THE SUBLIME SECRET
Nowhere are we closer to the sublime
Benavides reached Spain on August 1, 1630, and immediately went to Madrid to present his report on the progress of the missions to the Commissary General of the Indies, Father Juan de Santander. The latter added his own personal letter before presenting it to King Philip IV. Today, the thin, parchmented 104 page volume, titled The Memorial of 1630,1 is said to be worth its weight in gold. Its historical value lies in its having been written by an eye-witness to the events recorded, as well as by one who played an important role in the history-making era in which he lived. Historian Hubert Howe Bancroft has appraised Benavides as the greatest authority on the Spanish Southwest of his time.2
In the Memorial, Benavides subtly reminded his monarch that the mission fathers had discovered temporal as well as spiritual treasures for Spain. He also referred to the amazing conversion of the Jumanos. He did not, however, identify Mary Agreda as the Lady in Blue since he had not as yet learned who she was. It was not until after he had met her the following year, and had conducted a thorough investigation of her American activities in his mission field, that he wrote a second volume titled The Memorial of 1634,3 and in which her identity was revealed. In this work, he gave a full account of the role she had played in the Franciscan missionary achievements. Benavides worked in Spain and in Rome on behalf of his order during the years that intervened between the two Memorials, and the second document was written at the instigation of Pope Urban VII. The purpose of the later volume was to obtain new privileges for the missionaries and to confirm old ones. The Memorial of 1643 laid stress on the extent of the hardships of the mission field. Since it also gave a report of every Native American tribe that had come under the influence of the Franciscans, it had tremendous historical significance as documentation of one of the most important, if as yet least known, chapters in America’s colonial period. And at the center of this document is the story of Mary Agreda’s surprising influence on the Native Peoples of the American Southwest.
In both volumes, however, Benavides did not dwell on the miraculous nature of how the young nun carried on her religious work in so widely-scattered fields on the American continent while she simultaneously worked at her convent in Agreda. He simply explained that God had bestowed upon her the gift of bilocation and the gift of tongues to accomplish her apostolic work, both of which gifts could be validated in the New Testament Book of Acts.
In addition to the two Memorials there are other primary source material that verify the paranormal phenomena involved in the Agreda story. Benavides wrote a letter to his confreres in New Mexico,4 telling them about his face-to-face meeting with Mary Agreda. Along with this letter, he sent a copy of another letter, from the Reverend Mother Abbess herself. The letter was written under obedience and attested to the veracity of the details Benavides had written in his dispatch. Benavides retained the original letter, as well as the many notes he had written during the long inquiry. These he promised to deliver in person when he returned to the New World.
Mother Agreda’s letter proved to be a great comfort to the friars and left an enduring impression on those of the Franciscan order who worked among the Native Americans in the American Southwest and, still later, among those who worked in the California mission field. The letter came to be known as "Tanto Que Se Sacó de Una Catra." It was reprinted in Mexico City and later titled by Dr. Charles E. Chapman in the Catalogue of Materials in the Archive General of the Indies, in Seville. It was published by the University of California, Berkeley, in 1919.
It had been Agreda’s habit to record the facts of each teleportation in a diary she kept of her work. It is altogether likely that she was required to offer this for scrutiny while she was under inquisition. Somewhat later, however, when her long-time spiritual advisor was given another assignment, he was replaced by a new confessor who, not approving of women writers, ordered her to burn all of her writings. Thus, the diary was lost to the world with its wealth of detail on her teleportations and other phenomena which would have been of considerable interest to today’s parapsychologists. Later she did write her autobiography, and in it covered her important adolescent years. This work is extant today.5 In addition, her spiritual advisor also included many details of her experiences in his biography of her.6
Benavides’ letter to the Franciscans related that he had questioned her about many personal matters to test her knowledge of the territory, and asked her about such little-known details as the physical handicaps of certain religious workers and the appearances of some prominent Spanish officials. Mother Agreda related how one Native American captain, name Tuerto, was blind in one eye; again, she told the color of a certain priest’s beard and named other facts that he presumed could only have been acquired by being in the mission field. Benavides concluded that the holy woman knew more about the mission field than he himself. Until she refreshed his mind, he stated, he had forgotten some of the incidents which she described.
Both the Newberry Library in Chicago, and the Library of Congress have copies of the first edition of The Memorial of 1630, which was widely published in Europe. There is a copy, a Spanish edition, in the Museo Nacional in Mexico City. Georgetown University has copies of the Latin edition, published in Brussels, and the German translation, published in Salzburg, as well as the French edition. The British Museum has a copy of the Dutch edition, published in Antwerp. The original English translation, by John Gilmary Shea, strangely enough was not published until 1899 and came into the possession of the New York Public Library. The Academy of Franciscan History, in Washington, furnished a translation of The Memorial of 1630 which was edited by Father Peter Forrestal, of Notre Dame University. The latter book is especially valuable for its notes and bibliography.
What seems quite as incredible as the fantastic accomplishments of the Mother Abbess is the fact that such valuable documents were not published in America until the twentieth century. For over a hundred years after her death, in 1665, explorers who penetrated Native American territory never before traveled by the white man discovered new evidence of the Agreda missionary activity. Father Manzanet left a letter to substantiate what the Native Americans had related concerning the Agreda visits to their parents.7
An examination of all this extensive documentation provides a complete account of how Father Benavides discovered the Lady in Blue in Spain. It was not difficult. As soon as he had presented his Memorial of 1630 he turned his attention to his own order, the Friars Minor, conferring first with the Father General, Fray Bernardino de Siena, and relating how a certain woman named by the Native Americans as the Lady in Blue, whom he thought must be Spanish, had been instructing the Native Americans in matters of faith in the territory under his custody. He must have worded his fantastic tale carefully, lest the Father General would think him over-zealous and undiscerning. As he wrote to his coworkers: "So little is known of New Mexico; it is almost as if God had made it part of another world."
The Father General, who recently had been the Provincial at Burgos, where Agreda is located, interrupted his story by saying, "You need search no further, as I can tell you who your Lady in Blue is. Eight years ago it came to my attention that Sister Mary of Jesus of Agreda had apparitions and revelations concerning the conversion of New Mexico. What you are telling me only confirms what I heard from Mother Agreda herself, word for word!" It is singular in the light of what we now know that he used the word "apparitions" rather than the generally accepted term "bilocations" as the other religious did.
Naturally, Benavides made plans to go to Agreda without delay. The Father General would have liked to accompany him also, but his many occupations prevented that. So, knowing how reluctant Mary Agreda was to discuss her miraculous missionary activities, he gave Benavides authority to request her, under her vow of obedience, to tell him all that she knew about her evangelistic activities in American territory during the past decade. Benavides then set out for the convent and reached it on the last day of April, 1631, three years after leaving New Mexico.
His first business in Agreda was to get in touch with Father Sebastian of Marcilla, who had written the original letter to the Mexican archbishop, seeking verification of word that a nun was teaching the Native Americans. Together with the nun’s confessor, who was at this time Father Andres de la Torre, the three religious went to the convent to begin the inquiry which was to last for two weeks.
Benavides sent on by royal mail a copy of this recently presented Memorial of 1630 and a letter telling some of the matters which were disclosed in the panel investigation. Even before attempting to explain how the Lady in Blue had accomplished her missionary activities, he described her. "I wish to declare," he wrote, "that Mother María de Jesús, abbess of the convent, is about twenty-nine years of age, handsome of face, very fair in color, with a light, rosy tinge and large black eyes. Her habit and that of all the nuns in the convent...is the same color as ours: that is, brown sackcloth, very coarse, worn next to the body. They (the nuns) wear over the brown habit a white one, with a scapular of the same material and the cord of St. Francis. The nuns wear the rosary over the scapular; they have no shoes or sandals, other than boards tied to the feet. The outdoors cloak is of blue cloth, coarse, with a black veil."
He explained that he would not take time to speak of her ascetic life but would reserve the account of it for later, when he saw them. Unfortunately for the historical record, his plan to return to America never materialized, since his health failed and he died en route to Goa, India, where he had been assigned as bishop, perhaps because of ill health. In his Memorial of 1634, however, he gave indisputable proof that the Mother Abbess had worked among the Native Americans of New Mexico. Her motive was explicit: since as a child she had heard of the Franciscans’ missionary work among the Native Americans of New Spain, she had longed to go there.
In the context of history, the Church’s concern for souls who had not heard the Gospel of Christ was a new kind of preoccupation for Spanish theologians of Agreda’s time. As Father Gregory Baum, professor of theology of St. Michael’s College, Toronto, explained in a lecture at Brandeis University,8up to the 15th and 16th centuries the view was widely held that the majority of people was contained within the boundaries of Europe. This population, for the most part, was Christian; those who had rejected the message of the Gospel were presumed to be few. The round-the-world voyages of the 15th century, with the discovery of vast millions in Asia and the Americas, changed this medieval outlook and challenged religious persons to assume responsibility towards the eternal destiny of these newly-discovered people.
It is therefore easy to understand how the Reverend Mother Agreda, with her deep interest in spiritual matters and her compassionate nature, felt a compelling desire to reach these unknown millions with the message of the Gospel. Her biographer, Samaniego, showed an intuitive perception uncommon for even our time when he wrote: "She had one desire and that was that her celestial spouse be known and loved by everyone. This desire which was created in her childhood afterwards produced miraculous effects."9
Three centuries later the psychiatrist, Dr. Fodor, also emphasized the psychic power of desire in the little-understood phenomenon of self transportation. In answering the question of what the needs of the unconscious were which transportation alone satisfies, he concluded that self-preservation was of the foremost need. And then he wrote: "For the saints, saving somebody’s soul was more important then saving mere physical life. We find this need operative in the story of Mary of Agreda, who is said to have made 500 mysterious visits through space from Spain, . . . [to America]."10
It is easier to understand this explanation by comparing what Benavides reported of his work among the Native Americans with what the young abbess reported. With his Memorial of 1630, he enclosed a litter to the Franciscan friars in which Agreda gave her own opinions. Concerning the Native Americans of New Mexico, Benavides wrote that they were "very fierce, barbarous and untamed . . . [that they were] want to have civil wars, and . . . slay each other brutally . . . . When we pass through their midst . . . they do all the ill they can, for which reason that region cannot be passed by less than twelve men, mounted on their horses and very ready with their weapons. We have tried all possible means to convert and pacify these nations, for the good of their souls as well as for the security of the road. But so great is their barbarism that they will not even let themselves be talked with."
In contrast, Agreda wrote: "It seems to me that the way in which they could be reached would be to have the friars of our Father St. Francis traverse their land and, for their security, soldiers of good life and conduct might be sent to accompany them, who on account of their mildness would be willing to suffer any insult which might be offered them and who, with the good example of patience, might win them over. So much can be accomplished by example."
Agreda’s inquiry brought to light that her teleportations usually followed prayer and trance. She told Benavides that she prayed fervently before the Cross for the peoples of the Southwest, and that she "gave thanks for the infinite grace granted [her] in visiting them. I prayed every day that I be allowed to visit them and teach them more about our faith, and often as I prayed, the experience was repeated. I would lose consciousness of my surroundings and find myself again among [these people], whom I came to love more and more as I understood better their simple nature and their hard life." She prayed for them, she said, "with all my soul."
The matter of being in trance and of having a close emotional tie to those she visited is noteworthy for the paranormal researcher, as is the fact that when she regained consciousness she was exhausted and weak but filled with love for all people. Compassion seems to be as important a factor as desire. Some significance must be attached, also, to the fact that the teleportations required a tremendous expenditure of vitality.
When Benavides asked her why the friars did not have the privilege of seeing her when the Native Americans did (as, in one instance, when she assisted him at a special mass, about which she was able to answer every question he put to her), she replied, and with true diplomacy, that the Native Americans had the greater need. She also explained that in her opinion she was given the power to work miracles in order to convince the Native Americans of the truth of what she was teaching them. And in this connection, it is worth noting that she lives today in Native American lore as a miracle worker and as one who heals and helps those in distress in magical ways. There is widespread belief that she comes to a person in each generation and bestows a gift upon one who has merited the favor. It was her belief that native peoples accepted her and what she taught them because of the miracles that God worked through her.11But I wonder, could it also have to do with the purity of her love for them? Was it the light of Christ in that was the secret of her missionary success?? And were the healings that took place a direct result of this?
Mary reported that on her travels she saw and recognized the Franciscan friars at work in their mission fields, and it was this that made her realize they needed priests to baptize them. So, although the tribal peoples lived a great distance from the missions, she advised them to send messengers to search for the priests and to request that they return with them to their tribal lands. She gave them accurate directions as to how to get to the missionaries. Thus it came about that they eventually arrived at the Mission of San Antonio, in Isleta, where Father Juan de Salas was stationed.
Since Benavides wanted every possible proof that the abbess had visited his territory, he put questions to her that no one could answer except someone who had been there in person. He disclosed in his letter that she had answered his questions in such accurate detail that there no longer was a doubt in his mind that she had personally worked in his mission field. Nevertheless, he said that of all the proofs in the case nothing was more convincing than her obvious sanctity.
There was, however, one occasion she reported when she had not received kind attention from the Native Americans. Once she had incurred such wrath among a tribe that she was martyred by them. It is interesting in the light of this allegation, that almost a hundred years later Captain Juan Mateo Mange, in his "Luz de Tierra Incognita," told of having met some very old Native Americans in a territory not contained in the state of Arizona whose parents, as children, had been visited by a woman answering the description of Mary Agreda. They had spoken of piercing her with arrows and leaving her for dead. This had occurred "several times," they said, but each time she after disappearing she would appear again.12
What possible explanation could there be for this isolated incident in which the Lady in Blue, rather than receiving the welcome she was accustomed to, met with a hostility that suggested the body vehicle in which she traveled was not entirely invulnerable? Was she subjected to the kind of psychic attack with which shamans are familiar? In fact, considering how the Jumanos shamans had attempted to discredit her, could tribal shamans have been behind the attack in an effort to be rid of what they considered infringement on their territory? There is nothing in the records to suggest this was the case, but it would be a plausible explanation for the hostility directed towards her.
Whereas the modern mind would look upon such a story as a fabrication of someone’s imagination, the multidimensional cosmology of tribal peoples would have had a niche into which such an occurrence could fit. However, since the accounts give only the barest details, there is no way of knowing what this might have been.
"Expanded consciousness" is a phrase made popular today by numerous books dealing with opening the doors of human perception through spiritual practice, meditation, hypnosis, or drugs. Yet the evidence indicates that the Native Americans Agreda visited already were living in a state of expanded awareness. Their God was so ineffably comprehensive that it took several words to describe the nature of the divine Spirit. With evidence of the Creator and the powers and principles of creation all around them, Southwest tribal peoples lived in a world in which both spirits and the Great Spirit were an integral part of their whole existence. Certainly the tribes of New Mexico accepted the Lady in Blue as a teacher come to them from the spirit world, and therefore they held her in such high regard as to assure her place in their folklore.
In spite of all this evidence, Agreda herself admitted that she could not draw positive conclusions about the manner of her travel. At first she thought she "passed over the lands in spirit." But when her inquirers challenged this, suggesting that it was because of her great humility that she felt she could not have traveled bodily, she agreed that the matter had bewildered her and that she could not understand why God had chosen her for such wonderful work. She even admitted that sometimes she feared it was all only a figment of her imagination! Of one thing she was certain: "It was not the work of the Devil,." Rather, she understood it to be God’s will and pure intention for her. As a closure to the matter, she reminded them that St. Paul himself had not been able to decide on the exact nature of his own similar experience.
When other learned persons were consulted to try to solve the riddle, they were of the same opinion as Benavides in declaring that she could not have accomplished what she did if she had not traveled to America in her body. But then that was before quantum physics had provided greater comprehension of the inter-related nature of matter and consciousness.