Two Weeks of Worthy Women: Juana Inés de la Cruz

As a response to the US Bishops’ Fortnight for Freedom, I’ve invited a few friends to supply appropriate essays on women who have exemplified the faith in the face of persecution, even at the hands of religious authorities. Today, my friend John Donaghy offers a contribution from the Latin American Church, where he has served in the mission apostolate for the past five years.

Religious life for women in the middle ages and the early modern period was not always what we might think of as the cloistered life. That’s why there were reformers like St. Teresa of Avila for the Carmelites.

Often families would send their daughters to a convent with a nice dowry. There they would have a chance to learn but also, in some cases, to entertain their friends, male and female, in the convent parlors.

Yet the convent was almost the only place where women would have a chance to use their talents.

One very interesting woman who joined the convent in seventeenth century Mexico is Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, because “given the total antipathy I felt for marriage, I deemed convent life the least unsuitable and most honorable I could elect.”

Born out of wedlock, and raised by her maternal grandmother, she was a precocious child. At three she followed her sister to school and persuaded the instructor to teach her to read. She soon started to devour her grandfather’s library.

At sixteen she became a lady-in-waiting for the wife of the Spanish viceroy.

She at first joined the reformed Carmelites but left, probably because it was too strict. She subsequently joined a convent of the order of St. Jerome. (Jerome was assisted in his work, including his translation of the Bible, by several learned aristocratic women.)

In the monastery, by no means austere, she, like some other nuns, had a servant. Over the years she amassed a library of more than 4,000 volumes. She wrote letters as well as plays and love poems. She met with her friends for discussions.

She had her duties in the convent but that did not stop her from her literary and musical works. These “secular” works disturbed the archbishop of Mexico, who according to Octavio Paz was “fiercely misogynistic and strongly opposed to secular drama.”

But it was her ventures into theological reflection that caused problems. She shared with the bishop of Puebla, a long-time “friend,” her critique of a famous sermon. He asked her to put it in writing and then, without her permission, published this Missive Worthy of Athena. But he included, under the pseudonym of Sor Filotea de la Cruz, a preface admonishing Sor Juana for her being too concerned with worldly affairs. Some friend!

In her 1691 Reply to Sor Filotea, Sor Juana defended the right of women to education and the need to have older women as teachers. Using scripture, philosophy, and the fathers of the church, she defended the right of women to be educated. Her pen was acerbic: “You foolish men, accusing women for lacking reason when you yourselves are the reason for the lack.”

The reaction came swiftly. As Octavio Paz wrote: A “very saintly and ingenuous Abbess, who believed that study was a thing of the Inquisition,” ordered her not to study. Her confessor denied her spiritual help for two years.

In 1693 after so much pressure she stopped writing, though not before composing songs in honor of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, the patroness of philosophers.

In 1694 she signed several documents and seems to have turned her back on her intellectual endeavors. But did she? She wrote no more and died a year later, taking care of the sick, during a pestilence that ravaged Mexico City.

Some suggest that she had a conversion experience which included distributing all the books in her library as well as her musical and scientific instruments. But it seems as if she gave in, under pressure from church authorities.

I venture that Sor Juana is not the model for many sisters today, especially in terms of her life style. She was hardly the example of poverty. Yet her use of her intellect, her brilliant critique, and her defense of the education of women are worthy of respect.

I see her as a victim of a culture and of church authorities who were threatened by women who are intelligent and are not afraid to speak boldly.

She follows in the tradition of the women followers of St. Jerome like St. Paula. She is, in some ways, the precursor of some modern Catholic women theologians.

All too long the wisdom of women has been neglected in the world and in the church. The People of God need to hear all the voices, especially those who have been marginalized.

From one of her poems:

You foolish men who lay
the guilt on women,
not seeing you’re the cause
of the very thing you blame;

if you invite their disdain
with measureless desire
why wish they well behave
if you incite to ill.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Guest Writers, John Donaghy, Saints, Two Weeks of Worthy Women. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Two Weeks of Worthy Women: Juana Inés de la Cruz

  1. claire46 says:

    A great series. Thank you very much.

  2. Oh I really like Sor Juana, I almost thought of asking to write about her. I’m grateful to see this well done post about her, this is great. She was really something.

  3. Jo(anne) Henderson says:

    I like her spunk!

  4. Antonio says:

    Thank you for this article. I am a fan of Sor Juana. As a Mexican she is one of my cultural heroes.

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