Biographies & Memoirs

[XI]

What we require above all else

In the great silence that descended over the convent after the evening prayers, the thirty sisters of San Matteo lay asleep in their beds, fully clothed. Should Death come to call for one of them in the night, she would be dressed and ready to enter the next life. Or, when the bell summoning the nuns to Matins disturbed the darkness at midnight, they all could rise from their straw mattresses and go at once, without delay, padding in barefoot procession to the choir to meet their bridegroom Jesus by candlelight.

“Venite adoremus” they chanted as they took their places near the altar under the church grille for the Office of the Annunciation the first round of devotions in a new day. The nuns touched their foreheads to the stone floor, made the sign of the cross on their lips, then rose and kneeled in worship, supplicating for all those who might be aided by their prayers.

In the predawn shadows following the choral recitation of Matins and Lauds, the sisters returned briefly to their cells for the remainder of their sleep. But it was probably during this period before sunrise on December 10, 1623, that Suor Maria Celeste found the time to complete a secret letter to her father regarding a matter of supreme importance to the convent.

Galileo, still intending to go to Rome, had offered to petition the pope on behalf of the nuns of San Matteo. He wanted Suor Maria Celeste, given her inside knowledge of their plight, to inform him of their greatest need. Over the past few days, she had sought the advice of the mother abbess and other trusted sisters, finally relying on her own observations to reach a decision as to what would serve the community best.

She had rejected the notion of a gift of alms. Of course the convent was indigent, and as a result the nuns often went hungry, but Poor Clares consciously chose to live in continual abstinence. Their founding mother, Clare, herself had cherished the Privilege of Poverty as the clearest imitation of Christ. After her protector, Francis of Assisi, died in 1226, Clare battled successfully to maintain her right to own nothing, despite the objections of Church officials who feared she would starve to death. Bending to her will, Pope Gregory IX permitted the Poor Ladies at San Damiano to continue their tradition of corporate and individual poverty.

The Sisters shall not appropriate anything to themselves, neither a house nor a place nor anything whatsoever; and as strangers and pilgrims in this world, serving the Lord in poverty and humility, let them confidently send for alms, [RULE OF SAINT CLARE, chapter VIII]

Pope Gregory, however, weighing the general welfare of the Clarisses throughout Italy and France, had forced other convents to accept real property that could be sold or rented for profit. By the seventeenth century, this practice enjoyed wide vogue. Surely the new pope Urban, if approached by an individual he admired as much as he did Galileo, might easily cede to San Matteo a prosperous estate that generated enough income to buy food and blankets aplenty.

Something far worse than material poverty, in Suor Maria Celeste’s analysis, threatened to undermine San Matteo. Therefore she made bold to name the problem to her father, and to suggest precisely how the pope might crush the menace. Her letter described the impropriety of the men attending certain supervisory needs of the convent, beginning with the spiritual guidance that had once come from the blessed Francis himself.

Our Visitator shall always be from the Order of Friars Minor according to the will and instruction of our Cardinal. And let him be such as to be well known for his integrity and manner of living. His duty will be to correct faults committed against the form of ourprofession, whether in the head or in the members, [RULE OF SAINT CLARE, chapter XII]

If the visitator was wanting, the chaplains were worse. Yet, since the Church did not allow women to administer the Sacraments, the convent required a chaplain or two for special purposes such as hearing confession, anointing the sick, and celebrating the mass.

The current chaplain attending San Matteo exemplified the crowd of uneducated, unethical clerics who infiltrated ecclesiastical ranks at almost every level in seventeenth-century Italy, making a mockery of religious life wherever they came to roost. Although the Council of Trent, at its conclusion in 1563, had tried to rout these unscrupulous characters by calling for the establishment of seminaries—one in every diocese—to train truly devout young men for holy office, such schools had not yet proliferated widely enough, and many incompetent priests continued to obtain positions through apprenticeships or political connections. Suor Maria Celeste surmised that replacing the current priest, who had no experience of monastic life, with a friar would transform morale at the convent.

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Saint Clare facing the Saracens

The Council of Trent had also reduced the tenure of mother abbesses from a lifetime appointment to an elected post that passed to a new occupant by a vote held every three years. At San Matteo later this very day, in fact, just such a ballot would decide the successor to Suor Laura Gaetani, or “Madonna,” as the nuns called her, who was now conducting the Morning Office for the very last time.

Another pealing of the Sacristan’s bell sounded the beginning of Prime. Fully awake, washed, and reassembled in the choir, the sisters pressed on with their intercessions for the sinful and the anguished. They had not spoken any words of ordinary conversation since the previous evening, following the Rule’s admonition to keep silence until the hour of Terce. Now they sang hymns to Suor Maria Grazia’s accompaniment at the old, dilapidated organ, breakfasted on bread, and bent to their work.

Sometime during the three hours of chores after Terce, before the midday chanting of Saint Clare’s own favorite canonical hours of Sext and None, Suor Maria Celeste could have found time to fold her two densely filled sheets of paper lengthwise in quarters, then in half to make a small square, seal the edges, and pass the packet to the steward for delivery to Bellosguardo.

10249 MOST ILLUSTRIOUS AND BELOVED LORD FATHER

I WAS HOPING to be able to respond in person, Sire, to everything you said in your most solicitous letter of several days ago. I see, however, that time may prohibit us from meeting before you take your leave, and so I am resolved to share my thoughts with you in writing. Above all, I want you to know how happy you made me by offering so lovingly to help our convent. I conferred with Madonna and other elders here, all of whom expressed their gratitude for the nature of your offer; but because they were uncertain, not knowing how to come to a decision among themselves, Madonna wrote to our Governor, and he answered that, since the convent is so impoverished, alms were probably needed more than anything. Meanwhile I had several discussions with one particular nun, who seems to me to surpass all the others here in wisdom and goodwill; and she, moved not by passion or self-interest but by sincere zeal, advised me, indeed beseeched me, to ask you for something which would undoubtedly be of great use to us and yet very easy for you, Sire, to obtain: that is, to implore His Holiness to let us have for our confessor a Regular or Brother in whom we can confide, with the possibility that he may be replaced every three years, as is the custom at convents, by someone equally dependable; a confessor who will not interfere with the normal observances of our Order, but simply let us receive from him the Holy Sacraments: it is this that we require above all else, and so much so that I can hardly express its crucial importance, or the background circumstances that make it so, although I have tried to list several of them in the enclosed paper that I am sending along with this letter.

But because I know, Sire, that you cannot, on the basis of a simple word from me, make such a demand, without hearing from others more experienced in such matters, you can look for a way, when you come here, to broach the question with Madonna, to try to get a sense of her feelings on the matter, and also to discuss it with any of the more elderly mothers, without, of course, exposing your reasons for mentioning such things. And please breathe not a word of this to Master Benedetto [her uncle, the father of Suor Chiara], since he would undoubtedly divulge it to Suor Chiara, who would then spread it among the other nuns, and thus ruin us, because it is impossible for so many brains to be of one mind; and as a consequence the actions of a single person who might be particularly displeased by this idea could thwart our efforts. Surely it would be wrong to let two or three individuals deprive everyone in the group of all the benefits, both spiritual and practical, that could accrue from the success of this plan.

Now it is up to you, Sire, with your sound judgment, to which we appeal, to determine whether you deem it appropriate to pose our entreaty, and how best to present it so as to achieve the desired end most easily; since, as far as I am concerned, our petition seems entirely legitimate, and all the more so for our being in such dire straits.

I made it a point to write to you today, Sire, as this is rather a quiet time, and I think the right time for you to come to us, before things get stirred up again, so that you can see for yourself what may need to be done in respecting the stature of the older nuns, as I have already explained.

Because I fear imposing on you too heavily, I will leave off writing here, saving all the other things to tell you later in person. Today we expect a visit from Monsignor Vicar, who is coming to attend the election of the new Abbess. May it please God to see the one who bends most to His will elected to this post, and may He grant you, Sire, an abundance of His holy grace.

FROM SAN MATTEO, THE 10TH DAY OF DECEMBER 1623.

Most affectionate daughter,

S.M.Coloste

The first and foremost motive, which drives us to make this plea, is the clear recognition and awareness of how these priests’ paltry knowledge or understanding of the orders and obligations that are part of our religious life, allow us, or, to say it better, tempt us to live ever more loosely, with scant observance of our Rule; and how can one doubt that once we begin to live without fear of God, we will be subject to continual misery with regard to the temporal matters of this world? Therefore we must address the primary cause, which is this one that I have just told you.

A second problem is that, since our convent finds itself in poverty, as you know, Sire, it cannot satisfy the confessors, who leave every three years, by giving them their salary before they go: I happen to know that three of those who were here are owed quite a large sum of money, and they use this debt as occasion to come here often to dine with us, and to fraternize with several of the nuns; and, what is worse, they then carry us in their mouths, spreading rumors and gossiping about us wherever they go, to the point where our convent is considered the concubine of the whole Casentino region, whence come these confessors of ours, more suited to hunting rabbits than guiding souls. And believe me, Sire, if I wanted to tell you all the blunders committed by the one we have with us now, I would never come to the bottom of the list, because they are as numerous as they are incredible.

The third thing will be that a Regular must never be so ignorant that he does not know much more than one of these types, or if he does not know, at least he will not flee the convent, as has been the constant practice of our priests here, on the occasion of any little happenstance, to seek advice from the bishopric or elsewhere, as though that were any way to comport oneself or counsel others; but rather he will consult some learned father of his own Order. And in this fashion our affairs will be known in only one convent, and not all over Florence, as they are now. More than this, if he has gained nothing else from his own experience, he will well understand the boundaries that a Brother must respect between himself and the nuns, in order for them to live as quietly as possible; whereas a priest who comes here without having, so to speak, knowledge of nuns, may complete the whole designated three years of his required stay without ever learning our obligations and Rule.

We are not really requesting fathers of one religious order in preference over another, trusting ourselves to the judgment of he who will obtain and grant us such a favor. It is very true that the Reformed Carmelites of Santa Maria Maggiore, who have come here many times as special confessors, have served us most satisfactorily in the offices we are prohibited from performing ourselves; and I believe that they would better conform to our need. First, being themselves very devout fathers and highly esteemed; and moreover, because they do not covet fancy gifts, nor concern themselves (being well accustomed to poverty) with a grandiose lifestyle, as members of some other Orders have sought here; certain priests sent to us as confessors spent the whole three years serving only their own interests, and the more they could wring out of us, the more skillful they considered themselves.

But, without straining to make further allegations, Sire, I urge you to judge for yourself the conditions at other convents, such as San Jacopo and Santa Monaca, now that they have come under the influence of Brothers who took steps to set them on the proper path.

We are by no means asking to shirk the obedience of our Order, but only to be administered the Sacraments and governed by persons of experience, who appreciate the true significance of their calling.

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Legend held that Mother Clare often chanted Sext and None, which commemorate the crucifixion and death of Jesus, in tears. Her daughters at San Matteo followed these offices with prayers of gratitude for the convent’s benefactors, and then filed two by two, still singing, to the refectory. There the nun whose turn it was to read aloud at dinner regaled her sisters with stories from the lives of the saints, though not for long, as it took only a few minutes to finish the scant fare, usually broth and a vegetable, before returning to their prayers.

At Vespers in the early afternoon, the nuns knelt in the choir stalls, listening to the bells ring evensong. Another bell, the capitolo, rang soon afterward, during what would normally have been another period of silent work, calling them to chapter for the election that saw Suor Ortensia del Nente, the convent’s expert lace maker, inaugurated as their new mother abbess.

The one elected should reflect upon what kind of burden she has taken up and to whom an account of the flock entrusted to her is to be rendered. She should also strive to lead the way for the others more by virtue and a holy way of acting than by her office so that roused by her example the Sisters might obey her more out of love than out of fear, [RULE OF SAINT CLARE, chapter IV]

The founding Clare, in contrast, had headed San Damiano all her days. These passed mostly in quiet reverence, memorably broken by an invasion of mercenary soldiers in September of 1240, during which skirmish Clare, who had been bedridden by illness for six years, stood up with the assistance of two nuns and drove out the enemy by the power of her prayers. Clare’s canonization in 1255 resulted partly from this act of valor, as well as one supporting nun’s eyewitness testimony under oath that God had spoken to Clare—"I will guard you always and defend you,” He said—while the Saracens scaled the walls of San Damiano, and partly on the basis of miracles following her death as signs of her sanctity. Pilgrims brought to Clare’s tomb were variously cured there of epilepsy, paralysis, withered limbs, hunchback, dementia, madness, and blindness.

I bless you during my life and after my death as much as I am able and even more than I am able, with all the blessings by which the Father of mercies has blessed and will bless his spiritual sons and daughters in Heaven and on Earth. Amen, [BLESSING OF SAINT CLARE]

The days at San Matteo drew to a close during evening meditation, after the hymn and the Rosary, in solitude. Then all the nuns fell to their knees and fully prostrate on the floor to beg each other’s forgiveness for any pain one sister might inadvertently have caused another through all the preceding hours.

At Compline they convened chorally once more in the gathering darkness, as each nun prepared to meet her holy bridegroom or her death—whichever the Great Silence held in store for her this night.

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