The Genius of San Jerónimo

A Sor Juana Anthology

translated by Alan S. Trueblood, foreword by Octavio Paz
Harvard University Press, 248 pp., $29.50

Sor Juana: or, The Traps of Faith

by Octavio Paz, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden
Harvard University Press, 547 pp., $29.95

In 1690, in the viceroyalty of New Spain, a place known earlier and later as Mexico, anyone who was interested could read an elegant disquisition on Christ’s courtesy, his finezas, his delicate kindnesses toward humanity. The author was a formidably clever nun called Sor Juana lnés de la Cruz, undoubtedly one of the great poets of the Spanish language—possibly of any language. She made many modest disclaimers about her theology, but plainly had a tremendous relish for disputation. Was Christ’s greatest kindness his dying for us or his consenting to absent himself from us for a while? His leaving us his sacrament or his immaterial presence in the sacrament? His washing his disciples’ feet or the motive that led him to wash them? In each case Sor Juana offered refined arguments and examples for the apparently less refined option: dying, the sacrament, washing the feet. She thereby defended the Church fathers against an ingenious Portuguese Jesuit (deviser of the refined options) and managed to look pretty orthodox herself.

But she added a subversive coda, or rather a coda whose orthodoxy was austere enough to be close to subversion. The greatest kindness of all, she said, was not Christ’s but God’s; not Christ’s wonderful gifts but God’s wonderful abstinence from giving. The God of all power and mercy could have endowed us with everything we needed, but didn’t. He held back “the sea of his infinite love,” knowing that we would be unable to respond, and that only what we earn is truly ours. He saved us from the horrors of our inevitable ingratitude, allowed us to invent human goodness; to convert what Sor Juana called his “negative benefactions” into positive practice.

This disquisition, called a Carta atenagórica, a letter such as Athena/Minerva might have written, was published by the bishop of Puebla, who himself contributed a cagey preface, praising the work fulsomely but also worrying about the possibility that a woman as smart as this couldn’t really be far from disobedience. This wasn’t what the bishop said. He said the writer was perfect in “the finer forms of obedience”; but he also thought she should read fewer secular books and devote more of her time to religious studies. Very complicated questions are in the air here. A rich and rigorous intellectual life is being lived through the intracacies of an insubstantial theology. Even in the seventeenth century Christ’s kindnesses were not grounds for violent controversy—rather the reverse: the topic allows for displays of learning and mental agility, for rhetorical performance, within the confines of an undisputed dogma. But then this same theology served as a battlefield for the tough religious politics of New Spain, personality against personality, bishop against archbishop, worldliness against asceticism, the older monastic orders against the all-pervading Jesuits. Most important for us perhaps, the Mexican Minerva is claiming, through theology, the right of women to a voice in public discourse, and the bishop is telling her to take it easy.

This was friendly advice, and received…

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