The subtitle of this book concerning a seventeenth-century Spanish nun captures the essence of her contribution to religious life and women’s history. Her acute awareness of a perfect creation, marred only by humankind’s imperfections, drove her to learn, to comprehend, and then so ardently to desire the salvation of souls not touched by the knowledge of Christianity that she at one time believed to have appeared herself, or as an angel with her form, to help convert the Indians of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.
Clark Colahan briefly reviews the bibliography, both in the United States and elsewhere, touching on Sor María de Agreda and the powerful influence she exerted. He reminds the reader of her Mystical City of God and the reception it received in Counter-Reformation Spain, where raising the Virgin practically to the level of Christ was an attractive idea, especially among the Franciscans. Although it is not reprinted in this volume, it serves as an important introduction to her works, particularly the text of Face of the Earth, here in its first English translation. This geography compendium, describing Europe, Africa, Asia, and America, was hand copied extensively. It follows the contents of other scientific documents circulating at the time and demonstrates the presence of this kind of information within the cloister.
Sor María’s interest is not primarily scientific, as she makes clear in her writings; instead, the knowledge gained from an awareness of the physical world reconfirms over and over the perfect harmony and beauty of God’s creation and the privileged position man occupies in it. Man’s ungratefulness and inability to recognize the gifts bestowed on him is a source of continuing anguish for the nun, as is the dark ignorance of souls deprived of the news of Christ’s redemption. This explains the exhortation she makes at the end of each section of her work, in which she renews her praises for the magnificence of divine creation and calls on man to be worthy of it.
Colahan prefaces each of Sor María’s texts with an introductory chapter, vital to our understanding of her writing. Much is unfortunately left unsaid, especially a greater explanation of the theological atmosphere in which the nun lived and wrote. An extra paragraph or two in each section on the origins of Sor María’s ideas would have helped put them in perspective. Other problems for the uninitiated include why the text of Face of the Earth begins with chapter 5 and not at the beginning. Do the other chapters exist?
“Mystical Journey,” another substantial part of the book, discusses the famous bilocation, Sor María’s appearance in what is now the U.S. Southwest as the Lady in blue. One should remember that Franciscans at that time wore blue habits, which might have led to certain confused identities. Colahan publishes in this section the Benavides 1634 report, Benavides’ and Sor María’s letters to the missionaries, Benavides’ interview with the nun, and the report of Father Manero.
In “The Crucible of Trials,” the nun’s sufferings, illnesses, public humiliations, faintings, and visions prepare her spirit for the “infused knowing” described previously. The order of these sections is not too clear; perhaps Sor María’s sensitivity training should have come before the documents in which she demonstrates her knowledge of the world.
Colahan returns, at the end of the book, to considerations about the Mystical City of God, Sor Marías relationship with the Virgin, the writings of Luis de Granada and Teresa de Avila, and their meaning for feminism today. Yet the reader remains perplexed, finding no concluding words about the texts published but instead several comments about Marianism and feminism. Thus, despite being somewhat disjointed, the book brings to light a personage so well known that in New Spain, her works were noticed and reviewed by the Inquisition, which had condemned them almost one hundred years earlier in the mother country. That degree of notoriety is a tribute to her forceful writing, as well as to the author who rescued her lesser-known texts from oblivion.