Aliens in This World

An ordinary Catholic and a science fiction and fantasy fan.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Sor Juana: These Little Questions...

Apparently there's a massive new book called Hunger's Brides which weaves fictional academic adventure today with a fictionalization of the life of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, poet and natural philosopher. All well and good.

But you know, though they showed nice pictures of her convent and all...they didn't mention what kind of nun she was. In fact, I came to realize that nobody I remembered had ever mentioned what kind of nun she was. Dominican? Franciscan? Diocesan? What? And what was her order's spirituality and charism?

Well, thanks to a little Google-digging, I can now announce to you that Juana Ines Ramirez' novitiate with the Mexican edition of St. Teresa de Avila's crew of Discalced Carmelites didn't work out, but a year later she entered the female side of the monastic and contemplative Order of St. Jerome (the Jerónimos, aka the Hieronymites). The male side (Monjes Jerónimos) was founded in 1373, under the influence of great devotion to St. Jerome at the University of Salamanca. The female side (Monjas Jerónimas) was founded by Maria Garcias in 1375. Both sides of the order were favored by the Spanish kings and queens (they had a monastery at the Escorial), not to mention the king of Portugal. They were known for generous almsgiving and followed the Rule of St. Augustine. Both sides of the order also founded extremely productive convents in the New World.

The male order was suppressed in 1835 by the government. But the Hieronymite nuns in Spain had not been affected, and "with their help and prayers" in 1925, the monks were restored as an order. Just in time for several civil wars and our buddy Francisco Franco. So the monks didn't really get rolling again until 1969.

Currently, the men have two houses (here's the one at Yuste) and the women seventeen. There's also a couple related female orders: a Mexican branch, the Hieronymite religious of Puebla (Religiosas Jerónimas de Puebla -- 17 houses in Mexico and Venezuela), and an even more contemplative bunch of contemplatives, the Hieronymites of the Adoration (Jerónimas de la Adoración -- 3 houses in Spain and Mexico). So Sor Juana's sisters and brothers aren't doing too badly. They even have a magazine and several beatification causes going.

Here's the important bit: since they were into the learned and contentious St. Jerome, they were very much concerned with contemplation upon Holy Scripture. They also celebrated Jerome's friend and funder, the rich, learned, and peripatetic Roman widow St. Paula, and her even more learned daughter, Eustochium. They like hospitality, alms, and service. All this makes perfect sense for Sor Juana. But beyond that, they are concerned with silence and enclosure both as a gift given up to God and an aid to contemplating God; and that's the part of Sor Juana's story that modern people don't like.

Beyond that, I've always wondered just how close Sor Juana was to sainthood. I haven't read enough about her to really know, and certainly most of her biographers are concerned with hagiography of a much more secular sort. But I will say this: Jesus warned us that we would face persecution. Every saint I know got persecuted by somebody. If they were lucky enough not to be persecuted by people outside the Church, then people inside the Church do the job. So it's likely that Sor Juana was doing something right, especially since she was then given the grace of dying of plague while treating her sick sisters. (As a nun death, this really is pretty good.) So I really wish someone would do a spiritual biography of the woman. (Preferably in English.)

Also, although she did have remarkable learning, she was hardly alone in her mental world. It's likely that her initial attraction to the Discalced Carmelites was based on her own attraction to that learned and holy woman and font of pure Castilian poetry and prose, Teresa de Avila. She hadn't yet been named a saint, much less a doctor of the church, but her books and poetry were everywhere in the Spanish-speaking world. Moreover, she was from a Jewish background, and should have been an outsider in Spanish society. Instead, she remade it to suit herself, despite opposition from the Inquisition and false friends. But even now, Teresa's work is notoriously misunderstood as referring to frustrated human love, when in reality she is using the language of human love as a way to talk about something which is far greater and more difficult to describe. It is ironic that nowadays it is women academics who often read her as wrongly as her more envious sisters in the convent.

Juana's concerns are not the same as Teresa's, though she also is doing what she feels is her duty to God and her own soul. She, like Dorothy L. Sayers, approaches God and her life from an almost entirely intellectual perspective, though being clearly in touch with her emotions. She is not ashamed to have this intellectual perspective, and claimed that education and knowledge of science strengthened faith in God, even though approaching God mystically was the more acceptable nun style in her time.

Teresa and Juana's very uniqueness, and their bold acceptance of their difference from each other and all others, is exactly where their spiritual kinship lies. You will also notice that both bowed to stupid orders from authorities who perhaps did not deserve their obedience; but anyone who takes this obedience as a sign of their weakness or defeat gravely misunderstands what living a monastic life is all about. By obedience, they demonstrated self-mastery, not to mention loyalty to their vows and overwhelming trust in God. They accepted a small martyrdom, and thus demonstrated that they (with God's help) were bigger than their tormentors. You will also notice that for all their enemies' hard work, both Madre Teresa and Sor Juana are still in print. So who really won?

Perhaps it is relevant to relate that the Monjas Jerónimas, like their brother monks, were known for being an order which insisted on both proud bearing and humility of spirit. (And isn't that a Spanish combination!)

Another major misunderstanding of Juana's work is that, like other female poets and even just plain females throughout the ages, she wrote very affectionate notes to her best female friends. You know, at some point, we're going to have to stop calling every woman a lesbian or bisexual for engaging in this kind of perfectly natural behavior between heterosexual women. Just because our culture expects heterosexual women friends to be huggy toward each other but not to write each other poems, doesn't mean every other culture is that impoverished. Given all the heartfelt email chain letters and Xerox poetry on the subject of "You are my friend and you help me survive life" which are passed around among the women in my office and my circle of acquaintances, even our culture keeps trying to get out of this hole.

On the lighter side, I've often wondered what the woman who said Aristotle would have written more about science "if he'd been a cook" actually cooked in her kitchen. So of course, our Mexican friends have produced a redacted (for modern ingredients) edition of her own Mexican Baroque monastic recipe book ("recetario") called Sor Juana en la cocina. Here's a recipe from it which utilizes chemical principles.

Poetry class materials. These are pretty good, but the movie thing is all made up. Also, I think "fertilizes herself with her own humors", in the rose villancica, is best understood as speaking of blood, sweat and tears acting as fertilizer, not in terms of actual pollination or fertilization. So it's not as radical feminist a statement as all that.

A good short biography of the good sister.

The Cervantes Biblioteca Virtual. In Spanish. But much easier to read from than the Sor Juana Project.

Some Sor Juana sonnets and translations of them.

Primero sueño (First Dream): a supremely complex rhyme scheme and a storyline about a soul seeking complete knowledge of the universe or at least a single thing; but failing to accomplish this, being awoken by the Sun. Not so much a rebuke to the intellect as an acknowledgement that in this world, you really can't know it all. (But of course you have know quite a lot to know just how much you don't know....)

A poem she wrote to someone snarking at her illegitimacy.

Bio and links to online sources.

Sor Juana's Page In Spanish. A scholar protesting postmodern interpretations of her work. Soriano has written both a Thomist analysis of Sor Juana's "First Dream" and a whole spiritual biography emphasizing her intellectual humility versus contemporaries' intellectual pride. Of course, they are both in Spanish. Sigh.

And last of all, a very good poetic essay about the lady by Morton Marcus



  • At 2:16 PM, Blogger Paul said…

    Hi Banshee,
    Fascinating post regarding Sor Juana.
    Let me know if you'd care to correspond.
    Best wishes,

    Paul Anderson
    Hunger's Brides


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