Spiritual Counsel and the Bonds of Affection: A Study and Translation of Four Letters by a Seventeenth Century Franciscan Woman Mystic

By Tar, Jane | Magistra, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Spiritual Counsel and the Bonds of Affection: A Study and Translation of Four Letters by a Seventeenth Century Franciscan Woman Mystic


Tar, Jane, Magistra


In a period spanning the years 1624-1631 the mystic nun, Ana María de San José of the Discalced Franciscan Convent of the Immaculate Conception in Salamanca, Spain, sent some twenty-two letters of spiritual counsel, vocational support and mystical revelation to her Franciscan friend and confidante, fellow contemplative and male religious superior, Brother Martín García. As a collection, Ana's letters to Brother Martín open an important window onto early modern Spanish mystical spirituality and the position of women mystics within the patriarchal Church. Just as important, they also attest to the genuine bonds of spiritual affection that could exist between early modern Franciscan men and women practitioners of contemplative or mental prayer.

Because of the historical and spiritual interest Ana's letters to Brother Martin hold, the present project makes accessible for the first time in English translation four letters representative of the corpus. By way of their introduction, a brief exposition of Ana's method of prayer and principal spiritual doctrines is provided, as gleaned from her spiritual epistolary and the autobiography she composed shortly before her death in 1632. Additionally, this study will explore Ana's relationship with Brother Martin as informed both by early modern discourses concerning the religious authority of women and by the correspondents' common identity as contemplative Franciscans.

Ana's Mystical Spirituality

Acclaimed by distinguished modern Spanish religious writers as "a true jewel of mysticism"1 and as "a humble seventeenth-century Franciscan nun" whose "wonderful and clear" account of her spiritual life "well deserves recognition,"2 Ana Maria de San José was born on Epiphany, January 6, 1581, in Villacastin, a town located in the bishopric of Segovia, in Old Castile. As an adolescent, Ana became immensely attracted to the simple and tender piety of St. Francis of Assisi, whose life she had been given to read by a Franciscan confessor. Ana's devout meditations of the life of St. Francis soon led to her decision to become a Franciscan herself. In 1602, she entered the Discalced Franciscan Convent of the Immaculate Conception in Salamanca, professing the following year of 1603. Eventually, Ana would serve consecutive terms as the community's mistress of novices and a term as its abbess from 1627 to 1630.

Characteristic of early modern Spanish nuns' "life stories," Ana's spiritual autobiography exhibits significant chronological gaps, focused as it is more on the illuminations and events in her interior prayer life than on external events around her. However, as a document also illustrating the mercies she received through prayer, Ana's narrative provides an indication of the contemplative progress she made during her conventual life. As a novice already well versed in the life of St. Francis, Ana describes how she, like the saint, intentionally rejected books in favor of an affective spirituality based on Christ's humanity and suffering.

At this early stage in Ana's contemplative life, her method of prayer, she confesses, was really no method at all. Rather, it consisted of throwing herself at the "door of God's mercy," and of speaking to God simply, humbly, quietly and in her own words, even if God did not always answer. Like St. Francis of Assisi, and recalling Franciscan foremothers such as the medieval Italian tertiary, Angela of Foligno, Ana's only meditative guide during this stage of her spiritual development was Christ's Passion and the great love that his Passion evinced and inspired in her.

Although long a hallmark of Franciscan spirituality, Ana's emphasis on Love is particularly pronounced among Spanish Franciscan contemplative circles in the sixteenth century and seventeenth century; certainly it lay at the core of nuns' meditations in Ana's very own convent. For example, according to a convent chronicle published in 1696, one of Ana's early spiritual teachers, a peasant woman who had entered the convent with her employer the year after Ana's profession, was known to "speak of Love in such a high manner, that all the religious who came into contact with her were amazed: and they said that she was nothing more nor less than a theologian. …

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