Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and St. Elizabeth Seton lived about a century apart and in vastly different cultures. But they had much in common.
Each woman was exceptionally literate, especially if one considers the paucity of formal education available to girls of their time. They both were determined to educate themselves by reading voraciously. Elizabeth was more drawn to prose and devotional works, whereas Juana was drawn to poetry. Through literature, they each found an intense devotion to the Virgin Mary—Elizabeth for comfort and consolation, Juana for celebration.
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Sister Juana Inés of the Cross) lived in Mexico (then part of New Spain) in the second half of the 17th century. From childhood, Juana craved learning; she could read by the age of three. Since girls were barred from formal education, she became her own teacher by drawing on her grandfather’s library. When a new viceregal couple took her under their wing, she was brought into courtly society, where she was admired for her intelligence and wit. But as she reached marriageable age, she chose to enter a convent, a common move in New Spain for young women who wanted to avoid marriage for whatever reason. For Juana, the reason was to continue her studies and her writing, which the domesticity of marriage and childbearing would have prevented.
Sor Juana threw her intellectual energy into writing poetry and plays—both secular and religious. So outstanding was her poetry that a collection of it was published in Madrid in 1689. Then in 1690, she published a religious play, The Divine Narcissus, followed in 1692 by a second volume of poetry published in both Spain and Mexico.
It was in Italy, after her husband’s death, that Elizabeth Seton first felt the pull of Mary. Her Catholic friends, the Filicchis, encouraged her to visit churches, and Elizabeth was struck by the images of the Madonna and Child everywhere. The images moved her because they gave a female and maternal dimension to a Christianity that, as an Episcopalian, she’d experienced only as Father and Son. Furthermore, she sensed that the Blessed Mother filled the void left by the death of her own earthly mother at an early age. It’s no surprise that Elizabeth took the name of “Mary” at her Catholic confirmation.
What I do find surprising is that, years later, Mother Seton placed in the Emmitsburg chapel a large painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe. This image of Mary is of course of Mexican origin… not what we’d expect to find in the Maryland countryside.
We would expect Our Lady of Guadalupe to appear, however, in the writings of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. And, yes, she does write about Our Lady of Guadalupe, though only occasionally. The most extensive place is in a poem beginning (in English translation): “The Marvel made of flowers / divine American Protectress.” The flowers are the roses that Juan Diego saw on the ground where Mary appeared.
Most of Sor Juana’s celebrations of Mary are in her villancicos, which were songs—commissioned by cathedrals—for the common people to sing during the liturgy of specific feast days. Sor Juana wrote many villancicos for the Feasts of the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception, mostly in Spanish but at least one in the native Aztec language of Nahuatl, in which she was fluent.
Here’s a taste of one of her villancicos for the Feast of the Assumption, in which Mary is a shepherdess:
That shepherd lass
with eyes so serene,
the charm of the grove,
the envy of Heaven.
who with just one look
left the shepherd smitten
snared the lord of the summit
with a single hair;
the lass whose Beloved
was myrrh to her once
when his dwelling place
was between her white breasts…
And so on, until the rousing refrain:
To the Hill, to the Hill, to the Summit
hurry, shepherd lads, fly—
Mary is ascending the skies!
Hurry, hurry, fly quick, fly quicker,
our lives, our souls she takes with her,
bears our wealth away in herself
and leaves our village bereft!
For the same feast, Sor Juana composed a villancico in Nahautl. Here’s some of the English translation:
since you’re departing,
oh, Mother, please
do not forget us.
with Heaven above,
will you not sometimes
hear how we pine?…
Since the Son you love
is much in your debt,
entreat him, Mother,
for all your children.
If he seems unwilling,
remind him gently
how once you gave him
your virginal feeding.
Recall to his mind
how you suckled him,
how, a babe in arms,
you lulled him to sleep.
With your intercession,
your unhappy children
will all be made whole
and worthy to serve you.
And here’s the start of one of her villancicos for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception:
Hear me one moment—
I’m all set to sing
of a Moment that stood
outside of time!
Hear me as I sing
you won’t find it trying
since what I have to say
will be only a Moment.
A moment only,
yet prized so high,
for a Moment the Eternal
hung in suspense.
In a more serious mode, Sor Juana wrote for her sister nuns a theological treatise called The Exercises on the Incarnation, modeled on Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises. In her Exercises, Sor Juana conceives of Mary as the Mother of God, present during each of the six days of God’s creation in the Genesis narrative, and for each day Mary appears in a different image:
Day 1: God creates light; Mary is Queen of Light.
Day 2: God creates the heavens and waters, placing them all at Mary’s “virginal feet.”
Day 3: God creates the sea, the earth, and everything growing on the earth, while all give obedience to their Queen.
Day 4: God creates the sun, moon, and stars, which celebrate their Divine Queen, who is crowned with stars and has the moon under her feet.
Day 5: God creates all the fish of the sea and the birds of the air; the fish celebrate Mary as Stella Maris (Star of the Sea) while the birds—in a pun on “Ave Maria” (Latin for “Hail Mary”)—hail her as “Reina de las Aves” (Queen of the Birds).
Day 6: God creates all the earthly creatures, including humankind; Mary is addressed as “Queen of humanity, the Honor of nature and the crown of the human race.”
Elsewhere in her poems, Sor Juana images Mary as the temple of God or as the tabernacle of God.
What might Elizabeth Seton have made of Sor Juana’s many and varied images of Mary? I don’t think that the villancicos would have attracted her, coming as they do from New Spain’s popular culture. But I can picture her being moved by Sor Juana’s images for Mary in The Exercises on the Incarnation.
There could hardly be two women who lived in such different cultures: Juana in the 17th century colonial empire of New Spain, Elizabeth in 18th-19th century cosmopolitan New York City, then in rural Emmitsburg, Maryland. Yet Mary spoke to each of them. This isn’t really surprising, since devotion to Mary has been core to Christianity almost since the beginning—and remains so for Catholics around the world today.
St. Elizabeth Ann’s relation to Mary was emotional and prayerful; Sor Juana’s was intellectual and (in the villancicos) playful. I imagine Mary being pleased with these forms of devotion from two of her most devout daughters.
PEGGY ROSENTHAL has a PhD in English Literature and has published many books and articles on the intersection of poetry and spirituality.
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Image: Public Domain