Juana Inés de la Cruz vs. Origen

Welcome to the final battle of the week AND the (actual) penultimate battle of the Saintly Sixteen.

Yesterday in the Saintly Smackdown, José Gregorio Hernández defeated Emma of Hawaii 55% to 45%.

On Tuesday next week we kick off the Elate Eight. In the meantime, on Monday, prepare for Oscar vs. Thomas Aquinas. Hang onto your halos!

Juana Inés de la Cruz

Juana Ines de la Cruz is most well known for her writing, but this was not all she could do.  When she left her family at age 16, to live in Mexico City, she became a lady-in-waiting to the wife of the viceroy of New Spain.  The viceroy was so amused by his wife’s new companion’s smarts that he made a game of “Stump Juana”.  He would invite the most prominent lawyers, philosophers, and theologians of the day to a meeting, make Juana stand in the center of the assembly, and then ask his guests to fire questions at her.  This very odd parlor game led to Juana becoming the hip new sensation in the royal court.  (It also led to several besotted young men offering to whisk Juana away from all this, but she always declined.)

She seemed to be a little obsessive about learning—after joining the abbey in order to have more time to study, she made a habit of cutting off a lock of hair each time she failed to memorize a Latin grammar lesson properly. “It didn’t seem right to me that a head so naked of knowledge should be so dressed up with hair, for knowledge is a more desirable adornment.”

And she didn’t only know Latin, Greek, and Spanish—she also taught herself Nahuatl—the indigenous language spoken in the central Mexican highlands. In 1570, King Phillip II of Spain had actually decreed that Nahuatl would the official language of the settlements of New Spain throughout Mexico and Central America, so she was taking part in a flowering of literature being written in this language at the time, that then died out by 1696, when King Charles outlawed the speaking of all indigenous languages.

In the convent, she accrued musical instruments, her own laboratory for conducting experiments, and over 4,000 books.  She would receive visits from the greatest thinkers and writers of her day.  “I do not study in order to write, nor far less in order to teach (which would be boundless arrogance in me), but simply to see whether by studying I may become less ignorant.  This is my answer, and these are my feelings”, she said.

But this didn’t last forever—after her patrons (the viceroy and his wife) were recalled to Spain, she lost much of the social protection she had relied on for her writing.  The new archbishop of Mexico City was much more conservative, and railed against Juana’s writing and study.  She replied, “Who has forbidden women to engage in private and individual studies?  Have they not a rational soul as men do?…I have this inclination to study, and if it is evil, I am not the one who formed me thus—I was born with it and with it I shall die.”

Megan Castellan


Origen is considered the father of systematic theology for the Church.  By name, systematic means to peel the nature of God through a step-by-step process to elicit understanding.  Origen believed that through systematic study of God, we grow in our faith and understanding of our maker, and a deeper closeness with the mystery.  Origen was a mathematician with words about God, but unafraid of the unknown.  His thoughts, process, and depth of understanding God were precise, carefully tested, and documented so that others may see the beauty and awe of God. And yet, Origen also understood that even with the most rigorous of study, we can never fully fathom the great I AM:

“Having refuted, then, as well as we could, every notion which might suggest that we were to think of God as in any degree corporeal, we go on to say that, according to strict truth, God is incomprehensible, and incapable of being measured. For whatever be the knowledge which we are able to obtain of God, either by perception or reflection, we must of necessity believe that He is by many degrees far better than what we perceive Him to be.”

In a scathing rebuke to those who interpret God through a solely legalistic interpretation of scripture and not taking the time to reflect on the spirit of the Word, Origen is said to have replied:

The reason why all those we have mentioned hold false opinions and make impious or ignorant assertions about God appears to be nothing else but this, that scripture is not understood in its spiritual sense, but is interpreted according to the bare letter.”

Origen is also credited with a sound interpretation of why we only need one Christ:

“There was no need that there should everywhere exist many bodies, and many spirits like Jesus, in order that the whole world of men might be enlightened by the Word of God. For the one Word was enough, having arisen as the "Sun of righteousness (Malachi chpt. 3)," to send forth from Judea His coming rays into the soul of all who were willing to receive Him.”

Origen challenges to understand God through his Word, and that one Word is enough, that all we need for a holy life is found in Jesus Christ.

And Origen calls us to study.  As God works tirelessly in our lives to transform us, we too should work tirelessly to find a glimmer of God in all things:

“In this way, then, by the renewal of the ceaseless working of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in us, in its various stages of progress, shall we be able at some future time perhaps, although with difficulty, to behold the holy and the blessed life, in which (as it is only after many struggles that we are able to reach it) we ought so to continue, that no satiety of that blessedness should ever seize us; but the more we perceive its blessedness, the more should be increased and intensified within us the longing for the same, while we ever more eagerly and freely receive and hold fast the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

Origen teaches us to never think we know enough of God, that we should always thirst for more.

Anna Fitch Courie


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71 comments on “Juana Inés de la Cruz vs. Origen”

  1. Origen claimed above that scriptures were misunderstood by adhering to "the bare letter" but he evidently missed the spiritual interpretation of Jesus's saying to cut off the offending member of your body. And, in James Cahill's wildly understated explanation: "poor humorless Origen, taking this passage literally, would do great damage to himself."
    So Juana wins (or should) today.

  2. I have a feeling that Juana was more about Juana than about the life in Christ. My vote goes to Origen, whose focus was on God.

  3. “I have this inclination to study, and if it is evil, I am not the one who formed me thus—I was born with it and with it I shall die.”

    I can’t help but notice that LGBTQ people including myself have thought this same thing in the face of condemnation.

    I was ready to vote for Origen but this stubborn integrity to the self God has called us to be has convinced me otherwise.

  4. With Juana being “most well know for her writing”, I wish the Lent Madness writers had included some of Juana’s writings as they did Origen’s writings.

  5. Origen's story as presented here, is more spiritually compelling, but Juana is a model for all in one of the ways we live in the way of Jesus.

  6. Juana lost me at the not teaching thing. She needed to help her fellows and pass her knowledge on! Origen's writings on the spirit of the law also helped sway me.

    1. Actually I think she did a lot of teaching in her interactions and discourses with church leadership. Maybe she just didn't feel suited to classroom teaching

  7. "father of systematic theology" sounds like something I may get in year 4 of EfM. year 2 almost completed so more to look forward toc!

  8. Please vote for Juana Inez de le Cruz! What an amazing person she sounds like she was! What a great feminist. We need feminists to be recognized and to win the Golden Halo.

  9. What is going on with voting this week? I happily vote for whichever of the candidates resonate with me, but am very surprised and dismayed that I ended up voting for the underdogs yesterday and today. I expected that both Emma and Juana would advance. And Origen was so disturbingly odd that he was never canonized despite his theological contributions.

    1. Augustine was never formally canonized either; he was acclaimed by the people. Did Origen actually castrate himself or was that "malicious gossip" on the part of Bishop Demetrius? One more thing we will find out at the pearly gates.

          1. I'll leave that in God's loving and capable hands for now -- I've got quite enough on my hands in this life!

  10. Juana gets my vote today, because of her love of knowledge and the difficulty she faced in its pursuit.

  11. Someone neglected to mention that Origen purportedly castrated himself in response to the Bible verse about cutting of a part of the body that causes you to sin. It seems quite strange to see that Origen sought to correct those who took the Bible literally.

  12. I admire Juana for her persistence in seeking education during a time when women just were not accepted in that world. I can identify with that, I began my work life (1970) when women did not have the same opportunities that men had. During my career I was paid less than men for the same job, and there was a very definite glass ceiling. I broke it twice! Juana gets my vote!

  13. Origen was intellectual, but Juana wasn't praying w3hen she was studying about God and our relationship to God. Same old, same old.
    By the way, welcome to the first day of Women's History Month.
    I definitely voted for Sor Juana.

  14. This was a tough choice. Both great scholars, and I love books. I went with Origen, because he taught others. My heart is with Juana Inés, but I had to pick the teacher.

  15. If nothing else, Origen could write sentences quite as long as Paul ever wrote. He's got my vote.

  16. "I have this inclination to study, and if it is evil, I am not the one who formed me thus—I was born with it and with it I shall die."

    "And she didn’t only know Latin, Greek, and Spanish—she also taught herself Náhuatl—the indigenous language spoken in the central Mexican highlands."

    Those two things helped Sor. Juana win my vote today.

    And if you are interested in seeing the Scriptures in Náhuatl, you don't need to give Amazon a penny. The PDF is online and free . . . https://www.scriptureearth.org/00i-Scripture_Index.php?sortby=lang&name=nhw&ISO_ROD_index=118

  17. I want to vote for both of these two today! I cast my vote for Origen because I've appreciated his work for a long time, but I wish they could both advance to the next round. I want to learn more about Sor Juana as well.

  18. My bracket was busted when Gabriel the Arc Angel lost his challenge....seriously how can anyone vote against Gabe??? I have still not recovered from that one....:(

    Definitely Origen this time though... 🙂