Dona Maria Vela Y Cueto, Cistercian Mystic of Spain's Golden Age by Margaret Ann Rees (Edwin Mellen Press) In our modern times, since scholars internationally have developed a major interest in the study of women — their gender-affected historical circumstances and social relationships, their perceptions of self and other — the lives and works of many previously neglected women authors have become the subjects of detailed attention in numerous research articles and monographs. As a result, in Hispanic Studies, the works of many almost forgotten nuns — near contemporaries, in Spain or the New World, of Saint Teresa of Avila or of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, who habitually had written down their life-histories and their interior religious experiences — have been rediscovered, in manuscripts or rare early editions, and have been critically edited and discussed.
In this full-length study, Dr Rees rescues from undeserved obscurity one such intellectually and spiritually talented Golden-Age nun. Doña Maria Vela y Cueto (1561—1614), venerated several centuries ago for her saintly spirituality, was once widely read not only in Spain but, thanks to translations, in other countries. Subsequently, however, Doña Maria's Αutobiografia and her Libro de las Mercedes were almost forgotten about and have had, until now, little serious attention from modern scholars. Dr Rees' book is a scrupulously researched record and study not only of the facts and circumstances of Doña Maria's life as a nun in the Cistercian convent of Santa Ana in Avila, but of her interior life in spiritual communion with God.
The living conditions of comfort, even luxury, that obtained in Santa Ana
and other convents peopled, as they often were in Golden-Age Spain, with nuns of aristocratic and wealthy families, had provoked Teresa of Avila, to set up, in contrast, if not in opposition, her own convents of Discalced Carmelites, in which she and like-minded nuns could live an austere life of poverty, dedicated to God. Different in temperament, Doña Maria chose not to follow Santa Teresa's example, but was to remain within the convent of Santa Ana, which she had entered at the age of fifteen, for the whole of her adult life. Yet, as Dr Rees demonstrates in vivid detail, Doña Maria cannot be said to have chosen for herself the easier life or to have lacked Santa Teresa's renowned strength of character. For Maria imposed the severest regimes of self-denial upon herself. She chose to inhabit one bare cell within the spacious and well-appointed convent buildings of Santa Ana with its extensive gardens, and to wear the roughest of clothing, consistently depriving herself of sleep, and fasting to near starvation, while being surrounded by nuns who enjoyed good food, fine clothes, ample accommodation and many other comforts. Only a woman with an iron determination could have endured for years not only the many self-inflicted cruelties and the recurrent illnesses but the harsh criticisms of her fellow nuns, most of whom were scandalized by the excesses of physical self-deprivation which she practiced to assist her in her spiritual journey to God's presence. Most of her compañeras were, moreover, unable to enter into the interior life which absorbed her, or adequately to comprehend the heavenly favors ('mercedes') which, in return for her unfailing spiritual endeavors to reach Him, she evidently experienced directly from God. Maria had to contend, too, with often contradictory instructions and interventions from different abbesses and spiritual directors, some of whom were perceptive and well intentioned, while others, unsympathetically, were the reverse. In her individual, less spectacular way, therefore, Doña Maria was as much a 'mujer fuerte' and voluntary deviant from the norm as was Santa Teresa, or Doña Luisa de Carvajal (d.1614), perceptively discussed by Dr Rees in a previous monograph.' Miguel González Vaquero, the last and most understanding of her spiritual directors, judged Maria's strength of mind and spirit correctly when he titled his account of her life: La mujer fuerte, por otro título la vida de María Vela, monja de San Bernardo, en el convento de Santa Ana de .Avila (Madrid, 1618).
Not just an ascetic but also and above all a mystic, Maria is for that reason a complex and controversial subject of study. To her credit, Dr Rees does not shirk the difficult task of considering Doña Maria's mystical experiences from the perspectives of our twenty-first century, which, characteristically sceptical of spirituality, is sο much given to dealing psychoanalytically with any religious experiences that involve the supernatural, concerned to explain them away as the symptoms of hysteria or neuroses in abnormally active or reactive minds. With wit and frankness, Rees comments that no doubt Doña Maria's memoirs `would provide a psychiatrists' conference on psychosomatic reactions with enough material for a host of papers and at least one plenary session' (47). Dr Rees also takes due account of the ideological complexities affecting matters of faith and religion in Doña Maria's own period and country. In particular, Rees points out that the Church in Golden-Age Spain, far from being over-credulous, as some other scholars have implied, preferred to be, in her word, `hypercautious' in its approach to allegedly mystical experiences, whether these occυrred within or outside the religious communities, and spared no investigative pains tο distinguish correctly between the genuine mystic and the fraudulent, or self-deceiving, individual claiming to have received divine favours.
González Hernández, arguably the only other modern scholar
who has studied Doña Maria and her writings comprehensively,' inclines to
over-emphasise the hysterical and neurotic aspects of Doña Maria's religious
life, underestimating in the process, in Dr Rees' opinion, both Maria's
intellect and the vitality of her mysticism. Dr Rees, on- the other hand, is
convinced, and convinces, that Santa Teresa, highly experienced in
differentiating between true and false raptures, would have recognised Maria as
an authentic mystic. Assisted by her profound knowledge of Spanish mystics and
religious during the GoldenAge, Dr Rees makes inspired comparisons between
Maria's revealed experiences of God and those of Santa Teresa. Doña Maria is
shown to be a truthful traveller of the Mystic Way, whose spiritual journeys are
comparable to those recorded by the great Carmelite saints. Aptly quoting from
Maria's intensely expressive accounts of her love relationship with God — `The
Lord wanted me to be a martyr of love, and that divine love itself was to be my
executioner' — Rees persuasively argues that `surely anyone who would write such
lines should have a recognized place in the annals of mystic literature' (67).
Some of the most valuable aspects of her study of Doña Maria's mysticism are the similarities which Dr Rees identifies between the visions of Santa Teresa and those of Doña Maria (Chapter 3). Teresa's visions, as the saint herself acutely recalls them, were not `corporeal' but 'intellectual' experiences of the Divine Presence. Similarly, in recording her own interior communications with God, Doña Maria refers to seeing, during her visions, through the eyes of the soul ('los ojos del alma'). Specially valuable to scholars and theologians concerned to understand the great mystics of Spain are Rees' sensitive comparisons (Chapter 4) between Maria's account of the interrelationship within the Holy Trinity, as this had been inspirationally revealed to her, and Santa Teresa's divine vision of the Trinity encountered in the seventh set of rooms (moradas) inside the Interior Castle (Castillo interior). Dr Rees judges that, in illuminatingly characterising the three persons of the Trinity as the `wisdom, power, and goodness of God', Maria `was indicating that she had direct, individually given knowledge of the triune mystery of God, which stands at the centre of Christian faith and which had exercised the greatest minds from the fourth century onwards' (75).
In these and other parts of her study Dr Rees demonstrates how, through reading, comparatively, the spiritual memories written down by this hitherto undervalued Cistercian mystic and nun, we can enrich our understanding of the union and communication with God as experienced and recorded by the Mother of Carmel and John of the Cross. Much remains to be learned, too, from comparing, and, where appropriate, contrasting Maria's choice and use of sources (the Psalms, the Gospels, the Song of Songs, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Saint Ignatius, Saint Catherine of Siena etc.) with the same, or different, sources, as utilised selectively and imaginatively, directly and indirectly, by Santa Teresa and San Juan. While it is true, as Dr Rees succinctly puts it, that `theological truffle hounds would be sure to uncover many another influence on her' (90), it will be particularly important to determine more precisely than has been possible to date the nature and extent of the debt which Doña Maria Vela y Cueto owes to the two great mystics of Avila.
Doña Maria wanted to become 'not just a good nun, but a saint' (35). 'Scarcely known today outside the Cistercian world' (97), Doña Maria's beatification and canonisation have not yet taken place, and may never do so. Dr Rees' book will do much to ensure, however, that Doña Maria will never again be easily dismissed as a neurotic and melancholy nun. She will be acknowledged to possess a logical and intellectual mind capable of dealing, in carefully constructed sentences, with the most abstract and thorny of theological concepts, She will be recognised as a genuine mystic whose spiritual writings at once reflect and illuminate the works of the great saints of the Carmelite renewal. This `third mystic of Avila' will at last be justly comprehended `as an individual voice ..., well worth listening to as she reveals to the reader the truth of her own personal experience of exploring the presence of God in the life of prayer' (97), Her works, the manuscripts of which are still housed in the convent of Santa Ana in Avila, deserve to be made readily available in new scholarly critical editions with ample notes and commentaries. No specialist would be better equipped to prepare these new editions than Dr Rees. With plentiful evidence and through cogent and compelling argument, Dr Rees has demonstrated that Doña Maria Vela y Cueto does not deserve the obscurity into which she has fallen and that she is worthy of study and respect as a figure of significance in the illustrious history of Spanish mysticism.
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