by Eve Tushnet

In the middle of the seventeenth century in the city of Lima, a living woman asked a dead one whether black women could go to heaven.

Ursula de Jesús, the living woman, had entered the Franciscan Convent of Santa Clara as a nun’s slave—or, technically, she was the slave of all the nuns and only served the woman who had owned her when her work for all the others was done, this being the method by which Peruvian Franciscans evaded the ban on personal property. She had to ask her guardian angel how old she was.

Ursula had begun to experience visions, especially of souls in purgatory, and to hear voices of God, angels, and various souls. She gained a reputation in the convent as a mystic, and was freed after forty three years in bondage, twenty eight of those in the convent. 

But she did not gain equality. Ursula became a donada, a sort of half-nun who took religious vows but acted as a servant and was not allowed full participation in the community. (Saint Martin de Porres was a donado.) In 1650 Ursula’s confessor ordered her to keep a diary, and a series of nuns began to record the donada’s visions but also her everyday worries, thoughts, and complaints. 

This diary has received a fluid English translation, with an essay on Ursula’s world and life, from Nancy E. van Deusen. In spite of at least two layers of censorship (the nuns who recorded her visions and her confessor), Ursula’s diary is pungent and plainspoken—and it articulates a theology of humility in which nestle the first beginnings of a theology of liberation.

Ursula’s conversion story is dramatic, like something from the life of an infanta, not a slave. While still enslaved Ursula, by her own account, was frivolous: “I went to the visitors’ parlor beautifully adorned from head to toe. It is very true that if my stockings were not a certain rose-colored shade I would not enter.” She had loaned a skirt to someone who got it dirty; Ursula had angrily washed it and was laying it out to dry, on a plank over a deep well, when she nearly plunged to her death. She was miraculously rescued by Our Lady of Carmel.

After this miracle prompted a conversion of the heart, Ursula did all the things you’d expect a Spanish mystic to do. She sought out the humblest tasks in the convent, such as cleaning the infirmary’s drainage ditches. She performed grueling physical penances. During her novitiate she wore, according to the confessor who wrote her biography, a hair shirt, iron-studded straps around her waist and arms, a barbed cross on her back, and a crown of thorns which she hid beneath her hair. She whipped herself twice a day. Even after her novitiate, when she was doing long days of manual labor, she wore a hair shirt; once she forgot to put it on, and the Lord rebuked her: “The hair shirt is—I am not certain how he said it—the fortress of patience.

It can be hard to tell the difference between humility and self-harm. Catherine Addington, in an essay in Christ’s Body, Christ’s Wounds: Staying Catholic When You’ve Been Hurt in the Church, writes:

I thought characterizing the stories that worried me as legend, as historical, as distant, would keep them from doing much damage. I didn’t think of Caterina da Siena’s self-starvation when I took Lenten fasting too seriously, when I found myself cold all the time, when I chalked up my headaches to eye strain instead of my obvious hunger pangs. I didn’t think of Caterina de’ Ricci’s holy wounds when I unconsciously channeled my anxieties into picking at my skin and the insides of my cheeks. I thought of them later, when I was working on healing myself, and praying for the strength to overcome these things. I looked up and everything I wanted freedom from was wearing a halo. 

Most theology and spiritual writing is the work of privileged men. Their egos flourish, free from racism, misogyny, and sexual or emotional abuse. That ego is their great enemy. And so they write that we need to learn that we are nothing. We need to learn to suffer in imitation of Christ. We need to view ourselves as worthless, vile, inferior to others.

I love this stuff. The one book I’ve re-read the most since my conversion is The Imitation of Christ a.k.a. “The Life-Changing Magic of Admitting You’re the Worst.” I too was raised in privilege, and doubtless needed some good hard kicks in the teeth. On the other hand, I’d hated myself since I was very young. What Christianity gave me was not belief in my sinfulness but the possibility of rescue. It was a doctrine of the faith that God created and sustained me out of love, and that I bore His image. I didn’t like to be banned from self-hatred, but I swallowed it, on faith.

There’s a story in the Little Flowers of Saint Francis in which Francis spends a whole night “sweetly angry and meekly perturbed” with a friar. Francis tries to get the friar to tell him, “Truly thou dost merit the deepest hell,” but the friar says instead, “God will perform so many good deeds through thee that thou shalt go to paradise.” Francis keeps escalating his self-reproach, calling himself “not worthy to find mercy,” and the friar keeps disobediently promising him mercy and grace. At last the disobedient friar exclaims, “God maketh me to speak as it pleaseth Him, and not as it pleaseth me.” You can take this as a story about the extraordinary work God did in St. Francis, and it is; but it’s also a story about things God won’t let you say to yourself.

At one point Ursula asks Jesus directly: “If you are God why do you pay attention to this piece of trash, to this washrag that stays dirty, the more you clean it?”

He replies, “You are?”

After she repeats her question, he says, “When I was in Jerusalem during the time of my Passion, all the questions they asked made no sense.” And that’s her answer.

Conflating self-contempt and humility is a dangerous game to play no matter who you are; it only gets more dangerous when you’re abused or oppressed by your fellow Catholics. And yet the imitation of Christ is not a luxury good, as if the rich young men of this world need humility but the rest of us only need exaltation. Voluntary suffering, willing acceptance of humiliation, eagerness to condemn our sins and shed our comforts and seek the lowest place are normal and good parts of Catholic life.

Ursula navigates these truths almost in spite of herself. Her greatest strength is her honesty. She is unafraid to criticize the convent, even quoting the soul of a black woman who says the abbess is overworking the servants. Ursula several times calls herself overworked as well. She criticizes herself constantly but also points out how harassed she is by others’ demands. She asks the Lord sarcastic questions! And He replies with gentle directness. When her voices tell her to “thank Him for all the gifts there are,” she replies, in a tone perfectly balancing tartness and humility, “Being nothing, I said, ‘Yes, I already knew I was a tick.’” 

She’s even honest about how hard it is for her to have these visions. Although many of the nuns obviously viewed Ursula as a holy woman—at one point the abbess herself obeys Ursula’s vision-borne conviction that the nuns should be publicly rebuked for various faults—others didn’t like her getting above her station. One nun asked, “Does our Lord discuss these matters with vermin?”

Ursula talks frequently about her fear that what seem to be holy visions are actually lies sent by the Devil, whom she calls “that big-footed one.” She says that she often doesn’t understand what she’s been told in a vision, and her diary records ideas about limbo and the Trinity which don’t quite reflect Catholic orthodoxy. 

Although mystics of this time were often suspected of heresy and interrogated, Ursula seems to have escaped suspicion—but this freedom may also reflect a lack of guidance. She was left to sort truth from lies completely on her own. And yet I can’t wish she’d had more help, since I don’t trust the people who enslaved her to be good shepherds. Who in authority in that convent had the wisdom to guide a black woman’s soul? This is one of the hardest tasks for Catholics who have been harmed in the Church: discerning what in our own piety is gift and what is temptation. (When her “voices” spoke of God’s mercy, Ursula says, “I greatly resisted that vision.”)

There are aspects of her visions which implicitly overturn colonial Lima’s racial and economic hierarchies. She contrasts God, Who welcomes everyone who comes to Him, with the viceroy who would laugh at her if she dared to approach. After Ursula sees the dead Isabel of Bourbon in need of her prayers, and asks, “What do I have to do with queens or kings?”, the Lord says, “All come to my feet; to me, they are all the same.” Instead of reading “the book of Saint Teresa,” the Lord says “her book must be the feet of My Lord Jesus Christ,” for all people, even the poorest, were “written in His wounds.” Ursula’s portrait, painted after her death, shows saints’ writings in the background; yet there are hints in the diary that she never learned to read. Without any defensiveness, attending only to Jesus and not to herself, she insists that she never needed to.

But in other passages it’s clear that Ursula imbibed the prejudices of her culture. In one vision, Mary appears as a blonde; I trust that by now Ursula and Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin have compared notes. When a young slave was mortally wounded by fireworks celebrating Corpus Christi, Ursula prayed for him to be returned to his owner. Her voices rebuked her for thinking of the owner’s material rather than his spiritual interests; perhaps losing this possession would “open his eyes to the world.” Only after the boy had died did the slave’s own soul come to her mind, as she recalled his devotion to the Virgin, and prayed for him as her voices assured her that he had been taken from this life before succumbing to temptation.

Ursula’s visions never condemn slavery. Unlike Saint Josephine Bakhita, who lived more than two centuries later, Ursula does not say she forgives those who enslaved her—because she can’t yet name what they did as evil.

And yet her visions do not allow her to accept the racism and dehumanization which were the basis of her oppression. One of the first visions she describes showed her a black woman who had been enslaved in the convent, María Bran. Ursula sees her in purgatory, dressed in a priest’s alb and crowned in flowers, “her face a resplendent black.” The woman says that “[s]he was very thankful to God, who with His divine providence had taken her from her land and brought her down such difficult and rugged roads in order to become a Christian and be saved.” But the Christianity taught to slaves has left Ursula with an urgent, heartbreaking question: “I asked whether black women went to heaven[.]” María Bran says yes, God’s mercy will save black women who give Him thanks. Later Ursula writes, “Although He raised us as different nations, the will of blacks and whites is the same. In memory, understanding, and will, they are all one. Had He not created them all in His image and likeness and redeemed them with His blood?”

Ursula’s diary is a vivid record of a soul struggling for the honesty, the trust in God’s love, which can make Christian humility liberating and not degrading. She views herself as inferior to everyone—and her visions insist that there’s a sharp difference between “inferior to everyone” and “inferior to white people.” Between “I am the lowest of all” and “I am lower than my oppressors” (than my abuser, than my employer, than the rich or the privileged or the lucky) there is a gulf as wide as the gulf between heaven and hell. 

Ursula’s visions encouraged her to act in lowly ways, to remember her sins, to take on additional suffering when she was already exhausted; to keep silence when she was insulted. But they never let her sign her name to those insults. They never let her call evil good, or slavery justified, or black women inferior. They did not let her insult her own soul. 

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