Sister Mary, the Devil, and Me

Well, that didn't take long.  Here I have been biding my time, looking forward to the day when I could start blogging again, planning all sorts of re-entry posts about who I am now, how I have changed over the course of the year, what it feels like to have almost a complete draft of my book done, and BANG!  Here I am writing about being attacked by the devil again.  How apropos.

It happened to Sister Mary of Ágreda, and she is a much, much more gifted writer than I will ever be.  (Mainly because she understood the true nature of her gifts--they came from God, as she well knew; I still have the presumption to imagine that what I write somehow depends on me.)  As she tells it in the introduction to the second part of her masterpiece, The Mystical City of God (Mystica Ciudad de Dios, first published in 1670):
1.  When I was ready to present before the throne of God the insignificant results of my labors in writing the first part of the most holy life of Mary, the Mother of God [which runs to some 600 pages in its English translation, more even than I have written this year, no small feat], I wished to subject it to the scrutiny and correction of the divine light, by which I had been guided in my shortcomings.  I was very anxious to be consoled by the renewed assurance, and benign approval of the Most High, and to know, whether He wished me to continue or to abandon the work, which is so far above my lowliness.  The Lord responded saying: "Thou hast written well, and according to our pleasure [If only He would say something like this to me--has He, and I haven't been listening?]; but We desire thee to understand, that in order to manifest the mysteries and most high sacraments of the rest of the life of our only and chosen Spouse, Mother of our Onlybegotten, thou hast need of a new and more exalted preparation [And I thought that I had come so far, learning how to deal with my anxiety and procrastination; learning how to write in brief regular sessions so as not to give into mania and despair; learning how to take care of myself so as not to be tempted to overwork or to binge].  It is our wish that thou die to all that is imperfect and visible, and that thou live according to the spirit; that thou renounce all the occupations and habits of an earthly creature and assume instead those of an angel, striving to attain in them a still greater purity and an entire conformity with what thou art to understand and write [Well, nuts.  I'll never be able to do that.]
2.  In this answer of the Most High I understood, that such a high perfection of life and habits and such an unwonted exercise of virtues was proposed and required of me, that, full of diffidence, I became disturbed and fearful of undertaking a work so arduous and difficult for an earthly creature [See, my department chair was in touch with me today about whether I would be putting myself up for promotion this year; when I explained that I had a draft, but no contract or readers' reports yet, he and I agreed that it wasn't yet time, which has put me into a panic thinking about how much work I still have to do on the book, never mind having nearly a complete draft in hand].  I felt within myself great repugnance rising up in the flesh against the spirit.  The spirit called me with interior force, urging me to strive after the disposition, which was required of me, and advancing as argument the pleasure of the Lord and the benefits accruing to myself [It's silly, I know I want to finish the book, but now that my leave is up, I have had to spend the past several days getting ready for teaching and service again.  It really isn't as if I don't want to do the work to finish--I very much do!  But I am now also bound to my students and colleagues to be available to them.]  On the other hand the law of sin (Romans 7:23), which I felt in my members, opposed the divine promptings and discouraged me by the fear of my own inconstancy.  I felt a great distaste, which deterred me and a great pusillanimity which filled me with fear.  In this excitement I began to believe, that I was not capable of treating about such high things, especially as they were so foreign to the condition and estate of a woman [But here's the rub: I am now suddenly terrified of showing anybody what I have written.  Not because I don't believe that what I have written is right, but, well, because I am afraid that my colleagues won't think it is scholarly enough, that it doesn't abstract itself enough from the sources, that it is too devotional, not analytical enough.  But it is what I had to write in order to make the devotion clear.  And it was the voice that came to me as I was writing].
3.  Overcome by fears and difficulties, I resolved not to continue this work [No, I am not quite there yet--I want to finish!], and to use all possible means to adhere to this determination [Or do I?  Am I not being tempted to give up by the devil's whispering to me about what my colleagues will think?]  The common enemy knew my fear and cowardice [Oh, does he!], and, as his utmost cruelty is more aroused against the weak and disheartened, he made use of this very disposition to attack me with incredible fury [Okay, so it hasn't been that bad today, but it has been bad in comparison with what it has been for weeks and weeks and weeks--note how little I have been blogging this summer--when I was writing every day, wholly absorbed in the contemplation of what to say next.  Now, suddenly, it is as if I have lost my reason for being--dare I say, lost sight of the Lady whose praises I have been singing all this past year, as I sat day after day on my couch, keeping the Hours of the Virgin in my thoughts.  And now I have to stop and go back out into the world, I am bereft, rudderless, empty, panicked].  It seemed to him, that I was left without help in his hands.  In order to conceal his malice, he sought to transform himself into an angel of light, pretending to be very solicitous for my soul and for my welfare.  Under this false pretext he perfidiously deluged me with his suggestions and doubts ["Are you sure that you have written the book that you needed to? Your colleagues may not like it if you write it that way.  You have stayed much too close to your sources--but you have also made much of it up.  You are going against everything that everybody has ever said about this devotion; you are going to make them angry.  They won't understand.  They will laugh at you"]; he represented to me the danger of damnation and frightened me with punishments similar to those of the chief of the angels (Isaiah 14:12), since I had sought in my pride to comprehend, what was above my powers and in opposition to God himself [Either that, or I have rediscovered the truth about Christianity--it's that big.  Or have it made it all up?  Will anybody believe me?  As I have been writing, I have had the feeling of seeing the whole of history clearly, from the very origins of Christianity in the temple tradition that Margaret Barker has described, through the medieval transmission of that tradition from antiquity into the seventeenth century as evidenced by Mary of Ágreda's visions, through its loss in the ridicule of the Enlightenment philosophes.  My book has the potential to make everybody--and I do mean EVERYBODY--mad.  Or has studying the medieval devotion to Mary so intensely driven me mad, just as Casanova said reading Mary of Ágreda's book nearly drove him?].
4.  He pointed out to me many souls, who, professing virtue, were deceived by some secret presumption and by yielding to the insinuations of the devil; and he made me believe, that in so far as I sought to scrutinize the secrets of the divine Majesty (Proverbs 25:27), I could not but be guilty of pride and presumption, thus being already judged [Sister Mary had this advantage, that she lived in a context in which pride was recognized as a sin, whereas I am a creature of the world, not a nun, expected to put myself forward.  Which sometimes I am happy to do, but then I begin to have doubts.  Do I really know enough to make the claims that I have made?  Have I used the best sources to make my argument?  Is it as important as I feel it is when I am sitting on my couch, surrounded by my books, or is it just a figment of my imagination, not really significant at all?]  He urged very strongly, that the present times were ill suited for such matters and sought to confirm his assertion by what happened to some well known persons, who were found to labor under deceit and error [I don't even want to go there, the secret reading I have been doing all this past year.  What if my colleagues found out that I don't necessarily agree with them about, well, so much I don't even know where to start?  Is this a good time to try to make an argument about the truth of a religious tradition?  But what if I have been deceived?  What if I have fallen into error?  How would I know?]  He reminded me of the dread of the spiritual life in others [especially in the modern academy!]; how great would be the discredit, which would arise by any mistake of mine and what evil effect it would have on those of little piety; all this I would know by experience and to my regret [Is it right to be teaching these things to students?  What if they misunderstand?  Or lose faith?]  And as it is true evidently, that all the opposition to the spiritual life and the small esteem in which the mystic virtues are held [the Enlightenment began early], is caused by that mortal enemy, so, for the purpose of doing away with Christian devotion and piety in many souls [see how much success he has had!], he succeeds in deceiving some and in sowing the cockle among the good seed of the Lord (Matthew 13:25).  Thus he causes confusion and obscures the true sentiment concerning it, making it more difficult to distinguish the darkness from the light.  I am not surprised to see him succeed therein, as the true discernment is the special work of God and of those, who participate in his true wisdom, and do not govern themselves only by earthly insight [Is it even possible to believe in wisdom anymore?]
5.  It is not easy during this mortal life to discern true prudence from the false; for often also the good intention and zeal warp the human judgment, when counsel and light from on high are wanting.  I had occasion to learn this in the execution of that which I am about to undertake: for some persons, well known as devout, not only those who loved me on account of their piety and desired my welfare, but also those who were less loving and considerate: all alike at one time wished to deter me from this undertaking, and also from the path, which I was going, as if I was proceeding upon it by my own choice [I can just hear my colleagues now, trying to advise me how not to use the voice that I have in my book, as if I had a choice.  They will want me to hedge it round with caveats and pretend that I don't mean it, lest I offend readers who do not see Mary in the light that I do.  But what if she commanded me to write this book just as she commanded Sister Mary to write hers?  How could I refuse the Mother of the Lord?  How could I go against the divine command to tell her story as she wanted it to be told?]  Their fear of drawing discredit or confusion upon those who were striving after piety with me, or upon religion or my neighbors, and especially upon the convent in which I lived [or university where I teach or academic fellowship to which I belong], caused them anxiety and to me, affliction.  I was much enamoured by the security, which the ordinary paths of the other nuns seemed to offer [If only I could write like other academics!  If only I didn't make things so hard on myself by resisting writing like everyone else, about topics that everyone else agrees are the right ones!]; I acknowledge, that this suited more my own insight and my inclination and desires [I do so want to belong!], and was urged upon me still more by my timidity and my great fears.
 --Mystical City of God: The Incarnation, trans. Fiscar Marison (Chicago, 1912), pp. 3-6.
 It's gonna be a hard next few years until I finish revising and editing my book.


  1. I'm afraid I can't reassure you as to the reactions of your colleagues, but at least I can tell you you're not alone in feeling this way! I was deeply moved by this post because it sums up very well indeed my own apprehensions about my ongoing work, which is likely to provoke my colleagues in very much the same way as you fear yours will. So I want to emphasise this: your work has been very helpful to me in the past, and I think you're one of very few scholars actually saying something true and illuminating about medieval devotion. I am very much looking forward to reading your book, and if it should encounter some opposition among those predisposed to treat it with scorn, I still think it may have an enduring importance. Your voice is doubly valuable, both as a statement of something true frequently ignored in contemporary scholarship, and as an encouragement to those of us suffering from a similar predicament as you do, but perhaps lacking the courage and acumen to put our arguments out there in a comprehensive way. I wish you all the best for the final efforts in finishing the book, and I await its publication with child-at-Christmas-like anticipation.

    With all best wishes,
    Sig Sønnesyn


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