to the Italian Alps, then across the French Provence, across the border at Biarritz, down into Spain at San Sabastian, past Burgos, and on to Salamanca, where I would take a 30 day retreat, modeled after the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola..

Our routine each week during the Spiritual Exercises was 6 days of silence, with Mass, prayer and meditation, while on the 7th day, we had an outing, and the best part, we were allowed to break silence. I was with a group of some 100 seminarians, most of us in our 20's. The 30 day retreat is a rigorous spiritual experience intended only to be carried out a few times during the lifetime of a seminarian or a religious.

Our outings were a welcome respite from hours of prayer, silence and meditation. One outing was to get to know our host city of Salamanca. Another outing took us to Toledo. The roads of Spain back in the early 1970's were nothing like the modern toll ways we use today.  The roads were narrow, dangerous, full of potholes, with only one lane coming and another going back. Herds of sheep and goats crossing the road, seemingly always around a tight curve.  Passing the truck in front, always seemed a life-endangering episode. On our long drive back from Toledo, at sunset, we saw a magnificent walled city, gleaming gold in the dying beams of dusk. It was the first and only time I had seen Avila.

We didn't get the chance to visit it, or even enter it. I have yearned ever since to come back and explore this city of mystics. On Saturday 9th, 2017, Estela and I finally fulfilled this dream.

But there is much more to this dream than to see the gleaming walls of a fortified city. There is much more to this city than mere walls. And there is much more to this pilgrimage than Avila.

Let me try to situate Avila in its proper context. It was a an hour and 15 minute drive (75 miles), due west, from the Madrid's Barajas International Airport. Avila is part of Castile, the epicenter of Spain, historically, culturally and geographically. Avila with its arid steppes, are part of the heartland of Spain.

In and around Avila, we can see the evidence of a Roman Castrum or settlement. But Avila as we see it today was born in the IXth Century. In the IXth to the XVth centuries, it was frequently attacked and sacked, allegedly by the Moors, but I suspect even more so, by the continuous raids and scrimmages between the Kingdom of Leon and the Kingdom of Castile, in other words, between fellow Christians.

Avila is an achievement in the history of Spain. In its walls, if you can read stones, you can read an essay on the character of the Spaniard: hardships endured and overcome, perseverance, faith and loyalty.
Some of the  greatest defects of the Spanish character are equally on display: arrogance, intolerance, closed-mindedness and stubbornness. But even these defects, at certain turning points of history, seemed to push men into exploits that otherwise would seem impossible, discovering a new world, and then conquering it in name of their king.
However, the younger generations of people in Avila and in Spain in general seem to follow just the opposite trend: they are open-minded, well-educated, curious and nonconformist.
I came to Avila, not only to see a walled city. I came here because I wanted to meet people. People long since gone, but close enough in ambience, that I could feel that we were almost coming into physical contact with them.
First of all, I longed to meet a Christian martyr, by the name of San Vicente, and his two sisters, both martyred likewise, Sabina and Cristeta, during the persecution of Diocletian. When we visit their Basilica in Avila in our next post, I will give you a brief summary of their bravery.
The other persons I wanted to meet, but I arrived over 450 years too late, were Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross. Together they reformed the Carmelite Order, and their writings form the foundations of the Mystical Trend of Spanish Catholic Spirituality in the XVIth Century.
Likewise I will dedicate a post on Avila and Saint Teresa, her Life and her 7 Moradas (Dwellings).
Avila was the first step of our September pilgrimage to Spain and Portugal. From Avila we will travel further west to Salamanca, and visit the oldest University of the Iberian Peninsula, a stepping stone and formation house for many missionaries and leaders of New Spain. From there, we will travel northwest, towards the corner of the peninsula, to the province of Galicia. In Galicia, our first stop will be to stay a night at the former Monastery, now Parador, Santo Estevo, in the mounstains of the Ribeira Sacra. Then we will continue further northwest to the burial spot of the Apostle James or Santiago as he is called in Spanish, at Santiago de Compostela. After a two night stay, we will travel south into Portugal, to Porto, Coimbra, Fatima, Aveiro, Batahlla and on to Lisbon, before flying back to Spain.
But for now, let's concentrate on Avila. Let's start with the weather. We drove out of Madrid's airport, where I was wearing a long sleeve shirt, but I would have felt more comfortable in short sleeves. Yet that evening, I needed a leather jacket as we took an evening stroll around Avila after dinner. Avila is one of the highest cities of Spain, and although we were only 75 miles away from Madrid, the temperature can be 10 degrees lower or more.
What's the point I am trying to make? Just the weather? The winters in Avila can be very windy, snowy and cold. This weather seems to make the people here seem tougher, more resilient than the city folk of Madrid. Tough, but polite and friendly when spoken to. But the people here are like the stones in their wall: strong and hard, but elegant and beautiful.
The City of Avila and its surrounding walls were declared an Unesco World Heritage Site in 1985. The building of the walls began in the late XIth Century, but most of the construction was carried out during the XIIth Century. Why? I am not sure, but to me it seems to be more than a coincidence, that the building of the wall started, the very year the Spaniards reconquered nearby Toledo from the Moors in 1085.
The old city of Avila covers an area of about 75 acres (31 hectares), and the wall has a average height of 12 meters (40 feet), completely surrounding the city, forming a perimeter of over 2,530 meters, with 88 semicircular towers.
Basilica of Avila as seen from the
 ramparts of the city walls.
Some of the buildings of Avila are built into the walls of the city. The Parador of Avila where we stayed, part of the state-run hotel and inn chain, is no exception, and the gardens are only a few feet away from the ramparts.
Beside the 88 torreones or semicircular towers and several gates, another unique feature of the walls of the walls of Avila is the Espadaña or Bell Gable.
In architecture in Spain and in New Spain (including the state of California), they built two different structures to house bells: campanarios or bell towers, and Espadañas or Bell Gables, used to crown a wall with arched open gables in which bells were hung, quite common in Romanesque architecture.
Whereas in convents, the Espadañas were used to summon the community to acts of prayer or to meals, it is quite feasible that the bells of the Espadaña in the walls of Avila, were intended for military reasons, to advise the population that unfriendly forces had been spotted in the vicinity. However, the Espadaña was originally part of a convent.
A sun clock on the patio of the tower
bridge of San Vicente 
There are two important gates: the Gate of the Alcazar (or Fortress) and the Gate of San Vicente, right in front of the Basilica of the Saint and Martyr. These two gates are flanked on both sides by double tower, 65 feet (20 meters) high.
About half of the total of 2,530 meters of the entire length of the walls, the parapets are open for tourists to climb up and walk along them (after they pay an entrance fee), while the rest have not been adequately restored to safely handle pedestrian traffic.
One of the treats awaiting the visitor as we walk along the top of the walls of Avila is the view of the extramural buildings. Possibly the most beautiful of these buildings is the Basilica of San Vicente.
Beyond the nearby buildings outside Avila, from the ramparts the visitor can city the surrounding countryside. At the end of the summer, it looked quite arid, with open fields and few wooded areas or forests.
Looking into this arid expanse from the ramparts, you may begin to feel like Giovanni Drogo, the protagonist of Dino Buzzati's book The Tartar Steppe (il Deserto dei Tartari, 1949).  Giovanni spends his entire life commissioned at the old Bastiani Fortress, awaiting the imminent attack of the "Tartars", the enemy, that everyone at Bastiani believes are just over the horizon.
Giovanni is faithful to his charge, and while his friends back in the city get married, have children, and live happily, Giovanni shares only the friendship and loyalty of his fellow soldiers. When sick and old, the Tartar attack finally materializes, Giovanni is dismissed, and dies alone in a solitary inn on his trip back home.
Dino Buzzati puts us into this allegorical fort, which some believe symbolized his own career as a writer at Italy's leading newspaper. Sometimes we enslave ourselves in our careers which we believe are very important, yet when we reach that existential crisis, be it a "mid-life" crisis, or an "end-of-life" crisis, we may come to realize that our "achievements" were mere illusions.
The walls of Avila present us with the perfect stage for that "existential crisis", be it that of Giovanni Drago, be it Hamlet who questions "to be or not to be", or be it Saint John of the Cross, speaking about the "dark night of the soul".
The apse of the Cathedral of Avila is built
 into the city wall.

In the world of Spanish literature, the idea of this search for truth in midlife may have been novel in the XVIth Century, but Dante Alligheri had already boarded this existential theme in the opening lines of his Divine Comedy.

Tomb of Dante at Santa
Croce, Florence.

Dante uses the image of a dark forest (selva oscura), in which we find ourselves in the middle of the walking of our lives, and where the straight road sometimes seems blurred:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita,
Mi retrovai per una selva oscura
Che la via diritta era smarita.
For Teresa of Avila, this "mid-life" crisis in the career of a contemplative nun, as she shows us in her "moradas" or "Dwellings", can be a stage of internal "dryness" or "silence", a period in which Christ may invite the soul to share His suffering of His Passion.
Could these women have been passing through a period of depression or menopause, and could this explain this "midlife" crisis of her companions in the convent? I personally believe that this would be a grave oversimplification of the facts. I am sure that Teresa of Avila understood menopause as well as we do today, but what she refers to as this period of internal darkness, is a spiritual phenomenon, not something merely physiological or psychological.
In the life of priests and nuns, spiritual direction as well as the sacrament of confession are useful tools in helping them overcome these "dark nights of the soul".
 Another view of the side of the Basilica of
 San Vicente seen from the ramparts of
 the city walls.
Priests in religious orders or congregations have an additional resource during the "dark night of the soul": their life in community, a life sometimes cruelly lacking among Diocesan priests, living in parishes, either alone, or with just another priest.
There is something very strange about what we usually term an "arid" landscape such as that we see from almost any angle of the walls of Avila. We sometimes believe that these landscapes, scorched by the sun, so yellow and brown, with so little greenery, are lifeless.
For years I would drive my van in the dry hot summers, with my entire family, for hours, through the deserts of Northern Mexico. Not a tree, not a field, for hundreds of miles. Cacti. Sandy soils. Yet when we would stop the car, we realized that the land was full of life, as full as any forest. Flowers. Plants. Animals. Hawks. And plenty of snakes.

During these periods of the soul, when we feel that our prayers are not listened to, when we feel the frustration of years of hard work in our service to others, with little palpable results, where we feel that our mission is not appreciated, we feel as if our soul is lifeless, when in fact, we need to stop the car of our lives, step out for a moment, and take a careful look.

That is the lesson we can learn from the walls of Avila, from the writings of Saint Teresa of Avila, and from Saint John of the Cross. The value of our souls.

The search for our soul is a journey well worth your effort. It should not only be the main objective of our pilgrimage. It should be the quest of our lives.
Come to Avila! Explore your soul!
The Espadaña or bell gable.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Yanhuitlan and Sierra Codices at the Lafragua Library in Puebla

As some of you that have followed our blog may recall, in February last year, Estela and I went on a tour of XVIIth and XVIIIth Century Church Organs in the Upper Mixteca Region of Oaxaca, and during this trip, we experienced firsthand the breathtaking beauty of Santo Domingo Yanhuitlán.
Santo Domingo Yanhuitlán, Oaxaca
On May 15th, 2016, we recorded our findings in this blog, which included an introduction to the Yanhuitlán Codex.
Main historical reading room of the Lafragua
Library, BUAC, Puebla.
The double objective of this article is to first offer our followers a more extensive overview than that which we gave you in our article in May, 2016, to XVIth Century Codices of New Spain in general, and specifically to the Yanhuitlan Codex, and in the process to induce more people to visit historical libraries in Mexico, such as this one, the Biblioteca Lafragua of Puebla, the Biblioteca Palafoxiana of Puebla, the Biblioteca Fray Francisco de Burgoa of Oaxaca, the Biblioteca Franciscana of Cholula (Universidad de la Americas) as well as the Biblioteca de Tepotzotlán (Museo Nancioal del Virreinato).
Biblioteca Palafoxiana de Pueblaiqu
Many times we enter these temples of wisdom, we feel daunted, and as we contemplate the beautiful bookbinding, the intricate cabinetry of the bookshelves with their brass handles and fittings, and the shiny wooden reading tables with individual ornate table lamps, we shy away from a   more profound contact with the manuscripts, after uttering some simplistic manifestation of our admiration.

Penelope, an expert in antique books,
showing me some of the most
interesting rare editions from the
17th Century, part of the
collection of the Burgoa Library
in Oaxaca.
During this trip to Oaxaca, we became much more familiar with the Codices of the 16th Century, written partly in Nahuatl or Mixteco, partly in Spanish, and mostly with pictographs, which followed the Aztec drawing style in certain sections, while incorporating a more European style of drawing in other sections.

A collection of books from the 17th, 18th
and 19th centuries being catalogued
at the Lafragua Library, Puebla.
Eager to learn more about the Yanhuitlan Codex, we discovered it was no longer in Oaxaca, but in neighboring state Puebla, in a Library, dedicated to historical and dated books.

Estela and I were amazed by the quality of
preservation of the antique books,
at the Lafragua Library, Puebla.

This library is part of the BUAP (Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla), in the Carolino Palace, a building that housed the Jesuit School until they were closed in decade of 1860, under the laws of the Reform, during the tenure of Benito Juarez.

One of the hallways of the area
of the Biblioteca Lafragua
reserved for researchers.
This Library is Biblioteca Lafragua, named after José Maria Lafragua (1813-1875), an important diplomat and writer during the Presidency of Benito Juarez, and who assisted in the foundation of Mexico's National Library.

Estela and I were received at the
Biblioteca Lafragua by its
director Mtra. Mercedes
Lourdes Salomon Salazar.
The collections of this library came from the Jesuit schools in Puebla, up until they were exiled from New Spain in 1767, under orders of King Carlos III of Spain.

Plate 1 of the Yanhuitlan Codex.
The Yanhuitlan Codex was created to commemorate the construction of the Church of Santo Domingo de Yanhuitlán, and the ending of a conflict between the Domingo de Guzman, the local Indian chief, Francisco de las Casas, the Spanish Encomendero or Landlord and the local community of Dominican priests.

Plate 2 of the Yanhuitlan Codex.
The Yanhuitlan Codex covers a period starting from 1544, when Domingo de Guzman was accused by the Inquisition, until 1560, when the Church was finished and he was acquitted.  

This illustration shows us that the
 native community gave tribute for
 the building of the Church.
The story contained in the Yanhuitlan Codex is fascinating and revealing of the reality of the Conquest of Mexico.

According to these glyphs,
the construction of the
church commenced on the
 day Jaguar 10, in the year
 Flint 2, or June 2nd, 1544.
 In Mixteco there is a inscription
 that is barely legible: 
"Holy Church of  Yanhuitlán".
The struggle of power between the native chief, the Spanish lord, and the priests is much more politically complicated than what we are led to believe in overly simplistic versions of history to which we have become accustomed, in which the Spanish conquerors continuously oppressed a homogenous and united native population.

The author of this codex represents
 the inquisition trial of Domingo de
Guzman, as the Dominican Friar
takes down notes of the testimonies
of the witnesses. The tonsure of the
the friars seemed to attract the
attentions of the natives.
To begin with, the people of Yanhuitlán had already been subject to Tenochtitlan and the Triple Alliance for almost a century, before the coming of the Spaniards. Therefore the military advances of Spanish troops in the Upper Mixteca Region met very little resistance during the Conquest, as the Mixtecos were more prone to accommodation to a changing political scenario, than to rebellion. 
The Spanish landlord or encomendero
Francisco de las Casas, playing cards
with a friend or possibly with his
own brother.

History is one thing, but fiction in something different. Fiction deals with a protagonist, and most of the time with an antagonist. Fiction requires an interesting plot, and a happy ending is always useful.


In history, we should not look for the good ruler or the bad ruler, but what leaders did or tried to accomplish, as we strive to understand the situation and the circumstances.
 Watching the Friar
are 10 Monkey and 7 Deer
(one of the two could have been
Domingo de Guzman,whose
pre-Christian name we ignore),
according to the glyphs.
Domingo of Guzman was accused in 1544 by the Inquisition of perpetuating idolatry among the natives even after their conversion to Christianity. The inquiry lasted for years, but Domingo continued in his charge as "cacique" or chief.  
Domingo de Guzman was actually in secret allegiance with the encomendero Francisco de las Casas, to exploit his own tribesmen, and both worked to discredit Dominicans and their efforts to defend the human and spiritual rights of the natives.  

Domingo de Guzman eventually resigned from his position as chief, in favor of his son, Gabriel. Gabriel had been educated by the Dominican Friars. Gabriel became cacique in 1558. 
The Friar in charge of the Inquisition
in conference with an important
ecclesiastical authority.

I underline the year: 1558: I find the timing to be curiously interesting: only months before Domingo's renunciation, the same scenario occurred in Europe: an impossibly uncomfortable position forced Carlos I of Spain and V of Germany to resign, and to cede powers, in favor of Phillip II of Spain, his son 


For the native people of New Spain, Carlos I, was represented, first by Hernan Cortes, and later by the other authorities of Spain, as a ruler of almost divine qualities. What was a proper course of action for Carlos I, was good enough for Domingo of Guzman and his son Gabriel. 

A coincidence? I think not. Gabriel, illustrious students of the Dominicans, would have been lectured by these friars, on the realities of power in Spain and New Spain.

According to one interpretation,
this plate show the natives
prospecting for gold in a stream
near Yanhuitlán, under the armed
guard of Encomendero Francisco
de las Casas.  

Gabriel stayed in power as cacique for the next 33 years. In part thanks to his ability as chief benefactor of the Yanhuitlán Church and Monastery, one of the most splendid in New Spain during the 15th Century. 


Gabriel donated the land on which Santo Domingo Yanhuitlán was built. Gabriel provided the Dominicans with laborers and artisans to build and decorate this magnificent shrine. 

A tree is being chopped down
to provide wood to decorate
the Church of Yanhuitlan.
The symbols at the bottom
mean "400", a quantity.
Perhaps 400 trees were
cut down?
Estela and I felt deeply moved as Mercedes showed us the Yanhuitlan Codex, slide by slide. Together we were witnesses of a colossal clash between two worlds, and the eclipse of a civilization. 


It is difficult to comprehend the human pathos that Natives, Spaniards and Missionaries experienced in New Spain during the first decades after the conquests, but the Yanhuitlán Codex offers us a unique window to pear into that historical moment, and to understand it.

Here in the Yanhuitlan Codex
Gabriel, in company of two
translators, dialogs with the
Encomendero about the
Rosary. Gabriel, identified
here by the Glyph "7 Monkeys"
 as well as his fellow natives,
view the Rosary as the symbol
 of the Dominican Order.

The Yanhuitlán Codex is more than history. The drama affected individuals: their beliefs, their values, and their dynamics within their families.

For some, especially for younger people that lived always in New Spain after the Conquest the changes in life might have been seen as novel, and maybe as positive.

The size of the Rosary is disproportionate
to the physical reality, but possibly more
proportionate to the spiritual dimension.

For others, particularly the elder, the past might have seemed better.

Here are the two interpreters
or witnesses
This is the value of the Yanhuitlan Codex, and of history in general: when we study the past, it should help us put the predicaments of our present existence into perspective, granting us the courage to come to grips with the seemingly unfathomable  quandaries of our everyday paradigms.

In this drawing, the Church no
longer appears with the sidesteps
and the Glyph indicates the date
of the conclusion of edifice.
 The world of 16th Century Codices in New Spain is fascinating, but sometimes the experience can be as baffling as trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle, with several missing pieces. As you look over the next few plates, the comparison with the jigsaw puzzles becomes progressively more understandable.

The Biblioteca Lafragua offers courses so that we can understand these codices better. It is a field in which I consider legitimate for you the viewer to make an educated guess or to construct a hypothesis of interpretation, of what the author was trying to communicate.
Another famous Codex of the Biblioteca Lafragua is the Sierra Codex. This codex is an accounting ledger from the 16th Century in  Mixteco, Spanish and Glyphs.


The Sierra Codex ledger records the expenses incurred in building the Church of Santa Catalina de Texupam, some 15 miles north of Yanhuitlán, in the Upper Mixteca Region, from 1551 to 1564. Here the text is in Nahuatl. even a generation after the conquest, most of the trained administrators throughout New Spain were Aztecs, sons of Aztecs, or locals trained in administration during their youth in Tenochtitlan.


The Sierra Codex incorporates  several  colors,   whereas the Yanhuitlán Codex is only
Charcoal painted. The colors are the result of natural pigments, which 450 years later have not lost their glow nor beauty. The building of the Church of Saint Catherine was quite a burden on the community of Texupam, so they proudly recorded all the expenses incurred.


The pictographs in Sierra Codex conserve much more the classical style that we see in classical Glyphs in the pre-Conquest period, but the content is completely altered.

The great feast that the native community is preparing for is in honor of two revered persons, one represented with keys with a crown, another with a sword with a crown: The Feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.


The image of the broken wheel, emblem of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, is the symbol of the community of Texupam used throughout the Codex. Other major incidents in the life of the community of Texupam are likewise recorded, such as the raising of cattle and the cultivation of silk, both new activities, introduced by the Spanish.

 We were spellbound in this
beautiful but mysterious
library which opens windows
to Mexico's past.

While the Yanhuitlán Codex offers us a thrilling narration of a power struggle between Caciques, Encomenderos and Dominican friars, the Sierra Codex gives us a much more detailed account into the banalities of ordinary life in the Upper Mixteca, during the mid.16th Century: the local pharmacist who needs money to buy medicine and olive oil in Mexico City, another messenger sent to buy40 yards of cloth, while still another is sent to buy wine and candles to celebrate mass.

The outside courtyard of the
Lafragua Library affords an
appropriate atmosphere of
tranquility, and a
splendid respite for
investigators of the collections.
 The fountains and the palm trees
are the jewels of the Carolino