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Correspondences: Sor Juana, Father Louis and Jesús the Indian

12 December 2009

Talk about your cosmic convergences. I don’t often watch television, but in Mexico City last week, after a very long day (among other things taking a 17 year old down to UNAM to check out the huuuugggge campus) I was channel surfing in my hotel room and ran across a program on Concultura (the most educational of the several educational channels) on Octavio Paz. This was minimalist TV — a couple of literary critics and writers sitting in a library lounge with a television camera rolling (and people behind them wandering the stacks) talking about Paz. Every one of them, when asked which of Paz’ large number of works was essential for understanding his political and social thinking,  mentioned his biography of Sor Juana.

Which… the next day… I found.  Or it found me… in Pasaje Iturbide (running through what was the Napoleon wannabe’s “imperial palace” from Simon Bolivar to Pedro de Gante between Francisco Madero and 16 de Septiembre) which includes not just the New Options Bookstore, Global Books, a couple cafes and an internet cafe, but also the wonderful Mexico Viejo rare and used book store. A first edition hardback of Sor Juana or the Traps of Faith (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1988) was worth every centavo of the three hundred pesos I shelled out.

I’m slowly working my way through the life of Sor Juana, who is less a biographical subject for her fellow Mexican poet and thinker, than a springboard for Paz’ discussion of the Mexican baroque, the criollo culture of the 17th century (which, Paz believes, was more influential on Mexican culture and politics than we tend to credit). If I ever have to write a second edition of Gods, Gachupines and Gringos, I’ll have to make a few changes based on Paz, but that’s for another time.

What intrigued me about Sor Juana as a person was that — while a good nun and not particularly atypical for a Heronomyte nun of her time other than, being poor and of illegitimate birth, the dowry normally paid to the order upon taking vows was paid by a benefactor (sort of a scholarship for poor, deserving criollo girls) — Juana was very much a woman of the world. Juana Abaje Ramírez — who served as a lady in waiting to the Vicereina from the time she was 14 until she entered the convent at 20 — remained very much a figure to be reckoned with in the larger world of Spanish thought even after taking the veil (which she wore rather lightly for most of her life), writing secular and religious works, “dances and provincial airs,” poetry, scientific and theological studies … and maintaining a voluminous correspondence with the movers and shakers of the world-wide Spanish empire.

A scandalized Father Oviedo reports that she stopped writing letters only when she was in the locutory [the convent’s visiting room] chatting with vistors…. [T]he Vicereine and her husband, the Marquis of Mancera, “had the custom of attending chapel for vesper prayers, and then chatting in the locutory with Sor Juana.” They were accompanied by close friends and members of the court who had known the young nun during her years in the palace.”

In Sor Juana’s time, there was no great gulf between the world of the spirit and the world of the flesh. The art of the time, and the art which Juana mastered was that of discovering the correspondences between things of the body and things of the soul, a singularity in her age, a dichotomy in ours: for the most part.

There have been a few artists in our era who sought to recover the wholeness of the baroque mindset. And, at least one who — as Juana did in the last few years of her life — sought to change the world of the aesthetic for that of the ascetic.

Hermano Juancito earlier this week remembered it was the anniversary of Thomas Merton’s death (10 November 1968).  Merton, who was raised among what were once known as “bohemians” (with an artist father who left his mother for mistress, and left Tom to be raised in France and genteely eccentric American grandparents),  was physically of the Beat Generation,  but his ethos matched in many ways that of Sor Juana’s Baroque.

Where the “Beats” sought to integrate the flesh and spirit though a more intense identification with the physical world (leaving to us their legacy of sex drugs and rock-n-roll), Merton took a radically different path — one that made logical sense in Sor Juana’s age, but not our own.   Juana orginally joined the Discalced  Carmelites, an ascetic order (“discalced” just means they didn’t wear shoes, among other mortifications of the flesh*), then the more relaxed Heronomytes.   Merton originally was intended to become** a  Franciscan lay brother — which expected him to be part of the world, but in 1941, entered the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance — the contemplative Trappists. In 1949, he was ordained a priest, taking the religious name Father Louis.

Although as a Trappist, Merton spoke only when necessary, he wrote incessantly, and — like Sor Juana — his outside correspondence was something of a trial to his religious superiors. Somewhat as penance for his letter-writing, his abbot put him to work writing a history of the American Trappists, The Waters of Siloe (Garden City Books, 1951).  Hardly Merton’s best work, but still a readable account of what can only be described as an alternative lifestyle.

Living in a much wider world than the Spanish Empire of Juana’s time, his correspondence — with the world in general through magazine articles, poetry and books, and with individuals ranging from Alan Ginsburg to the Dalai Lama — continued to make him a public figure. In the wider world of our time, Merton sought, as did Juana, correspondence between the things of the flesh — which are mostly political and not personal in our time — and those of the spirit. While best remembered for his interest in integrating Buddhism and Catholicism (he died of accidental electrocution while attending an inter-faith monastic conference in Thailand), it was in his pronouncements on peace and justice — or the lack thereof — that he sought correspondence… as in Emblems of a Season of Fury (Norwalk, CT: New Directions, 1963)

If only North Americans had realized . . . that Latin Americans really existed. That they were really people. That they spoke a different language. That they had a culture. That they had more than something to sell! Money has totally corrupted the brotherhood that should have united all the peoples of America. It has destroyed the sense of relationship, the spiritual community that had already begun to flourish in the years of Bolivar. But no! Most North Americans still don’t know, and don’t care, … that Latin America is by and large culturally superior to the United States, not only on the level of the wealthy minority which has absorbed more of the sophistication of Europe, but also among the desperately poor indigenous cultures, some of which are rooted in a past that has never yet been surpassed on this continent.

So the tourist drinks tequila, and thinks it is no good, and waits for the fiesta he has been told to wait for. How should he realize that the Indian who walks down the street with half a house on his head and a hole in his pants, is Christ? All the tourist thinks is that it is odd for so many Indians to be called Jesús.

* mea culpa for the misspelling in the original post.

** mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Mary O'Grady permalink
    12 December 2009 5:59 am

    That’s “discalced.”
    –A recovering Catholic

  2. 12 December 2009 6:45 am

    Nice post. The comparison between Sor Juana and Merton is intriguing.
    But a few corrections.
    Catholics say “Discalced,” not “Discalcated” Carmelites.
    Merton was never a Franciscan brother. He wanted to enter the Franciscans but his child born out of wedlock put the kabosh on that. (Better for all of us, I think.)
    Merton died at a conference of Benedictine and Trappist monks and nuns from the Far East. I don’t think it was an interfaith conference. He had, though, just come from a series of interfaith encounters in India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).
    Merton has a number of writing assignments from his abbot, though I’m not sure they were punishments, since his intense correspondence didn’t begin until the 1950s, I believe. Two of his worst books (by his own estimation) were biographies – one of a Trappist nun and the other of St. Lutagarde – obviously commissioned by the abbot. But even the idea of writing his classic autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, came from his abbot who recognized his gift.
    One of the best short biographies of Merton – with lots of photos and citations from his works – is be a friend of mine, Jim Forest: Living with Wisdom. A Life of Thomas Merton. Revised edition. (Orbis Books, 2008)

  3. 12 December 2009 8:28 am

    Thank you Richard. This post was really, really good. By the way, I happen to be a Catholic and there is an alternate word for “discalced” and it is “discalceate”. I have also seen your “discalcated” used in various places as an “unofficial” alternate. In any case we get the meaning 🙂

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