Mary of Agreda’s The Mystical City of God is fundamentally an exegetical text. Analyzing Marian passages in the Gospels, the Marian Old Testament tradition, as well as apocryphal literature, Mary of Agreda theologically establishes that one can only see God’s reflection. The way to do that is through the person of Mary. In this God-centric approach, Mary is His perfect reflection. She is the Temple, which looks like God (163). Mary of Agreda even explicitly states, “He [God] provided the greatest possible similarity between the Mother and the Father” (163). In this project, then, the manner in which Mary of Agreda describes Mary and the characteristics that she ascribes to her are of paramount importance. In Mary we see God, so we ought to look quite closely at her.
For Mary of Agreda, Mary is – amongst many other things – a religious. She does not only participate in monastic life, she is the model for it. On page 88, Mary of Agreda explains, “Remember, that the life and conversation she led in the temple is the original, which all the souls, that consecrate themselves after her as spouses of Christ, must copy within themselves.”
This refers to Mary’s supposed nine-year inhabitation of the Temple at Jerusalem – from three years old to twelve years old – as mentioned in the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James (PJ). Mary of Agreda essentially writes an exegesis of this text, although she contributes significant new material that was purportedly endowed to her by the Most High (88).
In PJ, Mary is brought to the temple by Joachim and Anna, is kissed and blessed by the priest, and dances upon the altar (7). Nothing more is said about her until she turns twelve and must leave the temple. In Mary of Agreda’s version, however, Mary is considerably more active between the ages of three and twelve. She explicitly asks her advisors in the temple, a priest and a teacher, to give her an “order of life” (89). It is this life – a monastic existence of early rising, praise, manual labor, moderate meals, and Scriptural study – that occupied Mary of Agreda’s Mary for those nine years (90). It was marked chiefly by obedience to her superiors and unsolicited acts of humility (90, 91). The Virgin – who in Mary of Agreda’s understanding was endowed with perfect virtues since conception (49) – knew that it was not these virtues, but rather “the humble acquiescence of obedience” that fulfilled the divine Will.
This language of monastic obedience is particularly notable coming from the mouth of Mary of Agreda, a Franciscan abbess (5). Her parents founded a convent of discalced Franciscan Conceptionist nuns in 1619 after her mother had a vision (4). Mary of Agreda, her sister, and her mother all joined the convent, and her father joined her two brothers in the Franciscan order. She became abbess of the same convent in 1627, seven years after joining the order. In this way, her portrait of Mary as a monastic and her prioritization of obedience is unsurprising. As an abbess she clearly values the monastic life, and central to the perpetuation of that way of life is the obedience of her nuns. In this way, Mary of Agreda’s work seems to serve as a method by which she can enforce order in her own convent. Language like that on page 84, where the Virgin – speaking through Mary of Agreda – says, “The superiors take the place of God, and he who obeys his superiors obeys the Lord himself,” seems to bolster this notion.
However, for Mary of Agreda, having a monastic conception of Mary does not primarily serve as a means of maintains temporal order amongst her nuns. Instead, understanding Mary as a model monastic is fundamentally salvific, and it fits within Mary of Agreda’s larger schema where Mary is the created being that looks most like God.
On page 82, Mary of Agreda – through the voice of the Virgin – explains, “The whole ruin or salvation of souls depends upon the use of their free will; but since most men use it ill and damn themselves, the Most High has established religious life under the sacred vows.” These vows “free the soul,” allowing the religious to use her will only to fulfill her promises to God, directed by the Holy Sprit. These vows are transformative; they turn their adherents to children of the most high whose merits are equal to or greater than the martyrs’ (83). Like Mary in the Temple, those who take up religious vows must first punctually fulfill them and then perform ancillary works of humility (83). The most important aspect of these vows, according to the Virgin, is obedience (83). It is through obedience that one fully renounces and denies the will (83).
In Mary of Agreda’s understanding, Mary is the perfect reflection of God. Therefore, Mary’s obedience necessarily has a counterpart in the Godhead. On page 174, Mary of Agreda explains, “Even the act of obedience alone, by which the most holy humanity of the Word subjected itself to suffering and prevented the glory of His soul from being communicated to His body, was abundantly sufficient for our salvation.” It is in this way that Mary’s obedience is reflected in the Godhead. Jesus performed the ultimate act of humble obedience by renouncing His own will and submitting to that of his Father as so that he could suffer on the cross. Luke 22:42 even states in the NRSV translation, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” Mary’s renunciation of her will in the temple is then a most perfect reflection of this act. In copying her behavior in the temple by renunciation of the will through religious vows, one becomes more like her. In leading a monastic life, one imitates her imitation of the Godhead (which is admittedly a bit strange, as her behavior in the temple precedes Christ’s crucifixion). In doing so, one becomes more like God, and therefore becomes more worthy of salvation.