Between Exaltation and Infamy: Female Mystics in the Golden Age of Spain

Between Exaltation and Infamy: Female Mystics in the Golden Age of Spain

Between Exaltation and Infamy: Female Mystics in the Golden Age of Spain

Between Exaltation and Infamy: Female Mystics in the Golden Age of Spain

Synopsis

One day in 1599, in the Spanish village of Saria, seven-year-old Maria Angela Astorch fell ill and died after gorging herself on unripened almonds. Maria's sister Isabel, a nun, came to view the body with her mother superior, an ecstatic mystic and visionary named Maria Angela Serafina. Overcome by the sight of the dead girl's innocent face, Serafina began to pray fervently for the return of the child's soul to her body. Entering a trance, she had a vision in which the Virgin Mary gave her a sign. At once little Maria Angela started to show signs of life. A moment later she scrambled to the ground and was soon restored to perfect health. During the Counter-Reformation, the Church was confronted by an extraordinary upsurge of feminine religious enthusiasm like that of Serafina. Inspired by new translations of the lives of the saints, devout women all over Catholic Europe sought to imitate these "athletes of Christ" through extremes of self-abnegation, physical mortification, and devotion. As in the Middle Ages, such women's piety often took the form of ecstatic visions, revelations, voices and stigmata. Stephen Haliczer offers a comprehensive portrait of women's mysticism in Golden Age Spain, where this enthusiasm was nearly a mass movement. The Church's response, he shows, was welcoming but wary, and the Inquisition took on the task of winnowing out frauds and imposters. Haliczer draws on fifteen cases brought by the Inquisition against women accused of "feigned sanctity," and on more than two dozen biographies and autobiographies. The key to acceptance, he finds, lay in the orthodoxy of the woman's visions and revelations. He concludes that mysticism offered women a way to transcend, though not to disrupt, the control of the male-dominated Church.

Excerpt

As the fervor for mysticism spread from an elite group of adepts to the popular masses, the church hierarchy and especially the Inquisition became more and more concerned about the problem of fraud. of course, it was generally agreed that the divine communication a genuine mystic had received could not and should not be ignored. the Franciscan Gerónimo Planes, a reader in theology at the Convent of Jesus Nazarine in Malloca, emphasized this in a work dedicated to differentiating between true and false trances and revelations, which he published in 1634. After indicating several ways in which those who make false claims to receiving divine communication may be discovered, he cautioned spiritual advisors not to automatically adopt a negative attitude toward those of their penitents who told them about their visions and revelations. Instead, the confessor should respond like an impartial judge, neither showing excessive skepticism nor a willingness to believe that might border on credulity. the excessively credulous were “more demonic than the devil” in showing an absurd and inappropriate degree of respect for their penitents that would make it impossible for them to provide spiritual guidance. But confessors who treated their penitents with asperity may have committed an even worse offense by breaking the spirit of a penitent who may have actually been receiving divine communication. the good Christian was obligated to believe in the visions and revelations of saints but could not automatically discard those experienced by ordinary private individuals. in the last analysis, Planes believed that the existence of so many impostors who claimed to enter trances and receive revelations said nothing about the valid-

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