While looking at some pictures of nuns at Ponte a Seraglio’s exhibition celebrating women (now ended) I commented to the painter (and editor of Barga news – web site at http://www.barganews.com/) “they appear now to be an endangered species”. He replied “those were the last nuns in Barga; now there are none left.” I’m not sure whether he said this with regret or relief – perhaps a bit of both.
Nuns have regularly had a bad press. From the cruel system once in vogue in Italy of incarcerating superfluous daughters in convents and thereby obviating the need to pay yet another dowry, to the sexual orgies described by Diderot in his shocking book “La Religieuse” (The Nun), to the repressive disciplinary measures imposed by latter-day nuns in girls’ boarding schools, religious sisters have frequently been seen as cantankerous women whose suppressed fulfilment in a normal domestic family background has turned them into somewhat weird and not very likeable characters.
The truth may include some of these exaggerated examples but it is by no means the whole truth. In mediaeval times becoming a nun was practically the only way a woman could be independent of male domination, secure some form of education for herself and truly fulfil her sex’s artistic creativity and destiny.
A superb example of this liberated mediaeval nun is, of course, Hildegard of Bingen, whose wonderful music was issued in a best-selling LP in the days of vinyl called “a feather in the breath of God” and has never been out of stock.
From St Teresa of Avila to Mother Teresa of Calcutta, from St Catherine of Siena to Saint Clare of Assisi there have been amazing women who found complete fulfilment in their respective orders and became outstanding contributors to the life of their times and beyond.
While returning home through Popiglio high street the other week I was reminded of the great historical influence of nuns by espying two of them, accompanied by acolytes, walking home to their religious house from Popiglio’s magnificent Pieve. “So they still exist here”, I thought and actually felt glad that nuns had not entirely disappeared from our area.
In fact, among its celebrated names like Monsignor Giuseppe Pupili, born in Popiglio in 1540 who eventually was appointed Papal Nuncio in France by Pope Clement VIII, Monsignor Bruto Ferrandini, again from the sixteenth century, who was appointed Vicar of the Sacred college of Rome by Cardinal Bandini, Girolamo Magni, parish priest of Popiglio who has left us a detailed chronicle of the same century, and several other notable men, there is the outstanding figure of Suor Cecilia Tondinell (1903-1984) who entered the convent at Popiglio, became Mother Superior in 1953 at a very young age and, as a teacher, did much to raise standards in local schools, became an international representative of her order, was received by President Kennedy at the White House, did abundantly valuable missionary work in Bolivia and eventually returned to Popiglio where she died.
The Dominican convent stands in a modern building on Popiglio’s high street and is easily identified by its lettering on the façade: “Congregazione Suore Domenicane Ancelle Del Signore” (congregation of the Dominican nuns, handmaidens of the Lord).
There are, of course, two main types of conventual life: the active and the contemplative. With both orders it is possible as laypersons to join in their devotional practises and attend masses and mediations. One of the most magical moments since moving into this part of the world was to attend vespers with the Clarissan Nuns of San Micheletto. The order is now at San Quirico but originally, as its name implies, was situated in the building which the Fondazione Ragghianti arts centre now occupies within Lucca’s walls. This is a completely enclosed order and so I was only able to talk to the Mother Superior through a grill. I could still see that not only was she a youngish woman but also a very well informed one and we discussed many topics ranging from the rise of fundamentalism to that of secularism. I left with an amazing sense of calm and a feeling of true admiration for the order.
To find out times of services check out their web site at http://www.parrocchie.it/lucca/montesanquirico/Testi/Clarisse.pdf
In case anyone still persists in thinking that nuns will eventually disappear for ever, recent statistics in the UK show that the number of admission to convents has increased three-fold there in the past five years. So, in a world still haunted by male violence towards female, it may yet be the case that, for many women, they will find their fulfilment in the sequestered peace of the cloister in the same manner that their forebears have done for centuries before them.
I conclude with a Villanelle I wrote about an ancient convent in Wales which sums up my thoughts on the subject:
THE PRIORESS OF LLANLUGAN
In this green vale we work and pray and sing
sweet Virgin’s praise and saintly litanies
and join our hearts in Christ with faith’s pure ring
From winter’s grave arise fresh shoots of spring
and larks and doves return to fill blue skies
in this green vale. We work and pray and sing
bright hymns to sanctify the Lord our king
whose love unstops our ears and clears our eyes
and joins our hearts in Christ with faith’s pure ring.
Stone church is Sisters’ hearth from whence we fling
vain cares away, discard familial ties.
In this green vale we work and pray and sing
and have no thought but for His name, and swing
with joy the little bell that makes us rise
and joins our hearts in Christ with faith’s pure ring
The anguished twists of life and death’s sharp sting
dissolve before Creation’s vast surprise;
in this green vale we work and pray and sing
and join our hearts in Christ with faith’s pure ring.