Letters of Maria Celeste:
10 December 1623
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 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 good will; 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,
[The enclosed paper reads as follows:]
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.
©1995 Al Van Helden