Sor Juana and the sounds of silence

Not speaking isn't the same as having nothing to say.

By Bill Leonard

In a 1691 Respuesta (response) to the church’s critique of her writings, Sor Juana de la Cruz (1648?-1695), Mexican nun, playwright, poet and theologian, recalled that St. Paul, when “caught up into paradise,” learned secrets that he could not utter aloud. This “Chosen Vessel” “does not say what he heard, he says that he cannot say it.”

Then she comments: “So that of things one cannot say, it is needful to say at least that they cannot be said, so that it may be understood that not speaking is not the same as having nothing to say, but rather being unable to express the many things there are to say.”

In his introduction to Poems, Protest and a Dream, a collection of her works, Ilan Stavans asked, was Sor Juana to be “condemned to eternal silence” by the church she served so diligently? She herself asked ironically if such silence was “intended not only for women, but for all incompetents?”

The Respuesta was her “answer” to an attack on her theology and her voice by “Sor Filotea de la Cruz,” AKA the Bishop of Puebla, taking on the identity of a nun, challenging her intrusion into male-dominated theological discourse by using the voice of another female to silence her. Sor Juana de la Cruz personifies a continuing reality: Throughout most of its history the church has often sought to silence dissenters, especially females, when they ventured out of the proscribed ecclesiastical sphere.

Born to unmarried parents, her mother a criolla (mixed-race) and her father a Spaniard, Sor Juana was literate by age 5, later imploring her mother to dress her as male so she might attend university. In 1667, she entered the Order of Discalced Carmelites, then moved to the Hieronymites. She wrote: “I took the veil because although I knew I would find in religious life many things that would be quite opposed to my character … it would, given my absolute unwillingness to enter into marriage, be the least unfitting and the most decent state I could choose.”

Sor Juana didn’t find her way onto my academic and spiritual radar until my spouse, Dr. Candyce Leonard, Hispanist and Spanish theater scholar, introduced me to her work in the 1980s on a visit to Mexico where Sor Juana is a national hero, her portrait on currency and coins. From that time on, she has been an important part of my Christian history classes, with students required to read segments of Poems, Protest and a Dream and produce responses to the work of this amazing woman who bridged issues of religio-culture, literature, science, proto-feminism, Old World and New. Reading this semester’s responses, I remain amazed by the way that Sor Juana’s life and thought capture students’ imagination, most having never heard of her before.

One student wrote: “Throughout her composition, the theme of “silence” repeatedly poses a double-edged metaphor designating several aspects of her struggles with masculine authority. … Silence, when embraced as a positive aspect of feminine communication, transforms experience in deep utterance, sequencing words into holy vehicles pronouncing wisdom.”

Another asked: “Was Sor Juana only arara avis, a rare bird? No. Sor Juana was an artist. Sor Juana was a feminist, a sage and a creative writer who wove her fearfully lucid tapestries between the agonistic tensions of stiff gender roles, race, caste structures, cross-cultural domination and spiritual truth on the only back-strap loom she had. Sor Juana was also a shape-shifting shaman who used duplicity of meaning to heal many different cultural wounds as she wove her words in protest. And Sor Juana was very cagy, and sometimes needed the protection of the liminal dark night.”

Ever the bridge-builder, Sor Juana’s play (Loa) explores links between the indigenous religion of the conquered Aztecs and the Christianity of the conquering Spaniards. The two main characters, “Religion” (Christianity) and “America” (Aztecs) are both women. Religion’s affirmation of faith is both evangelical and imperialistic: “Christian religion is my name and I propose that all will bend before the power of my word.” America’s response smacks of Roger Williams: “For though my person come to harm, and though I weep for liberty, my liberty of will, will grow, and I shall still adore my Gods!”

In Sor Juana: Beauty and Justice in the Americas, Michelle Gonzalez (Moldonado) noted: “Sor Juana’s arguments for the intellectual rights of women are not the only place where one finds a defense for the marginalized in her corpus. In her writings on Indigenous and Black peoples, Sor Juana also expresses an advocacy for the oppressed that was progressive for her era.”

She died in 1695 from illness contracted while caring for others during an epidemic. After responding to the bishop’s criticism, her publications went silent. Sor Juana wrote: “But as silence is a negative thing … we must assign some meaning to it that we may understand what the silence is intended to say.”

In today’s church, who are we ignoring that might teach us “what the silence is intended to say?”

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.