Strategy of a Provincial Nun: Sor María de Jesús de Agreda’s Response
In August of 1649, Sor María de Jesús de Agreda, abbess of the Convent of the Conception in Agreda, wrote to King Felipe IV, with whom she had been corresponding on a regular basis since 1643, expressing her concern that certain clergymen intended to tamper with her biography of the Virgin Mary (1) “Quieren mudar el estilo y modo que lleva la historia de la Reina del cielo. . . la pueden pervertir” (Seco Serrano, 108: 200). (2) Aware of the King's interest in her work, and accustomed now to his praise, for he had a copy of the manuscript and was reading it, Sor María did not hesitate to add that she had burnt all of her writing out of fear that the Inquisition, already suspicious, would interrogate her sooner or later: “Y oprimida de este cuidado he quemado algunos papeles, y he dicho los demás no están bien escritos, y he salido con esto del peligro de darlos” (Seco Serrano, 108: 200).
When the Holy Office did
eventually appear at the convent several months later, summoning Sor
María from her sick bed, the majority of the questions she was obliged
to answer focused on alleged journeys through bilocation, which she had
Fifteen years earlier, on April 15, 1635, the Holy Office had appointed a commission of advisors to investigate the story of Sor María's famous and extraordinary bilocations. The investigators, however, could not agree on the evidence and testimony they heard. The case was suspended and the documents were filed away for possible future use. Sor María, therefore, must have considered the possibility that in the years following the investigation of 1635, the Inquisition could reopen the case. It is likely that she also began to contemplate what to do in the meantime to defend herself.
The story often recounted
in reference to Sor María's life begins in 1629, when two events
coincided: the visit of a group of Jumano Indians to the Mission of San
Antonio de Isleta, in New Mexico, and the arrival there of a group of
Spanish missionaries conveying rumors about a Spanish nun who had
levitated in her cell in Agreda, and had bilocated to
In 1631, Benavides met
with Sor María in the convent in Agreda. Under obedience, and clearly
intimidated, she was somewhat captive to Benavides's enthusiasm and
illusions and would write almost 20 years later, in her “Relación”: (7) “La pena me tuvo tan fuera de mí, que temblaba, y no
sé lo que me firmaba, ni lo atendí” (176r). The encounter seemed a
prelude to the examinations by the Inquisition that would follow, the
first in 1635, the second in 1650. In the presence of Benavides, and
corroborating his beliefs, Sor María seems to have written a letter, an
exordium to a longer communiqué by Benavides, addressed to the friars,
and praising their missionary work in the
The problems for Sor María
really began here, after this encounter, when Benavides copied the
letter he claimed Sor María wrote, and sent it, along with his Memorial
and two of his own letters, as a communiqué to the friars in
Padres de mi alma, no sé como signifique a VV. PP. los impulsos y fuerza grande de mi espíritu cuando me dijo esta bendita Madre que había asistido conmigo al Bautismo de los Pizos y me conoció ser el mismo que allí vio. Asimismo asistió al P. Fr. Cristobal Quiros a unos Bautismos, dando las señas verdaderas de su persona y rostro, hasta decir que, aunque era viejo, no se le echaban de ver las canas; que era carilargo y colorado de rostro. . . .(Palou, 311)
The most spurious part of
this dispatch, however, is the second letter in the voice of Sor María,
which was printed as a “traslado” ("transcript" [Palou 312]). Although
this “copy” purports to be conceived and written by Sor María, the
language and tone sound suspiciously designed by a Franciscan friar
eager to promote himself. The structure of the letter is very similar
to the first letter of the communiqué by Benavides, quoted above, and
therefore reiterates and strengthens the friar's message. For example,
in his letter he writes: “Y así, no se agradecía ni sabía lo que VV.
PP. con tan apostólico celo han trabajado en esta viña del Señor. . .”
(Palou, 309). “Her” letter reads: “Descubriendo estas Provincias se
pondrá grande obra en la viña del Señor. . . Alégrense
VV.PP. Padres mios, pues el Señor les ha dado la oportunidad, ocasión y
suerte de los Apóstoles" (Palou, 314). Even more puzzling in this
communiqué is the equivocal, at times deceptive language Benavides
employed when attempting to bolster what he referred to as the
authenticity of Sor María's letter. Referring to the transcript, yet in
obvious self-serving language, he writes:
Se las [las palabras de Sor María] mostré para que me dijese si en algo me había equivocado o si era lo mismo que entre los dos había pasado. . . pondré aquí el translado de lo que ella por su propia mano y letra respondió, que queda en mi poder para llevarlo a VV. PP. . . . Mucho quisiera, PP. y hermanos mios, poder escribir en esta para mayor consuelo suyo, las muchas cosas que tengo escritas así de mi letra, como de esta Sta. Madre. . . pero son más para guardarlas en el corazón que para escritas, y me parece que con las razones sobredichas, que son todas de su letra y firma, que quedan en mi poder, se consolaron VV. PP. . . . (Palou, 312-16)
Benavides’s role as
mediator and even arbitrator in Sor María’s process of textual
self-fashioning conforms to the conventional Counter-Reformation
dynamic between nun and male religious authority; she is unavoidably in
a subordinate position, attempting to negotiate between obedience and
self preservation. However, as was typical of nuns who wrote
autobiographical narratives, she resisted male hierarchical authority
both through rhetorical strategies and, more atypically for the period,
by quite literally and directly condemning Benavides’s discursive
exploitation of her experiences. In a letter to the Minister General of
the Franciscan Order, Father Pedro Manero, written twenty years after
Benavides’s visit and immediately following the Inquisition's visit,
Sor María would say that she didn't fully understand that Father
Benavides was taking notes and recording all she said during their
meeting in 1631. He had taken everything so literally, she complained.
His report was all mixed up. How could an educated man interpret her
experiences that way? And she certainly did not pay attention to the
letter he asked her to sign, the same letter that reached the friars in
Therefore, as a consequence of Benavides's imprudent inclusion of her story in his Memorials and somehow coaxing a letter out of their meeting in the convent, Sor María suffered the interrogation of 1635. (10) Yet rather than focus on the fear she must have felt at the Inquisition's first visit, I would suggest that the experience instilled an enduring determination in Sor María to counteract her public image rendered by prelates and missionaries, which had begun to take shape when rumors of her bilocations were first transported by missionaries across the ocean to New Mexico. Later, she both clarified and proclaimed the misrepresentation by documenting it in her Relación to Father Manero:
El haberse adulterado la verdad, añadido o trocado las cosas, no es de marabillar; porque los padres grabes, que hicieron la información y declaración, no havían sido mis confesores quando sucedió el caso. . . . informolos quien no sabía sino algunas palabras, que habían oído sueltas, con que no fue posible apurar la verdad, sino adulterarla. (181r)
Kendrick suggests that in the years leading up to the 1650 interrogation, it was fear that caused Sor María to burn her work, including what she had started of a new draft of “Mística ciudad de Dios”(74). Undoubtedly, as is clear in her letters to the King, she worried about the reception her book would receive if published or widely circulated. Yet, it is possible to interpret her actions in another way by observing that she was strategic, not simply a “provincial woman,” as she had been called by Father Juan de Palma. (11) After all, she burnt the first version of Mística ciudad de Dios and later part of a revised version, knowing that the King had a copy. Counting on him for protection, she wrote: "Harto alivio es de ellas que mi secreto por entero no está sino en V. M., donde le considero más seguro que en mi pecho” (Seco Serrano, 108: 200). And four months later she would write: “Beso sus pies con humildes agradecimientos por lo que ampara esta obra" (Seco Serrano, 108: 205).
Although Sor María employs pious, humble language in her letters to the King, beseeching him to devote himself more to prayer, or praising the Virgin Mary, she also displays a shrewd sense of court politics, and military strategy:
Suplico a V.M. con todo el encarecimiento posible, que ponga V.M. general en el ejército de Cataluña, fiel, experimentado y cuidadoso, y que las plazas de Lérida y Fraga se provean luego al punto, que sé de cierto les falta provisión; los enemigos tienen espías, con que lo sabrán y se adelantarán y nos veremos afligidos. (Seco Serrano, 108: 175)
Writing allotted her a certain amount of freedom by allowing her to participate in the world even if she was cloistered in the convent. She found that writing was a useful tactic for self defense, if executed precisely, at the right time, and directed toward the appropriate people. Although in 1627 she claimed to have received orders from the Virgin herself to write her life story, it wasn't until ten years later, in 1637, just two years after the first inconclusive interrogation by the Inquisition, that she actually began to write her “Historia de la Reina del cielo.”
Mística ciudad de Dios, first published in
Que como Reina conocía toda su monarquía y lo que extendía; como Señora sabía a dónde llegaba su dominio; como Madre conocía todos sus hijos y familiares de su casa. . . como Gobernadora conocía a todos los que estaban por su cuenta; y como Maestra llena de toda sabiduría estaba muy capaz de toda la ciencia con que la santa Iglesia en todos tiempos y edades había de ser gobernada y enseñada. (VIII, 12, 1405)
Although the text was written, ostensibly, for her nuns, it demonstrates what Vollendorf has described as an “awareness of living both apart from and as part of the world beyond the convent wall” (99). Sor María conceives of and imparts to her readers this possibility of female participation in social and civic affairs.
At the end of almost all 205 chapters, the narration changes and under the title: “Doctrina que me dio la Reina del cielo María Santísima,” Sor María records how the Virgin preached to her, gave her advice on how to reject all temptations, and strive for a state of divine perfection, by imitating the Virgin, who serves as the supreme paradigm for women as well as men. The contents of these homilies directed at Sor María, yet in the voice of the Virgin herself, sometimes imitate Sor María's own narration describing the Virgin's life. For example, the Virgin Mary tells Sor María: “La plenitud de esta luz se te ha dado a ti” (V, 28, 1095), in the very same way God addresses the Virgin in the narration and proclaims that she has been chosen to enlighten mankind: “Te hago señora de todos estos bienes y te doy la posesión y dominio de todos ellos. . .” (III, 9, 385). God encourages the Virgin to mirror his virtues just as the Virgin tells Sor María: “Sígueme por su imitación y camina por mis huellas” (III, 2, 392). Therefore, Sor María depicted in this manner two female protagonists of parallel stature, who have been endowed with profound knowledge to communicate to others. Through their interaction and conversation Sor María also manages to address controversies that surrounded both of them in the seventeenth century. In the introduction to the third part of Mística ciudad, for example, the Virgin praises Sor María’s work, informing her that she was chosen to fulfill the arduous task of writing the History, therefore both legitimizing her literary endeavor and discouraging her critics: “Ya llegas a escribir la última y tercera parte de mi Historia, y es tiempo de que te levantes a mi perfecta imitación y te vistas de nueva fortaleza y extiendas la mano a cosas fuertes”: (VII, Intro., 1113). Sor María, for her part, defends questionable doctrine regarding the Virgin and her role in the Church, particularly the issue of the Immaculate Conception which was so controversial during the nun’s lifetime: (13)
Pero advierto a todos que la Reina del cielo estimó tanto de adorno y hermosura que la dio su Hijo y Esposo en su purísima concepción, que esta correspondencia será su indignación contra aquellos que con terquedad y porfía pretendieren desnudarla de él y afearla, en tiempo que su Hijo santísimo se ha dignado de manifestarla al mundo tan adornada y hermosa, para Gloria suya y esperanza de los mortales. (I, 17, 115)
The Virgin is represented as eternally virginal, without the stain of sin: “Que naciera el niño dejando virgen a la Madre” (IV, 11, 557). She is conceived immaculately and does not die a mortal death, rather, due to the divine love she feels, leaves the earth and rises to heaven to be received by God the Father. Through intricate detail, elaboration on scripture and devotional writings, and extraordinary creativity, Sor María reveals, and conceals, as any skilled writer would, her own opinions and concerns. She adheres to traditional hagiographic themes while simultaneously reformulating them in what Ibsen calls subtle subversion of “hierarchies of discursive authority” (18).
Sor María practices a number of strategies in asserting these opinions, tampering with hagiography and manipulating language to defend her own story, which had become quite public after Benavides's Memorials. In several instances in Mística ciudad, intending to rebuke those contemporaries who never believed in what she was writing, Sor María describes how the devil appeared condemning the work, and calls on the Virgin Mary to help protect it: “No me la roben las aves de rapiña, el dragón y sus demonios, cuya indignación he conocido en todas las palabras que de ti, Señora mía, dejo escritas” (VIII, 23, 1486). Anticipating condemnation of her work from ecclesiastical authority, Sor María substitutes their potential criticism with a message from the devil, pitting anyone who questions the work against God and the Virgin, and therefore discouraging censure. The Virgin also alludes to the possible persecution of Sor María and advises the nun: “Humíllate a los que te persiguen, ámalos y ruega por ellos con verdadero corazón” (II, 18, 299). The message for the reader, from the Virgin herself, is that piety and kindness are far holier than interrogation; she also confirms Sor María’s humility and fortitude, laying the groundwork for Sor María’s later candid statement about the self in her letter to Father Manero, which was extraordinary for a religious woman writing under obedience in Counterreformation Spain: “De mi persona, siempre he tenido grande escrúpulo, porque yo sé quien soy” (“Relación,” 180r).
By constantly emphasizing the Virgin's authority, Sor María absolves herself of the presumptuous act of writing a long and detailed biography that so assertively proclaims the Virgin's authority and active participation alongside Christ in the Scripture. Yet, while Sor María claims to be a humble, ignorant servant of God, one can't help but see the inversion of this message in images of the Virgin as a religious woman who fiercely controls her own representation in a book, and who is thoroughly exempt from the limitations Sor María herself suffered.
The image of the Virgin’s
omnipotence and equality with Christ is present throughout the text.
She is so physically strong that she engages in battles with Lucifer
and his devils. One chapter heading, clearly alluding to the Book of
Revelations, reads: “Persevera Lucifer con sus siete legiones en tentar
a María santísima; queda vencido y quebrantada la cabeza de este
dragón” (III, 28, 494). The Virgin is also competent to govern the
angels, the disciples, even the actions of Christ and her own husband
Joseph, who refers to her as his teacher, as she instructs him: “Solía
la Princessa del cielo leerle en algunos ratos oportunos las divinas
Escrituras. . . . Y
Y aunque todos los varones y muchas mujeres iban a los apóstoles, pero otras muchas después de oírlos acudían a la Magdalena y sus compañeras y ellas las catequizaban, enseñaban y convertían a otras que llegaban. . . porque esta gracia también se comunicó a las mujeres santas, que curaban todas la enfermedades con solo poner las manos sobre las cabezas, daban vista a ciegos, lengua a los mudos, pies a los tullidos y vida a muchos muertos. (VII, 6, 1165)
Of the many overt allusions to Sor María's life in Mística ciudad de Dios, the most remarkable are the Virgin's elevations to heaven, which correspond to bilocation. In the middle of Book 6, Chapter 29, Sor María departs from the narration momentarily to address the reader and to explain the importance of these journeys: "Me hallara dudosa en escribir el oculto sacramento de esta subida a los cielos de nuestra Reina si no fuera tan grande falta negarle a esta Historia maravilla y prerrogativa que tanto la engrandece" (1097). In a sermon that follows, the Virgin herself, confirming the importance of these elevations, informs Sor María (as well as the reader) that the ability to understand the elevations is reserved for those predestined to enter heaven. In other words, those who cannot get themselves to accept the idea of a woman ascending to another realm will not be saved.
Sor María's capacity to
describe extraordinary events extends to her letter writing. While she
addressed King Felipe IV on practical matters involving the country and
his own personal life, as well as issues such as the Immaculate
Conception, she could, when she felt it was necessary, rely more on a
creative strategy to promote her interests. In an epistle, written
during a period in which she disapproved of the conduct of the Court
and certain advisors to the King, she describes a revelation involving
Felipe's son, Prince Baltasar Carlos, who had died some weeks earlier.
The letter explains how the Prince, accompanied by his guardian angel,
had appeared to her "En forma humana pero con las penas
De mi pobre padre tengo gran compasión (cual puedo tenerla ahora) conociendo que vive rodeando de tantas falacias, mentiras, dolores, traiciones, y malas correspondencias, de los que le habían de ayudar. Quisiera darle luz de esto y que participan de la que yo tengo, y de la verdad que veo y a el le ocultan, porque conociera los peligros en que vive (Seco Serrano, 109: 259)
Sor María continues the
letter, now in her own voice, explaining what she experienced after
receiving this revelation: “Fui puesta en un otro estado altísimo de
nueva luz, inteligencia, y conocimiento” (Seco Serrano, 109: 259). In many of the King's
letters, he looked to her for help, always asking for her prayers in
various situations: “Ayudadme vos, Sor María (
Similarly, Sor María acts
as a mediator between the reader and the divine word when she addresses
the themes of elevations in Mística ciudad, and
explains the difficulty in understanding their nature. Nonetheless, she
tells us, one must try: “Necesario es dar motivos a la piedad para
pedir el crédito de lo que es oscuro” (VI, 29, 1097). Sympathizing with
the readers' skepticism, she mentions the difficulty she experienced in
understanding the Virgin's elevations. But why is it such a mystery
when she herself, in some form or other, levitated and journeyed to
Expressing ambiguity about
the nature of her levitation, as well as the Virgin's ascensions, is
part of the strategy Sor María employed when forced to explain her
In the letter, Sor María
denies many of the statements Benavides made concerning her journeys,
and she openly acknowledges his exaggerations and inventions: “Y en la
Yet Sor María does not
totally deny her physical presence in the
Sor María's descriptions
of the nature of the Virgin's journeys to heaven in Mística
ciudad de Dios are similarly inconsistent. The majority of the
scenes involving the Virgin’s mystical flight from earth occur in
chapters previous to her ultimate ascent, the Coronation: first, when
she is a child and rises to heaven to begin the process of gaining
divine knowledge; next, in the days before the Incarnation, in
preparation for her marriage to the Holy Father; and finally after
Christ is crucified, when she accompanies him to heaven. Sometimes the
Virgin seems to control her own flights: “Aunque María santísima era de
naturaleza corporea y terrena, pero en ella fue más estimable, como más
peregrino y costoso, el subir a la altura de todas las criaturas
terrenas y espirituales y hacerse con sus méritos condigna Reina y
Señora de todo lo criado" (III, II, 356). At other times, she is raised
by other powers: “Fue llevada corporalmente por mano de sus
bilocation, Sor María confronted a conflict between the spiritual and
the physical nature of humanity that either prevented her from
clarifying what she really meant regarding these journeys, or perhaps
assisted her in evading persecution. In the letter to Manero, she
sounds confused indeed: “Real y verdaderamente concluyo, no puedo yo
asegurarlo” (“Relación,” 174r). It seems as though she wanted to
include physical qualities in the descriptions of her journeys but was
discouraged by the underlying tenet of her faith that alleged that the
body was corrupt, as she herself stated: “Porque como el demonio no es
dueño del interior, endereza su batería a los sentidos exteriormente”
(“Relación,” 174v). Nonetheless, in the letter to Manero, as well as in
certain scenes in Mística ciudad de Dios, she
experiments with the idea that the body was significant and could work
harmoniously with the soul in what Bynum has described as a “concept of
self in which physicality was integrally bound to sensation, emotion,
reasoning, identity” (223). Sor María depended on her physicality just
as the Virgin did, in order to gain knowledge, in order to see the
kingdoms of the
The Virgin’s elevations
are often linked to acquiring more knowledge. Finding freedom to gain
this knowledge far above the earth suggests that on earth there exists
limitations, and these apply to some more than others, as the Virgin
tells Sor María during one of their colloquies: “Esta queja del Señor y
mía es por la inhumana perversidad que tienen los hombres en tratarse
los unos a los otros sin caridad y humildad. . . conociendo los hombres
cómo todos son hijos de un Padre que está en los cielos, hechuras de su
mano, formados de una misma naturaleza” (IV, 5, 524). Although Sor María had the
support of certain clergymen and the King, there were members of the
Church who tried to dissuade her from writing by claiming that she was
neglecting her religious duties, or was influenced by the Devil. She
must have felt a number of other restrictions, most notably those that
prohibited her from leaving the convent and moving about in the world.
In her letter to Manero she tells of the great desire she had felt for
a long time to convert the Indians: “Todo esto disponía más mi ánimo y
afecto, para trabajar y pedir” (“Relación,” 166r). But she wasn’t
permitted to leave the convent, or
Que yo veía los reinos distintamente; y sabía sus nombres, que se me ofrecían. . . . Que veía las ciudades, y conocía la diferencia de las de acá, y que el tiempo y la calidad era diferente, más cálido. . . . Aunque alguna vez, me parece, que veía al mundo, en unas partes ser de noche, y en otras de día, en una serenidad, en otras nubes, y el mar, y su hermosura. . . . También conocía las guerras que tenían, y que no peleaban con armas como las de acá, sino con instrumentos para tirar piedras” (“Relación,” 175r, 176v) (14)
In the sixth book, in Mística ciudad, during the ascension of Christ, when the Virgin is praying in the Cenacle and simultaneously accompanying her son to heaven, Sor María offers a unique explanation for the elevation: “Obró el poder divino por milagroso y admirable modo que María santísima estuviera en dos partes” (VI, 29, 1097). She does not say that the Virgin rose “in body and soul,” or that the Virgin experienced an intellectual, abstract vision, as she describes in other scenes in the book. Nor do the body and soul separate in Neoplatonic fashion. The Virgin is simply “in two places at once.” Yet her skills in the Cenacle are limited, while the Virgin who rises with Christ, to sit at the throne with God as judge and advisor, enjoys “el más perfecto uso de las potencias y sentidos, y al mismo tiempo en el cenáculo con menos ejercicio de ella" (III, II, 1097). In other words the woman in the Cenacle, praying with the people, in an earthly, religious context mirroring convent life, is restricted, and so is her ability to exercise knowledge and actively participate. Far above the earth, however, in an exotic realm, exists her opportunity to participate in all the glory, which includes advising a king on how to govern his kingdom. God says to the Virgin: “Aciende más adelante" (VI, 9, 1101). Then he offers her the choice of staying with her son or descending back to earth. She chooses to labor “en la vida mortal entre los hijos de Adán" (III, 29, 1102), rather like a missionary amongst heathens.
Sor María further contemplates the essential role played by the Virgin's physicality in her actions and acquisition of knowledge by focusing on the Virgin's anatomy; after all, she conceived and gave birth to Christ. Sor María not only relies on metaphors of the Virgin’s womb as a sacred bridal chamber, an archive, and a crystal shrine, but alludes to more concrete, practical images, such as the state and function of the uterus during pregnancy, and the Virgin’s joy, like most mothers,’ at feeling the baby move inside her. Christ begins to grow in the Virgin's womb, moving around: “Creciendo naturalmente en el lugar del útero con el alimento, sustancia y sangre de la Madre Santísima" (III, II, 398). For three pages, Sor María describes the infant inside the womb: “Sin aquella túnica que llaman secundina en la que nacen comunmente enredados los otros niños y están envueltos en ella en los vientres de sus madres” (IV, 10, 556). We are informed of details of the amniotic sac, the covering or cuticle of the child. How to dispose of that physical matter, wonders Sor María? Christ slipped out of it before he was born for it could be dealt with much more appropriately if left in the womb: “Se pudo obrar mejor quedándose en él, sin salir fuera” (IV, 10, 557)
Perhaps by including these details Sor María simply meant to add authenticity to her story, to present Christ's humanity and enhance the belief that he came from a woman of flesh and blood, who remained intact after birth. Displaying her own scientific knowledge of anatomy and biology, Sor María examines the function of the female body in light of its unique ability to give birth; if it can perform this miracle, surely it can accomplish other feats, such as participating in matters of state, founding missions, and converting savages in distant lands.
One might assume that Sor María, with all her imaginative description and elaboration of apocrypha and other stories related to the cult of the Virgin, intended to provoke the reader into considering an alternative history of the Virgin Mary, and by extension that of women in general, since the Virgin functioned as principal archetype for female behavior in early modern Spain. Father Andres Mendo, a censor for the Inquisition, approved of her work in his report of 1666, but concluded: “La segunda cosa, que también alguno podría estrañar, [the first being the fact that the book was written by a woman] es, el referirse en esta Historia puntos ináuditos de que no avía conocimiento, acciones de la Virgen no sabidas” (71). (15)
After examining Sor María’s case a second time, the Inquisition concluded that she was a religious and very pious woman, and that Mística ciudad de Dios was authentic, that is to say that it resulted from divine inspiration. This paradox of praise, though standard for the time, effectively diminished Sor María’s achievements. She, too, employed the familiar self-effacing rhetorical strategy from the spiritual autobiography, in order to protect herself and ensure a safe future for her writing, whereas the clergymen who called her “provincial,” probably meant it. Though she could reduce herself to “la más párvula e inútil de tu iglesia. . . el instrumento vil y flaco" (I, 1,17), when describing the task of writing the Virgin’s biography, she could also display a calculating, conscientious side to defend her right to write, as when, in the last chapter of Mística ciudad, she describes how she ascended to heaven to admire, along side the Trinity, a beautiful, mysterious book: “Un libro hermosísimo de gran estimación y riqueza, más que se puede pensar y ponderar” (VIII, 23, 1493). As the Trinity and the Virgin praise it profusely, Sor María reveals its importance to the reader: “Luego me llamó la gran Señora del cielo y me dijo: ‘¿Quiéres saber qué libro es este que has visto? Pues atiende y mírale.’ Abrióle la Divina Madre y púsome delante para que yo lo pudiese leer. Hícelo y hallé que era su misma Historia y vida santísima que yo había escrito” (VIII, 23, 1493). Moreover, reflecting on the threat of censure and visits by the Inquisition, Sor María described the great care she took in guarding her papers: “Y porque se quedasen estos papeles ocultos solo hice apuntamientos en papeles sueltos, que sola yo los puedo entender, y para ponerlos en forma. . . .” (Seco Serrano,: 255).
A month after Sor María's last examination by the Inquisition, King Felipe wrote to congratulate her for the approbation she ultimately received, as if the whole ordeal were nothing more than a rite of passage: “Todos estos nublados han de ser para que salga más clara luz de vuestra virtud” (Seco Serrano, 109: 209). In truth, Sor María, in a poor state of health, had appeared kneeling, for hours at a time, for eleven days, in front of a tribunal known for its severity (Royo, 327). Afterwards, however, she would write to the King to tell him that although she had told the Tribunal that she had burnt the original manuscript of her “History of the Virgin Mary,” they didn't mention the King's copy, and perhaps they didn't need to know about it: “De la historia de la Reina del cielo no han dicho nada; no lo deben de saber. Hasta que se aquiete esta tormenta mejor está oculta" (Seco Serrano, 242: 208). Nevertheless, she recovered her health and continued diligently rewriting her voluminous biography of the Virgin Mary.
In the first chapter, third book, of Mística ciudad de Dios, Sor María describes how the Virgin, after receiving a monumental amount of knowledge: “Se humilló hasta el profundo de la nada” (III, 28, 352). Yet, in the next chapter, the Virgin begins to rise again, to ascend toward heaven to seek even more knowledge, to continue teaching and enlightening human beings with all her strength and insight. This, then, is the paradox of the provincial nun, whose claim to nothing--nothingness--is precisely what facilitated her access to greatness, even to crafting a portrait of God's mother in her own image.
(1). Sor María referred to her manuscript as “la historia de la Reina del cielo.” First Published in 1670, five years after her death, it was given the title Mística ciudad de Dios. Soon after its publication it became both popular and controversial. The 1992 Fareso edition of Mística ciudad de Dios lists some 162 editions and translations of Mística ciudad de Dios between 1670 and 1969. For a study of the various publications and translations, see, also, Antonio Perez-Rioja, 77-122. For studies of various controversies surrounding the publication of Mística ciudad, see Solaguren’s introduction in the Fareso edition (1992), and Draugelis’s, “Moral Crucifixion of The Mystical City of God.”
María de Agreda and Felipe IV maintained a regular correspondence
beginning with her letter dated July 16, 1643, which she sent to the
King several days after he visited her at the Convent of the
Conception, in Agreda. Her last letter to the King is dated
(3) Bilocation is the ability to be in two places at once. Sor María claims to have bilocated only during three years: 1620-23. In her “Relación” addressed to Father Manero, she states: “Y no sentí si me escureciesse, ni faltasse en los tres años, que tuve de exterioridades, las cuales me principiaron en la Religión el año del noviciado” (Relación, 166r). For a translation in English of this letter, see Clark Colahan’s The Visions of Sor María de Agreda, 101-127.
Luisa Carrión (1565-1636), like Sor María, a Conceptionist nun, was
This letter remains unpublished in Spanish. Clark Colahan published an
English translation in his book: The Visions of Sor María
de Agreda. The Biblioteca Nacional, in
Sor María’s role in composing this letter remains ambiguous. Although
the letter, and indeed the whole communiqué, was intended for the
I quote from Palou’s publication of Benavides’s communiqué
to the friars of
(11). When Father Juan de Palma used the term “casi rústica” to describe Sor María, she was already 45 years old. She had been abbess of her convent for twenty years, had composed a number of manuscripts, litanies, and spiritual treatises, and corresponded regularly with King Felipe IV and other member of his Court.
“The mystical city of
(13). Sor María, in her letters to King Felipe IV, pursued the issue of the Immaculate Conception, which was so controversial during her lifetime: “Alégrome en extremo que Vuestra Majestad la obligue con deligenciarle la gloria de la definición de su Purísima Concepción, que no se quedará este celo sin gran premio” (Seco Serrano, 18: 16). In a letter to Sor María, on May 15, 1645, the King tells her of his letter to the Pope, written three months earlier, and includes a copy for her to read: “Y para que veáis en la forma que escribí a Su Santidad sobre el punto de su Purísima Concepción, os envío esa copia de la carta que la escribí, que me la volveréis en viéndola” (Seco Serrano, 108: 17). Sor María’s intense promotion of the Immaculate Conception in Mística ciudad caught the attention of both the Inquisition and later the Sorbonne. She was accused of adhering to Scotist belief, and in 1682 her book appeared on the Index of Prohibited Books (Draugelis, 47).
(14). Perelmuter, Myers, and Luciano, among others, have demonstrated Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s use of classical and Renaissance rhetorical structures to define and defend her inclination to study. Similarly, in her “Relación,” Sor María utilizes hagiographic and epistolary rhetoric as well as language that was associated with the New World relación, which Echevarría reminds us was systematic in its listing of detail, as the 1571 decree signed by Philip II affirms: “Por lo cual os encargamos, que con diligencia os hagáis luego informar de cualesquiera persona, así legas como religiosas. . . de los descubrimientos, conquistas, guerras o facciones de paz o de Guerra. . . . Y asimismo de la religión, gobierno, ritos, y costumbres que los indios han tenido y tienen; y de la descripción de la tierra, naturaleza y calidades de las cosas de ella” (quoted in Echevarría, 64).
Agreda, María de Jesús, Mística ciudad de Dios: Vida de la Virgen María. Madrid: Fareso, 1970.
---Tratado en el cual se contiene la
relación, que por mandado de sus superiors hizo la Madre Sor María de
francisca, en el Convento de Descalzas de la Immaculada Concepción de
Nuestra Señora, del estado Y progreso de su vida. MS 153.
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---“Tanto que se sacó de una carta. . . .” In Colahan, The Visions of Sor María de Agreda, 104-114.
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