“I like the word ‘indolence’. It makes my laziness seem classy” – Bernard Williams

Even nuns need a break...
Even nuns need a break…

In our idealized world, where we sing the hosannas of multitasking and celebrate the dubious virtues of efficiency, the truth is we just really wish that we could get more done with our days.  My relative productivity would no doubt soar if I could only write software, research an article, rake leaves, and convert the heathen simultaneously.  Alas, I am but one work-a-day stiff with a limited attention span and fondness for scotch.  Even my adorably over-achieving better half Mrs. X is only able to attend multiple meetings at the same time with cybernetic assistance and the wonders of modern technology that I consider the ultimate harbinger of the fall of western civilization (although given a certain amount of mood-unpredictability, I’m starting to suspect she has managed to clone herself.  And one of the clones thinks I’m a jerk).  Upon examination of the historical record, it turns out that my inability to walk and chew gum at the same time is a function of pure laziness, given the propensity of those who were truly committed to engage in bilocation, that is, the art of being in two places at once.  Consider if you will, the case of the 17th Century A.D. Spanish abbess and mystic María de Ágreda, who by contemporary reports was able to juggle the administrative nightmare of running the cloistered Franciscan nunnery of the Order of the Immacculate Conception in Ágreda, Spain and author the seminal six volume tract on the Virgin Mary called the Mistica Ciudad de Dios (“Mystical City of God”), all while routinely teleporting back and forth to the unexplored frontier of the American southwest in order to convert the Jumano Native American tribe of what is now modern day Texas and New Mexico to Christianity.  In retrospect, those of us who wholeheartedly embrace a slacker lifestyle should resent this, as it makes us look bad.

Now, at the opening of the 17th Century, Spain was an epicenter of European religious fervor, enmeshed as they were in plague and religious violence surrounding the Protestant Reformation that threatened to engulf the continent in war, death, famine, and pestilence.  In 1602, Don Francisco Coronel and his wife Catalina de Arana were blessed with the birth of a daughter, aptly named María Fernández Coronel y Arana, who even by the age of four, was manifesting spiritual acumen, an inclination towards ecstatic mysticism, and various supernatural tendencies (engaging in the occasional spontaneous act of levitation).  By the time she was a teenager, her whole family had gotten the religious bug.  Her father became a Franciscan monk, her brothers were in seminaries studying to be priests, and María and her mother had founded a Franciscan nunnery out of the family home in Ágreda, to which María became abbess at the tender young age of twenty-five following her mother’s death (a position she effectively retained until her own death in 1665).  While managing capital construction projects as the convent expanded, María also found the time to take revelatory dictation from the Virgin Mary and pen a number of theological expositions, and with an even more disturbing level of efficiency, appears to have been able to bilocate herself to Texas in order to spread the gospel among the natives, or rather a particular group of natives called the Jumano.

The Venerable Maria de Agreda was a Spanish nun of the early seventeenth century who belonged to the Franciscan order of women which at that time in Spain was known as the Conceptionist Order. She was the Mother Superior of a convent in Agreda, and as superior she was all sagacity, prudence and good sense. She was a practical woman like Saint Theresa of Avila. But also like Saint Theresa of Avila she was an ecstatic. Our Lady, she believed, often spoke to her, telling her of her Immaculate Conception. Our Lady revealed to her also how beautiful it was to be a missionary, how dearly she loved missionaries, how she listened to them and aided them. Maria de Agreda believed that she herself in ecstasy was allowed to be a missionary. She had visited lands in the Far East and had preached to the heathen, and had seen Saint Francis’s friars there and could describe them. Also she had visited another land which on investigation she decided must have been New Mexico, for the friars she saw there and whom she described as having seen there were identified as friars who had been in New Mexico. She had been a missionary to the Jumanos, the nation whom Cabeza de Vaca had found so strange (Sargent, 1940, p.32).

Just ask the Jumano.  Oh wait, you can’t really, there being only roughly three hundred self-identified Apache-Jumano left in existence.  Since the first recorded encounter of the Spanish with the Jumano in 1581 until the last reference to them in the 19th Century, things appear to have slid downhill.  Disease, slavery, and prolonged warfare with the Apache and Comanche decimated the Jumano, who were thought to have once flourished in northern Mexico, Western Texas and New Mexico, assuming of course they existed at all.  The current hypothesis is that the remnants of the Jumano were absorbed by the Apache and Comanche, effectively disappearing as a distinct people after 1750.  The problem with figuring out who the Jumano were is exacerbated by the fact that Spanish missionaries that were writing about them tended to obscure finer ethnographic distinctions, and may have aggregated several indigenous groups under the generic rubric of “Jumano”.  At most, scholars minimally agree that the Jumano were probably a group of 20,000-30,000 Uto-Aztecan, Tanoan, or Athabascan speaking, nomadic buffalo hunters in western Texas, and that their extensive trade networks throughout the Southwest probably account for the use of the tribal name generically by early Spanish explorers.  Spanish missionaries were the first Europeans to bump into the Jumano starting in the 16th Century, and were puzzled when by 1629, they seemed oddly familiar with Christianity, requesting that the Spanish send missionaries and baptize them.  Father Alonzo de Benavides, Custodian of New Mexico (1578-1635 A.D.) was so surprised by the request that he inquired as to why before sending in the missionaries (Franciscan Friar Juan de Salas was dispatched in 1629).  The Jumano informed Benavides that for many years they had been visited by a “Lady in Blue”, pointing to a painting of a nun in a blue habit (although they insisted that beneath the habit she was actually a beautiful young girl), and that this mysterious Lady in Blue had suggested that they appeal to the Franciscans for assistance when they arrived, as the Jumano were feeling increasing pressure from encroaching Apaches.

This of course could all have been written off as a complex metaphor for the universality of certain aspects of human religion (or is it the oppression of the white man, I always forget?) were it not for the fact that at the same time Father Benavides was making his first forays among the Jumano and scratching his head about their apparent familiarity with his religion, a letter arrived from Spain with monk and inquisitor Esteban de Perea via the Archbishop of Mexico from María de Ágreda’s confessor, asking for verification that María de Ágreda had been preaching among the Jumano – evidently, although in Spain, she was reported to be falling into trances and informed the church authorities that during these times she was miraculously transported to preach among a people called the Jumano.  And these Franciscans were no slouches.  They put two and two together, and realized that strange things were afoot at the Circle-K.  Benavides was doubly shocked, when he eventually returned to Spain and met María de Ágreda in person.

Among those who contributed to bring about so happy a result are included the names of Fathers Benavides, Lopez and Salas at Tumanas, Father Ortego, and, we may add, the venerable Maria de Jesus d’Agreda (Spain), whose mysterious connection with the New Mexican mission, whether now believed or not, certainly drew great attention to it at the time, and gave it an extraordinary impetus. Benavides met a tribe which no missionary had as yet reached, and found them to his amazement instructed in the doctrines of Christianity. On inquiring, he learned that they had been taught by a lady whose form and dress they described. This account he (Benavides) gave in his work published in 1630. Subsequently, Father Bernardine de Siena told him that the nun Maria d’Agreda had, eight years before, related to him apparitions of a similar character. Benavides then (on his return to Spain) visited her and was at once struck with her resemblance to the lady described by the Indians, and still more so by her account of the country and the labors of the missionaries, of which she related many remarkable incidents (Harris, 1919, p51).

Benavides was an “X-File” sort of Franciscan, so he went about collecting evidence and noting all sorts of odd correspondences.

On the last of April, 1631, Benavides visited the now-celebrated Mother Maria de Jesus (otherwise known as Maria de Agreda), abbess of the Convento de la Concepcion Purlsima in the town of Agreda, on the borders of Aragon and Castile. This visit, which seems to have covered a fortnight, was made at the insistence of Father-General Siena, who had informed Benavides that eight years before he had notice of this remarkable woman, of how she had apparitions and revelations concerning the conversions in New Mexico, and had himself made the nun a visit. Benavides, who mentions Mother Maria de Jesus somewhat at length in the Memorial in connection with his description of the conversion of the Jumano Indians, now learned that this ascetic, who was about twenty-nine years of age, had made numerous “flights” to New Mexico, commencing eleven years before (in 1620), sometimes making the journey three or four times in twenty-four hours. The miracles she claimed to have performed were marvelous in the extreme. Benavides received from her a handwriting, dated May 15, 1631, attesting to the truth of her assertions; he also obtained “the very habit which she wore when she made those visits, and also the veil about which there is a peculiar odor that comforts the soul” (Hodge, 1919, p11-13).

Spanish Franciscan priest Damián Massanet, who founded the College of Santa Cruz in what is present day Querétaro, Mexico, in 1683 to train missionaries noted that in visiting various native villages in Texas, he had also encountered stories of a venerated Lady in Blue.

The closing paragraph of Manzanet’s manuscript, as appears in the above mentioned translation, is as follows: “Since I have no more time, I shall only relate the most peculiar event of all. It happened after distributing in the village of the Tejas the clothing, both to the Indians and to the chief, that one evening the chief of the Tejas told me that a piece of flannel had been given to him for a shroud to bury his mother in when she should die. When I spoke to him of a kind of cloth which was better, he said to me that he did not want any other color but blue; and when I asked him about the mystery which was in the blue color, he told me that all their people liked the blue color very much, and that by preference they wished to be buried in cloth of that color. In former time a most beautiful woman had come to see them, who descended from heaven and was dressed in blue; they all wished to be like that woman. When I asked him whether it was long ago, the chief said that it had not been in his time, but that his mother, who was very old, had seen her, and so had the other old people.  There from can clearly be seen that it was the Mother Maria de Jesus de Agreda who was in those countries very often, as she herself confessed to the guardian father of New Mexico; the last time that she was there, it was in the year 1631, as is evident from the same declaration which she made to the custodian father of New Mexico. Very respectfully, your obedient servant, Fray Damian Manzanet (Kenney, 1898, p226-227).

Not only Manzanet and Benavides documented the strange missionary work of an elusive Lady in Blue, but other reports filtered in from across the Southwest, often mirroring the reports of María de Ágreda herself.

Other “visits” of the “Blue Lady” are recorded in various places in the southwest. Allusions to them are found in the writings of others besides Benavides. In 1689 Governor de Leon found some of the pagan Indians of Texas with whom he dealt partially instructed in the faith and they declared that the Lady in Blue had visited them. Father Damian Massanet wrote in a similar vein, declaring that in times past a very beautiful woman who descended from the heights visited the Indians in Texas; she was dressed in blue and the Indians wished to be like her. In 1668 a similar report came from the Indians beyond the Pecos River. In1699 the Indians of the Colorado River area told Captain Mange, who accompanied the Jesuits Kino and Gil, that when they were children a beautiful white woman, robed to the feet in white, brown, and blue with a cloth or veil covering her head, came to their land; she appeared with a cross and spoke to them in an unknown tongue. They said they shot her with arrows on two occasions yet she continued to return. This appears to confirm Maria’s story that she had been “martyred.” Maria de Agreda lived until 1665. This extraordinary narrative made a tremendous impression upon Franciscans, particularly the missionaries. For them Maria de Agreda was a precursor and auxiliary sent by God to prepare the Indians for their own coming (Geiger, 1959, p291).

Certainly, history and folklore are replete with reports of doppelgängers, vardøgers, etiäinen, and other spirit doubles, but in most cases they are up to no good, nefariously confusing folks by being where they shouldn’t, acting as premonitions of the death of a loved one far away, cunningly sleeping with your spouse, or otherwise making a logical nuisance of themselves.  In contrast, María de Ágreda thought it was a fantastic multi-tasking tool.  As if she wasn’t content to make ourselves feel bad about our general lack of motivation and essential laziness, in order to add insult to injury, María de Ágreda appears to be one of those curious incorruptible Catholic saints – that is, she steadfastly refuses to rot properly and on a reasonable schedule.  Her tomb in the convent where she lived most of her life (when not on business trips to Texas) was opened in 1909, and again in 1989.  Physicians reported that in that span of 80 years, her corpse had simply not deteriorated (her incorrupt body can still be viewed at the Church of the Convent of Ágreda in Spain).  Some folks just don’t know when to retire.   Unfortunately, astral projection doesn’t get seriously covered at your typical business school class on project management, so most of us have to settle for mere corporeal, individual efficiency as we muddle through our day, finding solace in Ronald Reagan’s quip “It’s true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure, why take the chance?”

Geiger, Maynard J., 1901-1977. The Life And Times of Fray Junípero Serra, O.F.M.: Or, The Man Who Never Turned Back, (1713-1784), a Biography. Washington: Academy of American Franciscan History, 1959.
Harris, William Richard, 1847-1923. Essays In Occultism, Spiritism, And Demonology. St. Louis, Mo.: B. Herder Book Co., 1919.
Hodge, Frederick Webb, 1864-1956. Bibliography of Fray Alonso De Benavides. New York: Museum of the American Indian, Heye foundation, 1919.
Kenney, M.M.  “Notes and Fragments”.  Texas State Historical Association. The Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association no. 3 (January). Austin, TX: Texas State Historical Association, 1898.
Sargent, Daniel, 1890-1987. Our Land And Our Lady. New York: Longmans, Green and co., 1940.