Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Galileo's Daughter, part V

While Galileo, the Pope, archbishops and cardinals worried about the Catholic church's stance on the cosmos, Galileo's two daughters lived day-to-day lives in a cloistered Catholic convent. Sobel interweaves their story--particularly that of the oldest daughter, Sister Maria Celeste -- with the story of Galileo's battle with church authorities.

Over a hundred of the letters Maria Celeste wrote to Galileo survive. One can't help but be charmed by some of the glimpses they offer of everyday life: ripe lemons falling from the trees, Maria Celeste sugaring orange slices to send them back candied to her father, updates on them lace collars she is sewing for him and her brother.

But a grimmer picture also emerges. From the age of 16, when she took her vows, Maria Celeste was a lifetime prisoner of the convent. She couldn't leave. Though this cloistered existence was supposed to be a free choice, and although Maria Celeste never complains of her fate, it's hard to imagine that she had a real voice in the decision. She and her sister were put in the convent at ages 12 and 13. One also can't help but admire how well Celeste dealt with her situation.

Being members of the Poor Clares, the female branch of the Franciscans started by St. Clare, put Maria Celeste and her sister in particularly trying circumstances. For example, under the rules of the order, they had to rely on their own labors, money from their relatives, and begging for survival. Unlike other orders, they couldn't live on the rents from lands they owned.

As a result, the convent was constantly short of money and the sisters often went hungry. Clearly, as cloistered nuns, their employment options were limited. They baked and sold bread in the hottest part of summer, when nobody else was willing to be in front of a fire. They sold some wine. They grew fruits and vegetables. And each sister was supposed to pay for her room and board with an allowance provided by her relatives. Yet none of it was enough.

Many of Celeste's letters contain requests for money. In one letter, she writes of rooming with a nun who suffers from mental illness and "prattles" incessantly and stays up at night. This nun later hits her head on the ground until it's bloody and cuts herself with a knife. Celeste pleads with Galileo to send her funds for a private room.

“I do not think you will forsake me Sire, in doing me this great charitable service, for the love of God, numbering myself now among the neediest paupers locked in prison ...”

Through the letters, a picture of the private Galileo also emerges: the somewhat bemused patriarch in a society dependent on patronage, spending time finding sinecures for relatives, housing his brother's wife and eight children, caring for his sister, sending money to his daughters. He's financially generous to his convent-bound daughters and diligent at pursuing patrons for his family, but also completely a man of his times. The same person who ahead of most of his peers in his understanding of the universe was the same person willing to consign his daughters at an early age to spending their lives behind four walls. He didn't seem to have any trouble with the juxtaposition of his freedom, wealth and comfort with his daughters' plight.

Francis of Assisi resisted mightily setting up rules for his monastery, though he was under enormous pressure to do so. He only gave in when he realized he was dying and that the church was going to do establish his order to look like the others in the church. However, he'd seen how a set of rules could hamper religious growth and become stumbling blocks after the first flush of religious fervor has faded. We see that in the convent of San Matteo, where women like Maria Celeste, placed there for the convenience of their relatives rather than religious purposes, adapted to a 400-year-old rule that was unfitted to people not called to an unusual level of sacrifice.

Is this the story the textbooks missed?

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