Letters to Father: Suor Maria Celeste to Galileo, 1623-1633 by Suor Maria Celeste – Susan’s Newsletter July 2008



Letters to Father: Suor Maria Celeste to Galileo, 1623-1633
Everyday life of Galileo’s daughter in a convent. (Death, time, peace)
July 10, 2008 Susan’s Newsletter

Good afternoon!  (I’m hoping I don’t have to even change that to good evening eventually – the way this day is going!) This is the first “Good afternoon from Susan” in over two years.  Ugh!  And I really did get started in my thinking process at 5:00 this morning – don’t know where the next 11 hours went!!!  When the large classics order came last week I tried to convince myself to not be intimidated by “the classics.”  I tell all of you not to be – yet I am the pot calling the kettle black.  Thinking that trying to understand one of the older books that have stood the “test of time” will take too much of my energy, or the wording and complexity of the writing will be too hard to get into if I’m interrupted during my reading.  But – determined to be your fearsome novice classic leader I brought two home. 

The book I have been reading this week is called Letters to Father: Suor Maria Celeste to Galileo, 1623-1633.  The book is made up entirely of Galileo’s daughter writing to her father as a nun in the city of Florence.  She had entered the convent when she was only 13, for there were over 4,000 nuns just in Florence.  Girls were either given in marriage if the parents had the money, or were placed in a convent.  This position was esteemed, for these girls and women were there for all the poor, sick, and to be those that spent their days praying for their families.  The time period of this book (beginning when she was approximately 22 years old) include 124 letters spanning a decade.  They include the Thirty Years’ War (Europe & Scandinavia) and the bubonic plague coming from Germany into Italy, affecting her family. 

I loved the letters because they were so detailed with the everyday life of hers.  She would ask him for what she was wanting in way of material, she would ask for money for a better little apartment, she would send him fruits and receive fruits from him – just the details…from so long ago…from a woman that devoted her life to helping others.  I am only half way done with the book, but here is what I’ve underlined for all of you so far…hoping that her prayers and advice to her father almost 400 years ago will help you in your life now. 

(on the death of her aunt, Galileo’s sister)…Thus, for the love of God, we pray you, Sire, to be consoled and to put yourself in His hands, for, as you know so well, that is what He wants of you; to do otherwise would be to injure yourself and hurt us, too, because we lament grievously when we hear that you are burdened and troubled…

(on the death of his close friend & glassblower from the bubonic plague epidemic)…I assume that you will use every possible precaution to protect yourself from the danger, and I fervently urge you to make great effort in this endeavor; I further believe that you possess remedies and preventatives proportionate to the present threat, wherefore I promise not to dwell on the subject.  But still with all due respect and filial confidence I will exhort you to procure the best remedy of all, which is the grace of blessed God, by means of a thorough contrition and penitence.  This, without doubt, is the most efficacious medicine, not only for the soul, but for the body as well: since, given that living happily is so crucial to the avoidance of contagious illness, what greater happiness could one secure in this life than the joy that comes of a clear and calm conscience? It is certain that when we possess this treasure we will fear neither danger nor death…

I find myself, for I am yearning to enter the other life, as every day I see more plainly the vanity and misery of this one; in death I would stop offending blessed God, and I would hope to be able to pray ever more effectively for you.

(on having too much to do in her waking hours)…I am writing at the seventh hour (about midnight)…the day does not contain one hour of time that is mine, since in addition to my other duties I have now been assigned to teach Gregorian chant to four young girls, and by Madonna’s orders I am responsible for the day-to-day conducting of the choir: which last creates considerable labor for me, with my poor grasp of the Latin language.  It is certainly true that these exercises are very much to my liking, if only I did not also have to work, yet from all this I do derive one very good thing, which is that I never ever sit idle for even one quarter of an hour.  Except that I require sufficient sleep to clear my head..  If you would teach me the secret you yourself employ, Sire, for getting by on so little sleep, I would be most grateful, because in the end the seven hours that I waste sleeping seem far too many to me.

(when she didn’t agree with a decision of her brother to flee the city because of the plague – this is kind of a funny line)…I let it go: I cling to the indubitable hope that blessed God will make up through His providence what men fail to do, if not for lack of feeling, then for want of intelligence and consideration.

(on tribulations in general)tribulations are the touchstone where we test the quality of God’s love.  Thus, to whatever extent we can patiently bear the trials He doles out, then in that same measure do we promise ourselves possession of the treasure of His love, which comprises our every good.  I beseech you…seeing and touching with your own hands the truth that neither the love of your children, nor pleasures, honors or riches can confer true contentment, being in themselves ephemeral; but that only in blessed God, as in our final destination, can we find real peace.  Oh what joy will then be ours, when, rending this fragile veil that impedes us, we revel in the glory of God face to face!  By all means let us struggle hard through these few days of life that we have left, so as to be deserving of a blessing so vast and everlasting.

(on her love for her father)Pardon me, Sire, if I annoy you excessively with my lengthy chatter, but, beyond your encouraging me through demonstrations of proof that you enjoy my letters, I consider you my devoto (to speak in our parlance of patron saints) in whom I confide my every thought, and share all my joys and sorrows; and, finding you always ready and willing to assist me, I ask you, not to fill all my needs, because they are too numerous, but to please see to those that are most pressing at present: for, with the chill weather coming on, I will surely grow numb with cold, unless you help by sending me a warm quilt…

(on our peace)This much I know, whatever happens to us, everything proceeds from the particular providence of the Lord, and for our best: and with this thought I calm myself.

Goodness, can you see why I love this little book? Who knows what else is in those classics that we must all try to take home and just read a few minutes a day of – treasures!!  Let’s not waste our 10 minutes a day when we could be reading by doing nonsense duties that don’t matter, that are just wasting time.  Just ten minutes a day – that is my goal for reading.  An hour a week.  And those ten minutes so often turn to half an hour.  And what did it hurt that all the dishes weren’t put away? My life may have been changed.  Here is one quote I also read today to get you through this week…Have a great week – thanks for letting me enter your story.  Susan

Once the mind has been stretched by a new idea, it will never again return to its original size.  Oliver W.  Holmes.

Latin for this week:
Optimis parentibus – To my excellent parents.  A common dedication in a book. 

Work Cited:
Galilei, Virginia, Suor Maria Celeste, and Dava Sobel.  Letters to Father : Suor Maria Celeste to Galileo 1623 to 1633.  New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.



Product Overview

Placed in a convent at the age of thirteen, Virginia Galilei, Galileo’s eldest daughter, wrote to her father continually. Now Dava Sobel has translated into English all 124 surviving letters that Virginia (renamed Suor Maria Celeste at the convent) wrote to Galileo. The letters span a dramatic decade that included the Thirty Years’ War, the bubonic plague, and the development of Galileo’s own universe-changing discoveries. Suor Maria Celeste’s letters touch on these events, but mostly they focus on details of everyday life that connect her and her father: descriptions of confections she sent to him; news of his estate, which she managed while he was on trial; a request for Galileo to fix the convent clock. Her prose reveals an exceptional woman and presents a memorable portrait of deep affection between a father and daughter.

From Publishers Weekly

Suor Maria Celeste’s story is well known to readers of Sobel’s bestselling Galileo’s Daughter. At 13, she boarded as a student at the Convent of San Matteo, near Florence, Italy; three years later she professed her vows. During her two decades with the Franciscan order known as the Poor Clares, Suor Maria Celeste and her sisters prayed constantly for the well-being of the world’s souls (among other things, asking God to rid Florence of the bubonic plague), and Suor Maria Celeste maintained a close correspondence with her father during those years (124 letters are offered here both in the original Italian and in translation). Suor Maria Celeste urged her “`Most Illustrious Lord Father'” to guard his health, encouraged his work, and asked him for favors, such as food and wine, and, one time, for funds that would allow her to purchase a private cell within the convent. In an early letter, she promised to write him daily, read his letters eagerly and think of him always. Once, she described the indiscreet behavior of some confessors “who fraternize” with several nuns. She reproved Galileo for not writing her often enough; in fact, none of his letters to her now exist. Suor Maria Celeste mentions Galileo’s heresy charge and imprisonment only once in these letters. However, while the letters are models of fervent filial devotion and shed some light on the daily life of a convent, they reveal little about the milieu in which they were written or their addressee. (Nov. Forecast: These letters may have been eagerly awaited by Sobel’s readers, but the book’s high price (the attractive design pads the book out with wide margins), may dissuade some buyers. Both Sobel and Walker will donate all profits from the book to the Poor Clares in Roswell, N.Mex.Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Collected and translated by the author of Galileo’s Daughter, this book offers 124 letters to Galileo from his older, illegitimate daughter Virginia (later Suor Maria Celeste), documenting her life from the time she entered the Convent of San Matteo in 1613 at the age of 13 with her sister Livia. The hardship of their living conditions with the Poor Clares and resultant poor health is obvious from the earliest letters and continues throughout but is accepted almost matter-of-factly. Occasionally, when conditions deteriorate too drastically or when a sick sister would benefit from something “special,” Maria Celeste would ask her father for assistance. The references to the plague that swept the area in the 1630s and her father’s trial for heresy are touched on gently and sometimes indirectly but certainly indicate that Maria Celeste knew what was happening in the “outside” world. Maria Celeste died in 1634, shortly after Galileo’s release, and the letters conclude before his return. Both the original Italian and English translation with annotations are included. The book will appeal to the general reader, particularly those who enjoyed Sobel’s previous book. Recommended. Hilary Burton, Lawrence Livermore National Lab., Livermore, CA
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Reading level: Ages 18 and up
  • Paperback: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics (December 31, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0142437158
  • Product Dimensions: 7.8 x 5 x 0.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5 ounces

Recommended in Susan’s July 10, 2008 Newsletter