Academic journal article Chasqui

Travel, Natural Disasters, and the Texts of Cloistered Nuns: A Case from Colonial Chile

Academic journal article Chasqui

Travel, Natural Disasters, and the Texts of Cloistered Nuns: A Case from Colonial Chile

Article excerpt

On June 16, 1783 the effects of torrential rains caused the river Mapocho in Santiago, Chile to flood its banks. At the time a small community

of Carmelite nuns resided in their cloistered convent next to the river. The rains started in May, but became a deluge in early June and by the time of the great flood, it had poured for 209 hours straight (Vicuna Mackenna 193-94). The nuns would have drowned, had it not been for some neighbors who broke a hole in one of the walls, leading the twenty-eight women to safety. Sor Tadea de San Joaquin, a nun from the Carmelite Convent of San Rafael, retells their story in a 516-versed romance [ballad] titled "Relacion de la inundacion que hizo el rio Mapocho de la ciudad de Santiago de Chile." (1) Written in octosyllabic metre Sor Tadea's poetic voice offers a unique opportunity to view one of the few instances that contemplative nuns were forced to leave their cloistered environment. The first verses of her poem convey a scene of torment and pain. In addition to setting the stage for the nuns' harrowing tale of escape, they also showcase Sor Tadea's adept use of the romance and her familiarity with Baroque and epic poetry:

   !Que confuso laberinto,
   que Babilonia de efectos,
   que oceano de congojas!
   que torrente de tormentos,
   combaten mi corazon,
   queriendo sea mi pecho
   nueva palestra de penas,
   de martirios teatro nuevo,
   al relacionar el caso
   mas lastimoso, mas tierno,
   que en el asunto menciona
   en sus anales el tiempo. (2)

An analysis of the poem will shed light on the underlying reason that this Carmelite nun decided to depict the destruction of her convent in poetic verse. As illustrated by the quote above, Sor Tadea's verses combine a hybrid style of Baroque imagery and epic themes. In the first instance she incorporates mythological references ("Babilonia") using hyperbole and intense metaphors ("que oceano de congojas!"); and in the second, she recounts the nuns' traumatic escape from the flood, highlighting the ultimate meddle and persistence of the women to survive such a disaster ("al relacionar el caso / mas lastimoso, mas tierno, / que en el asunto menciona/ en sus anales el tiempo"). Ultimately the Carmelite nun draws on a variety of poetic traditions, including that of "disaster poetry," to compose her verses that were published within a year of the great flood. Sor Tadea's poem also serves as a touchstone to review other instances--some due to natural disaster, others for the establishment of new convents--that nuns ventured beyond the walls of their cloistered communities. In recent years more and more attention has been dedicated to the lives and writings of early modern nuns. Thanks to the efforts of landmark studies such as Cultura femenina novohispana by Josefina Muriel and Untold Sisters by Electa Arenal and Stacey Schlau, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz and Saint Teresa de Avila are no longer viewed as anomalies for their secular and religious works. The recognition of convent writing has opened the way to innovative studies on works written by women religious. (3) To this end, I turn to travel outside the cloister as a fresh approach to recently discovered or lesser-known texts.

To better understand the content and structure of Sor Tadea's poem, we need to take stock of the historical background and context of cloistered nuns in the early modern world. The precepts of the Council of Trent (1545-63) mandated that all female convents be cloistered. When an aspirant nun took her final vows of profession, she shut herself within the thick walls of the nunnery and metaphysically speaking became "dead to the secular world." Once inside a convent, this became her new home for the rest of her life, and it was extremely difficult to break those walls of seclusion. Some exceptions, however, did exist. One in particular, allowed for foundation journeys that enabled religious orders to establish new communities in other cities and even countries. …

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