"The Mexican Phoenix"

May 16, 2004
The Reverend Victoria Weinstein

from Sor Juana: Beauty and Justice In The Americas
by Michelle Gonzalez

Cloistered for most of her adult life, Sor Juana did not have much outside of her books and her visitors in the locutory as conversation partners and intellectual peers. The loneliness she must have felt is clear when she writes, "My only teacher was a mute book, my only schoolfellow an unfeeling inkwell." Almost entirely self-taught, the limitations of Sor Juana's life also created the freedom for her to explore and engage non-traditional sources for her musings.

The books lining the shelves of Sor Juana's library were her companions. Thus, we cannot imagine her dismay when we learn, about halfway through The Answer, of a time when the Inquisition forbids her from reading for three months. She does not explain why this occurred, only blaming the prohibition on the initiative of her mother superior. The most likely explanation, however, was that the nature of her reading caught the attention of Church authorities. While preventing her study of texts, the prohibition was not capable of ensnaring Sor Juana's mind. As she writes, "I obeyed her (for the three months or so that her authority over us lasted) in that I did not pick up a book. But with regard to avoiding study absolutely, as such a thing does not lie within my power, I could not do it. For although I did not study in books, I studied all the things that God created, taking them for my letters, and for my book all intricate structures of this world."

Let me start in an unusual place this morning, with a letter I submitted to the Unitarian Universalist's Ministers Chat list earlier this week:

"Dear colleagues,
In the past week or so I have found my soul sitting in a very austere, thoroughly a-theistic place. It doesn't feel like I'm having an existential crisis at all, but rather a return to my adolescent sense that the world is a brutal and meaningless place, and I'm just lucky to be living where I'm living in this time. The Earth is gorgeous but anything I regard as "weather" is a human construct. Ugliness of all kinds abounds -- from the mundane incivilities of Boston drivers to the sadistic glee of the MPs in Iraq. I've picked up all my old books on torture (an early interest, almost all in the context of the medieval witch hunts) and find myself simply and coldly regarding the relentless brutality of our species. I'm not feeling very Universalist. Philosophical. Radically detached and disgusted."

I promised to speak to you today about a figure from the 17th century, Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz. She is a worthy person, with many lessons for us. But it would be dishonest to say that I come before you this morning with my customary enthusiasm and faith. It has been a very blue time for me, faith-wise. I am struggling to think coherently about the causes of my despair, and I find that coherence escapes me. This sermon, which I am reading off a page, is the seventh or eighth effort to write something worth bringing to you after having spent most of Friday and Saturday at it.

I think what bothers me most is, as I wrote above, my sense that after all, we and they are no better than pre-medieval barbarians. I don't have to tell you who "we" and "they" are. And so this experiment that we are participating in, you and I, this experiment in free religious faith development undertaken in the faith in humankind's inherent dignity and improvability – perhaps this experiment is ridiculous. I ask myself not "where is the God of justice and beauty here?" but "how could I be silly enough to put my faith in what we call ‘the interdependent web of existence?' It may or may not exist, but that's not the point, is it? Why would I affirm the web's luminous existence when so many others make it their mission to destroy it?" I think of that knife that has been so prominent in the news of late. The interdependent web is so imaginal and fragile. The knife is so real. I am struggling not to grant it victory over my soul. I will be reading the images of torture and mayhem more closely with you on May 30th. But those images are haunting me today and so they must be acknowledged before their scheduled hour.

One more thing before I weave this talk back around to Mexico today and in the 17th century, and to a religious leader who was well-acquainted herself with all the ill that can be done in the name of religion. I have noticed that I am almost as despairing these days as I was immediately after September 11 of 2001. How could that be? I think it is because I believed then that a spirit of resolution and healing could prevail as a response to what we suffered on that day. I now know I was very naïve. I should have better steeled myself for the consequences of the great fear that generated from those events. I should have more wisely predicted how that fear would shape our next steps, how it would potentially bring out the worst in all of us, but in different ways.

Those of us in religious leadership have suffered a barrage of accusation lately: "Don't you know that all the brutality of this war and every other war is the fault of religion?!" I am not complaining, but it erodes one's enthusiasm.

My answer to that accusation is simple.

No, I don't know that. I don't believe it. Religion is a binding force; that is the very essence of its definition, from the Latin religiare, to bind. Human brutality comes from many things: greed, ignorance, jealousy, misunderstanding, vengeance, poverty, fear, sociopathologies, and other factors. Religion per se is not responsible. The hatreds come first. Religion, by nature of its mysterious and enigmatic nature, becomes a convenient way to transmit --or contain-- already existing hatreds. Don't blame religion.

I am not impressed by, or proud of, the kind of analysis going on in the liberal churches today about the crisis (or crises) overseas. "It's all that superstitious religion," they say. They are heirs of Enlightenment rationalism, remember, or should I say "we are," and we forget that our point of view is bound also by history and culture and therefore subject to human error. So this is why I go to Mexico when I can. This is why I go every chance I get to places that maintain a magical worldview somewhere in the fiber of their culture; to remind me that irrational belief systems are not by definition damaging to human spiritual or moral development. They're just easy targets when we're aiming the blame gun.

I thought of you recently when I spent some time in the cathedral at the center of "D.F.," as the locals call Mexico City. The Mass was being said at noon, and the interior was very busy and crowded with worshipers, tourists and pilgrims. I sat in a pew and watched for about an hour as people hustled in and out. Two smartly-dressed businesswomen got fairly doused by the priest's enthusiastic blessing by holy water and left in giggles. Respectful, affectionate giggles.

A tired-looking abuela, grandmother, was similarly doused and rubbed the water into her hair, newly energized and smiling softly to herself. A man in an Armani suit and briefcase walked with great purpose to the glass-enclosed statue of one of the saints and knelt before it. Completely unself-conscious, he spent the next ten to fifteen minutes in a rapt, whispered conversation with the saint. I was eavesdropping and can tell you that he was not reciting prayers. He was talking to the saint. He had some things to get off his chest. Things about health and things about his mother, from what I could tell. I sat in solidarity with him, admiring his sense of intimate relationship to the invisible world. The Unitarian tradition prides itself on teaching that we all have direct access to the divine by virtue of our birth. But how many of us have tried, lately, to connect with that holy presence? Maybe because we assume we can be in touch with the gods any time we wish, without priestly or saintly assistance, we just skip it altogether.

So I wondered what you would think of these obviously modern, urban Mexicans who so easily lived a blend of sophistication and what many of us would label superstition. Again and again in my travels in Mexico I have seen this. The religious heritage of the country is incredible: if you know anything of the Mayans and the Aztecs you know what kind of unbelievably dark and powerful deities live on in the ancestral memory of the Mexican people. You know, the Aztecs had a tradition of absorbing the religions of the peoples they conquered, and a similar thing happened when the Spanish conquistadors came to Mexico converting the natives to the Catholic faith, only in reverse. As a result, indigenous beliefs and practices mixed right in with European Catholicism, with enchanting and haunting results. The Day of the Dead, for example, is not a traditional Catholic observance. Mexican Catholicism is a very magical hybrid of folkloric traditions and high church, and I mean that in the best possible way.

In the mid-1560's a three year old Mexican girl was learning to read. In her pre-teen years she begged her mother to allow her to dress as a man and attend university. This was obviously an impossibility, so the girl holed herself in her grandfather's library educating herself and reading all of his books. At the age of thirteen this precious and uncommonly beautiful girl was presented to the royal court of the viceroy and vicereine, agents of the Spanish monarchy sent to rule what was then known as "New Spain." The viceroy was so impressed by the brilliance and charm of young Juana Ramirez de Asbaje that he invited forty of the most learned men in Mexico City to have an intellectual debate with her. The historical record, and not mere legend, reports that she outwitted all of those men and earned the respect and admiration of the entire city.

So what was a talented young woman to do with herself in mid 17th century Mexico? Juana entered the convent at the age of 16, taking the name "Juana Inez de la Cruz" in respect for Spanish mystic John of the Cross (de la Cruz). She immediately became plagued with health problems, which resolved themselves when she left that first order, the strict Discalced Carmelites, for the less austere Order of the Hieronymites. From them on she was known as "Sor Juana," or "Sister Joan."

Sor Juana was a prolific author of poems, plays, and works of philosophy and theology. She is just being recognized in this recent era as the first female theologian of the Americas – an exciting development, as she has been long beloved all over Latin America as a literary figure.

What I am most interested in is not just her status as a woman at a time when women rarely achieved great fame for their intellectual contributions, I am interested in her predicament of possessing a scientific intellectual orientation in an era that was still very medieval in its worldview. There is a question being tossed around about Sor Juana that relates very much to the accusation against religious leaders I shared with you earlier, and that question is: Why would an intellectual – particularly a woman so enamored of rationalist ways of understanding the world -- take the veil and become a nun?

The feminist interpretation of this choice is easy: Juana didn't have any desire to get married, and the cloister was the only place available to her that afforded her time and space and quiet to pursue the scholarly and literary life. As a nun she was free from the authority of a husband, if not from the authority of priests and bishops. She wouldn't have to care for children or maintain a household. She could, and did, maintain a decades-long conversation with impressive thinkers as herself, making of her cloister a kind of prototypical salon.

In this judgment of Sor Juana, the cloister was an escape and had nothing to do with a religious vocation. I find that a disappointing and prejudiced analysis. Again, the assumption is that intellectualism and religious faith are so incompatible that they cannot exist in one body, especially a female one.

This calls to mind a lunch date I had last year with friends following the ordination of one of us to the Episcopal diaconal ministry. My friend Rachel, an up-and-coming Filipino theologian, was trapped next to a really smart, really well-meaning young Jesuit priest who badgered her throughout the meal, how could she remain a Catholic? This from one Catholic to another, you understand. Because she is a Ph.D. candidate, a well-respected voice on the lecture, preaching and publishing circuit, and obviously called to a ministry of teaching and pastoring for which she can never be ordained (she is also a talented musician), why wouldn't she convert to some kind of Protestantism and be freed of the sexist oppression of their mother Church? He couldn't get over it. I watched Rachel try to maintain her dignity, quietly affirm her right to remain a Catholic, and her right to also be a feminist, liberationist theologian and lay leader of the Catholic church, and I thought of Sor Juana.

I imagine she must have had to defend herself from the same narrow-minded and well-meaning onslaughts. You must either be faithful or intelligent. You must either serve God or be a woman who claims authority. You must either be enamored of empirical knowledge or cherish the teachings of the Church.

So many of us love Sor Juana, I think, because she lived all of these things, refusing to dwell in either/or. Furthermore, she achieved tremendous fame in her lifetime by publicly transgressing boundaries between the religious and secular, and by publicly exceeding the bounds proscribed for women of her day. I don't believe that the limitations imposed by Catholic orthodoxy left her left her totally frustrated: she used Christian allegory and sacramental imagery in her literary works to great affect, and sometimes she used the Greek gods as primary characters. She was also quite obviously devoted to her Christ, and to the concept of the Trinity, and she had an unmistakable adoration of the Virgin Mary. A multi-faceted woman. Her small room at the convent was crowded with musical instruments and scientific instruments. And you know what? She is typical of many of the nuns I know today, who seem to the outside world as meek, obedient, veiled creatures but who are passionate students of all manner of subjects, tireless workers for social justice, and often willing to argue with their male and female religious superiors for liberties to teach and minister in ways that have integrity for the ways they experience God.

I think Sor Juana invites us to reevaluate what we mean when we say "religious vocation." For her -- and she kept trying to make people understand this --learning and gaining a working knowledge of the universe was a religious undertaking. It was a way to become more intimate with, and therefore more deeply reverent of, God's creation. Of course very few people at the time could accept what she meant, but we do.

She's lucky she wasn't executed by the Inquisition. She was, however, interrogated by it, and not just once. In 1690, after enjoying many years as a popular author and intellectual, she got into the most serious conflict of her life, when her critique of the famous sermon of a prominent Jesuit theologian was circulated without her authorization. The Bishop of Puebla critiqued her critique, and she published a passionate rejoinder in La Repuesta, or "The Answer," an "autobiographical defense of women's right to intellectual pursuits" (p 33, Gonzalez) It is a wonderful document, full of humor and outrage and exhaustion. How especially damaging to me, she says, that those gentle people who love me and claim to desire the good for me, are the ones to have encouraged me to cease my studying, claiming that holy ignorance is my duty! "A strange martyrdom indeed, where I must be both martyr and my own executioner!"

Rara especie de martirio donde yo era el martir y me era el verdugo!

We don't know if the church authorities required that she renounce her beliefs in blood. Perhaps that was a dramatic gesture she made all of her own accord. She was never tortured physically, just probably reprimanded by her bishop, in secret judicial proceedings. She did have supporters, and at one time she dismissed her immediate spiritual superior, or confessor. Still, the pressure was intense and before her retirement from public life, Sor Juana made a final confession, written in her own blood, wherein she calls herself "the worst of all." The fact is that she knew her convent sisters would be endangered if she did not retire from publicly challenging the orthodoxy. She silenced herself – religious history likes to say that she developed a quiet, devotional personality (I'll bet!) and secular historians blame the disappearance of this bright star on the close-mindedness of the stern priests to whom her vows obligated her to be obedient. Her final years are shrouded in obscurity.

Sor Juana died soon after making her confession, in her early 50's. Her convent was overtaken by an epidemic, and she died as a result of nursing other nuns. She certainly could have stayed away to avoid becoming infected. Was this a martyrdom after all?

They call her the Phoenix, an affectionate nickname earned in her lifetime. Her face is on the twenty pesos bill to this day. She left behind 65 sonnets, 62 romances, prolific amount of poems in other forms, two comedies, three autos sacramentales (allegorical dramas), 16 sets of villancicos (a poem set to music that is sung at religious holidays), one sarao (a celebratory song accompanied by a dance), and two farces. And, for our reflection today and perhaps well into coming weeks, a sense of appreciation that to seek for knowledge, to quest after understanding, and to see all the sciences as the work and expression of a divinely-imbued universe, is to most certainly to live the religious life, and a good one at that.

Viva la Phoenix. Gracias por Dios.

So may it be, even in times such as this… especially in times such as this… world without end. Amen.