Thursday, November 19, 2015

Sister Mary's Theology

This week, I am drawn to the role theology plays in The Mystical City of God by Sister Mary of Agreda, as it relates to author’s depiction of Mary and Sister Mary’s relationship to the church.  In response to Professor Fulton Brown’s comment about the overarching theological themes of this work, there is an important interplay between the theology of the Church which would have been approved (I.E. the mystery of the Trinity, the fallenness of humanity, Christ’s role as the redeemer) and the points at which Sister Mary utilizes this already well-understood framework of a theological system in order to describe Mary in relation to her own account of her visions.  I would like to further analyze the major points in which I see Sister Mary pointing directly to a common theological position or concept that would have been most likely widely known by her readers and how Sister Mary has entailed such theology into her depiction of Mary.  What is at stake for Sister Mary in the context for writing this book, as I have gathered from her introduction, is taking very seriously what she describes as a demands from the ‘Most High’ and the ‘Queen of Heaven’ herself (4).  She must convince her readers that her visions and the words she writes are accurate and true, while also maintaining a covenant with the ‘Most High’, as it is her expressed intention to “…preserve the powers of [her] will entirely for His love, without allowing it to incline toward any creature, be it ever so small or unsuspicious…” (6).

In book one, section six, Sister Mary explicitly recognizes the system of theology that has been predetermined.  While most (if not all) of this book is by nature theological, I think it is this section where Sister Mary is the most deliberate connecting her own encounter with Mary to the established “orthodox” position(s).  In describing Mary’s perfection and her ability to exercise all the virtues at once, Sister Mary writes; “Among the first thus exercised were the three theological virtues, faith, hope, and charity, which relate immediately to God” (49).   Here, Sister Mary’s reference to “the three theological virtues” connects her reader to a pre-existing framework onto which something logical can be added.  While we cannot necessarily know Sister Mary’s true intentions behind every word written, I would speculate that in recalling her visions, Sister Mary is taking into consideration her audience, framing the Mary she witnessed by using familiar language and already firmly established doctrine and perhaps, even then methodology with which theologians in her time would have made sense of her visions.  While I fully understand why Sister Mary would describe Mary using familiar theological language, I am led to wonder why she taken the opportunity to refer to an already apparently familiar set of “theological virtues.”  Other than the fact that people may have just been able to understand what she was saying more clearly by referring to something already familiar, I wonder how this account relates to the Church’s theological teachings.  In other words, is it possible that Sister Mary has tailored her writings to the doctrines of the Church in places where she can afford to do so so that her other, more controversial chapters (immaculate conception) might be more kindly considered?

In painting a Mary who is a dutiful servant of God who possesses perfect justice, Sister Mary distinguishes Mary from Adam and Eve in a crucial way which I have not yet seen in this course.  Sister of Mary writes: “To [Mary] was also conceded the most perfect light of reason, corresponding to the gifts of grace, which she had not received” (49).  In this account, what make Mary most different from Eve is her access to reason.  This is a notable shift in the course, as we have discussed in the past how many have thought of Mary as the “new Eve;” as the one who will “get it right” this time.  The comparison between Eve and Mary cannot be made in Sister Mary’s account, however, because Sister Mary has made it clear that Mary is untainted, even with the ability to reason.  “She was possessed of the most perfect justice, superior to that of Adam and Even in their first formation” (49).  I am curious about this connection to the doctrines of the Church in her time.  While the theological function Adam and Eve play remains intact, Mary has broken the laws of humanity by remaining untainted, even after exposure to reason. Is this an issue that would be pertinent to the Church in Sister Mary’s time, or am I superimposing my own protestant theology?  It sounds odd to imply that someone other than Christ is not in need of atonement. 

Whether or not there is conclusive information on the full scope of how or why she has written this extensive text, it is clear that Sister Mary is strategic in the way she chooses both to employ church doctrine and the places in which she may diverge from it.  Perhaps drawing on a theological language familiar to those reading her work provided her voice with an additional authority.  It is possible that in being careful so as not disturb the theological tenets of the Church, Sister Mary would have had the chance to indeed be bolder with her claims that were controversial, especially regarding immaculate conception.  It is also possible that Sister Mary has been intentional in not allowing her own relationship with the Church affect the way in which she wrote this account.  Given the fact that Sister Mary had burned up her first version for fear of breaking Church orthodoxy, it is would be hard to imagine Sister Mary writing this work without the implications of the Church in the back of her mind.  I think Sister Mary walks an impressive line between a voice of sanctioned theology and an emboldened image of Mary, as she has witnessed so vividly and firsthand.    



  1. The criticisms that I quoted about Sor Maria's work were not by "church fathers," but by the Enlightenment philosophes Voltaire and Casanova. I did mention other criticisms, but my point in citing Casanova at length was to illustrate how hard it is for us as post-Enlightenment readers to read Sor Maria without psychologizing in the way that Voltaire and Casanova and their contemporaries did (i.e. arguing that she was crazy). I appreciate that you do not have the theological background to evaluate Sor Maria's comments about the doctrine of the immaculate conception, but surely you could draw some conclusions based on the other works that we have read this quarter! RLFB

  2. Although I would definitely agree that Sister Mary’s Mystical City of God is very much a work of theology, I can’t help but feel like this is because in many ways, the Mary she portrays is nothing short of a god herself. While she may, as you argue she does in Book I, Section VI, seek to firmly ground her method in the tradition, I’m not sure that she is successful in making that claim. Yes, we have for sure seen works that seek to show us God or Jesus via Mary many times before, but at some point, we do have to acknowledge that when she’s describing Mary, she is in fact talking about Mary herself. Mary may be a reflection of God’s character, but she isn’t God herself. Conflating the two in some ways does in fact make her another member of the trinity, and I can’t say that this is something that I personally can support. I definitely agree that it’s “odd” to think that Mary wouldn’t need atonement, and I would also argue that it flies directly in the face of many Biblical texts. I think that your questions of how Sister Mary may have “tailored” her message to better fall in with the ways the Church or tradition were talking about Mary are very appealing and something that would be interesting to hear more about.