By Her Own Hands

Letter in Reply to Sor Philothea:

Most Illustrious Lady, my Lady:

It has not been my will, but my scant health and a rightful fear that have delayed my reply for so many days. Is it to be wondered that, at the very first step, I should meet with two obstacles that sent my dull pen stumbling? The first (and to me the most insuperable) is the question of how to respond to your immensely learned, prudent, devout, and loving letter. For when I consider how the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, on being asked of his silence before his teacher Albertus Magnus, responded that he kept quiet because he could say nothing worthy of Albertus, then how much more fitting it is that I should keep quiet- not like the Saint from modesty, but rather because, in truth, I am unable to say anything worthy of you. The second obstacle is the question of how to render my thanks for the favor, as excessive as it was unexpected, of giving my drafts and scratches to the press: a favor so far beyond all measure as to surpass the most ambitious hopes or the most fantastic desires, so that it cannot be bounded by the confines of speech and indeed exceeds all powers of gratitude, as much because it was so large as because it was so unexpected. In the words of Quintilian: “They produce less glory through hopes, more glory through benefits conferred.” And so much so, that the recipient is struck dumb.

When the mother of [John] the Baptist-felicitously barren, so as to become miraculously fertile-saw under her roof so exceedingly great a guest as the Mother of the Word, her powers of mind were dulled and her speech was halted; and thus, instead of thanks, she burst out with doubts and questions: “And whence is this to me . . . ?” The same occurred with Saul when he was chosen and anointed King of Israel: “Am not I a son of Jemini of the least tribe of Israel, and my kindred the last among all the families of the tribe of Benjamin? Why then hast thou spoken this word to me?” Just so, I too must say: Whence, O venerable Lady, whence comes such a favor to me? By chance, am I something more than a poor nun, the slightest creature on earth and the least worthy of drawing your attention? Well, why then hast thou spoken this word to me? And whence is this to me?

I can answer nothing more to the first obstacle than that I am entirely unworthy of your gaze. To the second, I can offer nothing more than amazement, instead of thanks, declaring that I am unable to thank you for the lightest part of what I owe you. It is not false humility, my Lady, but the candid truth of my very soul, to say that when the printed letter reached my hands-that letter you were pleased to dub “Worthy of Athena”-I burst into tears (a thing that does not come easily to me), tears of confusion. For it seemed to me that your great favor was nothing other than God’s reproof aimed at my failure to return His favors, and while He corrects others with punishments, He wished to chide me through benefits. A special favor, this, for which I acknowledge myself His debtor, as I am indebted for infinitely many favors given by His immense goodness; but this is also a special way of shaming and confounding me. For it is the choicest form of punishment to cause me to serve, knowingly, as the judge who condemns and sentences my own ingratitude. And so when I consider this fully, here in solitude, it is my custom to say: Blessed are you, my Lord God, for not only did you forbear to give another creature the power to judge me, nor have you placed that power in my hands. Rather, you have kept that power for yourself and have freed me of myself and of the sentence I would pass on myself, which, forced by my own conscience, could be no less than condemnation. Instead you have reserved that sentence for your great mercy to declare, because you love me more than I can love myself.

My Lady, forgive the digression wrested from me by the power of truth; yet if I must make a full confession of it, this digression is at the same time a way of seeking evasions so as to flee the difficulty of making my answer. And therefore I had nearly resolved to leave the matter in silence; yet although silence explains much by the emphasis of leaving all unexplained, because it is a negative thing, one must mane the silence, so that what it signifies may be understood. Failing that, silence will say nothing, for that is its proper function: to say nothing. The holy Chosen Vessel was carried off to the third Heaven and, having seen the arcane secrets of God, he says: “That he was caught up into paradise, and heard secret words, which it is not granted to man to utter.” He does not say what he saw, but he says that he cannot say it. In this way, of those things that cannot be spoken, so that it may be known that silence is kept not for lack of things to say, but because the many things there are to say cannot be contained in mere words. St. John says that if he were to write all of the wonders wrought by Our Redeemer, the whole world could not contain all the books. Vieira says of this passage that in this one phrase the Evangelist says more than in all his other writings; and indeed how well the Lusitanian Phoenix speaks (but when is he not well-spoken, even when he speaks ill?), for herein St. John says all that he failed to say and expresses all that he failed to express. And so I, my Lady, shall answer only that I know not how to answer; I shall thank you only by saying that I know not how to give thanks; and I shall say, by way of the brief label placed on what I leave to silence, that only with the confidence of one so favored and with the advantages granted one so honored, do I dare speak to your magnificence. If this be folly, please forgive it; for folly sparkles in good fortune’s crown, and through it I shall supply further occasion for your goodwill, and you shall better arrange the expression of my gratitude.

Moses, because he was a stutterer, thought himself unworthy to speak to Pharaoh. Yet later, finding himself greatly favored by God, he was so imbued with courage that not only did he speak to God Himself, but he dared to ask of Him the impossible: “Shew me thy face.” And so it is with me, my Lady, for I view of the favor you show me, the obstacles I described at the outset no longer seem entirely insuperable. For one who had the letter printed, unbeknownst to me, who titled it and underwrote its cost, and who thus honored it (unworthy as it was of all this, on its own account and on account of its author), what will such a one not do? What not forgive? Or what fail to do or fail to forgive? Thus, sheltered by the assumption that I speak with the safe-conduct granted by your favors and with the warrant bestowed by your goodwill, and by the fact that, like a second Ahasuerus, you have allowed me to kiss the top of the golden scepter of your affection as a sign that you grant me kind license to speak and to plead my case in your venerable presence, I declare that I receive in my very soul your most holy admonition to apply my study to Holy Scripture; for although it arrives in the guise of counsel, it shall have for me the weight of law. And I take no small consolation from the fact that it seems my obedience, as if at your direction, anticipated your pastoral insinuation, as may be inferred from the subject matter and arguments of that very Letter. I recognize full well that your most prudent warning touches not on the letter, but on the many writings of mine on humane matters that you have seen. And thus, all that I have said can do no more than offer that letter to you in recompense for the failure to apply myself which you must have inferred (and reasonably so) from my other writings. And to speak more specifically, I confess, with all the candor due to you and with the truth and frankness that are always at once natural and customary for me, that my having written little on sacred matters has sprung from no dislike, nor from lack of application, but rather from a surfeit of awe and reverence toward those sacred letters, which I know myself to be so incapable of understanding and which I am so unworthy of handling. For there always resounds in my ears the Lord’s warning and prohibition to sinners like me, bringing with it no small terror: “Why dost thou declare my justices, and take my covenant in thy mouth?” With this question comes the reflection that even learned men were forbidden to read the Song of Songs, and indeed Genesis, before they reached the age of thirty: the latter text because of its difficulty, and the former so that with the sweetness of those epithalamiums, imprudent youth might not be stirred to carnal feelings. My great father St. Jerome confirms this, ordering the Song of Songs to be the last text studied, for the same reason: “Then at last she may safely read the Song of Songs: if she were to read it at the beginning, she might be harmed by not perceiving that it was the song of a spiritual bridal expressed in fleshly language.” And Seneca says, “In early years, faith is not yet manifest.” Then how should I dare take these up in my unworthy hands, when sex, and age, and above all our customs oppose it? And thus I confess that often this very fear has snatched the pen from my hand and has made the subject matter retreat back toward that intellect from which it wished to flow; and impediment I did not stumble across with profane subjects, for a heresy against art is not punished by the Holy Office but rather by wits with their laughter and critics with their censure. And this, “just or unjust, is not to be feared,” for on e is still permitted to take Communion and hear Mass, so that it troubles me little if at all. For in such maters, according to the judgment of the very ones who slander me, I have no obligation to know how nor the skill to hit the mark, and thus if I miss it is neither sin nor discredit. No sin, because I had no obligation; no discredit, because I had no possibility of hitting the mark, and “no one is obliged to do the impossible.” And truth to tell, I have never written save when pressed and forced and solely to give pleasure to others, not only without taking satisfaction but with downright aversion, because I have never judged myself to possess the rich trove of learning and wit that is perforce the obligation of one who writes. This, then, is my usual reply to those who urge me to write, and the more so in the case of a sacred subject: What understanding do I possess, what studies, what subject matter, or what instruction, save four profundities of a superficial scholar? They can leave such things to those who understand them; as for me, I want no trouble with the Holy Office, for I am but ignorant and tremble lest I utter some ill-sounding proposition or twist the true meaning of some passage. I don not study in order to write, nor far less in order to teach (which would be boundless arrogance in me), but simply to see whether by studying I may become less ignorant. This is my answer, and these are my feelings.

My writing has never proceeded from any dictate of my own, but a force beyond me; I can in truth say, “You have compelled me.” One thing, however, is true, so that I shall not deny it (first because it is already well known to all, and second because God has shown me His favor in giving me the greatest possible love of truth, even when it might count against me). For ever since the light of reason first dawned in me, my inclination to letter was marked by such passion and vehemence that neither the reprimands of others (for I have received many) nor reflections of my own (there have been more than a few) have sufficed to make me abandon my pursuit of this native impulse that God Himself bestowed on me. His Majesty knows why and to what end He did so, and He knows that I have prayed that He snuff out the light of my intellect, leaving only enough to keep His Law. For more than that is too much, some would say, in a woman; and there are even those who say that it is harmful. His Majesty knows too that, not achieving this, I have attempted to entomb my intellect together with my name and to sacrifice it to the One who gave it to me; and that no other motive brought me to the life of Religion, despite the fact that the exercises and companionship of a community were quite opposed to the tranquillity and freedom from disturbance required by my studious bent. And once in the community, the Lord knows-and in this world only he who needs must know it, does-what I did to try to conceal my name and renown from the public; he did not, however, allow me to do this, telling me it was temptation, and so it would have been. If I could repay any part of my debt to you, my Lady, I believe I might do so merely by informing you of this, for these words have never left my mouth save to that one to whom they must be said. But having thrown wide the doors of my heart and revealed to you what is there under seal of secrecy, I want you to know that this confidence does not gainsay the respect I owe to your venerable person and excessive favors.

To go on with the narration of this inclination of mine, of which I wish to give you a full account: I declare I was not yet three years old when my mother sent off one of my sisters, older than I, to learn to read in one of those girls’ schools that they call Amigas. Affection and mischief carried me after her; and when I saw that they were giving her lessons, I so caught fire with the desire to learn that, deceiving the teacher (or so I thought), I told her that my mother wanted her to teach me also. She did not believe this, for it was not to be believed; but to humor my whim she gave me lessons. I continued to go and she continued to teach me, though no longer in make-believe, for the experience undeceived her. I learned to read in such a short time that I already knew how by the time my mother heard of it. My teacher had kept it from my mother to give delight with a thing all done and to receive a prize for a thing done well. And I had kept still, thinking I would be whipped for having done this without permission. The woman who taught me (may God keep her) is still living, and she can vouch for what I say.

I remember that in those days, though I was as greedy for treats as children usually are at that age, I would abstain from eating cheese, because I heard tell that it make people stupid, and the desire to learn was stronger for me that the desire to eat-

powerful as this is in children. Later, when I was six or seven years old and already knew how to read and write, along with all the other skills like embroidery and sewing that women learn, I heard that in Mexico City there were a University and Schools where they studied the sciences. As soon as I heard this I began to slay my poor mother with insistent and annoying pleas, begging her to dress me in men’s clothes and send me to the capital, to the home of some relatives she had there, so that I could enter the University and study. She refused, and was right in doing so; but I quenched my desire by reading a great variety of books that belonged to my grandfather, and neither punishments nor scoldings could prevent me. And so when I did go to Mexico City, people marveled not so much at my intelligence as at my memory and the facts I knew at an age when it seemed I had scarcely had time to learn to speak.

I began to study Latin, in which I believe I took fewer than twenty lessons. And my interest was so intense, that although in women (and especially in the very bloom of youth) the natural adornment of the hair is so esteemed, I would cut off four to six fingerlengths of my hair, measuring how long it had been before. And I make myself a rule that if by the time it had grown back to the same length I did not know such and such a thing that I intended to study, then I would but my hair off again to punish my dull-wittedness. And so my hair grew, but I did not yet know what I had resolved to learn, for it grew quickly and I learned slowly. Then I cut my hair right off to punish my dull-wittedness, for I did not think it reasonable that hair should cover a head that was so bare of facts-the more desirable adornment. I took the veil because, although I knew I would find in religious life many things that would be quite opposed to my character (I speak of accessory rather than essential maters), it would, given my absolute unwillingness to enter into marriage, be the least unfitting and the most decent state I could choose, with regard to the assurance I desired of my salvation. For before this first concern (which is, at the last, the most important), all the impertinent little follies of my character gave way and bowed to the yoke. These were wanting to live alone and not wanting to have either obligations that would disturb my freedom to study or the noise of a community that would interrupt the tranquil silence of my books. These things make me waver somewhat in my decision until, being enlightened by learned people as to my temptation, I vanquished it with divine favor and took the state I so unworthily hold, I thought I was fleeing myself, but-woe is me!-I brought myself with me, and brought my greatest enemy in my inclination to study, which I know not whether to take as a Heaven-sent favor or as a punishment. For when snuffed out or hindered with every [spiritual] exercise known to Religion, it exploded like gunpowder; and in my case the saying “privation gives rise to appetite” was proven true.

I went back (no, I spoke incorrectly, for I never stopped)-I went on, I mean, with my studious task (which to me was peace and rest in every moment left over when my duties were done) of reading and still more reading, study and still more study, with no teacher besides my books themselves. What a hardship it is to learn from those lifeless letters, deprived of the sound of a teacher’s voice and explanations; yet I suffered all these trials most gladly for the love of learning. Oh, if only this had been done for the love of God, as was rightful, think what I should have merited! Nevertheless I did my best to elevate these studies and direct them to His service, for the goal to which I aspired was the study of Theology. Being a Catholic, I thought it an abject failing not to know everything that can in this life be achieved, through earthly methods, concerning the divine mysteries. And being a nun and not a laywoman, I thought I should, because I was in religious life, profess the study of letters-the more so as the daughter of such as St. Jerome and St. Paula: for it would be a degeneracy for an idiot daughter to proceed from such learned parents. I argued in this way to myself, and I thought my own argument quite reasonable. However, the fact may have been (and this seems most likely) that I was merely flattering and encouraging my own inclination, by arguing that its own pleasure was an obligation.

I went on in this way, always directing each step of my studies, as I have said, toward the summit of Holy Theology: but it seemed tome necessary to ascend by the ladder of the humane arts and sciences I order to reach it; for who could fathom the style of the Queen of Sciences without knowing that of her handmaidens? Without Logic, how should I know the general and specific methods by which Holy Scripture is written? Without Rhetoric, how should I understand its figures, tropes, and locutions? Or how, without Physics or Natural Science, understand all the questions that naturally arise concerning the varied natures of those animals offered in sacrifice, in which a great many things already make manifest are symbolized, and many more besides? How should I know whether Saul’s cure at the sound of David’s harp was to a virtue and power that is natural in Music or owing, instead, to a supernatural power that God saw fit to bestow on David? How without Arithmetic might one understand all those mysterious reckonings of years and days and months and hours and weeks that are found I Daniel and elsewhere, which can be comprehended only by knowing the natures, concordances, and properties of numbers? Without Geometry, how could we take the measure of the Holy Ark of the Covenant or the Holy City of Jerusalem, each of whose mysterious measurements forms a perfect cube uniting their dimensions, and each displaying that most marvelous distribution of the proportions of every part?

Without the science of Architecture, how understand the mighty Temple of Solomon-where God Himself was the Draftsman who set forth His arrangement and plan, and the Wise King was but the overseer who carried it out; where there was no foundation without its mystery, nor column without its symbol, nor cornice without its allusion, nor arcitrave without its meaning, and likewise for every other part, so that even the very least fillet served not only for the support and enhancement of Art, but to symbolize greater things? How, without a thorough knowledge of the order and divisions by which History is composed, is one to understand the Historical Books-as in those summaries, for example, which often postpone I the narration what happened first in fact? How, without command of the two branches of Law, should one understand the Books of Law? Without considerable erudition, how should we understand the great many matters of profane history that are mentioned by Holy Scripture: all the diverse customs of the Gentiles, all their rituals, all their manners of speech? Without knowing many precepts and reading widely in the Fathers of the Church, how could one understand the obscure sayings of the Prophets? Well then, and without being expert in Music, how might one understand those musical intervals and their perfections that occur in a great many passages-especially in Abraham’s petitions to God on behalf of the Cities, beseeching God to spare them if there were found fifty righteous people within? And the number fifty Abraham reduced to forty-five, which is sesquinonal {10 to 9] or like the interval from mi to re; this in turn he reduced to forty, which is the sesquioctave [9 to 8] or like the interval the from re to mi; thence he went down to thirty, which is sesquiteria, or the inteval of the diatessaron [the perfect fourth]; thence to twenty, the sesquialtera or the diapente [the fifth]; thence to tem, the duple, which is the diapason [the interval and consonance of the octave]; and because there are no more harmonic intervals, Abraham went no further. How could all this be understood without knowledge of Music? Why, in the very Book of Job, God says to him: “Shalt thou be able to join together the shining stars the pleiades, or canst thou stop the turning about of Arcturus? Canst thou bring forth the day star in its time, and make the evening star to rise upon the children of the earth?” Without knowledge of Astronomy, these terms would be impossible to understand. Nor are these noble sciences alone represented; indeed, not one of the mechanical arts escapes mention. In sum, we see how this Book contains all books, and this Science includes all sciences, all of which serve that She may be understood. And once each science is mastered ( which we see is not easy, or even possible), She demands still another condition beyond all I have yet said, which is continual prayer and purity of life, to entreat god for that cleansing of the spirit and illumination of the mind required for an understanding of such high things. And if this be lacking, all the rest is useless.

The Church says these words of the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas: “At the difficult passages of Holy Scripture, he added fasting to prayer. And he used to say to his companion Brother Reginald that he owed all his knowledge not so much to study or hard work, but rather he had received it from God.” How then should I, so far from either virtue or learning, find the courage to write? And so, to acquire a few basic principles of knowledge, I studied constantly in a variety of subjects, having no inclination toward any one of them in particular but being drawn rather to all of them generally. Therefore, if I have studied some things more than others it has not been by my choice, but because by chance the books on certain subjects came more readily to hand, and this gave preference to those topics, without my passing judgment in the matter. I held no particular interest to spur me, nor had I any limit to my time compelling me to reduce the continuous study of one subject, as is required in taking a degree. Thus almost at one sitting I would study diverse things or leave off some to take up others. Yet even in this I maintained a certain order, for some subjects I called my study and others my diversion, and with the latter I would take my rest from the former. Hence, I have studied many things but know nothing, for one subject has interfered with another. What I say is true regarding the practical element of those subjects that require practice, for clearly the compass must rest while the pen is moving, and while the harp is playing the organ is still, and likewise with all things. Much bodily repetition is needed to form a habit, and therefore a person whose time is divided among several exercises will never develop one perfectly. But in formal and speculative arts the opposite is true, and I wish I might persuade everyone with my own experience: to wit, that far from interfering, these subjects help one another, shedding light and opening a path from one to the next, by way of divergences and hidden links-for they were set in place so as to form this universal chain by the wisdom of their great Author. Thus is appears that they correspond each one to another and are united with a wondrous bond and harmonious agreement. This is the very chain the ancients believed to come forth from the mouth of Jupiter, whence hung all things, each linked to the next. The Reverend Athanasius Kircher demonstrates this in his curious book On the Magnet. All things proceed from God, who is at once the center and circumference, whence all lines are begotten and where they have their end.

For my part, I can say with certainty that what I do not understand in one author on a certain subject, I usually understand in another author who treats what appears to be a very distant subject. And in turn these very authors, once understood, can unlock the metaphorical examples employed in still other arts: as when the logicians say, to compare whether terms are equal, that the middle term is to the major and minor terms as a measuring rod is to two distant bodies; or that the argument of th logician moves like a straight line by the shortest path, while that of the rhetorician moves like a curved line by the longest path, but both end at the same point; or when it is said that the Expositors are like an open hand, while the Scholastics are like a closed fist. And thus, it serves as no excuse, nor do I intend it as such, that I have studied diverse things, for indeed these aid one another. Rather, my lack of profit in it is the fault of my ineptitude and the weakness of my mind, not the fault of variety. What could, however, serve to excuse me would be the great trial I have undergone in lacking not only a teacher, but schoolfellows with whom to review and practice what had been studied. For my only teacher was a mute book, my only schoolfellow an unfeeling inkwell. And instead of explanations and exercises I had interruptions, posed not only by my religious duties (for it is well known how usefully and beneficailly these take up one’s time), but by all those other things incidental to life in a community: as when I would be reading and the nuns in the next cell would have a notin to sing and play; or I would be reading and two maidservants, arguing, would come to appoint me arbiter in their dispute; again, as I was writing, a friend would come to visit me, doing me a very bad turn with very good intentions. So that one must not only make way for the interruption but give thanks for the harm done. And it is always so, for the times I devote to study are usually those left over when observance of the Rule of the community is fulfilled, and the same time is left to the other nuns to come and interrupt me. The truth of this can be known only to those who have experienced life in community, where the strength of my vocation alone assures that my nature can find enjoyment, together with the great love that exists between me and my dear sisters. For as love itself is union, it admits no distant extremes.

In this respect, I do confess that the trial I have undergone has been beyond all telling; and thus I cannot confirm what I have, with envy, heard others say: that learning has cost them no drudgery. How lucky they are! For me, it has not been knowledge (for I still know nothing) but the desire to know that has cost me so dear that I night truly say, like my good Father St. Jerome (though not with the benefit he offers): “What efforts I spent on that task, what difficulties I had to face, how often I despaired, how often I gave up and then in my eagerness to learn began again, my own knowledge can witness from personal experience and those can testify who were then living with me.” Save for the mention of companions and witnesses (for I have lacked even this mitigation), I can in all truth affirm the rest of his words. And to think that this, my wicked inclination, should be such, that it has vanquished all before it!

It has often befallen me-for among other favors I owe to God a nature that is mild and affable; and the nuns, good creatures that they are, love me very much on this account and take no note of my failings, and so they delight in my company. Knowing this, and moved by the great love I bear them with more cause than theirs for me, I take even greater delight in their company.-And so, as I say, in the times they and I have not been occupied, I have often gone to offer them comfort and to find recreation in their conversation. I began to notice that I was stealing this time away from my studies, and I made a vow not to step into another nun’s cell unless I were thus obliged by obedience or charity to do so; for unless I reined myself in this harshly, love would burst the restraint exerted by my intent alone. Thus, knowing my own weakness, I would hold to this vow for a month or a fortnight; and when it was done, I gave myself a truce of a day or two before I renewed it. That day would serve not so much to give me rest (for to desist from study has never been restful for me), but so that I might not be thought gruff, withdrawn, and ungrateful in the face of the undeserved affection of my most beloved sisters.

This shows all too well just how great is the strength of my inclination. My God be praised that He inclined me to letters and not some other vice, which would have been, in my case, nearly insurmountable. And from this, too, it may well be inferred just how my poor studies have found their way (or, to be more exact, have foundered) in steering against the current. For I have yet to tell the most strenuous of my difficulties. Those accounted for to this point have been no more than hindrances caused by my obligations or by chance, posed indirectly; they are not purposeful obstacles directly aimed at impeding and prohibiting my training. Who would not think, upon hearing such widespread applause, that I had sailed before the wind with a sea smooth as glass, upon the cheers of universal acclaim? Yet God Himself knows it has not quite been so, because among the blossoms of that very acclaim there have roused themselves and reared up the asps of rivalry and persecution, more than I could possibly count. And the most venomous and hurtful to me have not been those who with explicit hatred and ill-will have persecuted me, but those persons, loving me and desiring my good (and, therefore, greatly deserving before God for their good intentions), who have mortified and tormented me more than any others, with these words: “All this study is not fitting, for holy ignorance is your duty; she shall go to perdition, she shall surely be cast down from such heights by that same wit and cleverness.” How was I to bear up against this? A strange martyrdom indeed, where I must be both martyr and my own executioner!

Well, as for this aptitude at composing verses-which is doubly unfortunate, in my case, even should they be sacred verses-what unpleasantness have they not caused me, and indeed do they not still cause? Truly, my Lady, at times I ponder how it is that a person who achieves high significance-or rather, who is granted significance by God, for He alone can do this-is received as the common enemy. For that person seems to others to usurp the applause they deserve or to draw off and dam up the admiration to which they had aspired, and so they persecute that person.

That politically barbarous law of Athens remains in effect, whereby anyone possessing significant qualities and virtues was expelled from the republic to prevent his using them for the subjugation of public liberty; it is still observed in our own times, though no longer for the same reason the Athenians held. But now there is another motive, no less potent though less well founded, for it resembles a maxim of that impious Machiavelli: to abhor the person who becomes significant because that one tarnishes the fame of others.

What else but this could cause that furious hatred of the Pharisees against Christ, when there were so many reasons to feel the opposite? If we consider Christ’s bodily form, what quality could be more worthy of love than His divine beauty? What could bear off our hearts more powerfully? For if any human beauty whatsoever can hold sway over our fancies and enthrall them with gentle and ravishing force, then what indeed might that other beauty accomplish, with so many sovereign powers and perfections? What could it do and move us to do, what could it not do or fail to move us to do, that unfathomable beauty through whose fair face, as through a polished glass, there shone unclouded the brilliant beams of Divinity? What could that countenance not inspire, in which far beyond incomparable human perfections there shone luminous signs of divine radiance? If the face of Moses, after no more than a conversation with God, became intolerable to the frailty of human sight, what must occur with the very face of God Himself made human? And if we go on to His other qualities, what could be more worthy of love than that heavenly modesty, that gentle softness pouring out mercies in all His movements, that depth of humility and meekness, those words of eternal life and eternal wisdom? Then how could this fail to bear off every soul? How could any fail to follow, loving and uplifted, behind Him?

Our Holy Mother, my own mother Teresa, says that from the time she beheld the beauty of Christ she was freed of the possibility of inclination toward any earthly creature, for she could see nothing that was not ugliness compared to such beauty. Then how could it work such opposite effects in men? And since, being crude and base men, they could form no understanding nor measure of His perfections, why then in mere self-interest were they not moved by their own advantage and by the profit to them entailed in the many benefits He proffered, when He made the sick healthy, revived the dead, and cast out devils from those possessed? How then could they not love Him? Dear God, it was for this very reason they did not love Him. It was for this that they despised him!

They gathered in their council and declared: “What do we, for this man doth many miracles?” Can such a thing be cause for accusation? If they had said, “This man is a malefactor, a transgressor against the law, a troublemaker who with his deceits stirs up the people,” they would have lied; indeed, they did lie when they said those very things. Yet those accusations at least presented cause more suited to the end they proposed, which was to take His life. No, to state as cause that He worked miracles seems unfitting in learned men, and such were the Pharisees. But this is the way of things, for when learned men fall prey to passion they burst out illogically in just this fashion. In truth, it was concluded for this reason alone that Christ must die. O men-if such you may be called, being so brutish-why do you reach such a cruel decision? They answer only, “He doth many miracles.” May God preserve me if working signs and miracles is cause that one should die! This saying, “He doth signs and miracles” calls forth that earlier “root of Jesse, who standeth for an ensign of the people” and that other “for a sign which shall be contradicted.” For a sign? Then let him die! Of significance? He must suffer, for that is the prize given one who is thought significant! Figures of the Winds and of Fame are often placed on the topmost heights of temples as adornments; to defend them from the birds, these images are covered with barbs. This would seem to be a defense, yet it is not, but rather a requisite attribute; for a figure thus standing on high must needs feel those barbs. Up there are felt the grudges of the wind, the severity of the elements. There the rage of the lightning thrusts. Up there is the target of stones and arrows. O, unhappy eminence, whether of dignity, or nobility, or wealth, or beauty, or learning; but it is high intelligence lacks defense: wealth and power punish those who confront them, while intelligence does not. Indeed, the greater it is, the more modest and long-suffering intelligence becomes and defends itself less. Secondly, this is because, as Gracian said with great erudition, “The advantages of intelligence are advantages of being.” The angel is superior to man for no other reason than that the angel is more intelligent; man surpasses the beast in no other way but intelligence. And thus, as no one wants to be less than another, no one will admit that another is more intelligent, for that follows logically from the other’s being more. One will suffer the admission that another is nobler than himself, wealthier, more beautiful, and even more learned; but there are few indeed who will admit that another possesses superior powers of mind: “It is the rare man who will concede greater intelligence [to his friend].” That is why weaponry is so effective against this particular talent.

When the soldiers make a mockery, an entertainment, and a diversion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, they brought an old purple cloak and a hollow staff and a crown of thorns to mock Him as king of fools. Now, the cloak and staff were insulting, but they did not cause pain. Why should the crown alone be painful? Was it not enough that, like the other insignia, it should be an emblem of scorn and mockery, since that was their aim? No, because the sacred head of Christ and His divine mind were the storehouse of wisdom. And in this world it is not enough that the wise mind be scorned; it must needs be wounded and beaten. The head that is a treasury of wisdom can hope for no other crown than thorns. What wreath can human learning hope for if it sees what is bestowed on the divine? Roman pomp crowned the varied feats of their captains with crowns that were equally varied: the civic crown to one who saved the life of a fellow citizen; the castrensian crown to tone who stormed the enemy’s camps; the mural who freed the besieged city, an encircled army, or the battlefield or encampment. They rewarded other feats with the naval crown, the oval crown, and the triumphal crown, according to Pliny and Aulus Gellius. But upon seeing so many and diverse crowns, I pondered which sort the crown given to Christ might be; and I think it must be the obsidional crown, which (as you know, my Lady) conferred the greatest honor and was called “obsidional” from obsidio, which means “siege.” This crown was make neither of gold nor silver, but of the very grasses growing in the field where the brave deed was carried out. And Christ’s feat was to raise the siege of the Prince of Darkness, who had encircled the entire earth, as Satan himself says in the Book of Job: “I have gone round about the earth, and walked through it,” and as St. Peter says of him: “Your adversary [the devil]goeth about seeking whom he may devour.” And our Chieftain came, and made Satan raise the siege: “Now shall the prince of this world be cast out.” Thus, the soldiers crowned Him with neither gold nor silver, but with the plant springing up throughout the world, which was their field of battle. For after the curse, “Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee,” this world produced nothing but thorns. The daughters of Zion went out weeping to see this sorrowful triumph, as they went gaily to see Solomon triumphant; for the triumph of the wise is won with sorrow and celebrated with tears. This is the way that wisdom triumphs. It was Christ the King of Wisdom who first wore that crown, so that seeing it sanctified upon His brow, all other men of learning might lose their horror of it, and know they need aspire to no other honor.

Our very Life saw fit to go and give new life to dead Lazarus. The disciples did not know what he intended, and they argued with Him: “Rabbi, the Jews but now sought to stone thee: and goest thou thither again?” And the Redeemer made full reply to their foreboding: “Are there not twelve hours of the day?” Up to this point in the text, it seems the disciples were afraid because they bore in mind the precedent that some had tried to stone Him because He had rebuked them, calling them thieves and not shepherds of flocks. And so he disciples feared that if He went back to do the same thing (as rebukes, however just they may be, tend to be ill-received), He would be in danger of His life. But once disabused of the error-knowing that He was going to restore life to Lazarus-what could then stir Thomas, taking courage just as Peter did in the garden, to say: “Let us also go, that we may die with Him?” What are you saying, blessed Apostle? The Lord does not go to die; then what is your misgiving? For Christ goes not to rebuke but to perform an act of mercy, and they can do no ill to Him for that. The Jews themselves could have assured you of this. For when He reproached them for wanting to stone Him, saying, “Many good works I have shewed you from my Father; for which of those works do you stone me?” they answered Him: “For a good work we stone thee not, but for blasphemy.” If the Jews declare that they do not wish to stone Him for good works, and if now He goes to work such great good as to give new life to Lazarus, on what account or to what purpose do you feel such misgiving? Would you not better say, “Let us go taste the fruits of gratitude for the good work our Master will perform; let us go see Him praised and thanked for the favor He gives; let us see how they marvel at His miracle,” rather than saying a thing so apparently out of place as “Let us also go, that we may die with Him?” But alas, our Saint had the fears of a wise man, and he spoke like a true apostle. Does Christ not set out to work a miracle, a sign? Well then, what greater danger can He risk? Less intolerable is it for pride to hear itself rebuked than for envy to see miracles performed. In all that I have said, my Lady, I do not wish (nor would I be capable of such foolishness) to claim that I have been persecuted because of my knowledge, but rather only because of my love for learning and letters, and not because I had attained either one or the other.

The Prince of the Apostles once found himself a long way indeed from Knowledge, as is remarked in the emphatic “But Peter followed afar off.” A long way from receiving praise as a learned man was he, who once bore the title of unknowing: “not knowing what he said.” And indeed, when faced with an examination concerning his acquaintance with Knowledge, he himself said he had not acquired the least notion: “Woman, I know not what thou sayest. Woman, I am not [one of them].” And what befalls him? Possessing this reputation for ignorance, he reaps none of the rewards but suffers all the afflictions of the learned. And why? No other reason is given, save: “This man also was with him.” Peter was fond of Knowledge, which bore away his heart; and he followed after, calling himself a follower and a lover of Knowledge. And though he followed so “afar off” that he neither understood nor attained Knowledge, still this sufficed to incur its torments. The soldier from without would not hesitate to afflict him, nor the maidservant within-doors fail to trouble him. I confess that I am far indeed from the terms of Knowledge and that I have wished to follow it, though “afar off.” But all this has merely led me closer to the flames of persecution, the crucible of affliction; and to such extremes that some have even sought to prohibit me from study.

They achieved this once, with a very saintly and simple mother superior who believed that study was an affair for the Inquisition and ordered that I should not read. 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 the intricate structures of this world. Nothing could I see without reflecting upon it, nothing could I hear without pondering it, even to the most minute, material things. For there is no creature, however lowly, in which one cannot recognize the great “God made me,” there is not one that does not stagger the mind if it receives due consideration. And so, I repeat, I looked and marveled at all things, so that from the very persons with whom I spoke and from what they said to me, a thousand speculations leapt to my mind: Whence could spring this diversity of character and intelligence among individuals all composing one single species? What temperaments, what hidden qualities could give rise to each? When I noticed a shape, I would set about combining the proportions of its lines and measuring it in my mind and converting it to other proportions. I sometimes walked back and forth along the forewall of one of our dormitories (which is a very large room), and I began to observe that although the lines of its two sides were parallel and the ceiling was flat, yet the eye falsely perceived these lines as though they approached each other and the ceiling as thughit were lower in the distance than close by; from this I inferred that visual lines run straight, but not parallel, and that they form a pyramidal figure. And I conjectured whether this might be the reason the ancients were obliged to question whether the world is spherical or not. Because even though it seems so, this could be a delusion of the eye, displaying concavities where there were none.

This kind of observation has been continual in me and is so to this day, without my having control over it; rather, I tend to find it annoying, because it tires my head. Yet I believed this happened to everyone, as with thinking in verse, until experience taught me otherwise. This trait, whether a matter of nature or custom, is such that nothing do I see without a second thought. Two little girls were playing with a top in front of me, and no sooner had I seen the motion and shape than I began, with this madness of mine, to observe the easy movement of the spherical form and how the momentum lasted, now fixed and set free of its cause; for even far from its first cause, which was the hand of the girl, the little top went on dancing. Yet not content with this, I ordered flour to be brought and sifted on the floor, so that as the top danced over it, we could know whether its movement described perfect circles or no. I found they were not circular, but rather spiral lines that lost their circularity as the top lost its momentum. Other girls were playing at spillikins (the most frivolous of all childhood games). I drew near to observe the shapes they made, and when I saw three of the straws by chance fell in a triangle, I fell to intertwining one with another, recalling that this was said to be the very shape of Solomon’s mysterious ring, where distantly there shone bright traces and representations of the Most Blessed Trinity, by virtue of which it worked great prodigies and marvels. And they say David’s harp had the same shape, and thus was Saul cured by its sound; to this day, harps have almost the same form.

Well, and what then shall I tell you, my Lady, of the secrets of nature that I have learned while cooking? I observe that an egg becomes solid and cooks in butter or oil, and on the contrary that it dissolves in sugar syrup. Or again, to ensure that sugar flow freely one need only add the slightest bit of water that has held quince or some other sour fruit. The yolk and white of the very same egg are of such a contrary nature that when eggs are used with sugar, each part separately may be used perfectly well, yet they cannot be mixed together. I shall not weary you with such inanities, which I relate simply to give you a full account of my nature, and I believe this will make you laugh. But in truth, my Lady, what can we women know, save philosophies of the kitchen? It was well put by Lupercio Leonardo [sic] that one can philosophize quite well while preparing supper. I often say, when I make these little observations, “Had Aristotle cooked, he would have written a great deal more.” And so to go on with the mode of my cogitations: I declare that all this is so continual in me that I have no need of books. On one occasion, because of a severe stomach ailment, the doctors forbade me to study. I spent several days in that state, and then quickly proposed to them that it would be less harmful to allow me my books, for my cogitations were so strenuous and vehement that they consumed more vitality in a quarter of an hour than the reading of books could in four days. And so the doctors were compelled to let me read. What is more, my Lady, not even my sleep has been free of this ceaseless movement of my imagination. Rather, my mind operates in sleep still more freely and unobstructedly, ordering with greater clarity and ease the events it has preserved from the day, presenting arguments and composing verses. I could give you a very long catalogue of these, as I could of certain reasonings and subtle turns I have reached far better in my sleep than while awake; but I leave them out in order not to weary you. I have said enough for your judgment and your surpassing eminence to comprehend my nature with clarity and full understanding, together with the beginnings, the methods, and the present state of my studies.

If studies, my Lady, be merits (for indeed I see them extolled as such in men), in me they are no such thing: I study because I must. If they be a failing, I believe for the same reason that the fault is none of mine. Yet withal, I live always so wary of myself that neither in this nor in anything else do I trust my own judgment. And so I entrust the decision to your supreme skill and straightway submit to whatever sentence you may pass, posing no objection or reluctance, for this has been no more than a simple account of my inclination to letters.

I confess also that, while I truth this inclination has been such that, as I said before, I had no need of exemplars, nevertheless the many books that I have read have not failed to help me, both in sacred as well as secular letters. For there I see a Deborah issuing laws, military as well as political, and governing the people among whom there were so many learned men. I see the exceedingly knowledgeable Queen of Sheba, so learned she dares to test the wisdom of the wisest of all wise men with riddles, without being rebuked to it; indeed, on this very account she is to become judge of the unbelievers. I see so many and such significant women: some adorned with the gift of prophecy, like an Abigail; others, of persuasion, like Esther; others, of piety, like Rahab; others, of perseverance, like Anna [Hannah] the mother of Samuel; and others, infinitely more, with other kinds of qualities and virtues.

If I consider the Gentiles, the first I meet are the Sibyls, chosen by God to prophesy the essential mysteries of our Faith in such learned and elegant verses that they stupefy the imagination. I see a woman such as Minerva, daughter of great Jupiter and mistress of all the wisdom of Athens, adored as goddess of the sciences. I see one Polla Argentaria, who helped Lucan, her husband, to write the Battle of Pharsalia. I see the daughter of the divine Tiresias, more learned still than her father. I see, too, such a woman as Zenobia, queen of the Plmyrians, as wise as she was courageous. Again, I see an Arete, daughter of Aristippus, most learned. A Nicostrata, inventor of Latin letters and most erudite in the Greek. An Aspasia Miletia, who taught philosophy and rhetoric and was the teacher of the philosopher Pericles. An Hypatia, who taught astrology and lectured for many years in Alexandria. A Leontium, who won over the philosopher Theophrastus and proved him wrong. A Julia, a Corinna, a Cornelia; and, in sum, the vast throng of women who merited titles and earned renown: now as Greeks, again as Muses, and yet again as Pythonesses. For what were they all but learned women, who were considered, celebrated, and indeed venerated as such in Antiquity? Without mentioning still others, of whom the books are full; for I see the Egyptian Catherine, lecturing and refuting all the learning of the most learned men of Egypt. I see a Gertrude read, write, and teach. And seeking no more examples far from home, I see my own most holy mother Paula, learned in the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin tongues and most expert in the interpretation of the Scriptures. What wonder then can it be that, though her chronicler was no less than the unequaled Jerome, the Saint found himself scarcely worthy of the task, for with that lively gravity and energetic effectiveness with which only he can express himself, he says: “If all the parts of my body were tongues, they would not suffice to proclaim the learning and virtues of Paula.” Blessilla, a widow, earned the same praises, as did the luminous virgin Eustochium, both of them daughters of the Saint herself [Paula]; and indeed Eustochium was such that for her knowledge she was hailed as a World Prodigy. Fabiola, also a Roman, was another most learned in Holy Scripture. Probe Falconia, a Roman woman, wrote an elegant book of centos, joining together verses from Virgil, on the mysteries of our holy Faith. Our Queen Isabella, wife of Alfonso X, is known to have written on astrology-without mentioning others, whom I omit so as not merely to copy what others have said (which is a vice I have always detested): Well then, in our own day there thrive the great Christina Alexandra, Queen of Sweden, as learned as she is brave and generous; and too those most excellent ladies, the Duchess of Aveyro and the Countess of Villaumbrosa.

The venerable Dr. Arce (worthy professor of Scripture, known for his virtue and learning), in his For the Scholar of the Bible, raises this question: “Is it permissible for women to apply themselves to the study, and indeed the interpretation, of the Holy Bible?” And in opposition he presents the verdicts passed by many saints, particularly the words of [Paul] the Apostle: “Let women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted them to speak,” etc. Arce then presents differing verdicts, including this passage addressed to Titus, again spoken by the Apostle: “The aged women, in like manner, in holy attire

[. . .] teaching well “; and he gives other interpretations from the Fathers of the Church. Arce at last resolves, in his prudent way, that women are not allowed to lecture publicly in the universities or to preach from the pulpits, but that studying, writing, and teaching privately is not only permitted but most beneficial and useful to them. Clearly, of course, he does not mean by this that all women should do so, but only those whom God may have seen fit to endow with special virtue and prudence, and who are very mature and erudite and possess the necessary talents and requirements for such a sacred occupation. And so just is this distinction that not only women, who are held to be so incompetent, but also men, who simply because they are men think themselves wise, are to be prohibited from the interpretation of the Sacred Word, save when they are most learned, virtuous, of amenable intellect and inclined to the good. For when the reverse is true, I believe, numerous sectarians are produced, and this has given rise to numerous heresies. For there are many who study only to become ignorant, especially those of arrogant, restless, and prideful spirits, fond of innovations in the Law (the very thing that rejects all innovation). And so they are not content until, for the sake of saying what no one before them has said, they speak heresy. Of such men as these the Holy Spirit says: “For wisdom will not enter into a malicious soul.” For them, more harm is worked by knowledge than by ignorance. A wit once observed that he who knows no Latin is not an utter fool, but he who does know it has met the prerequisites. And I might add that he is make a perfect fool (if foolishness can attain perfection) by having studied his bit of philosophy and theology and by knowing something of languages. For with that he can be foolish in several sciences and tongues; a great fool cannot be contained in his mother tongue alone.

To such men, I repeat, study does harm, because it is like putting a sword in the hands of a madman: though the sword be the noblest of instruments for defense, in his hands it becomes his own death and that of many others. This is what the Divine Letters became in the hands of that wicked Pelagius and of the perverse Arius, of that wicked Luther, and all the other hertics, like our own Dr. Cazalla (who was never either our own nor a doctor). Learning harmed them all, though it can be the best suffering from diminished heat, produces more bitter, putrid, and perverse humors the better the food that is given, so too these evil persons give rise to worse opinions the more they study. Their understanding is obstructed by the very thing that should nourish it, and the fact is they study a great deal and digest very little, failing to measure their efforts to the narrow vessel of their understanding. In this regard the Apostle has said: “For I say, by the grace that is given me, to all that are among you, not to be more wise than it behoveth to be wise, but to be wise unto sobriety, and according as God hath divided to every one the measure of faith.” And in truth the Apostle said this not to women but to men, and the “Let [them] keep silence” was meant not only for women, but for all those who are not very competent. If I wish to know as much as or more than Aristotle or St. Augustine, but I lack the ability of a St. Augustine or an Aristotle, then I may study more than both of them together, but I shall not only fail to reach my goal: I shall weaken and stupefy the workings of my feeble understanding with such a disproportionate aim.

Oh, that all men-and I, who am but an ignorant women, first of all-might take the measure of our abilities before setting out to study and, what is worse, to write, in our jealous aspiration to equal and even surpass others. How little boldness would we summon, how many errors might we avoid, and how many distorted interpretations now noised abroad should be noised no further! And I place my own before all others, for if I knew all that I ought, I would not so much as write these words. Yet I protest that I do so only to obey you; and with such misgiving that you owe me more for taking up my pen with all this fear than you would owe me were I to present you with the most perfect works. But withal, it is well that this goes to meet with your correction: erase it, tear it up, and chastise me, for I shall value that more than all the vain applause others could give me. “The just an shall correct me in mercy, and shall reprove me: but let not the oil of the sinner fatten my head.”

And returning to our own Arce, I observe that in support of his views he presents these words of my father St. Jerome (in the letter To Leta, on the Education of Her Daughter), where he says: “[Her] childish tongue must be imbued with the sweet music of the Psalms. [. . . ]The very words from which she will get into the way of forming sentences should not be taken at haphazard but be definitely chosen and arranged on purpose. For example, let her have the names of the prophets and the apostles, and the whole list of patriarchs from Adam downwards, as Matthew and Luke give it. She will then be doing two things at the same time, and will remember them afterwards. [. . . ] Let her every day repeat to you a portion of the Scriptures as her fixed task.” Very well, if the Saint wished a little girl, scarcely beginning to speak, to be instructed thus, what must he desire for his nuns and spiritual daughters? We see this most clearly I the women already mentioned-Eustochium and Fabiola-and also I Marcella, the latter’s sister; in Pacatula, and in other women whom the Saint honors in his epistles, urging them on in this holy exercise. This appears in the letter already cited, where I noted the words “let her repeat to you…” which serve to reclaim and confirm St. Paul’s description, “teaching well.” For the “let her repeat the task to you” of my great Father makes clear that the little girl’s teacher must be Leta herself, the girl’s mother.

Oh, how many abuses would be avoided in our land if the older women were as well instructed as Leta and knew how to teach as is commanded by St. Paul and my father St. Jerome! Instead, for lack of such learning and through the extreme feebleness in which they are determined to maintain our poor women, if any parents then wish to give their daughters more extensive Christian instruction than is usual, necessity and the lack of learned older women oblige them to employ men as instructors to teach reading and writing, numbers and music, and other skills. This leads to considerable harm, which occurs every day in doleful instances of these unsuitable associations. For the immediacy of such contact and the passage of time all too frequently allow what seemed impossible to be accomplished quite easily. For this reason, many parents prefer to let their daughters remain uncivilized and untutored, rather than risk exposing them to such notorious peril as this familiarity with men. Yet all this could be avoided if there were old women of sound education, as St. Paul desires, so that instruction could be passed from the old to the young just as is done with sewing and all the customary skills.

For what impropriety can there be if an older woman, learned in letters and holy conversation and customs, should have in her charge the education of young maids? Better so than to let these young girls go to perdition, either for lack of any Christian teaching or because one tries to impart it through such dangerous means as male teachers. For if there were no greater risk than the simple indecency of seating a completely unknown man at the side of a bashful woman (who blushes if her own father should look her straight in the face), allowing him to address her with household familiarity and to speak to her with intimate authority; even so the modesty demanded in interchange with men and in conversation with them gives sufficient cause to forbid this. Indeed, I do not see how the custom of men as teachers of women can be without its dangers, save only in the strict tribunal of the confessional, or the distant teachings of the pulpit, or the remote wisdom of books; but never I the repeated handling that occurs in such immediate and tarnishing contact. And everyone knows this to be true. Nevertheless, it is permitted for no better reason than the lack of learned older women; therefore, it does great harm not to have them. This point should be taken into account by those who, tied to the “Let women keep silence in the churches,” curse the idea that women should acquire knowledge and teach, as if it were not the Apostle himself who described them “teaching well.” Furthermore, that prohibition applied to the case related by Eusebius: to wit, that in the early Church, women were set to teaching each other Christian doctrine in the temples. The murmur of their voices caused confusion when the apostles were preaching, and that is why they were told to be silent. Just so, we see today that when the preacher is preaching, no one prays aloud.

There can be no doubt that I order to understand many passages, one must know a great deal of history, customs, rituals, proverbs, and even the habits of speech of the times I which they were written in order to know what is indicated and what alluded to by certain sayings in divine letters. “Rend your hearts, and not your garments”-is that not an allusion to the Hebrews’ ritual of tearing their clothing as a sign of grief, as was done by the evil high priest when he said that Christ has blasphemed? Do not many passages by the Apostle [Paul], on the aid and comfort of widows, refer to the customs of his times? Or that passage concerning the strong woman, “Her husband is honourable in the gates,” does it not allude to the custom of placing the judges’ tribunals at the city gates? The saying “Give land to God,” does it not stand for making some vow? Was not the term Hiemantes used for public sinners, because they make their penance out of doors, unlike others who did penance in a doorway? The complaint of Christ to the Pharisee who failed to greet Him with the kiss of peace or the washing of feet, is that not based on the Jewish custom of doing these things? And so it is with infinitely many more passages, not only in divine but in humane letters as well, which are met at every turn, like the phrase “Honor the purple,” which meant “Obey the king”; or the phrase “to put a hand to him,” which meant “to emancipate,” referring to the custom and ritual of giving a slave a slap to set him at liberty. Again, Virgil’s “The heavens thundered,” alluding to the augury of thunder toward the west, which was thought a good omen. There is Martial’s “You never ate hare,” which shows not only the wordplay in leporem (which means both “hare,” and “jest”), but also a reference to a quality the hare was said to possess. There is the proverb, “To sail the shores of Malia is to forget all the things of home,” which refers to the great peril of the promontory of Laconia. The response of the chaste matron to an unwanted suitor, “No doorframes shall be annointed on my account, nor shall the torches burn,” to say that she would not marry, alludes to the ritual of annointing the doorways with oil and lighting nuptial torches at weddings; just so, we might say today, “On my account shall no dowry coins be spent, nor shall the priest give his blessing.” And in this vein, much commentary can be make on Virgil and Homer and all the poets and orators. Very well, and in addition to all this, what difficulties do we not find in sacred texts, even in matters of grammar-putting the plural in place of the singular, or moving from second to third person, like the passage in the Song of Songs: “Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth: for thy breasts are better than wine”? Or putting the adjectives in the genitive case, instead of the accusative, as in “I will take the chalice of salvation”? Or again, putting the feminine in place of the masculine; or, on the contrary, calling every sin adultery?

All this requires more study than is supposed by certain men who, as mere grammarians or, at most, armed with four terms from the principles of logic, wish to interpret the Scriptures and cling to the “Let women keep silence in the churches,” without knowing how to understand it rightly. So it is with another passage, “Let the woman learn in silence”, for this passage is more in favor of than against women, as it says that they should learn and while they are learning, obviously, they must needs keep quiet. And it is also written, “Hear, O Israel, and be silent, “where the whole congregation of men and women are addressed, and all are told to be quiet, for whoever listens and learns has good reason to take heed and keep still. If this be not so, I would like these interpreters and expounders of St. Paul to explain to me how they understand the passage, “Let women keep silence in the churches.” For they must understand it either materially, to mean the pulpit and the lecture hall, or formally, to mean the community of all believers, which is to say the Church. If they understand it in the second sense and wish to extend the Apostle’s prohibition to all instances without exception, so that not even in private may women write or study, then how is it that we see the Church has allowed a Gertrude, a Teresa, a Brigid, the nun of Agreda, and many other women to write? And if they tell me that these women all were saintly, true enough, but that in no way hinders my argument. First, because St. Paul’s proposition is absolute and includes al women with no exception make for saints; for saintly, too, in their own day were Martha and Mary, and Marcella, and Mary the mother of Jacob, and Salome, and many other women who took part in the zeal of the early Church, yet Paul makes no exception for them. And in our own time we see that the Church permits writing by women saints and those who are not saints alike; for the nun of Agreda and Maria de la Antigua are not canonized, yet their writings go from hand to hand. Nor when Sts. Teresa and the others were writing, had they yet been canonized. Therefore, St. Paul’s prohibition applied only to public speech from the pulpit; for if the Apostle were to prohibit all writing, then the Church could not permit it. Very well now, I am not so bold as to teach, which requires more talent than is mine and the greatest deliberation. So says St. Cyprian: “That which we write requires solemn deliberation.” All that I have desired has been to study, so as to become less ignorant. For according to St. Augustine, some things are learned so as to act on them, and others simply for the sake of knowing them: ” We learn certain things in order to know them; others in order to do them.” Then where is my transgression, if I refrain even from that which is permissible for women-to teach by writing-because I know myself to lack the abundant talent needed for it, following Quintilian’s counsel: “Let each one learn, no so much by the precepts of others, as by following the counsel of his own nature”?

If my crime lies in the “Letter Worthy of Athena,” was that anything more than a simple report of my opinion, with all the indulgences granted me by our Holy Mother Church? For if She, with her most holy authority, does not forbid my writing, why must others forbid it? Is it bold of me to oppose Vieira, yet not so for that Reverend Father to oppose the three holy Fathers of the Church? Is my mind, such as it is, less free than his, though it derives from the same source? Is his opinion to be taken as one of the principles of the Holy Faith make manifest, that we must believe it blindly? Besides which, I have not in the slightest way fallen short of that respect owed such a great ma, as his defender has done in this instance, forgetting the observation of Titus Lucius, “Respect befits the arts. “Nor did I write for anyone other than the person who suggested it to me; and according to Pliny, “The situation of one who publishes a thing is different from that of one who speaks it by name.” For had I thought the letter was to be published, it would not have appeared as unkempt as it was. If it is heretical, as the critic says, why does he not denounce it? Thus he would find revenge and I contentment, for I more greatly value, as I ought, the name of Catholic and obedient daughter of my Holy Mother Church than any praise that might befall my as a scholar. If the letter be crude-as he rightly says it is-then let him laugh at it, though he laugh falsely with what they call rabbit’s laughter. I do not say that he should praise me, for just as I was free to disagree with Vieira, any person shall be free to disagree with my judgment.

But where am I bound, my Lady? For none of this is pertinent here; nor meant for your ears; instead, as I was speaking of my detractors, I recalled the phrases of one such who has recently appeared, and all unwittingly my pen strayed in a desire to reply to him specifically, although my intention is to speak generally. And so, to return to our good Arce: he relates that he knew two nuns in this City, one of them in the Convent of Regina, who had so thoroughly committed to memory the Divine Office that with the greatest alacrity and propriety she would apply its verses, psalms, and maxims from the homilies of the saints to all her conversations. The other, in the Convent of the Conception, was so adept in reading the Epistles of my father St. Jerome, and so well versed in his sayings, that Arce says: “I thought that I heard Jerome himself, speaking in Spanish.” Of the second nun, Arce says that he learned, after her death, that she had translated those very Epistles into the Spanish language; and he grieves that such talents should not have been set to higher studies, guided by principles of science. He never mentions the name of either nun, but he presents them in support of his verdict that the study of sacred letters is not only permissible but most useful and necessary for women, and all the more so for nuns. This is the same end to which I am urged by your direction, and wherein so many arguments concur.

Now, if I turn my eyes to my much-maligned skill at writing in verse-so natural to me that indeed I must force myself not to write this very letter in rhyme, and I could observe as another did, “Whatever I tried to say came out in verse”; seeing this facility for writing poems condemned by so many and so vilified, I have sought quite deliberately to discover what harm there might be in them, and I cannot. Rather, I see them praised in the mouths of the Sibyls and sanctified by the pens of the Prophets, especially that of King David, of whom the great expositor, my own beloved Father, says in scanning the measures of his meters: “In the style of Horace and Pindar, now it runs in iambics, now it resounds in the alcaic measure, now it swells in sapphics, now in half-feet it moves slowly forward.” The greater part of our sacred books are written in meter, like the Canticle of Moses; and most of Job according to the Etymologies of St. Isidore, is in heroic verse. Solomon wrote poetry in the Epithalamia, as did Jeremiah in his Lamentations. Cassiodorus says the following: “All poetic speech had its origins in the Holy Scriptures.” Indeed, our own Catholic Church, far from spurning verses, employs them in her hymns and recites those of St. Ambrose, St. Thomas, St. Isidore, and others. St. Bonaventure was so fond of them that scarcely a page of his lacks verses. It is clear that St. Paul had studied them, for he cites them, and translates the following from Aratus: “For in him we live, and move, and are”; and he quotes another, from Parmenides: “The Cretians [sic] are always liars, evil beasts, slothful bellies.” St. Gregory of Nazianzus debates in elegant verses the questions of matrimony and virginity. And why should I grow weary? Our Lady, the Queen of Knowledge, with her blessed lips intoned the Canticle of the Magnificat; and once having presented her as an exemplar, it would be injurious to present profane examples, be they the verses of men ever so solemn and learned, for that would exceed the needs of proof. And we see that although the elegance of the Hebrew could not be bound in the Latin meter, so that the sacred translator, heeding more closely the essence of the meaning, was obliged to omit the verse, yet sill the Psalms retain the name and divisions of verses. Then what harm can verses cause in and of themselves? For their misuse is no fault of the art, but of the bad practitioner who debases them, fashioning devil’s snares of them. And this occurs in all the faculties and sciences.

And if the evil lies in their being used by a woman, we have just seen how many women have used them most laudable; then what evil lies in my being one? I confess straightway my rough and uncouth nature; but I wager not a soul has seen an indecent verse of mine. What is more, I have never written a single thing of my own volition, but rather only in response to the pleadings and commands of others; so much so that I recall having written nothing at my own pleasure save a trifling thing they call the Dream. The letter that you so honored, my Lady, I wrote with grater abhorrence than anything else. This was because it treated sacred matters for which (as I have said) I hold such reverent dread; and, too, because it would appear to be an attempt at refutation, to which I have a natural aversion. And I believe that, could I have foreseen the happy destiny for which it was born-for I cast it out, like a second Moses, as a foundling upon the waters of the Nile of silence, where it was discovered and cherished by a princess no less than yourself-I believe, as I was saying, that were I to have imagined any such thing, I should first have drowned it with these very hands to which it was born, for fear that the dull-witted scribbles of my ignorance should appear before the light of your knowledge. Thus we know the extent of your noble beneficence; for your goodwill applauds precisely what your most brilliant discernment should repudiate. But now that the letter’s fate has cast it before your doors, a foundling so orphaned that its very name was bestowed by you, I regret that among all its many deformities it displays the defects of hasty composition. This is so as much on account of the poor health that is always mine as of the surfeit of tasks that obedience requires of me and the lack of anyone to help me with writing, so that it must all be done in my own hand. And while the task went against my character, yet I wanted nothing more than to keep my word to one whom I could not disobey, so that I thought I should never be done with it. And thus I left out entire arguments and a great many proofs that occurred to me, omitting them so as to be done writing. Had I known it was to be printed, I would not have left them out, were it only for the sake of satisfying a few objections that have arisen. And I could submit the latter to you; but I shall not be so careless as to set such indecent objects before the purity of your eyes, for it is enough that I offend them with my stupidities, without submitting them to the effronteries of others. I of their own account these go flying about (for they are so flighty that they will do so), you must order how I should proceed. Unless your instructions intervene, I shall never in my own defense take up the pen again. For it seems to me that one who, by the very act of concealing his identity, acknowledges error needs no one to make accusation. As my father St. Jerome says, “Honest words seek no quiet retreat”; and St. Ambrose, “It is the nature of a guilty conscience to hide away.” Nor do I consider myself to be impugned, for as a rule of Law maintains, “An accusation cannot be upheld if it fails to pay heed to the character of the person who made it.” But what is worthy of wonder is the labor it has cost him to go about making copies. An odd dementia it is to wear oneself out more in avoiding credit than one could in earning it! My Lady, I have not wished to reply, though others have done so without my knowledge. It is enough that I have seen certain papers, among them one I send to you because it is learned, and because reading it will restore to you a portion of your time that I have wasted with what I am writing. If by your wisdom and sense, My Lady, you should be pleased for me to do other than what I propose, thn as is only right, to the slightest motion of your pleasure I shall cede my own decision, which was as I have told you to keep still. For although St. John Chrysostom says, “One’s slanderers must be proven wrong, and one’s questioners must be taught,” I see too that St. Gregory says, “It is no less a victory to tolerate one’s enemies than to defeat them,” and that patience defeats by tolerance and triumphs by suffering. Indeed, it was the custom among the Roman Gentiles, for their captains at the very height of glory-when they entered triumphing over other nations, clothed in purple and crowned with laurel; with their carts drawn by the crowned brows of vanquished kings rather than by beasts of burden; accompanied by the spoils of the riches of all the world, before a conquering army decorated with the emblems of its feats; hearing the crowds acclaim in such honorable titles and epithets as Fathers of the Fatherland, Pillars of the Empire, Ramparts of Rome, Refuge of the Republic, and other glorious names-it was the custom, at this supreme apex of pride and human felicity, that a common soldier should cry aloud to the conqueror, as if from his own feeling and at the order of the Senate: “Behold, how you are mortal; behold, for you have such and such a failing.” Nor were the most shameful excused; as at the triumph of Caesar, when the most contemptible soldiers shouted in his ears, “Beware, Romans, for we bring before you the bald adulterer.” All of this was done so that in the midst of great honor the conqueror might not puff up with pride, and that the ballast of these affronts might prove a counterweight to the sails of so much praise, so that the ship of sound judgment should not founder in the winds of acclaim. If, as I say, all this was done by mere Gentiles, guided only by the light of Natural Law, then for us as Catholics, who are commanded to love our enemies, is it any great matter for us to tolerate them? For my part, I can testify that these detractions have at times been a mortification to me, but they have never done me harm. For I think that man very foolish who, having the opportunity to earn due merit, undertakes the labor and resign themselves to death. In the end they die all the same, with their resistance serving not to exempt them from dying, but only to deprive them of the merit of conformity to God’s will, and thus to give them an evil death when it could have been blessed. And so, my Lady, I think these detractions do more good than harm. I maintain that a greater risk to human frailty is worked by praise, which usually siezes what does not belong to it, so that one must proceed with great care and have inscribed in one’s heart these words of the Apostle: “Or what hast thou that thou has not received? And if thou hast received, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?” For these words should serve as a shield to deflect the prongs of praises, which are spears that, when not attributed to God to whom they belong, take our very lives and make us thieves of God’s honor and usurpers of the talents that He bestowed on us, and of the gifts He lent us, for which we must one day render Him a most detailed account. And so, good Lady, I fear applause far more than slander. For the slander, with just one simple act of patience, is turned to a benefit, whereas praise requires many acts of reflection and humility and self-knowledge if it is not to cause harm. And so, for myself I know and own that this knowledge is a special favor from God, enabling me to conduct myself in the face of one as in the other, following that dictum of St. Augustine: “One must believe neither the friend who speaks praises nor the enemy who reviles.” Although I am such a one as most times must either let the opportunity go to waste, or mix it with such failings and flaws that I spoil what left to itself would have been good. And so, with the few things of mine that have been printed, the appearance of my name-and, indeed, permission for the printing itself-have not followed my own decision, but another’s liberty that does not lie under my control, as was the case with the “Letter Worthy of Athena.” So you see, only some little Exercises for the Annunciation and certain Offerings for the Sorrows were printed at my pleasure for the prayers of the public, but my name did not appear. I submit to you a few copies of the same, so that you may distribute them (if you think it seemly) among our sisters the nuns of your blessed community and others in this City. Only one copy remains of the Sorrows, because they have all been given away and I could find no more. I make them only for the prayers of my sisters, many years ago, and then they became more widely known. Their subjects are as disproportionate to my lukewarm ability as to my ignorance, and I was helped in writing them only by the fact that they dealt with matters of our great Queen; I know not why it is that in speaking of the Most Blessed Mary, the most icy heart is set aflame. It would please me greatly, my venerable Lady, to send you works worthy of your virtue and wisdom, but as the Poet remarked:

Even when strength is lacking, still the intention must be praised.

I surmise the gods would be content with that.

If ever I write any more little trifles, they shall always seek haven at your feet and the safety of your correction, for I have no other jewel with which to repay you. And in the opinion of Seneca, he who has once commenced to confer benefits becomes obliged to continue them. Thus you must be repaid by your own generosity, for only in that way can I be honorably cleared of my debt to you, lest another statement, again Seneca’s, be leveled against me: “It is shameful to be outdone in acts of kindness.” For it is magnanimous for the generous creditor to grant a poor debtor some means of satisfying the debt. Thus God behaved toward the world, which could not possibly repay Him: He have His own Son, that He might offer Himself as a worthy amends.

If the style of this letter, my venerable Lady, has been less than your due, I beg your pardon for its household familiarity or the lack of seemly respect. For in addressing you, my sister, as a nun of the veil, I have for gotten the distance between myself and your most distinguished person, which should not occur were I to see you unveiled. But you, with your prudence and benevolence, will substitute or emend my terms; and if you think unsuitable the familiar terms of address I have employed-because it seems to me that given all the reverence I owe you, “Your Reverence” is very little reverence indeed-please alter it to whatever you think suitable. For I have not been so bold as to exceed the limits set by the style of your letter to me, nor to cross the border of your modesty.

And hold me in your own good grace, so as to entreat divine grace on my behalf; of the same, may the Lord grant you great increase, and may He keep you, as I beg of Him and as I am needful. Written at the Convent of our Father St. Jerome in Mexico City, this first day of March of the year 1691. Receive the embrace of your most greatly favored.

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz

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