MARY OF AGREDA
There is a principle which is a bar against all.
Although Mary Agreda’s parents founded the convent where she was a nun, her sister companions totally rejected her in the important year of her novitiate. Strangely enough, the character trait they claimed to find most objectionable in her was piety! They termed it "pride," however, and accused her of trying to hide it under a cloak of sanctity. Since she was extraordinarily beautiful and naturally shy, they could have mistaken her introvert makeup for haughtiness. How singular, though, that they selected the word they did, since in orthodox religious circles "pride" was frequently used to depict Satan’s dominant character trait. Could jealousy have been the true motive for the cruelty they inflicted upon her? Or was she the target of the unconscious projections of their own spiritual pride? And if not theirs, would this psychological mechanism explain the abbess’ overreaction and rejection of Mary’s natural piety?
It was a good thing that as a child Mary had learned to keep still about her experiences in other-than-ordinary realms of consciousness; for now the youthful and sensitive nun’s experiences became more dark than light, more demonic than angelic, as apparitions of ferocious animals, vile persons, and raucous images appeared to haunt her mind. These terrifying experiences, which later she would share with her spiritual director, would be unbelievable except within the context of the complex inner world of one who was both a mystic and a remarkably gifted psychic. If Mary’s own mother once had rejected her because of her visionary and auditory experiences, how might the abbess and her sister nuns be expected to judge these far more bizarre manifestations?
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One morning as I was preparing this chapter, I turned on my television to see a popular "talk show" host interviewing the author of a book about apparitions. Now the host had not lived a narrow life, yet he chided the psychic researcher being interviewed for admitting he believed in "ghosts." "Evidently," the host accused, "you never had a course in logic." What, I thought, has logic to do with the world of the paranormal? Who can prove such phenomena as apparitions and hauntings, or levitations and teleportations? Was this not what Spencer meant by "condemnation before investigation"? Conversely, experiences such as those purported to have occurred in Mary’s life, when they are examined without the blinders of preconception, can lead to new inquiries into what is humanly possible. Why are some persons more than others aware of there being a greater reality in which all lives are rooted? What, in the makeup of mystics, enables them to perceive the interconnection of all existence? and some even to call this matrix by which all things are held together God? What forces at work in Mary raised her awareness to transcendent heights? And what seemingly equal and opposite forces opened her to the darker depths of awareness?
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The young Mary’s confrontations with dark forces, coming in her seventeenth year, were not unlike those of others in comparable circumstances and around this same age. Padre Pio was an outstanding twentieth century example, while numerous cases have been recorded in the lives of saints down through the ages. But considering the common ground on which physics and parapsychology more recently have come to stand, is there a twenty-first century perspective for viewing the strange phenomena to which Mary was subjected? How were her torments related to the many gospel references to the powers of darkness and the demonic? What sense, from today’s worldview, can be made of Jesus’ ministry in the realm of the demonic? On a personal level, have I ever experienced an onslaught of fear or other negative emotion in connection with life-changing choices or decisive steps in new directions? At this crossroads in Mary’s life, what was it about her determination to become a nun that unleashed such a torrent of opposition? The question could as well be: why was Jesus, immediately following his baptism, led into the wilderness?
Between biblical times and these, so vast a cultural gap exists as to make it all but impossible to assess that very considerable portion of Jesus’ ministry involving "casting out demons." Thus we are left to ponder,
Where have all the demons gone?
And although an answer is not likely to come from traditional psychology, archetypal and analytical psychologies do address the question. Alfred Ribi, psychiatrist and faculty member of the Jung Institute in Zurich, presents his theory in Demons of the Inner World. According to Ribi, when Christianity became a religion of city people the demons fled into the desert. Referring to the early Christian "Desert Fathers," he suggests their ascetic practices were an invitation—even a "provocation"—to the demons of that vast psychic hinterland now known as the "collective unconscious."
For some, myself included, the term demon is problematic. It is one of those words that has lost its frame of reference in today’s world. Or perhaps it is my own overly-rational mind that judges it too primitive sounding. In any event, Ribi suggests a way out:
Whoever finds the old-fashioned word demon offensive can speak in terms of complexes, for this is the modern psychological counterpart. Everybody "has" his or her complexes—nowadays this is common psychological knowledge. However, how complexes make themselves felt in our everyday lives and how one can deal with them—that is another matter.
In any event, whether they are called "demons" or "complexes," how does one deal with them? How did Agreda deal with hers?
As for today’s demons, Ribi explains they "are camouflaged behind a semblance of rationality." As for the apparitions, hallucinations and other phenomena Mary experienced, a partial explanation may rest in the compensatory mechanism of the unconscious mind. Nature, including human nature, seeks balance—homeostasis. When natural desires and drives are denied, these repressed energies of the psyche find expression and release in autonomous ways—in ways not under the conscious mind’s control. If today one "has" a complex, formerly one was "possessed by" a demon. The difference seems to me to be a move in the direction of understanding consciousness as multidimensional, or the house in which "I"—as a sentient being—live as multileveled. I may have demons in my basement and angels in my attic, but if the door to the basement is left open my demons may move up into the living room, or the angels in my attic may come down into the bedroom and inhabit my dreams.
The desert was where the early hermits "had it out" with their demons. In Mary’s case, her convent was where she "had it out" with hers. Either way, the process was not dissimilar from that of analytical psychology.
According to Ribi, the radicalness of the desert hermits is comparable to the process of individuation in that it involves a total "revaluation of values, a turning away from collective external values and a turning toward inner images and the Self . . . ." In Jung’s opinion, this Self (with a capital "S") corresponds to the inner Christ, or even to the inner "kingdom of God." In turning away from "outer values" and towards "inner values," the conflicting sides of the whole person are stretched on the hard wood of the cross, there to be subjected to the tension of opposites inherent to human nature.
Ultimately, one is exposed to all the demons that one bears within oneself. And when one has struggled long enough with one’s own thousand devils, one ceases projecting them on one’s neighbors and finds an inner calm.
As for Mary, we have a vivid description of the "thousand devils" against which she contended throughout her novitiate year when
[she was] haunted by frightful shadows of departed souls, by figures of living men, and by unexpected apparitions of ferocious animals which came to interrupt her prayer and disturb her rest. She felt as if some exceedingly heavy weight was crushing her. There were also "unclean" spirits who attempted to tarnish her purity by vile words and obscene images. Her greatest suffering was caused, however, by the fear that she was displeasing God.
Samaniego added to this, "the devil took advantage of her fears and tried to persuade her that she was deceived and that her practices would lead to eternal perdition."4
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It was nearly half a century ago that the noted psychiatrist, Nandor Fodor, pointed to the need for scientific investigation into the depths of the psyche in order to understand how unfathomable a region this is. Around the time Fodor’s Haunted Mind appeared,5Jung’s ideas about the compensatory function of the unconscious were beginning to be heard. Both men addressed the devilish apparitions of the saintly. The subject, however, was "taboo" then and to an extent continues to be, as evidenced by the widespread resistance to the idea of there being an unconscious background in which consciousness is rooted and which holds the key for understanding paranormal experiences. Perhaps the resistance is understandable, for to peer inward is to face the ancient fear of the unknown. This is all the more understandable when the unknown is the dark region of the unconscious collective psyche, and when humankind’s all too recent and tentative grasp on consciousness is considered.
Counter to the fear of falling back into the abyss of unconsciousness, is the ongoing evolutionary drive towards a greater expansion of consciousness. The human mind is where the backward/forward tension of this tug-of-war is felt most acutely. Part of the same equation is how nature balances light and dark, and how this same law works to bring the dark side of human nature into the light of consciousness. The more that is understood about the depths of the psyche, the more apparent it becomes that all of consciousness as well as all of creation is an interrelated whole. In the end it may be our collectively-held perception of light and dark or of good and evil as opposing forces that will undergo transformation. If so, this will concur with the Psalmist:
If I ascend to heaven, thou art there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there!6
Although Sister Mary would come to this knowledge, at seventeen she understood her torments as "bouts with the devil," and her inner warfare as between good and evil. If, however, this spiritual crisis was to work towards the higher purpose of her life, she would need to relate to her adversary impersonally and objectively, and to stand her own ground as had Jesus in his wilderness temptations. As for the images that impinged upon her mind, if used creatively these could become mirrors for self-knowledge. Part of Mary’s Franciscan Rule would have been the daily practice of self-examination. Her model for acknowledging "the will of the flesh" as opposed to "the will of the spirit" would have been St. Paul who spoke freely of his own trials and temptations, and who advised that it is not against "flesh and blood" that we wrestle, but against "principalities and powers."7
In the end, whether the manifestations Mary experienced were of subjective or objective origin, or perhaps some of one and some of the other, was not the issue. Rather it was her willingness to assume personal responsibility for whatever fears, doubts, and desires she could name and own. Fortunately, throughout her prolonged crisis she had the support of a wise counselor and confessor with whom to discuss her experiences and to whom she could confess her weaknesses. Having done so, she then could receive assurance of forgiveness, and from this assurance know herself to be reconciled with God. Through the repetition of so conscious and ritualistic a process, Mary not only survived the year of her novitiate but emerged from it with her faith strengthened. Moreover, what she had gained in self-knowledge would serve her well for the rest of her life.
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Was her ordeal more difficult because her spiritual journey was begun so young? And how do her experiences compare to those of youth today? Is there an explanation for why inner turmoil, even under ordinary circumstances, so often occurs during the late teen years?
Typically, these are years when lives are still rooted in the unconscious. It is also a time of passage away from the enclosure, protection, and provisions of the family unit. The quest of the passage is for a personal vision and identity as an independent, individual member of society. In this sociological process an ambiguity of feelings and fears can be expected to surface. Conscious and unconscious forces as well as personal and collective pressures come into conflict. In moving into adulthood persons learn to rely more on patterned thinking—on thinking derived from social convention. They become more selective and less spontaneous in responding to others and events. As the childhood and adolescent doors into the unconscious close, the young adult adapts to the conscious mind’s more limited reality. In passing through this transition something is lost, but something also is gained—the ability to focus on the outer world and the task of discovering one’s own identity and place in the fabric of society.
For known and unknown reasons, today’s youth appear to be more vulnerable to psychic disturbances than previous generations, and far less equipped to handle an onslaught of invasion from collective levels. To make matters worse, a rational-minded and materialistic culture has no context—no consensus or even an agreed upon language—for understanding and knowing how to deal with these forces once they break out of containment. Nor are there any broadly acknowledged and prescribed rituals for exorcising or subduing the dark side of the psyche in its individual and collective manifestations.
Jung regretted Christianity’s loss of contact with its Judaic roots where light and dark, mercy and judgment, were understood as the right and the left hand of God. From his clinical experience, Jung concluded that to focus on the light without knowledge of the dark side of the psyche, or on good without acknowledging the existence of evil, was to court psychological disaster. He also held that an important function of religion was to mediate these opposing forces and so protect the conscious self (the ego) from what otherwise could lead to a psychotic breakdown, or what is described in the Bible as "being possessed by demons." For now, however, the prevalent attitude continues to be that if something can’t be rationally explained it is to be rejected, or, if it can’t be perceived through the senses it doesn’t exist.
Mary was fortunate to have been prepared for the disturbances of her vulnerable teen years by her early training and her self-imposed discipline. And although this undoubtedly played a role in bringing on the onslaught of forces with which she then had to contend, she was able to do so within the safety of a spiritual formation process, and with the help of an experienced counselor to guide her through what might otherwise have been a psychological mine field.
Unfortunately, most of today’s young people have not acquired the patience of the convent-trained Agreda in learning "to be" as the basis for action. In contrast, but also characteristic of the fast-paced present, there is an unparalleled eagerness for instant enlightenment, and without the wisdom of a spiritual guide to advise that "you have to be grounded before you can fly."
The plight is further complicated by a scientific progress that has outpaced spiritual development. Instead of being instilled with hope of a brightening future, today’s youth face a world horizon on which nuclear, ecological and political catastrophes all loom. With such overwhelming and all-encompassing lack of stability, some choose escape through the destructive path of addiction. Some, however, react to the disintegration of social order by involving themselves in acts of compassion—the ultimate "grounding" discipline. This is the path Agreda’s entire family chose when they followed in the footsteps of the Poor Man of Assisi, giving up their privileged status to serve the sick, the hungry and the outcast. But to do so—to turn away from the rational and the material and towards the spiritual life and selfless service—is to invite confrontation with those unconscious forces that stand in opposition to a person’s conscious intent. Agreda’s apparitions followed this sequence, as had Jesus’ temptations by Satan, coming as these had immediately after the voice from heaven had spoken to him.
As for Mary, Samaniego’s explanation was that Satan (Hebrew for adversary) was also the cause of her trials. And the explanation was helpful in that it provided a biblical context within which her experiences could be understood.
Although the interconnections between mind, body and spirit are not easily studied under laboratory conditions, studies of the paranormal have been ongoing, with more recent attempts directed towards understanding the nature and function of consciousness itself and how it relates to and effects matter and form.
In the next chapter several theories will to be examined, and even though they are only theories it is well to keep in mind that the apparitions, as well as all the other paranormal events in Agreda’s life, were not unique to her but similar to those experienced universally and throughout all generations. Moreover, simply because we have yet to understand the laws under which the paranormal occurs, doesn’t mean we someday won’t, and perhaps sooner than now imagined.
In Agreda’s case, it was the poltergeist-type hauntings that proved so bothersome to her as well as to Padre Pio. When the events in question happened, both were in their late teens and preparing to dedicate their lives to the service of God and humanity. Padre Pio’s biographer explained the young monk’s torment much the same as Samaniego had explained Agreda’s:
It was as though the powers of darkness were putting up a desperate fight to destroy this little monk who was going to prove so powerful an adversary.
The account goes on to explain that "evil spirits" often visited Pio’s cell when he was absent, and that when he returned
he would find everything in confusion—books torn, blankets strewn on the floor, and ink spattered on the wall. He would be jeered at and challenged to fight.
One story told of Padre Pio was about how he routed a demon who had come to him disguised as a monk, and who advised him to abandon his religious career. Pio ordered the intruder to cry out with him, "Viva, Jesús!" With this the demon hastily retreated, "leaving a bad stench behind." Another time, the padre was attacked by a large and ferocious dog. This attack was even reported heard by an unsuspecting neighbor.
In a number of ways the contemporary experiences of Pio were strikingly similar to those of the seventeenth century Agreda. But in order to avoid falling into the trap of attributing them to delusion, Dr. Fodor assures us that highly-developed spiritual personalities are no more unstable than geniuses, and that their experiences have much to teach the world of science about the world beyond what is ordinarily perceived as reality. According to Fodor, since the world of everyday experience is simpler, it only appears saner.
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Mary, having learned as a child to conceal her paranormal experiences, now remained silent about the vile images and hauntings that were plaguing her. One of the ways she tried to keep the manifestations secret was by receiving permission from the abbess to occupy a cell separate from the dormitory. In this way she at least had a degree of privacy in which to wrestle with the dark forces that so disturbed her peace of mind. The method she followed was to strengthen herself through meditation and prayer, and then to challenge her tormentors to leave.
While she found strength and comfort in being permitted to have her own remote cell, this turned into a disadvantage when her convent sisters formed the habit of "looking in on her." Finding her so often on her knees, they concluded that her frail health was the result of her practices of piety. And they may have been right.
According to Aniela Jaffé, the poor health many sensitives suffer can be attributed to the intense manner in which their energy is drained into extrasensory channels.9 Others propose that when the physical body is frail it is easier for the spiritual body to take control. This, they further advance, is the physiological reason for fasting. In any event, it would seem that more unbiased inquiry is called for into how mind, body and spirit are interrelated, and how each is interdependent on the well-being of the others.
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In Mary’s case, the abbess felt justified in insisting Mary should more strictly conform to all the practices of the community. As a result she was no longer permitted to pray alone. What was more, the abbess kept her busy with manual labor and in a way that placed her under observation at all times, not even allowing her to be alone at night. One night when Mary’s inner sufferings were particularly intense, she did rise from her bed to pray. But evidently one of her sister nuns observed her doing so and reported it to the abbess who, by way of punishment, deprived her of receiving Communion. We are told that she met this hostility with such forgiveness that her confessor rallied to her support saying that she had accepted "unmerited criticism as a saint would have, attending the exercises of the community in the manner required of her and concealing the attacks of the adversary." As a further resolve, she determined never to excuse herself when reproved, rather "to love her sisters in the Lord," and to pray for them knowing "God was in them." In noting this, Samaniego wrote:
Her opposition served as a ladder with which she ascended to heaven. Although she rendered perfect obedience to her sisters, she kept herself at the same time closely united to God.
Under these circumstances it is not surprising that the young nun’s inner focus turned towards faraway places, and that once, after receiving Communion and while praying, she fell into a trance. While in this altered state of consciousness she saw a multitude of persons who had never heard the Gospel message. The vision, she confided, "pierced her with sorrow" and served to increase even more her prayers for the souls she had witnessed.11
From the time of her first visions of New Spain, Mary began to pray almost constantly for the illumination of the souls who lived in this place where, since childhood, she had dreamed of going as a missionary. Now, the more she prayed the more the visions increased. In one, she reported, Jesus advised her that he was "especially disposed" toward seeing the peoples of New Mexico ministered to and "ostros serenos de modos de aquella parte" (other quiet-mannered ones of that part of the world). She explained that as her love for these souls increased, more and more was revealed to her about their land. It was her impression that she received knowledge about this land and its people intuitively. Even though from a common sense point of view, she knew it was not possible for her to go there, the one desire of her soul remained to take the message of the Gospel to this land. What could she do? She could pray. And this she did, even though she now had to do so within full view of the entire community and under the surveillance of the critical abbess.
Samaniego records that one day following Communion, when members of the community of Agreda were attending Mass, they noticed a change in Mary’s appearance. A beggar who was looking on from the open gate reported seeing her body surrounded by a dazzling blue light. As he watched he saw her rise several feet off the ground. Her body, he said, appeared "to be tossed about as though it were a leaf in the wind."
I wonder, could the beggar have been able to see what others couldn’t? I might have been inclined to dismiss the story except for its ring of familiarity. Once when attending a conference on healing with my daughter, she observed a similar blue light surrounding the person who was addressing the conference. Moreover, the speaker was known throughout the world as a gifted healer. My daughter asked if I had seen the blue light. I hadn’t, but I didn’t doubt she had. Could she and Mary’s beggar both have been momentarily seeing through some heightened sense of vision? Is paranormal perception in the eyes of the beholder, and therefore a subjective experience? Or does the perception include some objective element? Perhaps at the time the blue light was observed around Mary and the conference speaker, both had been in that state of consciousness some call ecstasy and others a trance.
From this point on, Mary’s ecstasies came more frequently, and always after she had received the Sacrament. In the same developing pattern, further reports of levitations were linked to observations of her ecstasies. As a result of all of the attention she was attracting, the stern Mother Superior grew even more disturbed. She decided Mary’s activities needed to be further controlled. Towards this end she arranged for her to undergo a rigorous ecclesiastical examination. The Provincial of Burgos, Father Anthorn de Villacre, arrived to conduct the examination, but after a thorough test he declared Sister Mary of Jesus to be "possessed of everything that saints and masters of the spiritual order are known to receive from God."12 His verdict was that the young nun had realized true sanctity.
Following this affirmation, Mary’s sister nuns—those who once had been so hostile—reversed their attitude towards her and venerated her to such an extent she now suffered embarrassment over their attentions. The pronouncement of sanctity, however, gave her freedom to pray, and to do so alone. Yet it seemed that the more she prayed the more ecstasies she experienced. Finally, the sequence of Communion followed by ecstasy and then levitation became a sequence of Communion, trance and teleportation, or at least a state of conscious awareness in which she found herself in another location. Samaniego, writing of her first teleportation, gives it the conventional, religious terminology—bilocation—meaning to be in two places at once. Mary explained that one time, when she was praying at the foot of the Cross, she fell into a trance and then suddenly found herself in the midst of a people she recognized from her earlier visions. She plainly felt the difference in the climates. In fact, she said all of her senses were affected by the change of place.13
Mary’s own descriptions suggest her teleportations were more than mental voyages—that the other faculties of sensation and feeling were also operative, and if not in an actual flesh and bones body, then in some other form of embodiment.
In some Western as well as Eastern metaphysical systems, the soul is believed to be sheathed in a series of bodies of different vibratory frequencies or densities. Even Paul differentiated between the "terrestrial" body and the "celestial" body.14 In this connection, physics now understands energy and matter as not only interchangeable states but ones altered by the consciousness of an observer. A question which may prove relevant here concerns the human nervous system: Could this be a missing link in understanding the mechanism of some forms of paranormal perception? Could this electrical-like system of the physical body serve as an interface between states or levels of consciousness? or even between physical and spiritual bodies? These and other intriguing questions raised by Agreda’s life will be considered in subsequent chapters.
For now, it can be said that however it came about, Mary did find herself among the souls to whom her heart had gone out, and concerning whom she had been directed to "fulfill her holy desires to preach His gospel." When, after her first teleportation, she found herself back at the monastery she realized she was completely physically exhausted, but also spiritually elated and filled to overflowing with a tremendous love for the entire world.
Her teleportations to America continued regularly from 1620 to 1631. She testified that she had made at least four visits a month, although there were times when she made two or three "flights" in one twenty-four hour period. Altogether she estimated these numbered over 500. What the records fail to mention is how widely known her teleportations were in her native Spain, or even in her own convent. It is, in fact, unlikely that she even discussed them with anyone except her spiritual adviser who, at that time, was Father Sebastian Marcella. In the first place, she felt unworthy of having received so great a favor. Secondly, in view of her humility and also because of the criticism her spiritual resources previously had caused, it is doubtful that she would have disclosed this gift voluntarily. Lastly, she herself was especially bewildered by what was transpiring, and frequently confided to her priest the doubts she had concerning her inexplicable journeys to New Spain. Perhaps, she conjectured, they were only dreams, or worse—from the devil!
Once she even tried to test the journeys to see if, in fact, she actually had been on the other side of the world. She made up her mind to take some rosaries with her on her next visit and give them to the native peoples. Later, she recalled doing so. After this particular journey she made a thorough search in her cell, and then the entire premises of the monastery. But the rosaries were no where to be found. Nor were they ever discovered! If the greater reality truly is multidimensional, or if energy and matter are interchangeable, should anything be disbelieved outright? Or should, for now, the inexplicable simply be set aside for possible future understanding?
By Agreda’s own admission, her New World missionary activities were at the expenditure of an extraordinary amount of energy, yet during these same years she was so active in her convent in Spain, and with such success, that she was made its abbess in 1627. At that time she was still only twenty-five years old and had been "journeying" between Spain and the American Southwest for seven years.
In Chapter IX the mystery of teleportation will be explored further, including Mary’s perception of her experience. Next, however, our search is for a better understanding of those mischievous and often noisy phenomena known as poltergeists, as well as other spontaneous occurrences in which objects seem to move about without visible means, but with plenty of special effects!