In “La Respuesta a Sor Filotea,” scholar nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz provides an overview of her life of learning, an argument for secular learning as an aid to the understanding of scripture, and a strong case for the education of women.
Sor Juana begins her letter with an expression of humility towards her correspondent. This was commonplace in her day even though it sounds strange to our modern ears. She then addresses her correspondent's admonition to apply herself to the study of the Bible and maintains that she has failed to write much about scripture, not from a lack of interest or application but because she feels herself to be “ill-equipped” and “unworthy” (208). She is also afraid of leading others into error through any mistakes she might make and has therefore focused her writing mostly on secular subjects, where there is no danger of harming people's souls. Sor Juana further asserts that she does not write anything at all except in obedience or to please others; she is not seeking fame or fortune through her studies and writing.
The scholarly nun then turns her attention to an account of her life of learning, which started very young when she followed her sister to school one day and insisted upon learning to read. Her studies became her life, and she progressed quickly, delving into every branch of scholarship she could. When she entered the convent, she spent every spare moment with her books although she mentions the many distractions she had, and still has, to put up with by way of duties and interruptions. Yet she never stopped studying.
Sor Juana's ultimate goal was always the study of theology. She spends several paragraphs listing the many ways that secular subjects can and do lead the scholar to a better understanding of sacred Scripture in all its detail. She then diverges into a minor complaint about the difficulties she has faced in her studies: the lack of teachers and fellow students, numerous interruptions, and even open opposition. She offers an explanation for such opposition: envy. Those who stand out for whatever reason, and especially for learning, are envied by others and therefore opposed. But Sor Juana is not surprised by this, for the same thing happened to Christ. He suffered and died because, in His great wisdom, He dared to be different, and Sor Juana is pleased to follow in His footsteps.
The sister then speaks briefly about a couple times when she has been forbidden to study. Yet even without her books, her learning continued in everything she saw and every word she heard. She observed. She reflected. She pondered. And she continued to learn and grow in knowledge. Nothing could stop her. Learning is built right into her nature.
Some might see this activity of the mind and this devotion to scholarship as foreign to the nature of a woman, but Sor Juana vehemently disagrees, and she presents a strong case for the education of women. She begins by listing the wise women of the Bible, educated Gentiles, early Christian scholars, learned female saints, and examples of scholarly women in her own day. She cites the testimony of theologian Dr. Arce that women can and indeed ought to study, write, and teach. She argues that women should be learned so they can oversee the education of younger, more vulnerable women. She even answers the all-too-used “opposition” from St. Paul that women ought to be quiet in church. St. Paul was referring to a particular situation, she explains, in which women were talking to each other during preaching and becoming a distraction to those around them. In fact, Sor Juana maintains, the Church has always allowed women to study and write and even teach.
Sor Juana also responds to criticism about her poetry, arguing that it has long been appreciated and used in Scripture and in the Church. She ends her letter with another expression of humility along with an implied assertion that she will not waste the gifts God has given her. She will continue to study.
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz wrote a reply to the Bishop of Puebla, whom she addresses as Sor Filotea de la Cruz, to contest his assertion that she should spend more time on religious study than on secular study. Before contesting the bishop's assertions, she first humbles herself before him and states that she has nothing worthwhile to tell him. She then launches into the story of her life and her unquenchable thirst for wisdom, which started at age 3. She defends her pursuit of secular wisdom, as it informs her religious studies. She says, for example, "Without logic, how could I possibly know the general and specific methods by which the Holy Scriptures are written?" She recounts that she was tormented by nuns who thought her studies unholy, but she says Jesus Christ was also tormented with a crown of thorns because he too was full of wisdom.
She recounts a long list of women of antiquity who were scholars and then says that while Arce wrote that women should not speak or study publicly on scripture, women should be allowed to study scripture privately. She believes that just as Jerome educated his daughter, Leta, Leta's disciples, the nuns, should also be educated. Having older women who are educated, she writes, would make it unnecessary for young women to learn with potentially lecherous male teachers. In addition, secular learning would allow women to more deeply understand difficult texts in the scripture. She concludes her reply with a defense of her poetry, which she claims she always did for others, and promises to show her writing to the bishop for corrections.
In Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz's letter entitled "La Respuesta a Sor Filotea" (also known simply as "Reply"), this brilliant young nun responds to a variety of issues.
She writes first about an opinion that was spread abroad that she should concentrate more on "the study and explication of the Scriptures." She explained that she did not feel well-versed enough to address these topics, and that they should be left to those better suited. Her studies have been conducted to help her to grow intellectually, but she says she does not have enough expertise to teach—in fact, she says it would be "boundless arrogance in me." She simply wants to study for the sake of learning.
Sor Juana admits that she has a passion for learning that she has had all her life. She does not know if it is a blessing or a curse, but knows that when she tries to stop, there is an explosive reaction within her that makes her want to study and learn more than before.
Noting one mother superior who refused to let Sor Juana read, the young nun reports that she obeyed and did not pick up a book for the three months when she was under this mother superior's supervision. However, it was impossible to stop learning. The world around her—nature—became her primer rather than a book.
Cooking comes up in her letter. Sor Juana reports that she spent time in the kitchen learning "woman's work." She writes:
...my Lady, what can we women know, save philosophies of the kitchen?
(Her tone is deferential, but I find it hard to believe that Sor Juana actually believed this, in that she started reading very young—being considered by many a child prodigy—and could hardly keep from philosophizing as an adult.)
Next Sor Juana wonders what she has done wrong. She does not teach by writing for she feels she is not educated enough to do so. If people disagree with what she writes, they have that option, just as she disagreed with Vieira. She is simply sharing her opinions.
Finally she refers to her poetry, stating that many people condemn and "vilify" it. She doesn't understand these responses. She has tried to find a reason for it, but cannot. If someone writes something that is inappropriate, she challenges that it is not the fault of the art but the artist: she notes that problems arise from...
...the bad practitioner who debases [poems], fashioning devil's snares of them. And this occurs in all the faculties and sciences.
If there is evil, it exists everywhere, not just in poetry. Sor Juana cannot imagine that the problem with poetry is because a woman is writing it. She closes the letter defending her poetry by saying:
...I wager not a soul has ever seen an indecent verse of mine.