Mary of Agreda by Sandra Miesel

Almighty God personally endorsed the Biblical revelations recorded by the Spanish mystic Mary of Agreda (1602-65). Or so she claims in her masterwork, The Mystical City of God. "I do not wish that thy descriptions and declarations of the life of the Blessed Virgin shall be mere opinions or contemplations," says God, "but reliable truth." (I, p. 34) Furthermore, Our Lady confirms that the work is such a perfect account of Divine truth that "not even the highest seraph could add anything thereto." (IV, p. 529)

With recommendations like that--not to mention praise from sundry prelates since the publication of The Mystical City of God in 1670--it might seem foolhardy to evaluate Mary of Agreda's book now. But as a forerunner of Anne Catherine Emmerich, Maria Valtorta, and other proliferating sources of private revelations, not to mention her alleged influence on Mel Gibson, Mary of Agreda is a fair target for investigation. The Mystical City of God generated enormous controversy on its initial appearance, in part because it upheld the not yet defined dogma of the Immaculate Conception. The book was placed on the Index in 1681 but was quickly removed at the King of Spain's behest. Clerics and scholars debated its merits long and furiously.

Not translated into English until 1912, a four-volume edition of The Mystical City of God was re-issued in 1971 and reprinted in 1990 by AMI [Ave Maria Institute] Press of Washington, New Jersey. (There is also a one-volume abridgement published by TAN books of Rockford, Illinois.) The books is a staple among Traditionalist booksellers, although no one knows how many purchasers actually persevere through its 2,476 pages.

Mary of Agreda's critics have never attacked her character. She was born Maria de Coronel in the province of Burgos, Spain. In 1619, her family founded a convent of the Conceptionist Poor Clares in their home. May, her mother, and younger sister joined the institution while her father entered the Franciscans where two of his sons were already friars. Mary showed her mystic tendencies from an early age and practiced mortifications so violent that she vomited blood. For a while, the other nuns made a peephole in the convent wall to put her ecstasies on public display. Mary became abbess in 1627 and held the post for 37 out of the next 40 years. Her reputation for sanctity made her a confidante of Spain's King Philip IV. Both the first and second editions of The Catholic Encyclopedia ignore claims that Mary was bilocated 500 times to evangelize American Indians in the Southwest.

Mary originally completed her Mystical City of God in 1643, was ordered to burn it, rewrote it under obedience in 1660, and died five years later, before the work was published. The cause for Mary's canonization was introduced in 1672 and she was declared Venerable.

Quite apart from controversies surrounding her book, Mary's stalled cause is unlikely to proceed because of her radical aversion for the material universe. For example, she regarded the highest manifestation of spirituality to be the extinction of all sense perceptions. The Church is not eager to honor such attitudes nowadays.

The title of The Mystical City of God refers to the Heavenly Jerusalem (Rv21:2) taken as a symbol of the Blessed Virgin. The work covers Our Lady's whole life, from her conception to her final glorification, interspersed with some exegesis and personal comments by the author. Much of the text is devoted to supposed prayers uttered by the Blessed Virgin throughout her life and to recitals of her incomparable merits. Each chapter ends with an "Instruction" purportedly in the Virgin's own words. Many of these denigrate any state of life save virginity.

Mary of Agreda explained that her material usually came to her through abstract intellectual visions and sometimes through pictures in her imagination. The visual content of the book is negligible compared to other Biblical visionaries and much of what there is of it - for instance her description of Christ's face--is merely conventional. The text is top-heavy with exposition. There is relatively little narrative and human emotions are conspicuously absent. The few non-Biblical characters who appear are nameless ciphers. The style is numbing baroque bombast, heavy on strings of honorifics. Far from being the flawless work its American translator claims, The Mystical City of God does contain errors. For example, it confuses Herod Antipas, slayer of the Baptist with Herod Agrippa I, slayer of St. James the Great. Moreover, some portions of Holy Scripture are oddly handled here. The Virgin's pregnancy stirs St. Joseph to thoughts of hermitage, not divorce. And unknown to the Evangelists, Our Lord and Our Lady shared a public ministry for three years before Cana.

Far more significant are the book's errors in biology which are so profound as to discredit it completely as God's own truth. As a woman of the seventeenth century, Mary of Agreda depends on Aristotle's false theory of human reproduction in which the female is a mere incubator who provided blood to nourish the male seed. Thus the Virgin's body arrives preformed in St. Joachim's sperm, with no ovum from St. Anne required. By special grace, Holy Mary receives her soul on her seventh day in the womb, unlike other females who must wait eighty days. (I: pp.173-83)

The physiology of Christ's conception is likewise grotesque. There is no Marian egg for the Incarnation: Jesus is conceived from three drops of blood literally squeezed out of his Mother's heart (II: pp. 110-12). He has no need of placenta or amniotic sac either, which Mary of Agreda fancies to be consequences of Original Sin (II: pp 399-402). Jesus is, of course, ensouled immediately. (The abridged edition of The Mystical City of God camouflages these matters.)

Mary of Agreda systematically projects her own circumstances as a cloistered Franciscan nun onto the Blessed Mother and her son in matters of food, clothing, seclusion, deportment, piety, and poverty.

The Virgin lives by a series of rules governing every aspect of her day. She and her Son eat one austere meal a day which never includes meat and can dispense with earthly nourishment when angels bring them "heavenly jelly." From childhood, both wear coarse, all-enveloping. Drab woolen garments and hempen footwear that grow with their bodies and cannot get soiled or worn. At the Crucifixion, Jesus is still wrapped in the same immovable loincloth that his mother put on him as a baby in Egypt. His executioners are unable to remove it. Later, the Blessed Mother makes exact duplicates of their garb for all the Apostles and supplies replacements by angel-express. Our Lady lives an almost completely cloistered life within her Nazareth home while a friendly neighbor runs her errands, rather like an :"extern" sister in a convent. She never looks anyone in the face or touches anyone except Jesus. She ceases all signs of affection toward him when he turns six years old. He withdraws all attention from her for a month during their hidden life so that the deprivation with perfect her spiritually. She asks his permission for every act -- even nursing him -- and does her housework on her knees. Angels often anticipate her tasks and do them for her. The Virgin scarcely sleeps and no one may see her sleep. She prepares St. Joseph's corpse for burial without actually seeing it, thanks to a convenient shield of light. Her prayer life centers on performing hundreds of genuflections and prostrations in the form of a cross.

Neither Our Lord nor Our Lady will touch money. In widowhood, she supports Jesus by spinning and weaving because he does no physical work whatsoever. His only acts are miracles include some that ease the work of his parents. Of course neither of them perform any Jewish rituals or attend the synagogue. (The Jews are, of course, rightly accursed for rejecting Jesus: ..."it is just that this burden should rest on you heavier than heaven and earth." III: p. 594)

"Made entirely godlike in the overflow of so many sacraments" (II: p. 404), the Virgin enjoys all the privileges of a glorified body, although she seldom makes use of them. In fact, one of her favorite self-descriptions is "vile wormlet of the earth" which Mary of Agreda also applies to herself. Our Lady can speak at birth and never looks older than 33 years. No only does she not perspire, it is delicately implied that she does not menstruate. Her corpse cannot be viewed or touched.

Furthermore, everything is surrounded by the rigid protocol and grandeur of the Hapsburg court. A thousand liveried angels attend Our Mistress/Princess/Queen/Empress at all times, with more on call. She conducts diplomatic missions to God on behalf of the Church while Lucifer keeps taking counsel with his rival court against her. She foils the demon with effortless ease.

During Christ's Passion, his Mother suffers with him by suffering exactly the same painful sensations simultaneously. In constant silent communication with him, she tries to ease his suffering by sending angelic helpers back and forth. She warns Jesus not to drink the gall-laced potion offered to him. Her angels prevent him from being crushed underneath the overturned cross while the executioners prepare the posthole. The night after Christ's death, angels retrace his steps to gather up all the spots of shed blood and lost tissue which they fuse back on his body at the moment of the Resurrection. No only does the Blessed Mother ascend (invisibly) beside her Son, she makes weekly trips back to heaven after voluntarily returning to Earth. After Pentecost she relives the Passion each week. She receives Communion daily, but the Host remains intact in her body between each reception to make her a living tabernacle.

With her complete and perfect knowledge of the Divine Mysteries, including every future Church teaching, the Virgin manages all affairs of Early Christianity, including its liturgy, sacraments, doctrine, discipline, and calendar. She works miracles, converts multitudes, stages apparitions, and founds the first convent while still finding time to celebrate all the major feasts of the Tridentine Church in the company of Christ and the angels.

After making a will leaving her matchless merits to the Church, Our Lady dies at age sixty-seven in Jerusalem -- not Ephesus. She is assumed into heaven three days later to be gloriously crowned by the Holy Trinity and given queenly dominion over the whole universe

In summary, the steady drone of exalted discourse cataloguing ever more splendid spiritual privileges puts The Mystical City of God a universe away from the simple, concrete language of the Gospels. The exalted Persons that Mary of Agreda presents can scarcely be describes as "a Man like us in all things but sin"--much less his Mother.

What was this book's appeal in the seventeenth century? Supporters could have seen material for anti-Protestant apologetics. Mary of Agreda's revelations prove that everything the Tridentine Church taught and did, including the cult of relics, baptism by pouring, ritual worship, and Communion under one kind, were present from the beginning and even expressed in scholastic terminology.

"Fiscar Marison" (Fr. George Blatnner), translator and co-publisher of the first English edition, cites apologetics as a motive for circulating The Mystical City of God. He may have also been reacting to the simplicity and popularity of St. Therese of Lisieux's Story of a Soul which appeared in English a year before he started translating Mary of Agreda. But as Pope Benedict XIV taught, even Church-approved, plausible private revelations command no more certitude than human faith. Time has cost The Mystical City of God whatever credibility or spiritual value it once had, leaving Mary of Agreda as a curious footnote in Church history.


The false visionary Teresa Lopez, popular in the early 1990s, was caught out when her heaven-dictated writings were found to be plagiarisms of Mary of Agreda. She was unconditionally condemned by Archbishop Francis Stafford of Denver in 1993.


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