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Maria de Agreda

Discalced Franciscan nun, b. 1602; d. 24 May, 1665

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Agreda, MARIA DE (or, according to her conventual title, Maria of Jesus), a discalced Franciscan nun, b. 1602; d. May 24, 1665. Her family name was Coronel, but she is commonly known as Maria de Agreda, from the little town in Old Castile, on the borders of Aragon, where some ancestor, it is said, had built a convent in obedience to commands conveyed in a revelation. La Fuente, in his “Historia eclesiastica de Espana”, says the Coronels were una virtuosa y modesta familia de aquel pueblo. By some writers they are described as noble, but impoverished. Maria is said to have made a vow of chastity at the age of eight, but no importance need be attached to that, as, naturally, she could not have known the character of such an obligation, and we are not compelled to suppose any divine guidance in case the vow was made. She and her mother entered the convent together, January, 1619, and simultaneously her father and two brothers became Franciscan friars. When only twenty-five, in spite of her unwillingness, she was made abbess, by papal dispensation. This was almost eight years after her entrance. With the exception of an interval of three years, she remained superior all her life. Under her administration the convent, which was in a state of decay, rose to great material prosperity, and at the same time became one of the most fervent in Spain. She died with the reputation of a saint; and the cause of her canonization was introduced by the Congregation of Rites, June 21, 1672, at the request of the Court of Spain. This was only seven years after her death. What has given her prominence, however, is not so much the holiness of her life, about which there seems to be general consent, as the character of one of her writings known as “La mistica ciudad de Dios, historia divina de la Virgen, Madre de Dios”. This “Divine History of the Mother of God” was first conceived in 1627; that is to say, nine years after she became a nun. Ten years later, by the express command of her confessor, she set to work at it, and in twenty days wrote the first part, consisting of 400 pages. Although it was her desire to prevent its publication, a copy of it was sent to Philip IV, to whom she wrote a great number of letters in the course of her life, and who had expressed a desire to have it. Later on, in obedience to another confessor, she threw it and all her other writings, into the fire, without any apparent repugnance. A third command of a spiritual director, in 1655, resulted in her beginning again, and in 1660 she finished the book. It was not, however, given to the world until five years after her death. It was printed in Madrid, in 1670. Its lengthy title contains no less than ninety words. “The Mystical City” purports to be the account of special revelations, which the author declares were made to her by God, Who, after raising her to a state of sublime contemplation, commanded her to write it, and then revealed to her these profound mysteries. She declares that God gave her at first six angels to guide her, the number being afterwards increased to eight, who, having purified her, led her into the presence of the Lord. She then beheld the Blessed Virgin, as she is described in the Apocalypse, and saw also all the various stages of her life: how when she came into the world God ordered the angels to transport her into the empyrean heaven, appointing a hundred spirits from each of the nine choirs to attend her, twelve others in visible and corporeal form to be always near her, and eighteen of the most splendid to be ambassadors perpetually ascending and descending the Ladder of Jacob. In the twentieth chapter she describes all that happened to the Blessed Virgin during the nine months she was in her mother’s womb; and tells how, when she was three years old, she swept the house with the help of the angels. The fifteenth chapter enters into many details, which by some were denounced as indecent. The style, in the opinion of certain critics, is elegant, and the narrative compact. Gorres, on the other hand, while expressing his admiration for the wonderful depth of its speculations, finds that the style is in the bad taste of the period, pompous and strained, and very wearisome in the prolixity of the moral applications appended to each chapter.

The book did not attract much attention outside of Spain until Croset, a Recollect friar, translated and published the first part of it, at Marseilles, 1696. This was the signal of a storm, which broke out especially in the Sorbonne. It had already been condemned in Rome, August 4, 1681, by the Congregation of the Inquisition, and Innocent XI had forbidden the reading of it, but, at the instance of Charles II, suspended execution of the decree for Spain. But Croset’s translation transgressed the order, and caused it to be referred to the Sorbonne, May 2, 1696. According to Hergenrother, “Kirchengeschichte” (trad. franc., 1892, V, vi, p. 418), it was studied from the 2d to the 14th of July, and thirty-two sessions were held during which 132 doctors spoke. It was condemned July 17, 102 out of 152 members of the commission voting against the book. It was found that “it gave more weight to the revelations alleged to have been received than to the mystery of the Incarnation; that it adduced new revelations which the Apostles themselves could not have supported; that it applied the term ‘adoration’ to Mary; that it referred all her graces to the Immaculate Conception; that it attributed to her the government of the Church; that it designated her in every respect the Mother of Mercy and the Mediatrix of Grace, and pretended that St. Ann had not contracted sin in her birth, besides a number of other imaginary and scandalous assertions.”

This censure was confirmed on the 1st of October. The Spanish Cardinal Aguirre, although a friend of Bossuet who fully approved the censure, strove to have it annulled, and expressed his opinion that the Sorbonne could easily do so, as their judgment was based on a bad translation. Bossuet denounced it as “an impious impertinence, and a trick of the devil”. He objected to its title, “The Divine Life“, to its apocryphal stories, its indecent language, and its exaggerated Scotist philosophy. However, although this appreciation is found in Bossuet’s works (“Oeuvres”, Versailles, 1817, XXX, pp. 637-640, and XL, pp. 172 and 204-207), it is of questionable authenticity. As to the reproach of indecency, her defenders allege that, although there may be some crudities of expression which more recent times would not admit, it is absurd to bring such an accusation against one whose sanctity is generally conceded. New investigations of the book were made in 1729, under Benedict XIII, when her canonization was again urged. On January 16, 1748, Benedict XIV, in a letter which La Fuente, in his “Historia eclesiastica de Espana”, finds “sumamente curiosa”, wrote to the General of the Observantines instructing him as to the investigation of the authenticity of the writings, while conceding that the book had received the approbation of the Universities of Salamanca, Alcala, Toulouse, and Louvain. It had meantime been fiercely assailed by Eusebius Amort, a canon of Pollingen, in 1744, in a work entitled “De revelationibus, visionibus, et apparitionibus privatis, regulae tutae”, which, though at first imperfectly answered by Mathes, a Spaniard, and by Maier, a Bavarian, to both of whom Amort replied, was subsequently refuted in another work by Mathes, who showed that in eighty places Amort had not understood the Spanish text of Maria de Agreda. With Mathes, in this exculpation, was P. Dalmatius Kich, who published, at Ratisbon, 1750, his “Revelationum Agredanarum justa defensio, cum moderamine inculpatae tutelae” Hergenrother, in his “Kirchengeschichte”, trad. franc., VI, p. 416 (V. Palma, Paris, 1892), informs us that the condemnation of the book by the Roman Inquisition, in 1681, was thought to have come from the fact either that, in its publication, the Decree of Urban VIII, of March 14, 1625, had been disregarded, or because it contained apocryphal stories, and maintained opinions of the Scotist school as Divine revelations. Some blamed the writer for having said that she saw the earth under the form of an egg, and that it was a globe slightly compressed at the two poles, all of which seemed worthy of censure. Others condemned her for exaggerating the devotion to the Blessed Virgin and for obscuring the mystery of the Incarnation. The Spaniards were surprised at the reception the book met with in France, especially as the Spanish Inquisition had given it fourteen years of study before pronouncing in its favor. As noted above, the suspension of the Decree of Innocent XI, condemning the book, was made operative only in Spain, and although Charles II asked to have the permission to read it extended to the whole of Christendom, Alexander VIII not only refused the petition, but confirmed the Brief of his predecessor. The King made the same request to Innocent XII, who did nothing, however, except to institute a commission to examine the reasons alleged by the Court of Spain. The King renewed his appeal more urgently, but the Pope died without having given any decision.

La Fuente, in his “Historia eclesiastica de Espana” (V, p. 493), attributes the opposition to the impatience of the Thomists at seeing Scotist doctrines published as revelations, as if to settle various Scholastic controversies in the name of the Blessed Virgin and in the sense of the Franciscans, to whose order Agreda belonged. Moreover, it was alleged that her confessors had tampered with the text, and had interpolated many of the apocryphal stories which were then current, but her most bitter enemies respected her virtues and holy life, and were far from confounding her with the deluded illuminatae of that period. Her works had been put on the Index, but when the Franciscans protested they were accorded satisfaction by being assured that it was a trick of the printer (supercheria), as no condemnation appeared there.

The other works of Maria de Agreda are: 1st, her letters to Philip IV of Spain edited by Francisco Silvela; 2d, “Leyes de la Esposa conceptos y suspiros del corazon para alcanzar el ultimo y verdadero fin del agrado del Esposo y Senor”; 3d, “Meditaciones de la pasion de nuestro Senor”; 4th, “Sus exercicios quotidianos”; 5th, “Escala Spiritual para subir a la perfeccion”. The “Mistica ciudad” has been translated into several languages; and there are several editions of the correspondence with Philip IV; but the other writings are still in manuscript, either in the convent of Agreda, or in the Franciscan monastery of Quaracchi in Italy.


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