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The Visionary Brain and a Dream of Santa Oria

Gonzalo de Berceo’s Vida de Santa Oria offers a compact account in cuaderna vía verse of three spiritual journeys into heavenly realms that are part of the hagiographic legend surrounding the cloistered and obscure nun from the Riojan monastic community of San Millán. Saint Oria’s (ca. 1043–ca. 1070) visions are said to have come as the capstone to a life of severe asceticism that drew to an early close. According to Brian Dutton’s plausible chronology based on the sparse evidence available to modern scholarship, Oria’s death likely came before the age of 30 (83).

Berceo claims to have based his thirteenth-century Vida on a text written (dictado) by Don Muño (st. 5ab), an eleventh-century predecessor at San Millán. Anthony Lappin, noting that a medieval audience would have demanded this kind of authentication to accept Oria’s radical spiritual experiences as true events, reminds the reader that Don Muño, in turn, [End Page 133] learned of Oria’s first and second visions from her mother Ammuna:

Munno was an eye-witness to the saint’s vision, and his testimony confirmed the pedigree of Berceo’s own account. Yet Munno appears in the narration only when he is called for by Oria’s mother (VSO 149a) … Berceo later indicates that Munno’s major source for Oria’s life was Amunna (VSO 170–71.)

Julian Weiss proposes that a central theme of the work is “a metaphoric relationship between Oria’s penitential asceticism and the male cleric’s desire to control language and return to the plentitude of the originary Word” (71) and in his argument the mediation of Berceo in the text is therefore of primary concern. Berceo’s version of Oria’s inner experiences almost certainly represents a blend of fact with fiction shaped by both the explicit and unspoken intentions of the poet. Nevertheless, a scientifically informed exploration of the first vision as if it were a true, psycho-spiritual event taking place in a human body and brain suggests a surprising degree of verisimilitude in the poem’s account of Oria’s remarkable dream.

An examination of the opening sequence of Oria’s first vision through the lens of contemporary neurocognitive approaches to dream life reveals the compensatory and subversively liberating nature of the oneiric state in the life of the nun. With the psycho-biological authenticity of the nun’s experience at least partially affirmed in this way, it is possible to analyze the poem’s further development from a theoretical perspective that is both grounded in neuroscience and explores dreams as purposeful narratives deeply reflective of the dreamer’s individual personality and spiritual life.

A few key images in the Vida de Santa Oria form metaphorical nuclei laden with emotional overtones that are critical in establishing the text’s overarching framework of meaning. The dynamic concept of “root metaphor” developed by theologian and dream researcher Kelly Bulkeley sheds light on how such nuclei animate the storyline, generating and remitting to a deeper, unifying thread of spiritual significance.

The images and the poetic descriptions of processions and of the motif of the heavenly seat connect Oria to both the collective values of her monastic [End Page 134] community and to a vastly larger spiritual reality. By both rooting her more fully within her earthly identity as part of a community that had partially constrained her and by granting her a taste of complete spiritual freedom, the dream offers a form of consolation for a life situation deeply bereft of external power and authority.

The rich imagery of Berceo’s Vida de Santa Oria may appear on a first reading to be fully transparent and easily decoded. T. Anthony Perry creates a distinction between Berceo’s allegorical use of symbols in the introduction to his Milagros de Nuestra Señora and the more literal, straightforward sense in which he believes spiritual motifs are presented in the Vida de Santa Oria, attributing the difference to the Berceo’s claims for the historical veracity of Oria’s visions (94). Siminia M. Farcasiu’s exhaustive philological approach to the Vida, which contributes to the discussion below of key images in the poem’s opening dream sequence, uncovers a wealth of intertwining roots for Berceo’s symbols in the writings of the Church Fathers and medieval iconography, suggesting a more complex terrain of signification.

John K. Walsh stresses Berceo’s probable reworking of the visionary references, imagery, and ritualized actions portrayed in the Latin text to create a sense of familiarity and connection between local saints and the great virgin-martyrs of late antiquity (“A Possible” 304-6). Lappin, whose introduction to and commentary in his edition carefully trace many of these connections, argues that Oria was rewarded with her visions primarily because of the profound identification with the virgin martyrs that came through her devotional reading of their passions (“Introduction” 3 and 33).

Human dream life weaves vivid imaginary impressions with a semblance of narrative flow to produce meaning. Contemporary neuroscience proposes models for the physiological substrate of complex dream imagery as well as cognitive tools for speculation about their psychological and spiritual significance. While the discovery of rapid-eye-movement or REM sleep in the 1950s radically shifted the emphasis of modern dream science away from prevailing Freudian psychoanalytic frameworks for the interpretation of dream content, more recent theories have sought to build bridges between [End Page 135] the search for meaning in dreams and the latest discoveries in brain anatomy.

Hobson et al. emphasize two seemingly opposite tendencies of REM generated dreams. On the one hand they produce dreams with kaleidoscopic and strange imagery and content that might be considered to be removed in varying degrees from day-to-day concerns of waking life (Hobson et al. 799). Moreover, they are delusional, in the sense that in most cases dreamers accept at face value that they are awake and suffer a corresponding loss of self-reflection (799). Nevertheless, the REM dream experience also has a capacity for generating psychological order through its tendency to integrate a wealth of impressions into a coherent narrative structure (799).

The groundbreaking work of G. William Domhoff, based on brain imaging studies, greatly refines earlier observations of REM sleep that were based primarily on measurements of brainwave activity and subjective reports by research participants. Domhoff ’s neurocognitive model of dreaming suggests that a combination of psychological inhibition and loosening takes place in the dreaming mind. The brain is first isolated from input coming from the external world that normally travels through the primary sensory regions as well as from impulses generated in the key centers of the prefrontal cortices that “integrate incoming sensory information with memory and emotion in the process of decision-making” (16).

This shackling of conscious intent, however, is what may paradoxically allow a dream to reach its full creative potential. In Domhoff ’s model the quieting of key intellectual centers allows a threshold of mental activity to be reached that sets an “unconstrained and freewheeling conceptual system” into motion (16). Through a heightened stimulation of the medial cortical region in the brain that is believed to be involved in a wide range of cognitive functions including intentional control of movement, decision making, empathy, emotional processing, and motivation in response to external sensory stimuli, the dream process generates “coherent dramatizations that often portray the dreamer’s conceptions and concerns in waking life” (16–17).

Bulkeley’s speculative writings on the cognitive and spiritual aspects of [End Page 136] dreaming grow from the developing neurobiological theories of dreaming discussed above. Bulkeley acknowledges a basic schism that has plagued contemporary dream research “between what may be called the ‘interpretive’ and the ‘scientific’ approaches to dreams” (“Gods” 67). He suggests that where Hobson’s neurocognitive theories, expressed most fully in The Dreaming Brain, explicitly deny the possibility of finding deep inner meaning in dreams, they actually point in the direction of confirming a religious or spiritual substrate to the biological phenomena of dreaming:

Hobson’s theory states that dreaming is activated by essentially random neuronal activity; once this neuronal activity begins, higher mental functions seek to form some sort of narrative coherence out of the random signals being generated. What Hobson describes as the “synthetic” process of dream formation bears striking similarities to the process of creating religious meaning. This attempt in the dream state to form narrative coherence seems to correspond very closely to what I have been suggesting is the fundamentally religious need for ultimate meaning and value, for existential coherence.

(72; emphasis in original)

This thread of Bulkeley’s work, in which dreams are valued for their narratological potentials, connects equally well with Domhoff ’s suggestion that dreaming involves a simultaneous liberation of the imagination and an impulse for creating order within the apparent chaos of vivid oneiric impressions.

Bukleley’s linguistically grounded root metaphor concept is the fruit of his work on the interpretive side of dream theory. His earliest work on this theory affirms that “The basis of the root metaphor concept is the idea that all human thinking is fundamentally metaphorical in nature” (“The Concept” 134). In developing this theory he acknowledges his indebtedness to the linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, as well as to Don Browning and Sallie McFague, theologians who have examined the cognitive and religious dimensions of metaphorical language (134). Finally, Bulkeley mentions the influence of Paul Ricoeur, a philosopher who provided roadmaps for finding religious meaning in “symbols and self-reflection” (134).

Root metaphors are not to be approached as isolated, static images but [End Page 137] must rather be seen in interaction with each other as they give a story-like coherence to a dream. At its core a root metaphor is a central symbolic nexus that guides a person’s life at its deepest levels by vividly expressing itself in dream life (“Root” 8–9). Bulkeley believes that root metaphors are a key to the psyche’s generation of meaning and capacity for self-healing: “Root metaphors are concrete images that metaphorically express our ultimate existential concerns, that are powerful and challenging, and have deep and transformative effects in our lives” (10).

Bulkeley makes a careful distinction between symbol and metaphor, placing value on the sense of openness, flexibility, and free play that can be gained from seeing dream life as a narrative process. In addressing the limitations of structuralist approaches to dreams that attempt to decode dream images as fixed patterns he states that:

By breaking a dream into little pieces, we can obscure the dream’s overall narrative movement; and yet it is precisely this narrative movement that so often discloses powerful, profound meanings. We avoid this problem if we speak of dreams as metaphors, for metaphors are themselves tiny narratives. At the heart of a metaphor is a verb – an action, a movement, a change.

Root metaphors, in this sense, expand the range of meaning of a dream or a dream text progressively and as a whole, offering many possibilities for interpretative connections rather than creating a unilateral symbolic center of meaning.

Bulkeley lists several attributes of root metaphors that are useful for appreciating the nuances of figurative motifs in literary narrative and their connotative potentials: they are never arbitrary; they are tightly interwoven with personality and culture; they are partial, as they bring one aspect of a thing or idea into focus while leaving other features in shadow, attempting to come to grips with the unknown in terms of the known; and their truth value is not based on “inherent, permanent qualities” (“The Concept” 135–36), but rather is related to individual circumstances and intentions (136, 148).

Oria enters her first dream or vision in the early hours of the morning after a period of devotional reading of Scripture. At this time of day and in this [End Page 138] state of peaceful, reflective consciousness she is in the conditions recognized by dream vision literature as most propitious for entering the deepest, most extraordinary levels of dream experience. The narrator states very succinctly that: Oria “quiso dormir un poco, tomar consolaçión: / vido en poca hora una grant visïón” (Berceo 26cd). This places the protagonist, as is commonly seen in narrated literary dreams and visions, on the frontier between sleep and wakefulness, in a psychological state that is quite different than that in which ordinary dream life takes place. Nevertheless, Berceo’s narration of this oneiric event also depicts physical and psychological conditions that contemporary neuroscience has found to be fundamental to dream life.

Oria sees three saintly martyrs, Agatha, Olalia, and Cecilia, whose remarkable spiritual qualities are clearly visible to Oria: “Todas eran eguales, de un color bestidas; / semeiava que eran en un día nasçidas. / Luzién como estrellas, tant’ eran de bellidas” (st. 29bcd). The seemingly benign appearance of the three radiant martyrs carrying supernaturally white doves (st. 30) infuses the young nun with a flood of emotion, leading from terror –“La ninna que yazié en paredes çerrada, / con esta visïón fue mucho enbargada”– to the comforting presence of the Holy Spirit (st. 31abc).

The martyrs introduce themselves as emissaries of Christ, reveal to the nun that she has been chosen to ascend bodily into the heavenly realms (sts. 32–33) and Olalia, or Saint Eulalia, orders her to take hold of a dove who will transport her upwards (st. 37). This opens a section in which Berceo’s narration of Oria’s dream draws freely upon a wide literary tradition of depictions of otherworldly scenes, where each image is laden with symbolic force.

Farcasiu suggests that the motif of the dove represents the theme of “penitential martyrdom” through its parallels with similar representations in the hagiographic tradition surrounding the more ancient Spanish St. Eulalia (315). This argument echoes an identical hypothesis offered by Walsh (304–05), and Lappin affirms that in the final scenes of the passion texts of both Saint Eulalia and Saint Eugenia each martyr is lifted into heaven by a dove (“Introduction” 33). Farcasiu believes this imagery may be traced still [End Page 139] further back to the iconographic tradition of Saint Gregory and Beatus of Liébana’s commentary on Saint John’s Apocalypse (315).

Oria’s vertical pathway is a great column that leads into the upper worlds (sts. 38c–39d), imagery the poem itself links to the Biblical dream vision motif of Jacob’s ladder (st. 42) and that Walsh connects to the hagiographical and liturgical remembrances of the three local martyr guides who are central to this scene (306). Lappin traces the imagery of the column further back to the third-century martyr vision text Passio Perpetuae (33).

From the perspective of the dreaming as a state of consciousness, what is striking is how little Oria engages with her experience. She is largely entranced in a state of passive receptivity toward the extraordinary images that overtake her mind:

Moviósse la palonba,    començó de volar, suso contra los çielos    començó de puiar; catávala don Oria    donde irié posar. Non la podié por nada    de volumtat sacar.

(st. 40)

The activity of her will has been completely suspended or held in restraint, as her dream body is shuttled heavenward by the flight of the dove. The depiction of a radical paralysis of Oria’s ordinary mind-body connection is reinforced by a lack of any narrated reference to Oria’s inner reflections or discursive thoughts. She is reduced to merely looking upward, toward a destination that will soon be revealed.

The rapidly shifting progression of images and spiritual beings Oria encounters, together with her overpowering emotions of fear and delight and suspension of much of her active intellect and ability to influence what is happening to her are hallmarks of dream life that resonate with the observations, discoveries, and hypotheses of cognitive neuroscience. In particular, the intense barrage of sensory and emotional material at first seems to enter her consciousness in a kind of chaotic whirlwind that emerges from a psychic region that is markedly distinct from the boundaries of ordinary life. It is significant that Oria, with much of her subjectivity and ordinary thought processes restrained, shows no capacity for recognizing [End Page 140] that she is in a dream.

The next great milestone in Oria’s upward journey follows in rapid succession: a great flowering tree (sts. 43c–44d). Perry limits his commentary on the imagery of column and tree to the level of universal spirituality as “symbols of the center, whose function it is to join Heaven and Earth and facilitate the passage from one to the other”, which together with the flight of the dove and references to Jacob’s ladder stand as “symbols of ascent or transcendence” (100–01).

Farcasiu suggests that the image of a tree crowning a column is likely related to medieval representations of the Tree of Jesse, in which the Virgin Mary rests in the branches beneath symbols of the triune God, as rendered architecturally in the porticos of both the cloister of Santo Domingo de Silos and the Portal de la Gloria in Santiago de Compostela (316). Walsh, for his part, offers examples of tree imagery as fundamental to the symbolism of the Offices for Saint Agatha and other virgin-martyr saints (306). Lappin, who finds an early source for Berceo’s tree imagery in Saturus’ vision in the Passio Perpetuae (“Introduction” 33), details the allegorical symbolism of a sacred tree’s branches as representing the martyrs in the liturgy for Saint Eulalia and Augustine’s Christological interpretation of the Tree of Life (“Commentary” 133–34).

In appreciating this scene as a dream event taking place in a human body and brain, the psycho-spiritual quality of this experience for Oria and her guides must be brought into focus. The narrator emphasizes their sense of weightlessness and the sheer delight and playfulness of their passage through a locus amoenus (st. 45) reminiscent of the sacred pleasure garden depicted in Berceo’s introduction to his Milagros. As Lappin notes, the motif of the Earthly Paradise would likely have been in Oria’s waking thoughts at the time of the dream because it was abundantly present in the Mozarbic liturgy during the season of Advent (135).

In these four young women intellect is overpowered by an unbridled rapturous affect as they are restored (or regress) to a spiritually vital condition of childlike innocence. Lappin suggests that Oria’s dream in this [End Page 141] sequence may have drawn on her own memories of playing in the trees as a girl growing up in a mountain community and could even have been a part of her reading of the lives of martyrs, such as the dream vision in which Saturus delights in nature as a reward for his sufferings in the Passio Perpetuae (135).

The scene suddenly changes again as Oria and her guides see a pierced window pane divided in sections above them separating them from Heaven, from which countless beams of light stream forth (st. 46cd). Three saintly gentlemen carrying staffs bedecked with precious paintings come forth to greet the women (st. 47), using their scepters to lift them into yet higher spiritual regions, where they find a series of “honrradas proçessiones” (st. 48d), a key nucleus of imagery that will be examined in greater detail below.

Oria’s continuing ascent is effortless and takes her to a region beyond the moon and sun:

Puyava a los çielos    sin ayuda ninguna, non li fazié enbargo    nin el sol nin la luna. A dios avié pagado    por manera alguna, si non, non subrié tanto    la fija de Amunna.

(st. 50)

The gentle yet swift voyage takes on cosmic proportions as the narrator suggests that the force impelling her forward and overcoming all obstacles and barriers is God’s unbending will and desire to draw the nun nearer to himself.

What is striking in this narration of the sequence of ascent is the quality of ecstatic buoyancy. Paradoxically this comes about only because Oria’s sleeping mind, largely cut off from external sensory output, is confined in a world of images by the shackling of the capacity for processing them intellectually or consciously reacting to them. This suppression of the higher cognitive functions liberates her imagination to make a series of wide-ranging associations, allowing her to meet with saintly beings, rapidly ascend the great column, frolic in the sacred tree and experience herself being lifted up through the streaming lights of the open window into Heaven’s highest reaches. [End Page 142]

The dream experience itself as an altered form of embodied consciousness challenges a reality that Weiss views as intrinsic to Oria’s extreme asceticism, which is introduced demonstratively in the poem’s opening stanzas: “Controlling the flesh entails controlling language: there is a sense that language, like the body, has a ‘fleshiness’ that needs to be curbed” (76). Even if Oria, as Weiss suggests, will not be fully restored from this fallen state of language and body until she reaches her final union with Voxmea and occupies her heavenly seat at her death (77), the dream state can be seen as the very process through which this reversal of the fall is achieved as an inner psycho-biological reality.

Extraordinary visionary experiences, even if viewed within a religious framework as divine gifts or graces granted to the soul, still require the emotional circuitry of deep brain regions such as the limbic system to be registered within a human body, and the quieting of the neural centers of critical, analytical thought would greatly assist in this profound opening and liberation to the spiritual dimensions of the psyche and their integration with the embodied personality.

The narrator darts from scene to scene with what at first glance seems like little interconnection but as suggested by the many linkages of the imagery to hagiographical, theological, and liturgical texts, a more careful analysis reveals an underlying order and progression with deep spiritual significance. While Berceo’s craftsmanship is evident, the poem’s content points to the strong possibility that the dreaming mind and brain of the young saint could have generated significant parts of the narrative.

To the extent that Berceo’s account of Oria’s dream partially captures the nun’s authentic spiritual experiences, these visions must have been strongly influenced by her own exposure to hagiographical and visionary literature. As Lappin argues, her dream, as it is recorded, clearly suggests her detailed familiarity and deep identification with a reading of the lives of the martyrs and her desire to imitate their sacrifices in spirit through her extreme asceticism:

The anchorhold formed a propitious environment for meditation upon texts [End Page 143] that Oria read and images that she saw. Her method of reading, in which she effected a strong psychological connection between herself and the female character, the female hermit or the visionary, overflowed into her visions. In her visions, it is possible to see how images which characterized the visions of others were taken and applied directly to herself. The style of reading was that adopted by fourth- and fifth-century female readers of martyrs’ passions, who would link their own status to figures who shared their characteristics.

Although Weiss rightly cautions that Oria’s participation in this “popular devotion” is circumscribed by the poem’s abundant reference to “male authority figures –bishops, monks, martyrs, the apostles, the evangelists– whose relationship with the divine is institutionalized through their command of the sacrament and liturgy, and reinforced by their control of the written word” (80), Oria’s visions liberate her to a degree from these gender relations of the earthly sphere. They reflect her most inward expectations, shaped by a connection with traditional symbols from her reading, inspiring a radical spiritual transformation that took her far beyond the more culturally conditioned pathways of her waking psyche.

Having reached Heaven under the careful guidance of the three virgins and the dove, the vision that immediately catches the attention of Santa Oria is that of a long procession of human souls who are making a romería, or spiritual pilgrimage:

Aparesçiólis luego    una muy grant conpanna, en bestiduras albas,    fermosas por fazanna. Semeióli a Oria    una cosa estranna, ca nunca vido cosa    daquésta su calanna.

(st. 52)

The emphasis here is on the strange otherworldliness of this spectacle. Although these are clearly souls of great beauty, their appearance provokes feelings of anxious doubt in Oria, prompting her to ask her guides to interpret the scene: “‘Dezitme, ¿qué es esto, por dios e Sant Pelayo? / En el mi coraçón una grant dubda trayo: / meior paresçen éstos que las flores de mayo’” (st. 53b–d). This is a crucial moment in the poem, as Oria finally enters the text as a speaking subject with a semblance of self-reflection. [End Page 144]

She is moved to seek points of reference as she confronts the radically unknown, observing that the radiance of these men outshines the familiar beauty of the natural world. The guides explain that these men were calonges or canons in their earthly life (st. 54ab). As ascetics or men who sought to maintain “la carne apremida” they have found their way to eternal glory in Heaven (st. 54cd). While the imagery seems straightforward and the guides’ words of clarification appear to provide closure and certainty, this opens a dream sequence that merits deeper investigation.

The young nun recognizes four of the canons as she gains a close-up view of the first procession: Bartolomeo, don Gómez de Massiella, Don Xemeno, and Galindo (sts. 55c–56c). Lappin discusses Bartolomeo’s role as copyist of the acts of the martyrs at the Albeda scriptorium, whose name appears in the explicit of a manuscript that would have been part of Oria’s devotional reading (“Commentary” 142). Lappin also suggests that his “presence among the calonges is perhaps motivated by his becoming a representative of Mozarabic orthodoxy in the oral tradition of the nearby monasteries” (142–43). Uría Maqua comments that the latter two men appear in eleventh-century documents from San Millán and Valnaverna but that it is impossible to verify whether the poem actually refers to these real-life monks (Notes to “Poema” 107). In his commentary Lappin stresses the close bonds these saintly men would have enjoyed through their earthly relationship of teacher-disciple (143).

In approaching Oria’s vision as a dream to be analyzed, what is clear is that her unconscious mind is working with memories of men who were known to her at one time in her waking life, either in person or by through study about her predecessors at San Millán. This imbues them with a web of individualized associations that allows the dream space to become an extension in a parallel world of images of her cherished monastic community. In the bewildering spectacle of this first procession, Oria’s dreaming mind comes to rest on familiar figures who would have embodied male religious authority in her waking life and now model the qualities of humility and self-mastery that she has also clearly attained. [End Page 145]

To begin to explore the connotative value of religious processions in the first dream of Saint Oria, it is helpful to expand on some of the basic attributes of root metaphors discussed above. Especially important here are the essential connection of root metaphors to personality and culture, their tendency to focus intensely on a single aspect of a thing or idea, their way of explaining the unknown in terms of the known, and their reflection of individual circumstances and intentions rather than external, fixed ideas (“The Concept” 135–36, 148).

Although the initial strangeness of the procession becomes intimately linked to Oria’s life experience, the shifting scenery continues to follow the rhythm of constant flux that marked her initial ascent into the heavenly realms, reflecting the ongoing instability of dream consciousness. The intensification of sense perception and emotion suggested in Berceo’s narration of Oria’s reaction to the procession involves the same forms of constraint on her intellectual faculties that were seen in her rapturous ascent. Her perspective widens again to embrace the unknown as Oria’s martyr guides lead her to a second array of higher ranked men, an “Assaz grant compannía; / de la de los calonges avié grant meioría” (st. 57cd). This is a procession of bishops who bear marks of hierarchical and moral distinction:

Todos vestién casullas    de preçiosos colores, blagos en las siniestras,    como predicadores, cálices en las diestras    de oro muy meiores; semeiavan ministros    de preçiosos sennores.

(st. 58)

The iconographic description of these holy men, associating them with their symbolic accoutrements, likely reflects an allegorizing impulse that is an essential part of perennial visionary literature such as the poetic depictions of the Virtues in the Psychomachia. Where Perry sees the symbolism here as transparent, stating that the blago, or staff, is “merely a sign indicating the occupation of preaching” (109), Lappin accepts that the imagery must have been present in the eleventh-century Latin Vita but suggests that it would have had distinct overtones in the thirteenth-century world of Berceo, who actively supported the Lateran reforms being promulgated in Castile by the bishops of his day (“Commentary” 143–44). [End Page 146]

Whether this imagery is allegorical or merely descriptive, in looking at this scene as part of a developing root metaphor it would be helpful to see how the qualities of these men might relate to Oria’s life situation. Oria recognizes a kind of numinous power in these men, communicated in part through an emphasis on dazzling color and the chalices that reflect their participation in clerical duties and Church sacraments. At first it might seem that such images provide answers to basic questions concerning the roles Oria might play, especially in her afterworld existence. Where her earthly life was limited by her reclusion, the appearance of these authority figures in the dream suggest an expansion of her vocation of into teaching or bearing obedient witness to the divine, especially because the poem emphasizes that these men of high status convey a basic attitude of service to even greater “lords”. Oria, like them, may have radiated great spiritual nobility while still retaining an essential character of humility.

Despite these points of similarity and contact, the young nun’s attempt to find linkages between this group of men and her life in the monastery is thwarted. In response to Oria’s search for the bishop Don Gómez, her guides reveal that he is not to be found in the heavenly company, having morally failed his mission: “Pero que traxo mitra fue cosa muÿ llana, / tal fue como el árbol que florez e non grana” (st. 62cd). Berceo or the author(s) of his sources may have added this detail either with a good dose of humor or in a spirit of social criticism. Lappin summarizes Brian Dutton’s (“Berceo’s Bad Bishop”) identification of Don Gómez as “the abbot who unjustly deposed Santo Domingo de Silos from his priorship of San Millán” (“Commentary” 145). Through the guide’s words of admonition, Oria’s connection to the procession of bishops is abruptly severed and her wandering in search of a more coherent view of both her outer and inner life continues.

The Vida de Santa Oria revolves around fundamental questions concerning the nature of the spiritual world, the divine and potentially hidden individual and collective values. The healing offered to Oria suggests answers to her that bring comfort to the recipients of the text as well. Central to Bulkeley’s concept of root metaphors are eight questions he suggests a dreamer can ponder in response to a uniquely powerful dream. Three serve as pertinent [End Page 147] guideposts to the generation of meaning in Oria’s first vision, and each will be presented in turn as a way of developing an interpretation of her dream.

Bulkeley’s first question concerns way in which a dream can reveal or challenge a dreamer’s core beliefs about the divine and provide them with a fuller and deeper understanding of the underlying pattern of their basic life situation, including its darkness:

Does this dream touch on any basic existential issues in my life? For example, is it addressing my beliefs about suffering and death, about good and evil, about the reality of God? Is it giving me any insights into the most powerful, fundamental forces shaping my individual life?

An essential aspect of Oria’s life situation as a reclusive nun is her profound isolation from a wider community of believers. The next section of the unfolding dream narrative suggests that this isolation, even if part of a chosen vocation, is connected to a deep inner wound of shame and disconnection from God as a source of unconditional love. The imagery and personal interactions that take place here show a path to moving beyond this spiritual desolation.

Oria instantly reaches the next rung of the hierarchies of holy men and women: “El coro de las vírgenes proçessión tan honrrada. / Salieron resçivirla de volumtat pagada” (st. 63cd). A clear difference is established between Oria’s relationship with this procession and her connections with the lower arrays of saintly beings. During Oria’s brief tour of the ranks of canons and bishops she had no interaction with them. The virgins, in contrast, come to embrace the young nun, welcoming her into their community: “‘Contigo, Oria, mucho nos plaz; / para esta companna digna eres assáz’” (st. 67cd). Lappin shows how this scene bears some resemblance to Berceo’s narration of San Millán’s entry into the heavenly community of confessors (147). This is a critical juncture in the development of the procession as root metaphor, because it is at this moment that Oria becomes a participant rather than a mere observer in the arrays of holy men and women.

In response to Oria’s insistent response that she is unworthy of such a reception (st. 65) the virgins explain to her that such heavenly blessings are [End Page 148] not based on merit but rather on grace received through one’s dedication to Christ: “‘Mas el nuestro esposo a quien voto fiziemos / fízonos esta graçia porque bien lo quisiemos’” (st. 68cd). As Lappin comments, it is in her fidelity to her vows rather than her good works that Oria has demonstrated her necessary love of Christ (148). Here the virgins take over the exegetical function her martyr guides had provided up to this point in the dream narrative. Like the martyrs, they take concepts or realities that at first remain beyond understanding or even emotionally overwhelming and render them accessible and approachable to both the protagonist and the reader or audience.

Following Oria’s vision of a welcoming community and experience of an all-embracing divine love, the dream begins to address a second core life theme that Bulkeley has found to be frequently raised by root metaphors: “Does this dream reveal any ultimate ideals that I’ve forgotten, or ignored, or never been conscious of before?” (“Root” 12).

The overarching root metaphor guiding this section of Oria’s dream is centered on the imagery and symbolic movement of the multi-tiered, horizontal and hierarchical religious processions through which Oria herself travels in a vertical fashion by ascending from rank to rank. Oria’s acceptance into the celestial community of the virgins marks a key nucleus of meaning and turning point that shapes the larger narrative. It brings her painful, individual ascetic struggles into contact with broader, collective values of virginity and renunciation within a dynamic Castilian monastic community in the late Middle Ages and the still wider tradition of women’s cloistered life in Western Europe spanning many centuries. Oria’s passive and then fuller participation in the splendid processions connects her with the ideals and deepest purposes underlying the harsher realities of her vocation, providing a container and message of consolation for the many doubts and questions her chosen way of life would certainly have generated in her psyche, even if these were largely outside of her waking awareness.

As C. Clifford Flanigan emphasizes, a well-designed medieval religious procession would bring its participants into a “liminal” state in which [End Page 149] they would undergo a transformation of consciousness allowing them to experience a “full and unmediated communication, even communion” with the religious value systems or notion of divinity belonging to their culture (45).

Processions, like dreams, bypass the ordinary filters of a conscious intellect:

External rituals are expressive of some internal “spiritual” feeling. Movement is from inner to outer. They recall what is already known and believed, moving from internal faith to an external act of processing. The purpose of the procession is to stir up piety, and hence its function is in the first place emotional and only secondarily intellectual.


Just as dreams spring from an extremely complex individual subjectivity and often represent an attempted healing of deep personal and spiritual concerns of a passive dreamer, processions also lead their participants into a deep well of collective meaning with a healing effect that is received in large part on an unconscious level (38).

In her encounter with the saintly processions Oria is also finding answers for a third question Bulkeley recommends asking in response to a root-metaphor dream that addresses the ways through which individual and collective ideals may be linked: “Does this dream say anything about the ultimate ideals of my family, community, church, or culture? Does the dream reveal how my ideals are related to, or are in conflict with, the ideals of these social groups?” (“Root 12”).

In Oria’s case the larger community to which she is united transcends the boundaries of the world of the living. Oria looks among the great throng of virgins for her childhood teacher and mentor Urraca (st. 70–74), who would have been a primary source of collective values and ideals. Oria’s wish, however, will be only partially granted. The virgins lead her to a panorama of a procession that is so long that her teacher can only be recognized by her unforgettable voice (st. 76), and beyond this simple greeting no further contact is made. In his discussion of the figure Vox Mea, which will be mentioned briefly below, Lappin views the death of Urraca as a central crisis in the life of Oria, who was bereft of her primary female authority figure (“Introduction” 40–41). This scene therefore touches on a longing that is yet [End Page 150] to find resolution.

As they reach the end of this long line of souls, they encounter a richly adorned seat which remains empty and under wraps:

En cabo de las vírgines,    toda la az passada, falló muy rica siella    de oro bien labrada, de piedras muy preçiosas    toda engastonada, mas estava vazía    e muy bien seellada.

Vedié sobre la siella    muy rica acithara, non podrié en est’ mundo    cosa seer tan clara. Dios solo faz tal cosa    que sus siervos enpara, que non podrié conprarla    toda alfoz de Lara.

(sts. 77–78)

Here a familiar work of craftsmanship, a tapestry, is invested with powerful spiritual qualities, communicated through references to its brightness and ornamentation. Berceo creates a synthesis between what is ordinary and that which exceeds anything knowable on Earth. The narrator holds the seat to be of greater value than the entire kingdom of Castile (st. 79c). Although its value is infinite, the seat holds a specific meaning as promised reward from God for service to him, in a relationship clearly based on the feudal model of lord and vassal (siervo).

While Perry’s insistence that Berceo has developed the imagery of the seat in a way that is descriptively transparent rather than allegorical (110–11) holds some weight, the motif of the heavenly seat is deeply rooted in the tradition of vision literature. Walsh relates a similar journey toward a heavenly seat found in the Visio Tnugdali (297), although Lappin convincingly refutes his assertion that this Celtic vision was a direct source of inspiration for Berceo’s narration of Oria’s visions (“Introduction” 26–27).

Weiss highlights the centrality of the siella to the deeper gender-bound significance of the poem, as a point in which Oria “recovers her voice in the presence of the divine”, if only temporarily (77). This image, created through the mediation of a dreaming body, may in this sense represent a promised restoration of wholeness that is inaccessible in Oria’s waking state and, Weiss indicates, inherently out of reach during her life on earth. [End Page 151]

Further connotations for this root metaphor as a signifier of the work’s implicit communication of gender relations can be uncovered in patristic theological writing. Kate Cooper offers a brief extract from the Homilia V De bono martyrii of the fifth-century Gallic author Valerianus of Cimiez:

Beloved, if you wish we should have a share in the heavenly seat, as God promised to the victors, let us in the first instance imitate the faith of the wholly martyr confessing, and let us follow his path in virtue … for it is not beyond you to be a victor daily in any respect, if you will only reject the desires of the flesh.


Further research would be needed to confirm whether this sermon penetrated beyond the Pyrenees to enter the Mozarabic canon that would have been available to Oria at San Millán, yet his words serve as an example of a Christian tradition dating back to at least the time of Ambrose that challenged believers to identify their personal struggles against sin and vice with the great suffering endured by the holy martyrs. Lappin addresses the heavenly seat as a more universal symbol of this identification:

The gaining of a chair in heaven was a usual figurative means of expressing the immediate blessedness of the martyrs and the perfect after their deaths. Gregory the Great believed that “the souls of the perfectly just, as soon as they leave the prison of the flesh, are received into the celestial seats”.


Cooper, drawing on the work of Charles F. Altman, places the sermon of Valerianus against the historical backdrop of a change in orientation in hagiographical texts that took place in the age of Constantine, from the passiones or martyrdom texts that emphasized the titanic battles between good and evil confronting great saints and the later vitae that served as examples of the Christian path of inner development and transformation that could be undertaken by everyone (109).

As Antonio Cea Gutiérrez observes, Oria is portrayed as an avid reader of the first type of saintly biography:

Oria es presentada como mujer aficionada a las lecturas de Pasionarios, en donde conocerá bien los premios y galardones (al menos de los mártires) en el cielo, así como las dos vías para llegar a él: la cognitiva, a través del cumpliento de las “leyes”, “razones” y “entendimiento”, y la afectiva, de [End Page 152] “deleites”, “pasiones”, “amor e grado a Dios”. No debieron resultarle del todo novedosas, por leídas, las propias experiencias de su viaje visionario.


Symbolic and thematic references to martyrdom as a metaphor for self-renunciation and of great rewards for success in this battle, therefore, are fundamental to the structure and meaning of the poem, which as a Vida is meant to inspire its readers to imitate its example as a path to transformation, just as Oria lived her life in imitation of the martyrs.

The root metaphor of the heavenly seat, while likely informed by this cultural context, also belongs to a larger reality that is carefully developed within the poem itself, contributing to the flow of the ongoing dream narrative. Oria ascends rapidly through the hierarchies of the hermits, martyrs, apostles, and evangelists. Although she recognizes holy figures among the hermits who belonged to San Millán, linking this level with her personal history, the martyrs, apostles, and evangelists are listed with a level of detachment that would be more appropriate to an inventory. These arrays of higher beings function in this way more as background scenery, within a hierarchical and abstract understanding of how the spiritual world is arranged.

The text becomes filled again with a richer sense of meaning, however, as Oria returns to the heavenly seat. Here significant attention is given to Voxmea, its guardian:

Vistié esta mançeba    preçiosa vestidura, máspreçiosa que oro,    más que la seda pura. Era sobresennada    de buena escriptura. Non cubrió omne vivo    tan rica cobertura.

(st. 91)

The description of the inestimable value of the vestments of Vox Mea forms a parallel to the portrayal of the supernatural qualities invested in the tapestry. The narrator’s description of the men whose names are woven into the garment (st. 92) makes explicit what had only been suggested by the image of the seat, namely, the message pulsing through the entire poem, that great heavenly rewards await those who take up the difficult path of self-denial.

Just as important is the fact that the figure of Vox Mea is a woman clothed in direct references to masculine spiritual power and authority, the names of [End Page 153] the “omnes de grant vida” (st. 92), and in this way may be seen as embodying and transmitting these qualities to Oria. And yet, as Weiss observes in interpreting this image, “The choice of script as symbol of saintliness is no accident: it reveals Berceo’s awareness that the construction and recollection of holiness depend upon a dynamic interplay between the power of oral memory and the power of those who wield the pen” (82), suggesting still one more way in which Oria’s agency is restrained and inscribed within an ever present patriarchal social order.

Where Weiss’s interpretation of Vox Mea offers keen insights for what she may represent of the constrictions of gender relations in the earthly Church in a specific time and space, Lappin shows how she may also be seen as a traditional iconographic representation of the eternal or heavenly Church:

Vox Mea is a beautiful young woman, since she is the Bride of Christ: she represents the Church in heaven, the communion of all the saved, who will be united with Christ at the end of time in a spiritual marriage between Christ and the Church. Her depiction as a young woman is particularly fitting since Oria’s subsequent visions present herself as the bride of Christ. The heavenly Church was, in the eleventh century, often depicted as a young and beautiful woman, dressed in fine robes.

Oria is given a foretaste of her own heavenly marriage at the culmination of the vision when, for a few moments she hears the disembodied voice of Christ (st. 88bc). Lappin’s observations suggest the radical freedom represented by this direct, if incomplete revelation: “In her experience of heaven, Oria finds that she can bypass or go beyond the Church in her own relationship to Christ” (41). The dream has brought her beyond the limits not only of the healing granted by the presence of Vox Mea, but far beyond the constraints of gender-bound, hierarchical institutional relations.

Vox Mea puts all that Oria has seen and heard at this juncture in context. The nun learns that the seat has been prepared for her by God, to be enjoyed if she can stay on the path that is free from sin (sts. 95b–96d), but that her vision of heavenly spaces is only a preview of an afterlife for which she is not fully prepared (st. 98b–d). Oria is repulsed by the idea of returning to the escoria (dross) of the material world (st. 97d), where she must undergo [End Page 154] further purification. And yet, as Lappin suggests, Oria, through receiving such a vision, is given “an authority born of her direct relationship to Christ” (“Introduction” 40).

As a root metaphor the heavenly seat profoundly answers the doubts the isolated nun must have harbored about the necessary reality of her severe physical deprivations, suffered first voluntarily as an ascetic and later in the poem through a devastating final illness, and about the nature of the world beyond death. Secondly, the image of the seat serves as a focus for the path of self-renunciation and celibacy as a form of martyrdom, connecting Oria to the deep cultural traditions and ideals underlying her monastic life that she had likely never encountered with such resounding clarity and beauty.

Finally, Cooper’s comments on the ideals of feminine virginity as they took root in late antique Christianity can serve as an illustrative point of contrast to the life of Oria. In late antique Rome, virgin women, such as Saint Perpetua, enjoyed considerable authority in the temporal world, wielding influence in the formation of the post-Constantine church (Cooper 104–06). Berceo’s poem states that Oria came from a “good” parents (sts. 11–13), implying not only moral qualities but a level of social status. Nevertheless, Oria’s obedience and patently obsessive commitment to a path of severe discipline, reclusion, and radical rejection of the ordinary rewards of earthly life suggests a condition of profound powerlessness in relation to the external world. The heavenly seat can be seen in this context as a compensatory, inner image of authority, a power that Oria would enjoy only after her death.

Oria’s first dream worked on her body, brain, and soul in such a way that she was transported against her customary, self-denying waking-life intentions into a confoundingly rich world of the imagination. Through observing and participating in religious processions in this inner space she was connected with hidden, collective ideals undergirding her severe, individual ascetic practices. Finally, through her vision of the heavenly seat she was assured of a place of honor in the afterlife in which she would potentially claim an authority that her cultural conditioning and the prevailing social reality of gender relations had made completely inaccessible in her earthly travails. [End Page 155]

Mark T. Aquilano
University of Arkansas

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