We find ourselves in Mexico, during the sixteenth century. Father Alonso Benavides is leading an expedition in the north. These missions were common, the Spanish Crown sent priests supported by soldiers to evangelize, to conquer virgin lands.
This time Father Benavides was tasked with “exploring” the great arid plains of what is today southern Texas. After days of marching through the harshest conditions, the expedition arrived at an important Indian village. The Spaniards didn’t trust the natives, rumors of their cruelty spread far and wide. While not necessarily welcomed with open arms, the expedition was received with hospitality. Father Benavides claimed the village and its lands in the name of the King of Spain.
The following day, a group of Indians lead by their chief approached Father Benavides and asked him to baptize them. He was shocked, astonished! How could these men who had never seen a European know the word for baptism? He hid his surprise, and told them that they must first be instructed in the catechism.
“Ask us anything,” the chief replied, “We know it all by heart.”
Indeed, these Indians, isolated from the rest of the world, had a profound knowledge of the catechism. Even more stupefied, and still without showing it, the father baptized them.
It was the same at the next village; they had all received religious instruction and training. But who had come before them?
It was a pretty young woman, in a blue cape, the uniform of the nuns of New Spain.
In one of the villages Benavides discovered a rosary he recognized as belonging to the Spanish nuns in Mexico. Evidently, the expedition was cut short, for in every village he entered he found the locals ready and waiting to be baptized.
Who was she? Who was this young woman who came all alone to the end of the world, to unknown lands to evangelize these Indians who had no notion of Christianity or even of Europeans?
Upon returning to Mexico, Father Benavides made numerous inquiries, all to no avail. No expedition had preceded his. There was no record of a nun leaving the convent to travel through the northern deserts. He was forced to swallow his curiosity, and continued his work for twelve years before being called back to Spain. On the continent, his memories of the new world remained vivid, especially the mystery of the evangelizing nun. He continued his inquiries, but never found a satisfactory explanation.
He was soon called upon by the head of the Franciscan Order, his order, and was congratulated for so swiftly and effectively evangelizing the Indians. Father Benavides replied that it wasn’t him that should be congratulated, and, for the first time, he recounted all that he had seen and experienced. His superior listened in silence; when Father Benavides had told everything, his superior simply said, “Go see Sister Maria de Agreda.”
Making his way through the austere roads of Aragon, Father Benavides finally arrived at the small stone village of Agreda. He quickly found the convent, which looked like the former home of a local aristocrat. He rang at the door and asked to see the mother superior, Sister Maria de Agreda. He waited while the sister in attendance kept him company and told him about the Sister Maria. Against every expectation, the mother superior was young, only 28 years old. From the youngest age she had known her vocation, prayer and renunciation. She entered the order at 18 and was largely misunderstood by the other sisters, and often the subject of strange happenings. Ultimately the sister realized her potential and made her the mother superior at only 25. In the meantime, her family has followed in her steps, and converted their home into a convent.
The nun in attendance also recounted, quite plainly, that the mother superior had experienced rapture. She had become pale, and her body elevated and left the earth, a sort of light emanated from her and an expression of complete beatitude fell upon her face.
“And what happened during these moments of ecstasy?” asked Father Benavides.
“She said she visited the New World.”
At that very moment Sister Maria de Agreda entered. She was more beautiful than Father Benvides expected. Her expression was a mix of innocence and purity along with an immense energy. She welcomed him warmly and the two talked over about a few trivial matters. Father Benavides then asked her about her apparent interest in the New World. She spoke easily openly. She had spent years teaching herself about the New World, and took great pity on the indigenous populations who were ignorant of the true God. She prayed with all her heart that they would open themselves to the true faith. One day, in a sort of trance, she found herself in an unknown country surrounded by humans of another race. She described the countryside in great detail and the Indians too; all that Father Benavides had witnessed himself. The natives warmly welcomed Sister Maria, and in a language she could not understand, she spoke to them about God, of the Holy Virgin. They listened intently, and appeared to be happy with what they heard.
“I must have made over 500 voyages of this type,” she said.
Each time she visited a different village, a different tribe.
“One day I came to a village and saw white men, Spaniards, our compatriots. There were soldiers accompanying a group of religious men.”
She described the men; their leader bore a striking resemblance to father Benavides. He trembled inside, but didn’t say a word. She described the dress of the natives, their customs and tattoos. She described them with such a precision that Father Benavides overcame all doubts. These details were not published anywhere, he himself only knew of them because he had seen them with his own eyes.
Clearly Maria de Agreda had visited and seen these places. Father Benavides saw no alternative; he had witnessed a truly rare miracle of ubiquity, whereby a person is simultaneously in two distant places. Clearly the laws of God are many. And so Father Benavides and Maria de Agreda left one another, knowing neither one had anything else to add, never to see each other again.