MARY OF AGREDA
THROUGH THE EYE OF THE NEEDLE
There is none so blind as he
Native American Wisdom
It happened one morning when Mary’s mother was on her knees praying—certainly a good time to have a vision and a time when it is considered easier for the spiritual self to have dominance over the physical self. Since Catherine was known to spend hours in prayer, on this day she could have lapsed into a trance, or been in that twilight zone between waking and sleeping. What she saw is not known, only that she was advised to convert the ancestral Coronel castle into a convent that would serve the poor of Northern Spain where the Coronel family lived on the border of Aragon and Castile. The voice also informed her that she and her two daughters were to find their life work in the transformed castle, while her husband, Francis, should be encouraged to enter a Franciscan monastery as their two sons already had done. The voice assured her there was no cause to worry how this task would be accomplished, that God would supply what was required.
"I would not be believed," Catherine answered the voice. "No one would apply for admission to such a convent."
The voice came back, "Nothing shall be wanting."
Catherine was terrified. She was, in fact, so disturbed she was afraid to tell her husband, something she certainly would have to do should she decided to obey the command. Instead, she secretly set out for the village to consult her spiritual adviser, who at the time was Father Juan Torresilla, a member of the Franciscan Friars Minor. According to Samaniego, the venerable Father Torresilla met her on the road between the castle and his convent.
"I am aware of the purpose of your visit," he said before Catherine had time to do more than greet him. "I received the same revelation that you have come to disclose to me: Your home must be changed into a church to praise and glorify God. A monastery must be erected nearby. Your entire family must be consecrated to God."
Imagine Catherine’s astonishment! All she could reply was, "If I could only be certain that the voice that spoke to me was from God!"
"How can you doubt it?" Father Torresilla asked. "Has the Lord not commanded before, ‘sell all thou hast and give it to the poor’?"
"But Francis is sixty years old!" Catherine protested, perhaps not entirely for her husband’s sake. "He suffers from a most painful stomach ailment."
The priest eyed her knowingly, then replied, "It will not be easy for Francis."
The prediction was accurate. Francis was obdurate, pointing out that his fortune was not enough to defray the expenses of such an undertaking. His friends, and especially his brother, Emeritus, so opposed the plan that there followed three years of almost constant conflict and objections within the family circle. Mary, on the other hand, was so overjoyed at the prospect of attending a convent in her former home that she changed her plans to enter the Convent of St. Anne. On August 16, 1618, when she was sixteen, construction of the monastery was begun. The work progressed so rapidly that by the following year it was dedicated with pomp and ceremony to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. And when the entire project was completed, three professed sisters, discalced (reformed) nuns from the monastery of St. Louis at Burgos, were called to take charge of the new convent.
On the thirteenth of the following January, the citizens of Agreda witnessed Catherine and her daughters veiled in a public ceremony. The mother took the name of Señora Catherine of the Holy Sacrament; the elder sister, Sister Mary of Jesus, while the younger sister was compelled to wait until she was older to become Sister Jeronima of the Most Holy Trinity. On the same day, Francis received the habit of the Order of St. Francis and was admitted as a lay brother of the Convent of St. Anthony of Nalda, which belonged to the province of Burgos. His brother Emeritus soon after relinquished all of his possessions to enter the same convent. Additionally, many of Catherine’s friends, who likewise were of the nobility, became members of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception.
It is worth noting that Francis’ stomach pains (ulcers?) disappeared with his possessions, and that he enjoyed good health for the remainder of his life. But if the family’s problems were solved, Sister Mary Jesus’ difficulties were to grow to unbelievable proportions during her first year in the convent, until she fairly had to pray her way out of the narrow world of her critics who so little understood the unlimited nature of the spiritual world that had been hers from birth. The trials that preceded her first missionary journey to Southwest America were so considerable as to call for a whole other chapter. But for now the focus will be on the fascinating subject of related (or identical) visions and dreams, of which Catherine’s experience was an exceptional example. Central to her vision was the prediction that the entire family would join the same religious order and serve the poor instead of the monarchy.
Considering that Señora Catherine knew the Bible well enough to serve as Mary’s tutor, she would have been familiar with the simultaneous, related visions recorded in the Acts of the Apostles,1 Here a Roman captain named Cornelius’ was encountered by an angel. Also similar to Catherine’s circumstance was the fact that Cornelius and his whole household were devout persons who prayed constantly to God. Then one day,
[Cornelius] had a vision in which he distinctly saw the angel of God come into his house and call out to him, "Cornelius!" He stared at the vision in terror and exclaimed, "What is it, Lord?"
In response he was instructed to send someone to Jaffa to get Peter. Unlike Catherine, Cornelius obeyed immediately, telling two of his servants and a soldier of his staff what had happened and ordering them off to Jaffa. In the meantime Peter, in Jaffa, had gone up to his housetop to pray. The account noted as well that he was feeling hungry and looking forward to his dinner. But before it was ready, he fell into a trance. And what he saw tied directly into Cornelius’ vision:
He saw heaven thrown open and something like a big sheet being let down on earth by its four corners; it contained every possible sort of animal and bird, walking, crawling or flying ones. A voice said to him, "Now, Peter, kill and eat!" But Peter answered, "Certainly not, Lord; I have never yet eaten anything unclean or profane." Again, a second time, the voice spoke to him, "What God has made clean you have no right to call profane." This was repeated three times and then, suddenly, the container was drawn up to heaven again.
Peter was still worrying over the meaning of the vision when the men sent by Cornelius arrived. Peter gave them lodging and the next day he returned with them to Caesarea where Cornelius was waiting for them. Peter, in addressing those assembled at Cornelius’ house, explained,
The truth I have now come to realize is that God does not have favorites, but that anybody of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him.
So it was that Peter’s vision, synchronistic to Cornelius’ visit by the angel, released Peter from the old Jewish segregation laws which, in Christ, had been outmoded. This paved the way for Peter to resolve his differences with Paul regarding what would become the Gospel proclamation that through Christ both Jew and Gentile—in fact all—are saved.
Identical or related dreams happen even today. I have two Quaker friends—a husband and wife—who frequently discover that they have had identical dreams during the night, even as Catherine and her spiritual counselor had related visions, and as had Cornelius and Peter. Parapsychologists explain that we do not hear more about simultaneous dreams because dreams are so quickly forgotten that we remember only those which happen just before waking. Moreover, because in our culture persons are not in the habit of discussing their dreams with others, they are not aware of having related dreams. Otherwise we might be astonished at how often dreams coincide.
The Coronel family’s resistance to giving up their castle was an example of the human instinct to which Tyrell2 pointed, as directed towards whatever would threaten the equilibrium of one’s life. With the priest’s confirming revelation, Catherine had every reason to believe the vision was from God. Still, with her nobleman husband’s refusal to give up his possessions, for Catherine the path of least resistance was to doubt the visions in order to live with both her husband and her conscience. If indeed this was the case, then the problem was not disbelief in the vision but fear of the disruption of their lives in this material world. The mind, it would seem, was instinctively guiding towards the practical way of life, and to this end was tending to disregard or discredit whatever was in opposition to the known "certainties" as opposed to the unknown "uncertainties."
Visions, angels, dreams—all were biblical themes which Catherine would have been familiar. As Mary’s tutor she would have taught her about how the Israelites looked upon angels as the messengers of God, and how such beings had guided persons in the Bible in their earthly affairs. She would have recalled how angels had appeared to Zechariah, to Mary, and to Joseph, and how in a dream an angel had advised Joseph to take the Mother and Child to Egypt.
Did she tell Mary about the child Samuel and his experiences of hearing the voice of God? Was Mary, at least by implication, taught that Jesus was born into an atmosphere in which angels intervened? and how, when he had needed advice and comfort, the angels had ministered to and conversed with him? Like many people today, Catherine could accept visions, angels and guidance dreams as happening then. But now? In Spain? And so, as many others before and after, she had clung to the old order of her life.
But what is missing from a logic that says what happened in biblical times no longer does? Could the problem be a lack of consensus concerning what an angel or a vision is? Is the nature of the reality in which we live different now than then? Or could it be a given culture’s perception of what is "real" and "unreal" that changes?
Dr. Pascal P. Parente3, a noted authority on mystical theology, defines angels as "purely spirit" and "incorporeal." What can’t be known with certainty is how, in the minds of those living two thousand years ago, the difference between "spirit" and "matter" was perceived. What can be surmised is that with the dawning of the "Age of Reason" non-substantial reality did go out of style. And so it largely remained until the twentieth century when, with the advent of quantum physics, minds again began to change concerning the nature of reality, until now energy and matter—the invisible and the visible—are accepted as interpenetrating, interchanging states. Simultaneous with this re-perception of reality, and its filtering into collective thinking, has come a resurgence of interest in angels, apparitions, and other trans-dimensional manifestations.
With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls interest in the Essenes has been awakened as well. The Essenes were a pre-Christian sect who lived together in community and observed daily times of prayer and worship. Similar to Cornelius, they practiced charity and were also said to converse regularly with angels. Some scholars believe they were the shepherds to whom the angels announced the birth of Christ. But, as evidence that the Christ came not only to the Jews, there was another non-Jewish sect—the Theraqutes—who lived in Greece and in Lower Egypt and who also were said to converse with angels.4
The word angel, from the Greek angelos, means messenger. My Quakers friends tell me they look upon angels as the inner light that leads and guides them. And they witness to its effectiveness. Other spiritually-inclined persons who actually may never have seen an angel, nonetheless may say, "I was guided to do this." In matters of guidance, there often is no clear voice that communicates in an unmistakable way. But there still may be an undeniable sense of knowing what to do. Is it reasonable, then, to think of angels as how the higher will for a person’s life is transmitted? And can this be done without denying that now, as well as in the past, angels sometimes do appear in visually discernible ways? If so, does this allow for divine guidance to sometimes come in a vision, sometimes in a dream, sometimes in words heard either inwardly or outwardly, and sometimes in the language of the inner light of simply knowing?
In order for the Coronel castle to be transformed into a convent the obstacles to the acceptance of divine guidance had first to be overcome. And this was a matter of having to clear the divine/human channels of communication in those involved.
In a later chapter, the subject of how language barriers are transcended will be examined in order to understand the enigma of how Mary and the native peoples of the Southwest communicated with one another. But there is also the matter of communication between different levels or dimensions of consciousness, such as between the conscious mind and unconscious or supraconscious levels. One theory is that in supramental communications the conscious mind is bypassed altogether. Another posits all languages are part of a collective unconscious to which all persons have access. Stanley V. Mitchell, President of the International Guild of Hypnotists and a director of the Illinois Society for Psychic Research, has observed that persons in hypnotic trance are able to understand languages they never have studied.5 Moreover, who hasn’t experienced telepathic communication in the dream state, and in which dialogue may take place with animals, aliens, angels or even demons?
According to New Testament teachings, faith triggers experience and experience establishes conviction. For Mary it was fortunate that her faith had taken root so early in her life and had continued to strengthen and deepen. Otherwise she might not have been able to withstand the tests to her faith soon to come.