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Take Delight in Your Passions

The story of Juana Ines de la Cruz reminds us that God instills passions within us that he can use for his glory.

My Bible teachers never read us the tale of Juana Ines de la Cruz, the feisty Mexican girl with one sustaining passion: knowledge. At three, Juana persuaded her older sister to teach her to read and write. By six, Juana had heard that in Mexico City there was a college where they studied the sciences, prompting Juana to hatch a plan. “I began to slay my poor mother with insistent and annoying pleas, begging her to dress me in men’s clothes,” she writes, “so that I could enter the University and study.”

In the meantime, Juana devoured the books she found in her grandfather’s library: literature, science, philosophy, theology, languages. She developed some quirky habits. “I would abstain from eating cheese because I heard tell that it made people stupid,” Juana reports, “and the desire to learn was stronger for me than the desire to eat.” Whenever she was dissatisfied with her mastery of a certain subject, she’d cut off her hair to punish her own dull-wittedness. A head that was bare of facts should also be bare of glossy curls.

Given her astounding intellectual discipline and drive, Juana’s future as an academic was surely guaranteed. Ah, but wait. The era was seventeenth-century Mexico. The authorities were male, traditional, Catholic, Spanish colonialists. And the young scholar? She was the daughter of unwed parents, a Spanish military officer and a Mexican-born mother, a nobody from the town of Nepantla, Aztec for “land in the middle.” As an illegitimate child, Juana’s birth was not even recorded in the church registry. Her very existence was off the books—but not for long.

This girl of the Land of the Middle knew exactly who she was and what she wanted. She also remained a faithful daughter of the church all of her life. Did she wonder if God would demand that she give up her scholarly aspirations? Was she ready to demonstrate her true faith through acts of submission, all in the name of obedience, piety, propriety?

An Insatiable Thirst for Knowledge

Once Juana finished off her grandfather’s entire bibliotheca, the next thing our preteen prodigy had to do was get herself out of Nepantla and find a way to Mexico City, center of her universe. At thirteen she was presented as a lady-in-waiting to the court of the viceroy and vicereine, the sovereigns of Spain who ruled the New World colony. The royal purple happened to love literature, a lucky break for the new maiden who knew that flattery will get you everywhere. Juana composed a series of romantic poems that starred the vicereine herself, a promising start to her literary career.

The viceroy saw opportunity for amusement in his wife’s dazzling young companion. He rounded up the forty finest mathematicians, philosophers, historians, and theologians for an erudite showdown. The men quizzed and questioned the girl in a seventeenth-century Battle of the Brains. Confident in her vast knowledge, Juana outwitted and charmed them all. Only sixteen, Juana had achieved worldly sophistication and local fame. “Of all my country, I was the venerated figure,” she wrote, “one of those idols that inspire the general applause.”

So what would be her next move? More than anything, Juana wanted to live in solitude with the freedom to study undisturbed, to pursue “beauties with which to stock the mind.” The royal court’s endless rounds of balls, gallantries, and entertainments were a distraction. After the current viceroy’s term was up, Juana might not stay on as a lady-in-waiting anyway. With sketchy family credentials and no dowry money, respectable marriage was not for her. Juana was left with only one sanctioned path: to become a nun.

Juana states her logic bluntly: “I took the veil although I knew I would find in the religious life many things that would be quite opposed to my character.” In spite of the demands of communal convent life, she writes, “it would, given my absolute unwillingness to enter into marriage, be the least unfitting and the most decent state I could choose.”

These days, when only 1,200 young women across the United States are preparing to join Catholic religious orders, it’s rare to meet a nun, let alone know a young woman who sees the cloister as a career destination. Things were different back in colonial era Mexico, when convents were a huge social and economic presence. There were sixteen convents in Mexico City in 1650, filled with the daughters of society. Though nuns remained under the authority of male clergy, the cloisters were self-contained feminine worlds combining the spiritual life and an honorable vocation. No wonder our young scholar found it the “least unfitting” option.

Juana Ines was possessed of the gift of an extraordinary intellect, and she fully intended to use it. “I do not value treasures or riches; it always gives me more pleasure to put wealth in my thought than thought in my wealth,” she wrote.

An Unlikely Vocation

And so Juana left the realm of viceregal society. As a Catholic sister at the Convent of San Jeronimo, the novice Sor (sister) Juana Ines de la Cruz was required to attend prayer at fixed hours and to contribute some light work as the convent accountant. Other than that, Juana’s time was pretty much her own. The monastic rule to eat meals all together wasn’t even enforced. Each nun had private living quarters, staffed by servants, complete with kitchen, bath, sleeping quarters, and parlor.

What was not to like about the Convent of San Jeronimo? Sor Juana Ines found much of the independence and tranquility she needed to cultivate her “inclination to study.” Her own comfy corner cell had two floors; her second-story window featured a view of the Valley of Mexico. There she built up her own personal collection of books, both secular and sacred, works of art, and a variety of musical and scientific instruments. Over time, Juana Ines amassed the largest library in all of Mexico, right there in her convent rooms.

During her years as a nun of the Convent of San Jeronimo, Juana Ines de la Cruz wrote widely: religious and secular plays, verses for dance tunes, sacred poems, love poems, comedies, philosophy, an essay in theology, even an autobiographical defense of the right of women to study. Her works were published and performed. Juana was renowned as the most erudite woman in Mexico before she was even twenty years old. She grew into a great poet and playwright celebrated across the Western hemisphere.

As a cloistered woman, she was never permitted to leave the convent—ever. But the world came to her. Juana corresponded with learned persons across the Spanish dominions and Europe. Visitors, from academics to courtly socialites, came to her locutory. Juana’s parlor become a kind of literary and philosophical salon where she taught seminars, read her poetry and plays, and debated ideas.

You haven’t heard of Sor Juana de la Cruz? You can blame it on centuries of storytellers, the ones who’ve recounted the intellectual traditions of men and disregarded the silent and silenced contributions of women. Your ignorance is no surprise. Even in her own day, Juana’s bold public voice was hushed by bishops and priests. It’s been 350 years since she lived, but it’s not too late to bring Juana back. Her words have been here all along.

Karen Wright Marsh is executive director and cofounder of Theological Horizons, a university ministry that has advance theological scholarship at the intersection of faith, though, and life since 1991. Taken from Vintage Saints and Sinners by Karen Wright Marsh. ©2017 by Karen Marsh. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com

November02, 2017 at 8:00 AM

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