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The Guitar of God: Gender, Power, and Authority in the Visionary World of Mother Juana de la Cruz.

(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990). vii + 171 pp. ISBN 0-8122-8225-6. 23-70[pounds].

My powerful Father, I give you thanks because you hid your secret and profound

mysteries from the lettered and the wise and revealed them to the simple and

despised and humble.

The above scriptural excerpt, quoted by Surtz, could well serve as the inspiration for the spirituality and mystical writings of Mother Juana de la Cruz, a Franciscan visionary nun in sixteenth-century Castile. Born in 1481 to humble farmers, Juana apparently adopted her religious vocation in a dramatic and bizarre manner: when she was fifteen years old she ran away from home and, dressed as a boy, she made her way to a Franciscan convent in Cubas, near Toledo. Here, in 1509, the former peasant girl was elected abbess -- an unusual honour for a woman of her social background. She also began to exhibit signs and symptoms of celestial favour: she received visions and revelations, she spoke foreign languages whilst in a state of trance, and finally she had bestowed on her the ultimate accolade of divine grace -- the stigmata or imprint of Christ's Passion wounds on her hands, feet and side. Mother Juana's fame resounded throughout Spain: she counted royalty and archbishops among her devotees and, perhaps inevitably, she became the victim of petty jealousies and sisterly rivalries within her own convent.

The visions, revelations and spiritual teachings of Mother Juana were written down by two sympathetic fellow-nuns, and the resulting manuscript, known as El Libro del Conorte or The Book of Consolation, provides the main focus for Surtz's study of Mother Juana's spirituality. The Book of Consolation consists of a series of |sermons' covering the liturgical year 1508-9, that is, around the time that the nun was first elected abbess. Surtz wisely demurs from exploring the provenance of Juana's visions but examines the language, motifs and imagery employed by the nun in these sermons in order to decode the messages she was attempting to transmit in her guise as |guitar of God'. In a series of intriguingly entitled chapters, such as |The beard and the apple' and |The mother hen', Surtz extracts three recurring themes in Mother Juana's sermonizing: gender, power and authority. These provide the thematic framework for his skilful exploration of contemporary tension and conflict between male and female, between learned and unlearned, and between the active and contemplative lives. Gender confusion, androgyny and sexual ambiguity are recurring themes in Mother Juana's writings which, as Surtz points out, serve both as rhetorical devices and as practical strategies: sometimes |masculine' characteristics are assumed in order to make her role more effective, whilst at others the masculine figures of Christ and St Francis of Assisi are feminized in order to emphasize Juana's empathy with them. Such ambiguity served an extremely powerful function, as it inverted social and cultural norms and directly challenged the whole basis of contemporary spiritual power and authority. Mother Juana's sermons seem to have broadcast not only a whole series of |gender-crossing' messages but also ones which reflected current Franciscan spirituality. hence, as a good Franciscan, she affirmed the superiority of the humble and unlettered in interpreting the Scriptures; as a woman, she proclaimed that the |passive' female religious vocation was as effective as the active male role, and that a female spirituality which communicated through visions and revelations was as valid as the male preaching role. Moreover, in order to forestall any possible complaints that she was infringing the male spheres of preaching and teaching, Mother Juana asserted that she was not sermonizing on her own account but was merely acting as a satellite between God and mankind. In conclusion, Surtz's study of Mother Juana's writings is fascinating and illuminates much of this still neglected area of the history of female spirituality. He raises many interesting questions on gender roles, on the extent to which they shaped and conditioned spirituality, and on early modern society's acceptance or rejection of this type of female spirituality.
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Author:McKendrick, Geraldine
Publication:Medium Aevum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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