Saturday, October 13, 2012

Forgotten Women in Church History: Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (1651-95)

The nation of Mexico has never forgotten Sor [Sister] Juana Ines de la Cruz.  Her face is on the 1000-peso bill.  Her family home has been converted into a park, with a statue of her in the gardens and passages of her poetry inscribed on the walls.  The convent where she spent most of her life is now a cultural center in her honor.  And yet in the American Evangelical branch of Christianity, her name is virtually unknown.

One of the greatest lyric Spanish poets of all time, brilliant scholar and medieval philosopher,  translator of the works of St. Jerome from Latin into Spanish, and champion of women's education in a time when education was largely denied even to nuns, Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz (born as Juana de Asbaje y Ramirez) was born in a small village near Mexico City, illegitimate child of a poor unmarried couple.  By the age of three she could read, coaxing her schoolteacher to give her special lessons.  By the age of eight, after only 20 lessons in Latin grammar, she was able to read philosophical and theological works in that language.  But being female, Juana received little formal education.  She begged to be allowed to dress as a boy and attend the university.  Instead, she was given the run of her grandfather's library, where she educated herself.

At sixteen she became maid-in-waiting to Vicereine Doña Leonor Carreto, Marquesa de Mancera.  It is reported that her mistress's husband the Viceroy Marquis "tested Sor Juana's knowledge with a barrage of learned men, theologians, philosophers, mathematicians, historians, poets, and other specialists; the ease with which she answered their questions and argued her points put to rest once and for all her intellectual brilliance." 

When she came of age, Sister Juana chose the veil (stating later that she rejected the very idea of marriage), and entered the convent of Santa Teresa la Antigua, a very strict and severe order of nuns.  Within six months, unable to bear the rigidity of this life, she moved to the convent of San Jeronimo, where she would spend the rest of her life.  San Jeronimo's permitted her to have her own library and study, and to correspond and even converse (though behind protective barriers) with learned men from the Court and the University.  Sister Juana flourished in these conditions, amassing a huge library and completing many poems, carols, dramatic compositions and works of theology and philosophy.  She remained friends with the Marquis and Marquesa even after they completed their term as viceroy and vicereine.

But when her noble protectors left for Spain, Sister Juana began to have trouble with the church establishment.  In particular, the Bishop of Puebla, Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz, while pretending to be her friend, harbored secret jealousy-- especially when she dared challenge the thinking of other male church leaders.  When the Bishop entered into a discussion with her regarding a famous sermon given forty years earlier by the eminent Portuguese Jesuit, Antonio de Vieira, Sister Juana took the side of Augustine, Chrysostom and Aquinas, whom de Vieira's sermon had attacked.  

Bishop Fernández pretended to be impressed with Sister Juana's critique and asked her to put it in writing-- upon which he published it without her permission, and then, using the female pseudonym "Sor Filotea," admonished her publicly for "her preoccupation with worldly affairs and for the lack of biblical subjects in her poetry and study."   The Bishop's letter amounted to an attack on the rights of women in the church to study and learn scripture and doctrine.  Sister Juana's reply, the Respuesta a Sor Filotea ["Reply to Sister Filotea"] has been called "one of the glories of early Latin-American Literature, and one of the most remarkable pieces of writing ever produced by a woman."

Sister Juana begins her reply by discussing her own early life-- how hungry she was for knowledge and learning since her earliest memory; how, even when she was denied books and reading, she found herself studying the world around her and the most minute examples of nature's complexity.  God made me this way, she appears to be saying, and how can you tell Him He should not have made a woman like this?

Going on to defend the right of women to learn despite social restrictions and the disapproval of local church leaders, Sister Juana maintains that from earliest Christianity the Church has officially acknowledged Paul's admonition in 1 Timothy 2:11:  "Let a woman learn."

"It is not only licit [permitted] for them to study, write, and teach privately, but it is very beneficial and useful for them to do so," Sister Juana stated, lamenting the fact that there were at that time so many uneducated women in the church that the biblical mandate in Titus 2 for older women to teach younger women was now almost impossible, and any religious instruction women received had to be done by men, which put young women in danger of impropriety.  Though she did not challenge the Church's prohibition against women teaching or preaching as church leaders, Juana protested vehemently those misogynistic interpretations which led men to forbid women even to study or learn.  She said:

All this [the cumulative Scripture passages on women taken together] requires more study than what some men think, who. . . wish to interpret the Scriptures and who cling to Mulieres in Ecclesiis taceant [women be silent in church] with an iron grip, without knowing how they should be understood. In another passage, Mulier in silentio discat [women learn in silence]— which passage is more for women than against them— women are ordered to learn, and of course women must keep quiet while they are learning.

And defending the right of a woman to think for herself and to weigh the words of a mere priest like de Vieira against the words of the Church Fathers, Sister Juana questioned:

[Was the piece I am being reprimanded for writing] anything more than simply relating my views with all of the sanctions [permissions] for which I am grateful to our Holy Mother Church?  For if she, with her most holy authority, does not so forbid me, why must others so forbid me?  Was it too bold of me to express an opinion in opposition to Vieyra, while it wasn't so for his Reverend Father [de Vieira] to express an opinion in opposition to the Church's three Holy Fathers [Augustine, Chrysostom and Aquinas]? My understanding, such as it is, is it not as free as his, since it comes from the same backyard? Is his opinion [on] any one of the revealed principles of our Holy Faith such that we must believe it with our eyes shut?

All of the opposition against her, Sister Juana implied, was not based on Church teaching or policy, but on the jealousy of male church leaders who disliked it that a woman knew more than they did.  Her "Reply to Sister Filotea" has thus come to be "hailed as the first feminist manifesto."  Sister Juana herself is considered "The New World's first great woman."

Sister Juana later wrote that this exchange between herself and Bishop Fernández was part of "a rouse of . . . persecutions, so many that I cannot even count. . . I have been persecuted for my love of wisdom and literature. . . I have been persecuted through hate and malevolence."  

When Sister Juana was 40 years old, floods overwhelmed Mexico, followed by famine.  Sister Juana then gave up her 4000-volume library and all her musical and scientific instruments, and ceased writing.  Whether this was under duress is debated, but the fact remains that she was under great pressure from church leaders, and even her own priest, to do so.   She died in 1695 of the plague while caring for those of her convent sisters who had contracted the disease.

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz's life story creates an object lesson for today.  How often, then and now, do church leaders go far past even what they claim the Bible "plainly" teaches, to restrict women so that they do not pose a threat or source of competition to men?  I have heard stories of prominent evangelical leaders today cautioning women that even when giving travel directions to a man, they must do so in such a way as to honor the man's authority-- even though there is no passage anywhere in Scripture that even appears to give all men authority over all women! I have heard of churches where women are forbidden even to usher people to their seats or to collect the offering.  Where a woman cannot stand on the stage at the front of the church even to make an announcement about a church activity.

And why are women told that their highest calling is motherhood, when the Bible nowhere says any such thing?  Often it is to keep them at home, out of competition with men.  But Jesus never told a woman to go home and bear children.  And "women's highest calling is motherhood" is hardly the "plain meaning" of a difficult verse like ""she shall be saved through childbearing."

The promulgators of these sorts of teachings really need to examine themselves, particularly if they claim that Scripture, and the "plain sense" of Scripture, is their only guide for faith and practice.  Is this the plain sense of Scripture-- or it is plain misogyny?  Let Sister Juana, who was persecuted by men in the church for doing what the Scriptures clearly permitted and even encouraged her to do, speak to us  from the grave:

"Is [a human church leader's] opinion on any one of these principles such that we must believe it with our eyes shut?"  

Wise words, Sister.



Oregon State University research

University of Cambridge: Latin American Studies

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz: Reply to Sister Filotea and an outline of the Reply

Lake Chapala Review: Women of Mexico

Tucker and Liefeld, Daughters of the Church, Zondervan (1987), pp. 212-213


Anonymous said...

Thanks for another inspiring article. I wonder if, like so many women in history, Sor Juana just gave up at a certain point. But at least we have her legacy and the example of her strength, and her writings. The word, like The Word, will get out no matter what and accomplish its good.

Anonymous said...

Really interesting. She was pretty young when she died, only 44. I wondered how, as the daughter of a poor unmarried couple, she managed to have some the benefits you write of, such as her grandfather's library, teachers at age 3 and so forth. I get tired of hearing that what makes a woman great (or even a woman) is motherhood. Her life is inspiring. Thanks for sharing this story.
-- your sis

Anonymous said...

I'd like to add that having spent some time in Mexico, that it is really impressive that Sor Juana Ines was able to accomplish so much in a country that is still highly sexist, but is changing. I loved reading this story -- thanks for sharing it!

-- Sis

Kristen said...

Sis, as to your first question, I think we must take it as read that though her parents were poor and unmarried, one of them had a wealthy father who was willing to take his granddaughter under his wing. And where would young Juana have been without him? Lost in obscurity in spite of her genius. I know they say "behind every great man is a great woman" -- but in this case the tables are definitely turned. *grin*

As far as Mexico being sexist-- though that may be true, there has historically been a kind of freedom for religious women in Catholic countries that has not been the case in Protestant countries. Luther and Calvin relegated women to marriage and the home, while the Roman Catholics permitted some women to remain virgins and, in the service of Christ, to accomplish things forbidden to Protestant women. There could have been no Sister Juana in Protestant Germany or Switzerland.

Unknown said...

Long live Sor Juana Inés dela Cruz a magnificent woman