(Opening scene at the Sister Maria’s convent in Agreda)
Welcome. My name is Harvey Meier and I am a member of the Secular Franciscan Order in the Catholic Church. St Francis of Assisi originally established the Secular Franciscans as the Brothers and Sisters of Penance in the year 1218. Like our Seraphic father, St Francis of Assisi, we are known primarily for our great devotion to the Most Blessed Virgin Mary as well as our professed vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. In the profession of these vows, we are consecrated to follow in the footsteps of St. Francis and St. Clare who sought with all their strength to live the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth, true God and true Man.
I admit that my own devotion to Holy Mary, the Mother who ignites in me a profound adoration for her Son, Jesus, is beyond my means to describe with mere words. If we place our confidence in the workings of the Holy Spirit, through the intercession of the Most Blessed Virgin of Mary, we may come to a deeper understanding of the great gift of our Mother Mary and her Son, Jesus, our King and Savior. Mary beckons us to come into communion with her Son. The Blessed Mother’s greatest desire is for each of us to unite our heart with her Son and in so doing we may begin the greatest adventure of our life.
Why do I call this the greatest adventure of our human existence? Throughout our life-long journey we will come to understand how God’s great plan for the salvation of the human race was present in His divine mind from the very beginning of creation, continuous in the Eternal and Triune God, and how it came to be achieved in human history. Should you chose to join me in this journey, together we will discover the incredible heroic virtue in the life of Holy Mary and her Divine Son. Together we will also come to understand how in spite of the legions of demons seeking our eternal destruction and our fallen and sinful human nature, God provided the perfect remedy for our sickness through the birth of the sinless Virgin Mary, the most beautiful and yet most humble of women ever created.
Although many may already know how Holy Mary responded to the Angel Gabriel and accepted the invitation to become the virgin mother of Jesus, together we will bear witness to the entire holy life of Mary from her immaculate conception until her death and assumption into heaven. We will bear witness to the great battle between heaven and hell and between the sinless Virgin and the legions of demons for the salvation of human kind. We will discover how this victory was achieved for us through the Immaculate Conception of the most Blessed Virgin Mary and through her, the life, the death and the resurrection of her divine son, Jesus, the God Man. For many generations God’s chosen people prayed for the coming of the Messiah. God, Creator of the universe, provided a remedy for the depth of our profound darkness through the creation of the most beautiful woman who will ever live, the Virgin Mary, given to us by Jesus in His final agony on the cross as the spiritual mother of all humanity. Through this great journey we will come to know our Holy Mother and all she has done for us. We begin this magnificence journey with the birth of the great Franciscan mystic, author, and missionary, Sister Maria of Jesus (of Agreda).
Maria Coronel, the third child and first surviving daughter of Francisco Coronel and Catalina Arana, was born in Agreda, Spain, on April 2nd, 1602. Francisco and Catalina were both members of the Third Order of St. Francis of Assisi now called the Secular Franciscan Order.
Maria’s first memories were likely influenced by her parents’ devotional practices. Her father practiced the Exercise of the Cross. He would rise at 3:00am each morning and while carrying a large iron cross on his back would perform his daily duties while praying with great fervor. Her mother would also practice devotions. Laying prostrate on her bed, Catalina would place a Franciscan habit as a shroud over her body and an actual replica of a skull over her face as she contemplated the death of the body and the everlasting life of the soul.
As a young child Maria made a favorable impression on Bishop Don Diego de Yepes. Though most children were confirmed at the age of seven, the Bishop saw a spiritual presence in Maria and confirmed her at the age of four. The bishop advised Maria’s parents to take special care with her education and to set aside a quiet place for her to pray. Her mother established a private oratory complete with statues of the scourged Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Michael and St. Francis of Assisi. Catalina also tutored Maria in religion and encouraged her in contemplative prayer. Instead of playing with the other children her age, Maria often preferred the solitude of her oratory.
At the age of six Maria entered a new phase as she began to become concerned with offending God. As with most mystics, the consolation of sensing God’s presence was soon followed by the desolation of His absence and Maria became severely depressed. She cried frequently and kept to herself. Her parents, who previously hung on her every word, now scolded and disciplined her for what they considered to be her laziness. Maria felt abandoned by her parents and tried to please them but in her misery only repelled them.
At the age of six Maria received her first Holy Communion and began to attend the only girls’ school in Agreda. Following a series of illnesses later that year, her parents withdrew her from school and Maria received no additional formal education.
A pivotal point event in young Maria’s life occurred at the age of seven when she saw a religious play titled, “The New World as Discovered by Christopher Columbus,” by the playwright Lopa De Vega. The depiction of the native Indians who did not yet know her Lord had a profound affect on young Maria. The play inflamed in her the spiritual aspiration to become a missionary. This of course seemed ludicrous to her parents who were well aware of her weak health as well as the rarity of this type of travel for women. Maria expressed an increasing desire to be a nun and at the age of eight she declared her intention of lifelong chastity.
At the age of nine or ten, Maria recalled her parents counseled all of their children to pray in constant devotions and contemplative prayer. Maria later credited this period with the emergence of her “interior reflection.” Maria later noted, “Ever since then, the Lord filled my life with light.”
Inspired by the canonization of St. Teresa of Avila, Maria, at the age of 12, declared her intention to enter the religious life as a nun.
Even after making this important decision, Maria’s dark night of the soul persisted. Though her mother continued to tutor her in religious matters, Maria often sought her own solitude to meditate on suffering and to do penance.
At the age of thirteen, Maria’s fragile health took a turn for the worse and she became gravely ill. In anticipation of helping Maria to fulfill her ardent desire to become a nun, her parents had reserved a place for her in the convent of St Ann in Tarazona. However, with Maria’s rapidly failing health, her parents gave up all hope of Maria ever becoming a nun and began to fear for her life.
After six months with no signs of recovery, Maria received the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, which at the time was reserved for those whose death appeared imminent. Her grieving parents, preparing for the worst, began to make arrangements for her funeral.
During her illness, Maria contemplated the passion of Jesus as well as her own physical torment. She struggled with trying to understand the value of all suffering. Why her Lord, God Himself, endured humiliation, torture, pain, betrayal and anguish without protest or condemnation and agonized as to why Jesus not only accepted but embraced a death of such intense suffering and mortification. Through grace and prayer Maria began to understand that with unification of her suffering to Jesus she could make her suffering an offer of love to God knowing that all offers of love have value. Maria wrote, “This lesson eroded the hardness of my heart and I became happy with my pain.” As soon as Maria embraced her pain she began to recover.
“The Lord filled my inner life with light. Ever since then I have found that when I focused my attention, I could enter a state of exceedingly quiet prayer.” Maria’s life as a mystic had begun.
Maria began to befriend some of the other girls in the village and tried to engage in a social life. Though Maria was an attractive girl, her awkward attempts to socialize became a sharp contrast to the peace she encountered in her prayer life. These longings to be in communion with Christ far outweighed her desire to create a “worldly life” and she found herself seeking more often the retreat of her oratory where she continued experiencing the realm of the spirit.
Soon after Maria’s recovery her mother had an episode that would dramatically impact her life and that of her entire family.
In 1615, Catalina had a vision that provided a foundation for future works of her daughter Maria. As Maria later wrote, “My mother had been praying. She heard the voice of the Almighty and He told her to give up her husband, her children and her property and to convert our home into a convent. God told Catalina to enter the convent and to take her two daughters with her, adding that her husband would soon join the Order of St. Francis with their two sons. Nothing will be wanting… Obey.”
The dream so worried Catalina that she ran from her house to find Padre Juan Torrecilla at Saint Julian’s. Midway there, Padre Torrecilla met Catalina and informed her, “I have seen what you have seen…You must sacrifice your entire family to the Eternal Father.” A cross was later erected on the rooftop of the building marking the spot where they had met.
Although Francisco Coronel was a religious man he also enjoyed married life and initially rejected the idea of a religious and celibate life. Francisco’s brother Medel agreed with him. There were many heated discussions in the Coronel household. Even the neighbors took sides. Catalina prayed, lobbied all who would listen, and requested and received guidance from Padre Pedro Otalora on how to establish a convent. Despite Catalina’s lobbying and the assistance of her daughters, Maria and Jeronima, the extended family resisted the idea. They considered the idea outlandish and the fiery discussions continued for over two years. In the end, Catalina’s desire to establish a convent was supported by two of her daughters and won the day though not good news for Maria. St Annes’ convent in Tarazon was located only sixteen kilometers from Agreda. It now seemed unlikely that Maria would make it past her own front door! Unfortunately for Maria, her mother’s victory greatly diminished her own expectations to become a missionary to the new world. It was also at this time that the prophecy was fulfilled and Maria’s two bothers left to join the Franciscan Order.
While her parents prepared for the conversion of their house to a convent, Maria continued her spiritual formation. She read her mother’s breviary as well as the books Padre Torrecilla would loan her. By the age of fifteen Maria’s voracious appetite for reading, her ability to retain the knowledge, and her missionary zeal, all assisted in developing her own writing style. She called it “Face of the Earth and Map of the Spheres.” It was also in this initial writing that Maria professed her desire to preach the Gospel.
Her parents continued their work to procure funding for the convent. Although Francisco was initially reluctant, once he accepted the idea as God’s will, he was able to obtain a commitment from the town’s officials for the additional funding.
The Coronel family founded the convent under the order of the Franciscan Conceptionists with the nuns from Burgos being assigned as the temporary administrators. On December 8th, 1618, the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the first Mass was celebrated in the convent. The time had now come for the 54 year old Francisco to leave his ancestral home and join the Franciscan friary of De Nalda in Burgos as the lay brother “Francisco of the Holy Sacrament.” He chose this name in solidarity with Catalina who would soon be named “Sister Catalina of the Blessed Sacrament.”
The official dedication of Conceptionist Foundation of the Poor Clare nuns took place over a year later on January 13, 1620. Catalina and Maria donned their veils as novices on the same day along with five other women from the town of Agreda. Maria took the name of “Sister Maria of Jesus.”
The Coronel’s house had been transformed into a cloistered convent thereby shutting the nuns off from the outside world. A housekeeper shopped for groceries and delivered messages from outsiders. Doctors visited on site and family visitors would speak to the nuns through a small grille. Cloistered and protected from worldly influences, the women remained in complete dedication to prayer and service to the poor.
Although this appeared to be the ideal setting for Sister Maria’s growth, it was not to be the case for several more years. Although the nuns from Burgos were well intentioned, they did not run a very tight ship and offered little spiritual guidance to the nuns in their charge. Left to follow her own spiritual light, Sister Maria began to live a life of extreme austerity and penance. Her spiritual ecstasies became so frequent that she was given a private cell so as not to disturb the others.
Like both St. Francis and St. Clare, in her zeal to be a true sister of penance, Sister Maria’s early years were extremely harsh. She procured an abrasive garment of chain mail weighing over 20 pounds, a hair shirt and a girdle of spiked rings to wear under her habit. Sister Maria also had chains and fetters, a spiked cross she would press to her chest during prayer and a board to sleep on that inflicted pain and discomfort. Her fasting intensified as did her all night prayer vigils. The other nuns considered her to be exclusionary and proud while the supervisory nuns from Burgos looked on with great disapproval.
In the early days of her novitiate, the rarified experiences of Sister Maria increased. In 1620, while in deep prayer and in the throes of ecstasy after receiving Holy Communion, and in the presence of witnesses, Sister Maria levitated. This proved to be an overnight sensation. Though no one told Sister Maria of her levitating experience, the other nuns took turns watching her during her private prayer sessions. The nuns even carved a hole in her cell door to observe her and brought in observers who would try to move her by fanning or blowing through the hole while she was levitating.
Ximinez Samaniego wrote, “Whenever she was rapt in ecstasy, her body was raised a little distance above the earth where it remained motionless.” Without Maria’s knowledge, many religious and secular orders tried various experiments to confirm her levitation authenticity. When Maria found out about these violations of her privacy she was mortified and tried to prevent the ecstasies by locking herself in the lower choir room to break her fasts thereby prohibiting herself from receiving Holy Communion. However, Maria was unsuccessful and the ecstasies, levitations, and violations of her privacy continued.
Sister Maria sought the help of Padre Torecilla and he in turn asked for assistance from the provincial office. When Padre Antonio de Villalacre arrived, Sister Maria poured out her heart to him of her exterioridades or external manifestations. Though well intentioned, he perceived her actions to be extreme; however, he also perceived her ecstasies as gifts from God and therefore recommended she be given more privacy and a more experienced confessor.
Padre Villalacre was convinced that Sisters Maria’s exteriordades were divine favors. He recommend she be provided with increased privacy, a more experienced confessor that she lessen her practices of extreme mortification. The abbess from Burgos did not heed his advice and the situation went from bad to worse.
Finally in 1623 the nuns from Burgos called for an external examination of Sister Maria. Two priests were sent from the provincial office in Burgos. Fortunately for Sister Maria. Fortunately for Sister Maria the two priests were Villalacre brothers who long who were friends of the Coronel family. After interviewing Sister Maria for several hours they excused her nd she immediately ran to the to receive communion and once again fell ion ecstasy.
Prior to leaving they two priests decided to put her to one more test. The decided to call her mentally to return the parlor reasoning that if she were under demonic influence she would not respond. She returned immediately as instructed. Before leaving the two priests also recommended that the nuns from Burgos be return to their convent in San Luis and asked Sister Maria to pray that the her exyterioridades would end which she did.