“I alone am given understanding of things:” Mystical Experience and Authority in the Early Modern Spanish World

Hayley R. Bowman is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of Michigan. Her dissertation project explores the early modern Spanish world through the eyes of Sor María de Jesús de Ágreda, a Franciscan nun who came to influence not only her confessors and her king, but also peoples and places across a trans-oceanic, composite monarquía. This year, she also hosted her department’s podcast, Reverb Effect.


In 1627, Sor María de Jesús found trouble. Only twenty-five years old and freshly elected abbess of the Convento de la Concepción, a Franciscan convent in Ágreda, Spain, the young nun prayed for the guidance of a celestial interlocutor. “I am one inclined to serve and obey, not govern and command,” she explained to the Virgin Mary.[1] The Holy Mother responded, not only affirming Sor María’s abilities to lead her convent, but also to exercise authority in a still wider world, commanding that she write a book about Mary’s life “dictated to [her] by the Virgin herself.”[2]

Mary appeared to Sor María frequently, offering details of her life for documentation and religious lessons. The Virgin continued her interlocutory role as well— and at critical moments. Upon completing the first part of the biography, published posthumously as Mística ciudad de Dios (Mystical City of God) in 1670, Sor María dared not continue, again citing her inferiority. Falling to her knees in prayer, Sor María instantly found herself outside of her enclosed convent, at the feet of God’s throne in heaven.

“I became aware of the Mother of Grace… standing before the throne of the Divinity,” Sor María explains. But Sor María not only had the privilege of witnessing this divine conversation, she was also its subject. For there was the Virgin, “interceding and pleading for me,” she recounts with awe.[3] Mary promised to aid the nun as she continued to write, and Sor María felt a wave of relief that she shared with the world: “with all of my affection, I turned toward all the creatures of heaven and earth, and… I invited them to praise for me, and with me, the Author of Grace.”[4]

The Virgin’s intercession— and Sor María’s telling of it— marks but one example of many miraculous experiences Sor María felt compelled to share with others, descriptions of events that became central to the development of her own position both in her convent and the wider early modern Spanish world. In Sor María’s view, sacred and earthy spaces intertwined, and she functioned as the conduit between them.

Sor María de Jesús spent her life enclosed in a convent. Yet, she experienced the heavens and the world by mystical means. While best-known for her miraculous bilocations— a series of spiritual experiences throughout the 1620s in which she appeared in two places at once, both in her cell in Ágreda and preaching to indigenous peoples in what is now New Mexico— Sor María’s mystical journeying was various.[5] Reported sightings and an official investigation discovered claims that she preached, distributed rosaries carried in her pockets, and even pressed indigenous bodies toward the baptismal font at the Franciscan missions near Santa Fe.[6] At other times she found herself transported even to the depths of purgatory and, as noted above, into the highest heavens. Sor María recorded her experiences of seeing, hearing, feeling, and physically interacting with these places and peoples far beyond the convent walls.

The notion of the experience, and authority granted by experience, became increasingly central in the development of female mysticism throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Sta. Teresa de Ávila (1515-1582) presents an illuminating starting point within the contemporary Spanish context. During Sor María’s lifetime, Sta. Teresa and her works overcame concern for their orthodoxy to achieve an enthusiastic and widening readership, only encouraged by her beatification in 1614, canonization in 1622, and election to patroness of Spain in 1627, the same year that Sor María became abbess. In her Vida, Sta. Teresa emphasizes the importance of the mystical experience:  “[if] a soul has had experience, the devil will be unable to do it any harm.”[7] For her, the authority of experience had a particular resonance for women, who, she recommends, must rely on the truth of such experiences even against the recommendations of their male confessors. Just what constituted spiritual authority came into flux, opening new opportunities for several kinds of thinkers and their interventions, regardless of their rank and physical settings. Among them were extraordinary religious women who, upon mastering what Alison Weber has called “pragmatic stylistics,” came to command and communicate an authority that, if controversial, resounded for contemporaries.[8] This authority relied on mystical experiences, building upon the time-honored pillar of female power, studding the existing medieval and early modern hagiographic tradition with remarkable new instances.

Crucially, to simply have an experience was not enough; experiences must also be reflected upon and shared. Sor María’s spiritual obligations surpassed simply traveling and observing, however mystically-defined. In her introduction to the biography of Mary, Sor María explains succinctly: “I alone am given understanding of things, and I must create for myself the words to explain what I understand.”[9] Sor María must not only passively partake of the divine knowledge but also actively translate and disseminate its glory. Her authority rested on her abilities to communicate with others, to share her divinely-attained knowledge with the world.

Early modern women actively participated in their world. In Sor María’s case, engagement included the intertwined projects of Spanish colonization, conversion, and knowledge-gathering in the Americas. Female mystics envisioned and visited such places by spiritual means, wielding their own authority, expressing their urgencies, and ultimately contributing to how early modern Spaniards understood their own position in the wider world and cosmos. In the evangelization settings of New Mexico, Sor María de Jesús de Ágreda shaped the terms of her participation in a vast project others had set within the patriarchal systems surrounding— indeed, enclosing— her. She transcended physical and gendered boundaries, crossing oceans and barriers between the sacred and earthly to visit and affect the indigenous peoples of New Mexico as much as she had the Virgin Mary in heaven. Such experiences and Sor María’s gift for bringing them to narrative life combined to bolster her authority, legitimizing a vantage that enabled her to transcend enclosure and, as a woman and mystical-intellectual force, command traditionally-masculine spaces on both sides of the Atlantic.

[1] All translations are the author’s unless stated otherwise. Sor María de Jesús de Ágreda, Mística cuidad de Dios: Vida de María, Libro I (FARESO, S.A.: Madrid, 2009), 8. “El año octavo de la fundación de este convento, a los viente y cinco de mi edad, me dio la obediencia el oficio, que hoy indignamente tengo, de prelado de este convento; y hallándome turbada y afligida con gran tristeza y cobardía, porque mi edad y deseo no me enseñaba a gobernar ni mandar sino a obedecer y ser gobernada…”

[2] Ágreda, Mística cuidad de Dios, Libro I, 9. “…añadiendo el mandarme muchas veces que como los entendía los escribiese [los ocultos, y altísimos sacramentos y misterios magníficos que en su vida santísima] y que Su Majestad me los dictaría y enseñaría.”

[3] Ágreda, Mística cuidad de Dios, Libro III, 345. “Conocí que la Madre de la gracia María santísima, estando presente al trono de la divinidad, intercedía y pedía por mí… me volví a ella y la dije solas estas palabras… Parecióme que oía mi petición.”

[4] Ágreda, Mística cuidad de Dios, Libro III, 345-346. “entendía que le decía la gran Señora al Altísimo: ‘Divino Rey y Dios Mío… os suplico tengáis por bien que esta criatura quede ya adoptada por mi hija y mi discípula, que yo la fīo. Con mi enseñanza enmendará sus faltas y perfeccionará sus obras a vuestro beneplácito.’ Concedió el Altísimo esta petición… y luego sentí grandes efectos con júbilo de mi alma, los cuales no es posible explicar; pero con todo afecto me convertī a todas las criaturas del cielo y de la tierra y sin poder contener el alborozo las convidé a todas para que por mí y conmigo alabasen al autor de la gracia.”

[5] For more on Sor María’s life and visions, see: Anna M. Nogar, Quill and Cross in the Borderlands: Sor María de Ágreda and the Lady in Blue, 1628 to the Present (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2018); Marilyn H. Fedewa, María of Ágreda: Mystical Lady in Blue (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008); and Clark Colahan, The Visions of Sor Maria de Agreda: Writing, Knowledge, and Power (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1994). I wrote, produced, and hosted a podcast episode about Sor María’s experiences of purgatory within a larger historical context. See Hayley R. Bowman, host, “Envisioning Eternity: Women and Purgatory in the Seventeenth-Century Spanish World,” Reverb Effect (University of Michigan Department of History podcast), December 18, 2020, https://lsa.umich.edu/history/history-at-work/reverbeffect/season2episode3.html.

[6] Many of these claims come from Fray Alonso de Benavides, Custodian of the New Mexican missions and appointed investigator into the case of Sor María de Jesús. He published his findings in two official reports, the 1630 Memorial for the court of Philip IV and a later, revised Memorial of 1634, which he sent to Pope Urban VIII, and expressly named the nun and confirmed her miraculous journeys. Details about her distribution of rosaries I take from the hand of Sor María herself, written in a letter to Padre Pedro Manero, Minister General of the Franciscan order, to whom she wrote in 1650 at his request in advance of her interview by the Inquisition. See Alonso de Benavides and Juan de Santander, Memorial que Fray Juan de Santander de la Orden de San Francisco, Comissario General de Indias, presenta a la Magestad Catolica del Rey don Felipe Quarto nuestro Señor, hecho por el Padre Fray Alonso de Benavides, Comissario del Santo Oficio, y Custodio que ha sido de las Provincias y conversiones del Nuevo-Mexico (Madrid: Imprenta Real, 1630) ; Benavides, “Memorial a la santidad de Urbano 8 nro señor acerca de las convenciones de Nuevo Mexico,” SOCG v. 259 (Rome: Archivio de la Propaganda Fide, 1634) ; Ágreda, A. A. Arm. I-XVIII, 3774 (Vatican City: Archivio Segreto Vaticano, seventeenth century).

[7] St. Teresa de Ávila, The Life of Teresa of Jesus: The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, trans. E. Allison Peers (Image Books: New York), 264.

[8] Alison Weber, Teresa of Avila and the Rhetoric of Femininity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 36.

[9] Ágreda, Mística cuidad de Dios, Libro I, 28. “Y también suelen darme la inteligencia sola, y los términos para declararme los tomo yo de lo que tengo entendido.”

Feature Image

Statue of Sor María de Jesús outside of her convent in the small village of Ágreda, Spain. Image taken by Hayley R. Bowman.


Bibliography

Primary

Ágreda, Sor María de Jesús de. Mística cuidad de Dios: Vida de María. FARESO, S.A.: Madrid, 2009.

——. A. A. Arm. I-XVIII, 3774. Vatican City: Archivio Segreto Vaticano, Seventeenth Century.

Ávila, St. Teresa de. The Life of Teresa of Jesus: The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. Translated and edited by E. Allison Peers. Image Books: New York, 1960.

Benavides, Alonso de. “Memorial a la santidad de Urbano 8 nro señor acerca de las convenciones de Nuevo Mexico.” SOCG v. 259. Rome: Archivio de la Propaganda Fide, 1634.

Benavides, Alonso de and Juan de Santander. Memorial que Fray Juan de Santander de la Orden de San Francisco, Comissario General de Indias, presenta a la Magestad Catolica del Rey don Felipe Quarto nuestro Señor, hecho por el Padre Fray Alonso de Benavides, Comissario del Santo Oficio, y Custodio que ha sido de las Provincias y conversiones del Nuevo-Mexico. Madrid: Imprenta Real, 1630.

Secondary

Bowman, Hayley R. “Envisioning Eternity: Women and Purgatory in the Seventeenth-Century Spanish World.” Reverb Effect. University of Michigan Department of History podcast. December 18, 2020: https://lsa.umich.edu/history/history-at-work/reverbeffect/season2episode3.html.

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

Fedewa, Merilyn H. María of Ágreda: Mystical Lady in Blue. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008.

Nogar, Anna M. Quill and Cross in the Borderlands: Sor María de Ágreda and the Lady in Blue, 1628 to the Present. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2018.

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create your website with WordPress.com
Get started
%d bloggers like this: