Strategy of a Provincial Nun: Sor María de Jesús de Agreda’s Response



Kate Risse

Tufts University



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 made to New Mexico thirty years earlier with the intention of converting the Indians who lived there. (3) Sor María answered the questions intelligently and thoroughly, which is not surprising considering this was the second time she had been examined by the Inquisition.(4)

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 New Mexico to preach the gospel and encourage the native people to seek baptism at the few Spanish missions scattered throughout the area. The custodian of San Antonio, Father Alonso de Benavides, was immediately intrigued by the details of Sor María's actions in the New World. Encouraged by a letter from the Archbishop of Mexico wanting to investigate, Benavides decided that the Indians' request for baptism was inspired by this mystical nun (Hickerson, 74). He even convinced himself that her miraculous visits had been orchestrated by God in favor of the Franciscans, after some of the recently-arrived Indians attempted to identify Sor María by pointing to a portrait of another famous nun hanging in the mission. (5) The result of this exchange between the Jumano and the missionaries was recorded by Benavides in his history of New Mexico, which he published in Spain in 1630, under the title Memorial; in it he refers specifically to the conversion of the Jumano Indians by a Spanish nun. While back in Spain, in 1630, he not only promoted his book, but, hoping to receive the title of Bishop of New Mexico, used his text to solicit the support of powerful people, including the King (Hodge, Hammond, Rey, 11): “I beg that your Majesty may be pleased to submit it [the Memorial] to one or two royal councilors of the Indies, so that your Majesty may be more easily informed, and that, being such a Catholic, you will favor and help those conversions.” (6)

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 New World, for Benavides left the convent with a letter bearing her signature. Later in her life, however, she dismissed the authenticity of her exordium, as well as Benavides’s accompanying letters to the friars, in which he describes many miraculous feats he claimed she executed. In response to his report, Sor María wrote in her letter of defence: “Lo que hallo disonante en este cuaderno es, decirme, que lo escribieron por mi orden, siendo verdad, que en la acción me avine passivamente y no activa, y que sentí mortalmente se hiciesse la información.” (176r). (8)

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 New Mexico. Both of his letters are panegyrics; the first outlines Sor María's miraculous feats in New Mexico, and the second explains what went on during his meeting with her in Agreda: “Y tengo el propio hábito con que ella allá anduvo, y del velo sale tanto olor que consuela el alma” (Palou 310). (9) The tone of Benavides’s letters, as well as the one supposedly written by Sor María, clearly reflects his missionary ambitions, specifically his desire for promotion:


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 New Mexico as a traslado.

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 Madrid in 1670, is divided into three parts containing eight books based on the Conception, the Incarnation, the Transfixion, and the Coronation. In first person, and with great detail, Sor María tells the story of the Virgin's life as it was revealed to her, beginning with the Virgin’s preordained role as “mystical city of God,” (12) and continuing with her birth, youth, marriage to Joseph, role in the early Church, and finally her Coronation as Queen of Heaven. The writing is personal, and intimate, especially when Sor María departs from the narrative and addresses the reader, explaining her own humility and insignificance, or interpreting what the Virgin Mary, who visited her many times, has told her. The Virgin, therefore, is both historical character and contemporary muse. Sor María uses the term “visión abstractive” (“abstract vision”) to define the Virgin's intellectual faculty and infinite understanding of divine mysteries. She is a queen, teacher, scholar, warrior, wife and mother:


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 como sapientísima Maestra se las explicaba, y el santo esposo, que también era capaz de esta sabiduría, le preguntaba muchas cosas, admirándose y consolándose con las respuestas divinas que su esposa le daba” (IV, 6, 531). Quite regularly she devotes herself not only to spiritual matters, but to daily, mundane concerns. She actively participates in civic life, modeling, for women in particular, an alternative, or at least a supplement, to a cloistered or domestically confined life, like the one prescribed by so many male writers of the Renaissance book of conduct:


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 del purgatorio" (Seco Serrano, 259). Sor María chose to reveal her vision by rendering the Prince's message in direct quotation, dramatizing his torment:


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 (como creo que lo hacéis) con vuestras oraciones” (Seco Serrano, 109: 228). This time, however, she seems to take matters into her own hands; rather than simply praying quietly in her cell, she has managed to grant herself a powerful role in the King's Court. Like the Virgin in Mística ciudad de Dios, she becomes advisor to a king, an intermediary for events that take place on earth and in other realms.

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 New Mexico? 

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 visits to New Mexico. She expressed genuine uncertainty in the letter she wrote in 1650 to the Minister General, Father Pedro Manero, after the Inquisition's final visit. In it she attempts to explain her journeys, the rumors, and the anguish Benavides induced when he visited her in Agreda almost twenty years earlier and left with a letter signed by her explaining, in detail, how she experienced the New World in such corporeal form.

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 información del Padre Benavides, veo confunden unas cosas con otras” (“Relación,” 177v). She denies ever having had any physical contact with the angels, as Benavides claimed in his Memorial, and expresses even more irritation at his assertion that she flew to New Mexico with St. Michael and St. Francis. “No sé yo con qué fin pudo decir persona docta, que los ángeles tienen contacto, porque son sustancias espirituales” (“Relación,” 180r).

Yet Sor María does not totally deny her physical presence in the New World, rather, with some trepidation, she ponders the possibility. Like the Virgin, in Mística ciudad, who experiences abstract visions (“A los tres años y medio, estando ya en esta edad muy crecida nuestra hermosísima princesa María purísima, tuvo otra visión abstractiva de la divinidad” [II, 21, 310]), Sor María, too, endures similar revelation. For example, she states that her contact with the Indians in New Mexico occurred in a vision, infused into her mind or soul, intellectual in nature: “Paréceme que un día después de haber recibido a Nuestro Señor me mostró su Magestad todo el mundo, y a mi parecer con especies abstractivas y conocí la variedad de cosas criadas, cuán admirable es el Señor en la diversidad de la tierra” (“Relación,” 170v). At other times she could not define the contact, nor could she remember circumstances clearly and blames it on trances into which she had fallen during a state of ecstasy. Her genuine fear of the Inquisition is evident when she writes: “Y que si es fantasía, todo lo temo” (“Relación,” 176r). She then contradicts these admissions by depicting herself physically present among the Indians: “En una ocasión me parece, di a aquellos Indios unos rosarios, yo los tenía conmigo, y se los repartí” (“Relación,” 179r). Finally, she gives the explanation she says she was most inclined to believe: “El modo a que yo más me arrimo y que más cierto me parece, fue: aparecer un ángel allá en mi figura, y predicarlos, y catequizarlos, y mostrarme a mí acá el Señor, lo que pasaba, para el efecto de la oración” (“Relación,” 179r). We will never know Sor María’s true perception of what happened regarding her experiences with the Indians, but it is apparent that she used ambiguity to her advantage; by suggesting numerous possibilities and simultaneously avoiding detail, she was not only able to escape incrimination, but succeeded as well in prolonging and protecting her writing.

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 santos ángeles al cielo empíreo. . .” (III, 7, 375). In a scene in Book Three, Chapter Seven, an angel replaces the Virgin so that she can leave earth to receive more knowledge from God. Sor María later applies this explanation to her own situation in her “Relación,” albeit in an inverted and therefore more acceptable form, when she claims that she remained in the convent, perceiving the New World through abstract images infused divinely while an angel acquired her physical appearance in New Mexico and preached to the Indians: “Y que según lo que los Indios dijeron de haberme visto, o fui yo o algún ángel en mi figura” (“Relación,” 180r).

In contemplating 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 New World, to feel what the weather was like, and to know that the Indians' foods were different. The Virgin, in Mística ciudad de Dios, also seems to have depended on an exchange between physical and spiritual qualities, for Sor María, when describing how the Virgin physically labored to provide her family with food and clothing when Joseph was sick, tells us, of the Virgin's actions, that they were executed both interiorly and exteriorly: “Muchas cosas de las que allí dije eran para esta occasión, cuando con especial modo las obró nuestra Reina, y las acciones exteriores y materiales” (VI, 13, 745).

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 Spain as the missionary fathers did, crossing the ocean in a boat, encountering new lands and cultures, founding missions or cities in the case of the New World chroniclers. She could only dream about it:


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.”


(2). 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 March 27, 1665, two months before her death. See Seco Serrano, Cartas.


(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.


(4). For an analysis of the Inquisition’s examination of Sor María, particularly regarding her role in the baptism of indigenous groups of New Mexico, see Pérez Villanueva.


(5). Luisa Carrión (1565-1636), like Sor María, a Conceptionist nun, was known in Spain for levitating and miracle-working. Father Benavides mentions her in his Memorial of 1634. In relation to the Jumano’s eagerness to be baptized, and their willingness to point to the portrait of Luisa and later corroborate the story of Sor María’s bilocations, Hickerson mentions the religious movement a hundred years earlier in Mexico devoted to the Virgin of Guadalupe and points out its possible influence on the Jumano: “Indeed, with trading contacts extending into Nueva Vizcaya and Coahuila, they may have played a part in introducing the cult into the regions north of Mexico” (81).


(6). Cited in Hodge, Hammond and Rey (156).


(7). 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 Madrid, has four copies. I cite from Manuscript 153, the same one translated by Colahan.


(8). Sor María’s role in composing this letter remains ambiguous. Although the letter, and indeed the whole communiqué, was intended for the friars in New Mexico, it appears that Benavides kept the original and sent the friars a transcription. See “Traslado de las razones que la bendita madre de Jesús escribe a los dichos padres del nuevo méjico” (in Palou, 313-315). Pérez Villanueva, who has examined the Inquisition’s case against Sor María, underscores the circumstances under which Sor María wrote and signed part of the communiqué, during the meeting with Benavides, and he notes that “her” letter was replete with rhetorical language that was typical of missionaries who were promoting their cause: “Sor María accede a poner de su mano y letra lo que acababa de relatar. La confesión de Sor María está redactada en forma de carta a los franciscanos que se afanan en la tarea evangelizadora” (32).


(9). I quote from Palou’s publication of Benavides’s communiqué  to the friars of New Mexico, first printed in Mexico under the title:  “Tanto que se sacó de una carta . . . .” For information about the various editions, see Hodge, et al., 8-9.


(10). In addition to her role in baptizing the Indians of New Mexico, and her bilocations to the New World, the Inquisition also concerned itself with her life story of the Virgin Mary.


(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.


(12). “The mystical city of God,” as a metaphor for the Virgin, comes from Revelations (21). Sor María elaborates on this metaphor of the Virgin, the holy city (the New Jerusalem, the new Eve), by citing and interpreting Revelations (21). See Chapters 17-19 in Book One of Mística ciudad de Dios.


(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).


(15). Cited in Esposito.


Works Cited


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 Jesús, religiosa francisca, en el Convento de Descalzas de la Immaculada Concepción de Nuestra Señora, del estado Y progreso de su vida. MS 153. Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid.


Benavides, Alonso. Fray Alonso de Benavides’ Revised Memorial of 1634. Frederick Webb Hodge, George P. Hammond, and Agapito Rey, eds. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1945.


---“Tanto que se sacó de una carta. . . .” In Colahan, The Visions of Sor María de Agreda, 104-114.


Bynum, Caroline Walker. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.


Colahan, Clark. The Visions of Sor María de Agreda: Writing, Knowledge, and Power. Tucson University of Arizona  Press, 1994.


Draugelis, Simon J. “Moral Crucifixion of ‘The Mystical City of God.The Age of Mary Jan-Feb.(1958): 41-61.


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Hodge, Frederick W., George P. Hammond, and Agapito Rey, eds. Fray Alonso de Benavides’ Revised Memorial of 1634. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1945.


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Pérez Villanueva, Joaquín. “Algo más sobre la Inquisición y Sor María de Agreda: la prodigiosa evangelización americana.” Hispania Sacra 37 (1985): 585-618.


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Weber, Alison. Teresa of Avila and the Rhetoric of Femininity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.