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Life Of 17th Century Poet, Playwright, Nun Reflects Stresses On Women Today


She disguised herself as a male hoping to study at a university. Her personal collection of books is said to have numbered 4,000. She once said women "can perfectly well philosophize while cooking supper. "

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz was a 17th century Mexican nun who wrote poetry and plays and championed a woman's right to study, learn and think for herself.

Denounced by the Catholic hierarchy of her day, Sor Juana is now hailed as a national hero in Mexico. She has been the subject of novels, a Netflix mini-series, a telenovela, and the play by Helen Edmundson, "Heresy of Love," now at Illinois State University's Westhoff Theatre through April 8.

"She is somebody who had a voracious curiosity and appetite for knowledge. She was really fascinated by every subject. She wanted to learn everything she could possibly learn and make connections through different disciplines," director Robert Quinlan said on GLT's Sound Ideas

"We live in this political spectrum of people feeling silenced, where women feel silenced in many ways. Sor Juana fought against that. She found ways to connect her studies to her faith" said the play's dramaturg Treasure Davis.

Sor Juana was a member of the cloistered Carmelite order of nuns, but later left to join the Hieronymites, an order dedicated to learning, which gave her more freedom to read and write.

Her lush poems and plays deal with romance and sexual intrigue,which caught the disapproving eye of her male church superiors. 

"Heresy of Love" focuses on the last few years of her life, when an ultra- conservative archbishop arrives in Mexico and moves to silence her. 

"At one point in the play, he says if the people want entertainment, they can go to the auto da fe and watch the changing lights of burning men in flames," Quinlan said.

"What I love about the play is that it doesn't take sides. If you listen to the archbishop, you can understand where he is coming from. He has this pure belief that to save souls, you have to keep people from these secular sins."

Sor Juana saw knowledge as a tool for deepening her faith. "She said, in order to fully appreciate theology, you also have to have an understanding of the human heart," Quinlan said.

In one of her most famous passages, Sor Juana wrote to the archbishop, “Why should our faith fear knowledge?  For knowledge comes from Him.  And without it we would be as animals, wading through the mud and slime.

"Why should that light of knowledge be less precious, less miraculous in my mind than in yours?  Where in the Bible does it say that girls cannot be wise?  Show me, prove to me beyond all doubt that fact, and I will then be silent.”

Here is an excerpt from one of Sor Juana's most famous poems, "You Foolish Men."

You Foolish Men
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, 1651 - 1695

You foolish men who lay
the guilt on women,
not seeing you’re the cause
of the very thing you blame;

if you invite their disdain
with measureless desire
why wish they well behave
if you incite to ill.

You fight their stubbornness,
then, weightily,
you say it was their lightness
when it was your guile.

In all your crazy shows
you act just like a child
who plays the bogeyman
of which he’s then afraid.

With foolish arrogance
you hope to find a Thais
in her you court, but a Lucretia
when you’ve possessed her.

What kind of mind is odder
than his who mists
a mirror and then complains
that it’s not clear ...