The book called The Mystical City of God contains an account in four large volumes of the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, said to have been revealed to a seventeenth century Spanish nun, Mary of Agreda.  I first heard about it some fifteen years ago.  At the time I was extremely cautious, partly because the person telling me about it, while not stupid, seemed a bit fanciful; partly because of some of things which this person said it contained (see below); and partly (if truth be told) because of a certain prejudice on my part against Spain and the Baroque.

(When he was about six years old, C.S. ‘Jack’ Lewis had this precocious conversation with his father:

Jack: ‘Daddy, I have a prejudice against the French.’  His father, amused: ‘Why’s that, Jack?’  Jack: ‘If I knew why, it wouldn’t be a prejudice.’)

However, I filed the book’s title in my memory, especially as the authoress was a ‘Venerable’, and I was reminded of it not long ago by seeing it taken seriously in a scholarly compendium of Mariology published in 2007 with a foreword by Cardinal Burke.  A few months ago I started investigating it for myself.  I am still a long way from having read the whole work, which is monumental.  But already I can say that it is one of the most astonishing things I have ever come across.

Venerable Mary of Agreda, in religion, Sr Mary of Jesus, and before that, Maria Coronel y de Arana, lived from 1602 to 1665, being of Jewish ancestry on her father’s side.  She, along with her sister and both her parents, entered religious life when she was 16; becoming abbess in her twenties, she governed her community for most of the rest of her life.  She wrote out the life of our Lady not once but three times, having obediently burned the first two manuscripts when told to do so by temporary confessors at her monastery.  Her own advice was regularly sought by King Philip IV of Spain – her surviving correspondence with the king contains more than 600 letters.

The Mystical City of God certainly contains things which at first sight are startling, and which may sound like pious exaggerations or even doubtfully to be within the bounds of orthodoxy.  Among these things are that our Lady at her birth was taken bodily into heaven to be brought before the throne of God; that she received the beatific vision several times in the course of life; and that she had the use of reason from the first moment of her existence.

Mary of Agreda herself was concerned about the first of these statements, asking how it was compatible with the Church’s belief that the gates of heaven were opened only after Christ’s death.  She says that our Lady told her that while this is indeed the law that applies to mankind in general, she was herself exempted from it in virtue of the foreseen merits of Christ; and that as regards the possibility of human beings entering heaven bodily before death, she reminded her of how St Paul says he was taken into the third heaven, and that he does not know whether it was in the body or not, thereby leaving open the possibility that someone might so enter.

Again, as regards the possibility of receiving the vision of God in a transitory way in the life, St Augustine and St Thomas both favour the opinion that St Paul experienced this too (see Summa theologiae, 2a 2ae 175, 3).  Suarez likewise holds that our Lady possessed the use of reason from the first instant of her conception – he argues that St John the Baptist possessed it even before birth, since his ‘exulting’ in his mother’s womb is not understood by the fathers as a mere metaphor, and that it was fitting that Mary should possess a higher privilege than he.

Yet the book is also remarkable in the other direction, in the emphasis that it places on our Lady’s abasing herself before God.  For example, Mary of Agreda writes that it was the custom of the Blessed Virgin to prostrate herself before the child Jesus at the beginning and end of each day, asking pardon for any faults of which she might have been guilty in His regard.  That is startling: but if she had not received the revelation at that point of her own impeccability, it would I suppose have been the right course of action, since no one can know without revelation that he is not guilty of some fault in God’s sight.

(Reflecting on how the book might be criticised from opposite sides, both for unduly exalting and unduly abasing our Lady, I was reminded of Chesterton’s remark that when you hear some person or institution criticised for diametrically opposite reasons – he was thinking of the things that he had heard in his youth about the Church herself – then you have good ground for assuming that that person or institution has it right.)

The book is rigorous and precise: there is a section in volume one on our Lady’s possession of the cardinal virtues which could serve any professor of ethics for a commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics.  It throws additional light on the gospel: for example, there is a psychologically plausible description of how Judas went from being an enthusiastic follower of Christ to a traitor.  Above all, it is a supernatural book, by which I mean that it is interested not so much in the material details of our Lady’s earthly life – here it contrasts with Anne Catherine Emmerich – as with the state of her soul, and with the relevance of her life for the spiritual lives of Christians.

Extraordinary claims require very strong evidence.  As regards the authenticity of this book, good evidence is furnished by the facts of Mary of Agreda’s own life.  It seems certain that she evangelised the Indians of New Mexico without ever leaving her convent – see this series of short articles (this link is not necessarily a general endorsement of the entire site.)  She was declared venerable by Pope Clement X less than ten years after her death.  It appears that French Jansenists, hostile to what they deemed the book’s excesses, succeeded by some interpolations or mistranslations in having it put briefly on the index, and perhaps as a result her cause for beatification stalled.  Her coffin was opened for the first time in 1909, and the body was found incorrupt.  A second investigation of the body, in 1989, found that no changes had occurred in it.  It is venerated in the conventual chapel in Agreda, in the north east of Spain.

Dialogue page

I’ve often wondered why there isn’t more commerce between the living and the dead. Not that I’m advocating necromancy, you understand; just wondering why it is that our Lord in His wisdom does not command or allow the souls living in what St Augustine calls the hidden receptacles to manifest themselves more often to mortal men.  The bishop of Hippo himself used to ponder the same question.  There is a touching passage in one of his earlier works in which he argues that departed souls must be ignorant of what passes on earth, for otherwise why did not his mother come to comfort him when he was feeling downcast, as she had always done while she lived?  But later he changed his mind.

It might seem that such transactions would be highly beneficial for us on earth.  Would we not be comforted and inspired if a blessed soul were to appear? Would we not be fitly chastened to see a soul come up from some purgatorial chamber, dim or twilight? And what more effective way to terrify unto salvation those still in deadly sin than the apparition of a soul from hell?

Yet we know that all these things are rare.  Not unheard of, true: we have only to read the Dialogues of St Gregory to find examples, or, if you prefer something more modern, you could turn to Aardweg’s Hungry Souls. Yet, they are rare. Why is this?

Miracles, of course, must be infrequent, since otherwise they would not be recognisable as miracles.  But such apparitions are perhaps not miraculous.  For a spirit to move to some new location and clothe itself briefly with a small portion of visible matter as with a garment does not obviously exceed its natural powers.  And even if it be a miracle, its usefulness to mortals would not depend on this, but would come from its being a reminder or revelation of great truths.  So why does not God will such apparitions to be frequent, as He wills that sermons about these same truths should be often preached by His ministers, who have not experienced that of which they speak?

I think that visions of this kind would not be as useful as we suppose.  Quidquid recipitur, after all, ad modum recipientis recipitur.  Suppose someone were scared out of mortal sin by seeing a lost soul.  That would do him no good, but just the opposite, unless he persevered in his new way of life.  Then is he to be helped to do this by a constant series of such grim visitations?  In that case, he would live in a constant state of horror, hardly propitious for growing in spiritual liberty and love.  But perhaps he could be given just one such fright to start him off?  But it is better for his conversion to be effected by human preaching, since that is meritorious for the preacher.  And if the man is so hard-hearted that he can be converted only by such a visitation – or, to speak more exactly, if among all created means, only such a visitation would tend to produce in him those serious thoughts and desires which God normally wills to be a precondition for conversion – how likely is he to persevere when once the initial shock has worn off?  Would he not be more likely (again, without prejudice to the freedom of divine grace – I do not want Aelianus to tax me with Molinism) to write the whole thing off as an hallucination, or as a strange experience best forgotten? Our Lord implies that this would be the case for the rich man’s five brothers. 

But it would console us, at least, if someone whom we loved, and about whose salvation we were fearful, were to come to us from purgatory, to reassure us, and it would be good for both of us if that soul should move us to prayer.  Yet, if that were the rule, and not the exception, what if the soul did not appear to us?  Would we not have to conclude that that soul was lost?  How could we bear such knowledge?  If it is hard for us wayfarers to think of the eternal loss of souls in general, and to unite in our minds this part of revelation and the divine love, how would it be if we learned of the loss of some soul whom we had known and loved?  Would not such knowledge be an obstacle for the spiritual progress of all but those already perfect?

But if a blessed soul were to appear – surely that would be only encouragement for the beholder, and no obstacle?  But again, what are his dispositions?  If he is an incorrigible scoffer, he has now one more thing to scoff about.  If he lacks faith rather from thoughtlessness than from scorn, such a visitation would perhaps make an impression, but need it lead him to conversion?  It might lead him to pride as easily as to humility; or, if he is the sort that would tend to be humbled by it, then he could be humbled also by a good sermon.  But at least if he were already in the right path, would not the apparition be helpful?  Yet we have St John of the Cross, doctor of the Church, to contradict this.  Any such extraordinary manifestation, he insists, is liable to lead the beholder away from the purely spiritual path of faith, hope and charity, and to alloy his motives thenceforth with curiosity and the prospect of sensuous delight.

Yet we know that such manifestations do occur, and so they must be sometimes useful.  There are some souls whom God wishes to help who are, so to speak, not likely to be helped in other ways; and for the human race as a whole, or at least for the elect as a whole, it is useful that such things happen sometimes and be recorded.  But it is also good that they be rare.

Yet perhaps many people have some lesser experiences: not apparitions, but, as it were, something imperfect and rudimentary within the same genus.  Often those who have been bereaved speak of an awareness of the presence of the departed soul, and we need not suppose that these things are usually just imagination.

I once knew an old man, very simple, cheerful, and pious.  He had never learned to read and write, having hardly been schooled.  His father, I think, must have been mad: at any rate, when the old man was a boy, his father had once branded him with a red-hot poker.  He served in the War as a conscript, and the example of some Catholic led him to convert. He had never married, and lived alone.  His conversation was often hard to follow, and yet he was the sort of person whom it raised your spirits to hear speak.  Then I went to live in a foreign land and forgot him.  One morning in that foreign land, between sleep and waking, I had a sort of sense of that old man’s soul ascending and that he greeted me as he went, disburdened of all the troubles of his long life. 

That very day a message came from my own country to say that he had died.







St Augustine:

As the ointment on the head, which descended to the beard, to Aaron’s beard, which descended to the fringe of his garment. What was Aaron? A priest. Who is a priest, except that one Priest, who entered into the Holy of Holies? Who is that priest, save Him, who was at once Victim and Priest? save Him who when he found nothing clean in the world to offer, offered Himself? The ointment is on his head, because Christ is one whole with the Church, but the ointment comes from the head. Our Head is Christ crucified and buried; He rose again, and ascended into heaven; and the Holy Spirit came from the head. Whither? To the beard. The beard signifies the courageous; the beard distinguishes the grown men, the earnest, the active, the vigorous. So that when we describe such, we say, he is a bearded man. Thus that ointment descended first upon the Apostles, descended upon those who bore the first assaults of the world, and therefore the Holy Spirit descended on them. For they who first began to dwell together in unity, suffered persecution, but because the ointment descended to the beard, they suffered, but were not conquered…. (in Ps. 132)


St Thomas Aquinas:

It is becoming for those who apply themselves to the Divine ministry to be shaven, and to be tonsured in the form of a crown by reason of the shape. Because a crown is the sign of royalty; and of perfection, since it is circular; and those who are appointed to the Divine service acquire a royal dignity and ought to be perfect in virtue. It is also becoming to them as it involves the hair being taken away: both from the higher part of the head by the tonsure, lest their mind be hindered by temporal occupations from contemplating Divine things, and from the lower part by shaving, lest their senses be entangled in temporal things (Suppl. 40, 1).

I’m not sure how to overcome this aporia, unless we think that Hanon in 1 Sam. 10 had the right idea by shaving off one half of the beards of David’s servants. However, Cornelius a Lapide says that this episode represents the Jews plucking off hairs from Christ’s beard during the Passion, or the devil stripping religious men of their courage, so that does not seem promising. I suppose we have to say that per se it is better for a man, especially a Christian, to possess a beard, at least in this life, but per accidens, e.g. because of a particular need to signify something else, it may become better to be shaved (and tonsured). I say ‘in this life’ because Aelianus tells me that the earliest depictions of our Lord present Him as risen and beardless, in token of eternal youth, and suggests that this may be the ‘other form’ which hindered people from recognising Him after the resurrection.

I presume that the historical reason why priests in the west have generally been shaven is Romanitas. Eastern rite priests of course often have beards, and I have a theory that the East-West division here is a providential counterbalance to the characteristics of their respective liturgies. That is, the Eastern liturgies put before us in particular the glory of the resurrection, so it is fitting that their priests be bearded, to preserve some suggestion of the trials and labours of this life as well, lest we float off into unreality. On the other hand, the Roman rite is more stark and sacrificial, so perhaps there is a danger that adding beards as well might make it too much for some people to take. I hope these are not irreverent thoughts.

“The spittle of David ran down upon his beard” (1 Sam 21:13). St Augustine comments:-

Spittle signifies folly, spittle signifies weakness. But if the folly of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men, let not the spittle as it were offend thee, but observe that it runs over the beard. For as by the spittle weakness, so by the beard strength is signified. He covered then His strength by the body of His weakness, and that which was exteriorly weak appeared as it were by the spittle; but within His divine strength was covered as a beard (in Ps. 33).

St Luke records:-

When he was come to the place, he said to them, ‘pray, lest ye enter into temptation’. And he was withdrawn away from them about a stone’s cast.

St Augustine comments:-

He was torn from them about a stone’s cast, as though He would remind them in a figure that to Him they should direct the stone, that is, direct to Him the intention of the law which was written on stone.

Or perhaps one can also say that He wished in this way to show that He, the virgin-born, was that stone foreseen by Daniel, cut without hands from the mountain, that would destroy the great and high statue, tall of stature and terrible to behold, which is the heathen kingdoms of this world.