Capuchin Poor Clare (1685-1767)
Florida, whose baptismal name was Lucrezia Elena, was born in Pisa on 11thNovember 1685. She received schooling and religious instruction at home, and in 1703, among the Capuchin Poor Clares at Tiferno she was elected as Novice Mistress by Saint Veronica Giuliani. In 1727 she was elected abbess, an office formerly held by St Veronica, and remained abbess for 25 years. She died on 12thJune 1767 and was beatiﬁed by Saint John Paul II on 16thMay 1993.
She will not succeed! was the dramatic prediction of Cosimo III when he learned of the intentions of Lucrezia Elena Cevoli. She was determined to dedicate herself completely to God. The Grand Duke was certain that the young woman from Pisa, daughter of Count Curzio and the Countess Laura della Seta would not know how to overcome the difficulties of a harsh and austere life like the one she wanted to adopt. She was too used to every kind of security. However, once she crossed the threshold of the Monastery of the Capuchin Poor Clares in Città di Castello, the youngster – born in Pisa on 11 November 1685, and not yet eighteen years old – would never turn back.
However, it is not as if the prediction of the Grand Duke would prove completely false! The encounter with the monastery was more difficult than anticipated. The nuns seemed like demons to her and the mistress, Veronica Giuliani, was more inclined not to receive her. She managed to overcome that first awful moment precisely because hers was an authentic vocation. This experience strengthened her will and gave her the constancy she would need to remain firm in her resolve. Above all she knew how to stand the test of humility and sincerely desired to do penance. Therefore she submitted herself to a rigorous ascetic. This urged her to seek further rigours for herself than those already reserved for the novitiate year. And those ordinary rigours were not a few! So many accounts have survived that give us a rather precise idea of the great difficulties novices had to face in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The discipline was very demanding. One risked being left at the door even for things that today seem to be of little importance. Among the virtues there was great emphasis on humility. To inculcate it in novices there was no hesitation to inflict upon them public humiliations. The fear of not being admitted to profession was quite strong in the young.
It is not always easy today to understand education principles so remote from ours. Other times, another method which even produced saints! Often with an enthusiastic fervour novices submitted to a life of discipline which today would be regarded as unbearable. Lucrezia is herself confirmation of this. At the end of her novitiate she asked to be able to extend it another year. This rigorous ascetical journey was not, however, and end in itself. In genuine persons it also worked as a kind of purifying fire. In burning away the dross it ignited souls in fervent prayer. Her thirst for contemplation never grew tepid in the noble Pisan, now known as Sister Florida. She had become a fervent exponent of the more rigorous Franciscan ideal.
Nevertheless she must not have distinguished herself for the heights of her contemplation as much, rather, than because she was a woman gifted with determination. She was a clever and skilful leader. That the nuns quickly recognised her extraordinary character is demonstrated by that fact that while she was still a “girl” they entrusted her with the very delicate office of ‘rotara’ (The sister responsible for the monastic wheel that allowed immediate contact with the world outside the enclosure. The monastic wheel is the vertical, twin compartment, rotating cylinder in the monastic wall near the front door and in the sacristy used for the exchange of things).This allowed her to know the concrete situation of the monastery. She soon realised that the convent certainly was not completely aligned with the spirit and will of Saint Clare. A ‘soft’ interpretation of the Rule often gave rise to not a few compromises.
“Sister Veronica was very good at prayer. Sister Florida had more spirit and more courage.” That was how one of the witnesses distinguished the particular abilities of the two nuns who would have given the face of the monastery a different complexion. Therefore in 1716, when Veronica was elected abbess, Florida was placed by her side as vicar, just at thirty one years of age. While the holy abbess fought her spiritual battle, reaching dizzying heights whose dreadful fascination she approached with trepidation, her vicar– with her abbess’ full agreement – took care if the daily life. She attended to the concrete concerns, the little and great difficulties of life, giving special care to the human relationships of the monastery.
Veronica remained abbess for eleven consecutive years, until her death in 1727. Sister Florida succeeded her and guided the monastery until 1736, continuing the work she had already begun. She did not use harsh impositions, but with a steady hand she undertook a gradual change of direction in community life, fortiter ac suaviter (with firmness but also gentleness). She was sure that the great ideals proposed by their holy founders would be realised by faithfulness in the matters of everyday life. She was not without opposition, as one would expect who, called to this task, showed herself to be herself opposed to compromising the essential. She knew how to overcome such difficulties with her unshakable determination that sustained her in realising her projects.
No doubt the courage and natural ease with which the abbess carried out the lowliest tasks and accepted the trying humiliations. After all, she had grown up in an aristocratic environment and it not unusual for her to received visits from women of high standing. A personality like hers, both firm and gentle at the same time, could not but impress the sisters who continually called upon her for tasks of responsibility. After the first nine years as abbess, she was novice mistress once, then alternated between abbess and vicar until her death. The monastery itself benefited from her prudent and practical leadership. In the monastery she also wanted to establish a spice garden for which she provided the necessary water supply. In short, she was a good Martha “with one hundred eyes and as many hands” but never forgot the aspirations of Mary.
She did not go without her own sufferings. By their very nature the offices she filled already provoked their own sufferings for her, as did a painful and annoying herpes. For twenty years she was afflicted by itching. She accepted this without becoming upset in such a way that the other nuns were not aware of her difficulties. Resolutely, even with her suffering, Florida did not want to wear special clothing. She preferred instead to face that daily martyrdom inflicted on her not like blows of scimitar, but – here we refer to the eloquent metaphor used also by Therese of Lisieux – she preferred to see them as pinpricks. The sisters used to day that she even would have refused the stigmata with which Christ wanted to sign her, for fear of falling into pride.
Able and practical she proved her intuition and intelligence in come initiatives regarding her former mistress, Veronica Giuliani. It was Florida who supported the introduction of the cause of Veronica’s beatification. It was also Florida who decided to erect of monastery in the Giuliani house in Mercatello.
In some of her letters regarding the monastery in Mercatello she demonstrated herself to be practical and single-minded woman. A practical woman: On 18 April 1754 she wrote to the canon Santi, who supervised the construction together with Signore Perini. “I recommend to you that what is not necessary of the old (building) not be demolished, because it seems to us that some of the walls can make use of the old walls, which would ensure less expense and an early finish to the work.”
A woman of character: On 11 February she wrote specifically about the canon himself. “With some insistence I recommended last Lent (that is the Lent or Forty Days of Advent) to him that he tell me some news from time to time about the building. However, the Lent has passed two months ago and I still haven’t seen a single line from the chaplain. What is going on? Are they dead or are they alive? Let them tell us something…”
At her death on 12 June 1767, after thirty seven days of “burning fever”, an examination of he body revealed unusual markings on the sides of her chest. A surgeon also removed her heart which appeared perfectly normal. Afterwards, however, some effects were seen on her aorta that incomprehensible as natural phenomena.
These details are part of the epilogue. They are another story written by the finger of God for another purpose: to indicate the extraordinary quality of an existence lived entirely within what was characteristically ordinary. However there is something else that makes Florida’s life more vivid for us. Immersed as we are in a deafening and chaotic day by day reality, bombarded by messages that are often contradictory, our Poor Clare reminds us of the greatness of weekday holiness, the value of consistent faithfulness and continuous prayer, the heroism of doing the ordinary things well, accepting those things that would weigh upon us and which repels our reason. Of course, the gospel has its reasons which the reason has not.
Translation based on the article by Felice Accrocca in Sulle orme dei Santi, 2000, p.133-144
From the Diary of St Veronica Giuliani, Virgin
The treasure of pure suffering
I will say a little ‐ almost nothing at all ‐ about the pain the soul feels when she thinks she has lost that precious treasure which is God. She anxiously longs to ﬁnd Him again and she cannot be calm, or at rest, or ﬁnd peace; she has the impression that she has gone mad, an indeed she is mad, mad with an unknown love. And yet, in such circumstances this love brings the soul great beneﬁt. What seems to happen is that God places the soul in the crucible, and casts her into the furnace, as happens with gold when it is puriﬁed. In this way a little by little, the soul sees the inner mist and darkness disperse, which used to overshadow everything an prevent her from working. Now, in the hands of the craftsman, she sees how he wishes to work on her and purify her entirely, so that this gold can be used to make gems and jewels after his own heart. Therefore the soul need do only what gold does in the hands of the craftsman: let itself be properly puriﬁed, in other words, in the furnace of divine love.
It is here that the soul is properly puriﬁed and advances in every virtue, here that she learns, but there are no words. Pure suffering alone is the model of her actions. This pure suffering cannot be explained in words. So great is its value and its power that a single grain sufﬁces, because in an instant the soul comes to know who God is and what she herself is. To speak about pure suffering may seem easy, but to me it seems very difﬁcult, and no‐one can practice it or understand the treasure hidden within it.
A morsel of pure suffering gives such strength that you could almost do crazy things. I don’t know how to explain it. This is the effect it has had on me and I think it is of more beneﬁt than any vision or ecstasy. If you are ill, you immediately get well again: if you are weak, your strength returns at once; if you are cold, you quickly feel warm again. In fact this pure suffering brings with it every remedy: it strengthens the soul, rejoices the heart, gives joy to the spirit, reduces humanity to fear, keeps the senses at bay, kills self‐love, banishes earthly things, and makes its power felt. Its silence is a trumpet blast, its activity shouts aloud, but its silence keeps one in peace; that silence is a sermon. Other creatures have no notion of it: only to God is it open and clear, or so it seems to me, if I have spoken out of turn, forgive me.
I have only spoken about pure suffering, and about the effects, it has produced in me. I will now explain how I have experienced this suffering. I don’t know if I will manage to make myself understood. What I think happens is this: in an instant, the soul feels completely stripped of everything, both in the spiritual and the temporal order. God makes her understand her abasement and powerlessness, at the same time enlightening her to see how precious she is, and how she must be enriched, in order to be united to her one supreme Good.
In that instant she sees herself being united to God, and then, without warning, is left without awareness of anything. She cannot tell whether she is in heaven or on earth. She sees herself deprived of everything, without even a supply of consolation to draw upon. She experiences such pain that I cannot describe it. This is what I call pure suffering, because here, strength is irrelevant, for it can do nothing; here there are no feelings, because everything seems to be outside ourselves; here, the senses have no place, for they have already failed. It is not a work produced by them, much less by any other creature. It is a simple glow arising from the soul alone, and that is why it can be called pure suffering.
the fountain of salvation,
you inflamed Blessed Florida with your love,
leading her along the path of self-denial and the cross
to the heights of gospel perfection.
May we experience the same love,
and so advance in wisdom and knowledge
of the mystery of the cross.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.