by Sr. Hildegard Magdalen Pleva, OSsR, Esopus’05
for the occasion of the 250th anniversary of the death of Maria Celeste
“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread” is an admonition calling for wariness on the part of one who would dare to enter the holy of holies. Since most Redemptoristines and Redemptorists hold the images of the Venerable Maria Celeste and St. Alphonsus de Liguori close to their hearts and many have acquired a great deal of knowledge about them, it is with great trepidation that one dares to bring their own mortal feet to tread on sacred ground. This essay is offered as only another point of view coming from someone who has tried to get to know these people better both as historical figures and spiritual teachers. The effort has been to present a different style and method both of writing history and assessing personalities.
Much of what we do know about these figures, particularly Maria Celeste, remains to be synthesized in the manner of historical and biographical method of women’s studies. In addition, contextual historical information is yet to be integrated into a full treatment of her life. And finally, more female voices are called for in the discourse, especially the voices of women whose very lives and contemplative vocations bring first hand experiential understanding and rapport to the subject.
While my research spanned a number of months, writing did not begin until August 1st of this year, the feast of St. Alphonsus, an auspicious occasion. It was proper to invoke his blessing on the project. By virtue of his superior intellect combined with his deeply held faith, his spiritual depth and natural sensitivity of his nature as well as the intimacy of his relationship with Maria Celeste, he would fully endorse focusing a spotlight on the influence she brought into his life. He would also affirm the legacy she entrusted to him and the Redemptorist Congregation.
Alphonsus would therefore also be undoubtedly pleased by the tremendous work done by his sons to bring this mystic’s story into the light. The effort of any Redemptoristine to bring additional insight and reflection to the subject is built upon the work of Redemptorists who have demonstrated by their dedication and their achievements a great love for Maria Celeste.
It does not seem necessary here to provide the details of stories which members of our double institute know so well; the story of Alphonsus’ transformation from civil and canon lawyer to priest, nor the story of Maria Celeste’s Carmelite and Visitandine lives and her extraordinary mystical experiences. Nor do we have to revisit the revelation of a new institute in which the living memory of the Man-God and the Paschal Mystery would be made manifest in the life of each member, in relationships within communities and, eventually, in the bonds between monasteries and mission of an international order and congregation.
Rather than offering a recapitulation of those facts my goals are first, to add some additional historical background; second, by means of reading between the lines of the facts in the record to discover connections and form a hypothesis concerning the relationship of these two figures; and third, to engage, if you will, in some psychological interpretation which is the field we must enter when we discuss the influence of one person upon another. The big life – long in years and accomplishments – of Alphonsus de Liguori would easily translate into technicolor and cinemascope on the wide screen. For this epic, his brief relationship with Maria Celeste Crostarosa might, at the hands of a Hollywood film editor, end up as ribbons of celluloid out takes tossed onto the cutting room floor. But we would know better. However brief; however constrained by unfortunate circumstance and misunderstanding; however overshadowed by those seeking to impose authority; their lives were forever changed by their meeting, perhaps his life even more than hers.
Celeste and Alphonsus met in early September of 1730. Each was approaching a 34th birthday which places them well into mature mid-life given the average life expectancy of the time, around 50 to 55 years. Each had grown up in Naples amid the tumultuous political upheaval of the period. Their meeting preceded by three years the transfer of rule by Austrian regency for over 200 years to autonomous statehood as a kingdom ruled by Bourbon monarchy (1734-1759). Neapolitan life and society was permeated by things religious and nominally Catholic. One commentator wrote in 1719, “Every quarter, every square, every corner, either is a church or belongs to the Church.” (Hills, 22) Exact figures are hard to come by but it can be estimated that the population of Naples was about 250,000. Fr. Giuseppe Orlandi reports in the first chapter of The History of the Congregation that diocesan priests were about 1% of the population. (Orlandi, 80) This figure does not include members of numerous orders and confraternities. As for nuns, in comparing figures from the 17th century and the late 18th century it can be concluded that there were easily over 10,000 religious living in Naples. Many of the female religious houses were very large; hundreds in one monastery was not unusual. Some of them were very rich. Female monastic institutions were influential in political matters because of the family ties of their members who were daughters of nobility and also movers and shakers in the arts by virtue of their patronage, free interaction with affluent lay men and women, and by invitations to their elaborate salons and musicales. They even brought pressure to bear on the real estate situation. The Italian historian Gianone wrote:
What has happened is that the religious houses, even when
their origins were quite modest, may then come to occupy an entire
district from one end to the other, until it reaches the edge of the built-up area; and as it is difficult to find in Naples a street without a monastery
in it, if nothing is done about such a grave and ruinous abuse, in this way the regulars will be in the long run able to buy up the entire city.
Yet, steeped as they were in this religious milieu, both Alphonsus and Celeste were drawn physically and spiritually into the hill country or to a smaller town, a place apart, a more simple life.
Their experiences of culture and society were largely defined by gender; his background was that of the urbane, professionally astute, aesthetically aware, cosmopolitan Neapolitan man; hers more localized to home and its immediate vicinity, limited to family and close friends and lacking in broad education. However, it is entirely possible that this Crostarosa daughter, like many women of her period and earlier, benefited in a second hand way from the educational program provided to her brothers at home before they were enrolled in formal education. Therefore learning to read and acquiring knowledge on a variety of subjects was not unusual for women of Maria Celeste’s social class. The later addition of writing skills was also commonplace.
Although both came from what we loosely call the middle class, his level being a lower echelon of nobility, each may have carried in their own lives the physical effects of a locale and period in which disease and malnutrition were rampant. Bubonic plague had last come to Naples in 1656 and took as victim almost 50% of the population. Periods of agricultural famine were frequent. The record of a famine in 1764 gives testimony to the reality of starvation in the region of the Mezzogiorno, southern Italy, through the 18th and into the 19th century. Indeed, agricultural failures motivated, at least in part, the huge emigration from the Mezzogiorno – 4 to 5 million – in the 19th century. The area was prone to epidemics of various diseases and one such epidemic devastated Naples in 1729. It was in treating the victims of this epidemic that Alphonsus so wore himself out that in 1730 he required a period of rest in the hill country. Even the well-off could not be fully insulated from their environment. When Celeste and Alphonsus met in 1730 each could recount episodes of illness, periods of being bed ridden, and physical depletion that may have contributed to their understanding of a providential God and need for the virtue of surrender to the will of God.
Their stories reveal that in spite of exposure to popular culture common within their families and assumed for their station in life, each rejected the usual societal expectation: for Alphonsus it was the fast track of the legal system for prominence as the oldest son; for Celeste it was the financially advantageous marriage which would expand the familial network and provide a secure place for her within the cult of domesticity for women of the middle class.
Both of them had been tested by repercussions which came on the heels of following the inspiration of the Spirit as they understood it. Alphonsus withstood being abandoned by his stern and demanding father as he followed the call to priesthood and was plagued by such scrupulosity that he questioned his motives in almost every action. Although a person of education, experience, and priestly call he seems to have been inwardly exceedingly insecure.
On the other hand, where Maria Celeste may have lacked the formal education and urbanity of an upper class Neapolitan male, the story she tells about herself indicates a degree of self-possession and decisiveness which may have been nurtured in a more relaxed household; one certainly headed by a father who was amenable to entertaining the personal desires of his daughters. She had made important decisions; the decision to enter the convent (initially without the express permission of her father); to move to a second religious community of her own choosing (although in accord with the urging of Tomaso Falcoia); allowed herself to trust the inspiration of mystical experiences and follow their lead; but also to put that inspiration aside when it proved prudent to do so.
Finally, each of them had been captured by God in a very profound way. For them, a relationship with God was as natural and as frequently expressed as sipping water from a handcrafted wooden dipper. However, Alphonsus bore the burden of the oldest son. Raised to be a credit to his family name and to be responsible and obedient in all things, he, therefore, had a mind full of ‘shoulds’: “What should I be doing for my demanding God?” In comparison, Celeste was a daughter who may have been treasured for the sparkle in her eyes and the spirit in her soul. Concerning her move from Marigliano to the monastery of Scala she tell us that her father, “after much discussion…consented so as not to displease me.” (2Crostarosa, 40). Celeste seems to be more sure of God’s love and God’s will and asking only to be shown how to accomplish that will within the structures to which she was bound.
Having set these two figures within the context of their historical period and personal experience we can begin to consider the fine points of their brief period of intense encounter and the quality of their lifelong relationship. Webster’s 7th Collegiate Dictionary defines the verb influence as “to modify or affect in some way; to act upon; to bias; to sway; as the moon influences the tides.” It is especially pertinent here to consider the original meaning of the noun form which is “the supposed flowing of an ethereal fluid or power from the stars, thought to affect the character and actions of people.” Celeste had indeed been influenced by the ethereal, the Star of stars, and in turn, out of her own transformation she brought influence to bear on Alphonsus de Liguori.
Father Tomaso Falcoia was a founder and guide of the monastery in Scala. Maria Celeste and her sisters entered this monastery after leaving the Carmelite tradition of Marigliano. Falcoia, who caused Maria Celeste’s greatest difficulties, was also the instrument by which significant associations were introduced into her life. The first, Alphonsus, was to be, at least for a while, an affirming soul friend. The other, the ‘pious gentleman’ Silvestro Tosquez, would prove to be attractive and helpful but nonetheless an unfortunate complication for both Maria Celeste and Alphonsus.
St. Alphonsus’ most recent biographer, Father Frederick Jones, informs us that by 1726, a year after Celeste’s revelation concerning the Rule for a new institute, “Naples was buzzing with stories about the convent at Scala where Falcoia in particular was becoming the object of ridicule for allowing himself to be deceived by the so-called revelations of a neurotic visionary.” (Jones, 82) We might wonder how the inspirations of an ordinary nun in a remote town would become the subject of big city gossip. It is difficult for us living in a governmental system supported by the principle of separation between Church and State, to imagine the constant and penetrating interplay between things religious, social and political in 18th century Italy. Celeste’s monastery was only 100 yards, if you take Rey-Mermet’s word, or 200 yards if you take Jones’ word, from the Cathedral of Scala. Neapolitan clerics, of which there were many, provided services to both the Cathedral and the monastery. Alphonsus was to do just that in the fateful September of 1730. All conversations, not to mention gossip concerning goings and comings of personages, became grist for the Neapolitan rumor mill. Maria Celeste herself blamed Maurizio Filangeri, Falcoia’s superior as Father General of the Pious Workers, co-founder with him of the Scala monastery and, technically its superior, for spreading news of her “delusion” all over Naples. (2Crostarosa, 78) While Falcoia had no desire to seem a gullible fool, it was possible that implementation of Maria Celeste’s Rule would be an ideal fit for his plans concerning the monastery. By 1729 Alphonsus had added Falcoia to his long string of advisers and in turn Falcoia confided to Alphonsus his plans for the monastery and his inner conflict regarding Celeste. Undoubtedly aware of the gossip which was circulating concerning a deluded nun in Scala, Alphonsus was not well disposed to Celeste’s case. Jones reports:
Alphonsus’ immediate reaction was one of skepticism; at no time
in his life was he easily impressed by so-called revelations and visions, particularly those which carried with them instructions for future action. Writings and acceptance of a new Rule fell into this category. When he
wrote about visions and revelations some years later in his treatise on the direction of souls, he expressed severe reservations about such divine communications. At most he was prepared to concede that nothing should
be done just on the word of the visionary, ”The safest course for the director,”
he wrote, “is not to attach any great importance to them since there are more
false visions than true ones.” (Jones, 84)
Alphonsus preached in Scala in June of 1730 and probably visited the monastery at that time. The sisters had heard good things about him and invited him to give them a retreat during the Novena in preparation for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross in September. Falcoia prevailed upon him to use this retreat as an opportunity to investigate the case of Maria Celeste and her Rule. Immediately upon his arrival in Scala on September 5th, he went to the monastery and began in very lawyerly fashion to question the sisters. Jones writes:
Despite his initial prejudice he gradually became convinced of
the authenticity of Maria Celeste’s experiences and that her insights were
from the Lord…In the course of his retreat which he based appropriately
enough on the master idea of the new Rule, the imitation of Jesus Christ,
his attitude to the revelations began to change. His skepticism gave way
to acceptance…To complete his task he addressed a special conference to
those sisters who up to that time had opposed the introduction of the new
Rule, burdening their conscience with the responsibility of impeding the
Glory of God. (Jones,85)
The testimonies of the sisters in the confessional and the frank openness of Maria Celeste were evidently impressive. By the end of those nine days he was a staunch supporter of the new Rule. Celeste reported in her Autobiography perhaps a bit over enthusiastically, “Don Alfonso was so carried away by holy joy and an ardent zeal for the glory of God that he could not conceal it.” (2Crostarosa, 79) Nonetheless, the quick about-face of the worldly wise and ill-disposed Alphonsus de Liguori can be puzzling.
Here, for the sake of argument, a move into the realm of interpretation and conjecture is called for. Fr. Jones took pains early in his biography to explain Alphonsus’ vacillating behavior and the plague of excessive scrupulosity that followed him throughout his life. Alphonsus was a trial to his spiritual director, Fr. Pagano, questioning at every turn his worthiness to say mass or hear confessions. He even hesitated about normal every day activities. Therapy prescribed by Pagano was absolute obedience to his spiritual director and a limit on the time devoted to prayer. Falcoia became Alphonsus’ director in August of 1732. For the eleven years of that relationship he endeavored to convert Alphonsus’ image of a threatening God who engendered excessive fear of sin and punishment to an image that developed love and hope. (Jones, 73) Eventually the love of God which casts out all fear was to become a dominant theme in Alphonsus’ preaching and in his writings (directed to no one more than to himself), and was best expressed in his devotional masterpiece, The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ. (Jones, 73)
In addition, Alphonsus already had a well-established pattern of seeking, often to excess, advice from men of judgment and spiritual depth. While he did not seek out Maria Celeste in this way, he, nonetheless, recognized the genuine article when he saw it. In contrast to his perennial insecurity, vacillation and self-questioning, Maria Celeste presented her experience in a posture of certainty. This is evident in the written description of her mystical experiences which she produced for Alphonsus at his request. She demonstrated trust in what had been revealed to her by Jesus Christ who related to her so intimately as to transform her very being into His. In her Autobiography she described her experiences of divine affirmation as early as the period of 1718-19 in Marigliano:
About this time the Lord took my great exterior incapacity
away from me, and He enlightened my mind in giving me very
efficacious knowledge concerning the truths of Faith, and in drawing
me altogether to Himself. He showed me how He lived and how He
was the life of the soul.
During a most intimate union of Love, my Jesus created in
my soul by His Divine Grace a sweet resemblance to Eternal life, and
then made me understand those words written in the Holy Gospel
where he says, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes
to the Father except through me.”(2Crostarosa, 37-38)
Experiences of this type created the firm foundation or platform from which she processed both the revelations of 1725 regarding the new institute and the turmoil that followed. She was pragmatic about the reality of opposition but never abandoned what she firmly believed was inspired of God. This type of certitude rooted in spiritual intimacy and interior freedom may very well have been irresistible to Alphonsus by its very juxtaposition to his way of being; a prince of vacillation and self-recrimination.
Maria Celeste was forced to seek human advice and approbation by virtue of societal standards governing her as a woman and Church law governing her as a religious. In spite of the greater exterior freedom he enjoyed in society as a man and as a cleric, Alphonsus’ lack of interior freedom and deep insecurity pushed him into consultation after consultation.
As for the depth of spirituality Alphonsus found in Maria Celeste, John of the Cross offers some insight. In his commentary on The Spiritual Canticle, Stanza17, numbers 6 and 7, we find a suggestion of what Alphonsus may well have experienced in her.
God sometimes grants these favors to the soul, his bride. With
his Spirit he breathes through her flowering garden, opens all these buds
of virtues, and uncovers these aromatic spices of gifts, perfections, and
riches; and, disclosing this interior treasure and wealth, he reveals all
Sometimes the fragrance is so abundant that it seems to the
soul she is clothed with delight and bathed in inestimable glory to
such an extent that the experience is not only within her but overflows
and becomes manifest outside her, and those capable of recognizing
it are aware of her experience. It seems to them that she is a pleasant
garden…And not only when these flowers are open can you see this
in these holy souls, but they ordinarily bear in themselves an “I-don’t-
know-what” of greatness and dignity. This causes awe and respect in
others because of the supernatural effect diffused in such persons from
their close and familiar conversation with God. (John of the Cross, 544)
What other factors may we assume were at play here? Alphonsus was drawn away from the practice of law because of the politics and hypocrisy of the system. His standards were high and at this time in his life he clung to a particularly rigid attitude in matters of personal morality. He was also a priest serving the ultimate judge. Furthermore, rather than being lured to the high social life of a good number of Neapolitan clergy and religious, a way of life he later publicly disparaged, he sought the company of the poor and the work of ministering to them. His response to Maria Celeste may have been yet another counter cultural response. She too had rejected the lure of city in preference for a smaller town, a simpler life; a movement to greater truth and freedom.
In short, Maria Celeste’s spiritual posture of faith and simplicity; her evident depth of relationship with the one she called Beloved Spouse; her certitude and dogged perseverance in the face of opposition and cruel trials while being careful to remain obedient to superiors; and, even then, an evident sense of freedom – all of this must have been irresistible to the man who was Alphonsus de Liguori in 1730.
Many have carefully read the extant letters which these two exchanged. He saved most of her letters and it is plain that the degree of intimacy expressed in them (addressing her only by the name of Celeste, for example) is unparalleled in other correspondence. He also kept her written account of what had been communicated to her by God in his notebook, his Cose Coscienza or Matters of Conscience, which we would call a spiritual journal. Goethe said, “As soon as you trust yourself you will know how to live.” Alphonsus may have been drawn as by a magnet to a person who had long since made that discovery by the light of the Holy Spirit and in the love of her Spouse. For her part, Celeste would refer to Alphonsus as “a true father” who interceded at a crucial time and with crucial people to end opposition to her proposed Rule.
History offers precedent for the character of the relationship between Maria Celeste and Alphonsus. Historian Jodie Bilinkoff in her work, Confessors, Penitents, and the Construction of Identities in Early Modern Avila, explains:
Male confessors were strongly attracted to the idea of directing
spiritually advanced women, and, in turn, became deeply influenced by
them, identified with them, and even became dependent upon them.
Building on Bilinkoff’s assertion, Patricia Ranft, author of a history of women spiritual directors, adds:
Their relationship was an occasion for their own growth,
spiritually, socially, and psychologically. Many underwent radical
personal transformation as a result of their association with holy women,
learning much from their intense spiritual experiences… (Ranft, 124)
The stretch of time from their life-changing meeting in September of 1730 to Celeste’s expulsion from the Scala monastery in May of 1733 was from start to finish an emotional and spiritual roller coaster for both of them. Once again I will avoid a detailed account of well-known facts. In spite of the wrangling back and forth between Celeste and Falcoia occurring simultaneous to a solicitous exchange of letters between Celeste and Alphonsus (one wonders at the frequency and speed of delivery which may also account in part for the informed Neapolitan rumor mill) events came to a culmination on May 13, 1731. The Feast of Pentecost was the foundation day of the new Institute, followed by the sisters clothing in the first Redemptoristine habits on the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, 1731. Celeste confided to Alphonsus in July of that year about her conflicts with Falcoia over the Rule even to providing him with a letter from now Bishop Falcoia which she found distasteful saying, “I have great need to speak with you in order to free myself from great difficulties.”(3Crostarosa, July 1731). What a triangle!
During this period Alphonsus also confided in the sisters about his concern for the abandoned in the hills above Naples.The meeting of Alphonsus and Celeste in September of 1730 took place only a few months after a landmark experience in his life. Worn down by his service to victims of the epidemic in 1729, Alphonsus, with a few companions, ended up spending time away from the crush of Naples in the hill town of Santa Maria dei Monti during June of 1730. While enjoying the pure air and shelter of a hermitage, his heart and spirit were moved with pity for the simple and sorely neglected people he found there.
For Alphonsus the whole experience was a frightening revelation
of the ignorance and spiritual abandonment in which souls within a few
days journey of Naples were living; no group of missionaries came here
to preach or instruct these people while within a few hours distance there
were over fifty priests in Scala and twice that number in Amalfi. (Jones, 76)
This is the event around which a swirl of disagreement regarding interpretation seems to endlessly revolve. One orbit of argument lead by Fr. Theodule Rey-Mermet declares “…by June, 1730 [his time in Santa Maria dei Monti], Alphonsus already had the idea of a new institute as an urgent necessity of the Church and even possibly as a personal duty.” (2Rey-Mermet, 216) This belief continues to be held by a considerable number of Redemptorists. On the other hand, there is the orbit of argument promoted by Fathers Frederick Jones and Emilio Lage among others. Fr. Jones wrote in 1992:
Alphonsus de Liguori was far from casting himself in the heroic
role of a religious founder; the initiative in what he undertook came
mainly from others. He was in the depths of spiritual darkness, tortured
by scruples, unsure of his future, hesitant and indecisive when he found
himself playing a key role in the establishment of a new missionary
society…Every reputable spiritual counselor in Naples must have known
about his search since he discussed it with the Dominicans, Jesuits,
Franciscans, Vincentians, as well as bishops, and his own priest friends.
Fr. Jones writes here of the general reluctance with which the founders of religious institutes approach the enterprise. Yet, to this he adds a telling comment in the footnotes:
Perhaps in this we do less than justice to the Foundresses
of Orders of Sisters. Women have shown less reluctance to assume
the burden of establishing religious families; they are possessed of
a finer sense of purpose than their male counterparts. (Jones, 501)
To this line of persuasion we can also add Fr. Louis Vereecke, CSsR who offers a quote from Fr. Antonio Maria Tannoia, CSsR (1727-1802) who published his three volume biography of Alphonsus in the years 1798-1802. Tannoia, who entered the Congregation in 1746, was at Alphonsus’ side when he died in Pagani in 1787. The record of his extensive research and primary source interviews remain in the Redemptorist archives. We can safely assume that he had every motivation to fully credit Alphonsus for the inspiration to found a new institute. Yet he concludes a report of the Santa Maria dei Monti experience with these less than decisive words:
He [Alphonsus] begged the Lord to raise up among the sons of
Abraham someone who would take in hand the lot of these unfortunates.
We know that Alphonsus freely confided in the sisters regarding his concern for the poor and spiritually abandoned in the countryside. Judging from the tenor of the letters exchanged we may be certain that this matter was also the subject of deep conversation between Alphonsus and Celeste. She repeatedly encouraged him with accounts of her own mystical intuitions. He carefully noted on the outside of each letter that Celeste, by that name alone, was the sender. In a letter of late September or early October of 1731 she reported to Alphonsus these words of Jesus:
You will receive many graces from me through this soul and
he will receive many signs of my mercy through you. The special
sign by which my servant will know that I love him is that I will bless
all the souls under his care with great increase in grace and salvation;
those who listen to his words will receive abundant eternal blessings.
This will be the clearest sign of my love…I have given him the
greatest gifts of my pure love…which will lead to the supreme end
of union with me. (2Rey-Mermet, 237)
Touched and supported by these words and others from Celeste, Alphonsus recorded the following in his Cose Coscienza:
Jesus loves me, and he tells me this so I may be more prayerful…
The Virgin loves me among her most beloved son. God has entrusted
me to her so that she may accompany me in the conversion of souls…
The demon curses both the hour in which I gave myself to God and all
that I have done for this convent… Jesus, on the contrary, has blessed
it all… She saw my name written in the heart of Jesus…She recognized
me among the sons of Mary…Celeste, may we always be united in the
grace of God… (2Rey-Mermet, 237)
Now we come to the exact inspiration which has attained mythical proportions. On October 3, 1731, the eve of the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, Maria Celeste was gifted with a mystical experience in which both Jesus and the St. Francis appeared along with Alphonsus. Referring to Alponsus, Jesus said: “This soul has been chosen as head of this institute of men. He will be the first superior of the new congregation of men.” In her Autobiography Celeste goes on to report that on the next day she was graced to receive further details of the Rule for the men beyond her Rule which was to be the basis of the enterprise and was informed that their motto should be, “Go and preach to all creatures that the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (2Crostarosa, 83)
What was Alphonsus’ reaction to this revelation? He heard a very partial version of the news from Falcoia who had been informed by Celeste. In spite of his disparaging remarks to Maria Celeste about her proclivity for private revelation, it was not beneath Falcoia to use the influence she seemed to have with Alphonsus to further his own long-standing desire to be the guiding force in yet another new institute. He had begun to look upon Alphonsus, as the likely head of such an endeavor. While being some what circumspect, Falcoia now encouraged Alphonsus to see Celeste. Upon the close of a mission in Naples he and Fathers Mazzini and Mannarini went to Scala. Alphonsus met with Celeste in the confessional of the sisters’ public chapel. Jones writes:
…His objections were innumerable but were all waved aside;
the discussion became animated and the sound of voices raised in
argument carried out to the body of the church where Mazzini was
praying and waiting for his companion…Over sixty years later Mazzini
recalled the conversation at the process of beatification…Alphonsus’
reactions to the revelations of Celeste and to the proposals of Falcoia
which apparently suggest immediate action were totally predictable;
he would have to submit the whole matter to the decision of his spiritual
director, Father Pagano. (Jones, 93)
For her part Maria Celeste wrote in her Autobiogrpahy: “While listening he was immediately filled with joy that inflamed his heart.” (2Crostarosa, 84) We need not be shocked at the seeming contradiction here. The historical context and social conventions of the time, regarding what was proper for women, must be kept in mind. Just as Celeste’s references to herself in the third person and her disparagement of herself in the Autobiography were required contrivances within the culture, it would likewise not have been acceptable for her to avert to emotional equivocation on the part of any man especially her spiritual superior and someone she considered a friend. Her Autobiography was written years later as a public document but her letters of the period were private and reveal in very obvious contrast, frankness and intimacy in communication.
Once again we arrive at a juncture where time does not allow us to get bogged down in a repetition of familiar facts. As was typical of Alphonsus, in his anguish and his inability, unlike Celeste, to trust intuitions and spiritual inspirations he sought the advice of many. But once decided and often in strict obedience to his director he proceeded in a pragmatic manner. In this case he sought among others the counsel of a holy Dominican, Ludovico Fiorillo who confirmed the inspiration for a new congregation dedicated to serving the poor and most abandoned. Yet it was not to reach fruition until November 9, 1732 when Alphonsus assembled in the guest house of the Scala monastery a small band of confreres committed to the effort.
At the very least, Celeste’s revelation and influence pushed Alphonsus over the edge. It was not an instant discernment. Many obstacles, of which he was only too well aware, had to be overcome. An added push may have been provided by Jesus’ directive that Celeste’s Rule was be used by the men in the double institute. It provided a spirituality, direction and framework which grounded their endeavor to serve the poor and the most abandoned.
Only three weeks later Alphonsus recorded in Cose Coscienza, his spiritual journal, his well known vow of the founder expressing his total commitment to the Institute above all.
Today, November 28, 1732, I made a vow not to leave the
Institute unless Falcoia or his successor as my director commands me
to… Not in regard to the Rule: it is up to me to establish or to change
the Rule. It is up to me to interpret it or to set other conditions according
to my judgement. And moreover I vow never to doubt my vocation as
I stated above. (2Rey-Mermet, 151)
These events coincided with an ongoing dispute between Celeste and Falcoia in regard to the composition of the Rule for the Order of women. The original revelation was Celeste’s. What she wrote was inspired of God and she believed that what was communicated to her by Jesus was not to be altered or expanded. Falcoia believed that as founder of the monastery, as Celeste’s spiritual director, and as a bishop he had the right to edit what was merely the inspiration of a nun unskilled in framing binding documents for religious. The cauldron became even more heated with the addition of Celeste’s revelation regarding the Congregation and the directive to apply her Rule also to the men. Fr. Joseph Oppitz offers an excellent summary of these events.
The next two years [from foundation in 1731 to her expulsion in
1733] were an absolute hell for Maria Celeste…Falcoia insisted on changing
her original Rule, leaving out what she considered several essential sections,
such as…The Intent of the Father, as well as, The Idea of the Institute. He
added to her nine monthly virtues…the three theological virtues, making twelve
monthly virtues…His understanding of the virtues of the Rule was much more
externalistic and formalistic than her own. Finally, he had the male nerve to
tamper with the religious habit. It is clear that his over all purpose was to
harmonize the new Rule of Crostarosa with his own beloved version of the
Visitation Rule, given to the nuns back in 1720…Naturally she reacted quite
strongly when she felt that Falcoia was emasculating her spiritual project. (Oppitz, 38)
Other personalities intruded themselves. Dissident sisters in the monastery championed their own causes and jealousies. The most unfortunate human tangle added to the knotty situation was Silvestro Tosques, Celeste’s “pious gentleman.” Jones tells us of Tosquez’ dramatic spiritual vitae which he played to the hilt while inserting himself into the Redemptorist project. He so ingratiated himself that Falcoia sent him to meet the sisters in Scala. Thus Falcoia himself was the agent by which through which Celeste met bothAlphonsus and Tosquez met Celeste. Tosquez became an unfortunate instigator in Celeste’s wrangle with the Bishop and a bone of contention in her friendship with Alphonsus. Tosquez may have rescued and returned Celeste’s first copy of the Rule, but in almost every other regard his was an unfortunate influence.
In his famous letters to Celeste of March 1733, Alphonsus criticized her lack of humilty; her refusal to accede to Falcoia in complete obedience to him as her spiritual director; for allowing Tosquez such great influence over her; and for laboring under “terrible hallucinations”. At the end he questioned the nature of her affection for Tosquez suggesting that it might be a sinful attachment. Rather than reply to Alphonsus directly, Celeste wrote in April to her confessor Pietro Romano explaining her position. Then on the advice of Falcoia, her superior issued an ultimatum with three conditions: 1. to end all correspondence with Tosquez; 2. to sign with her own hand Falcoia’s version of the Rule; and 3. to bind herself by vow for life to the spiritual direction of Tomaso Falcoia. According to her own judgement and the advice of her brother, a Jesuit priest who had been sent by her concerned father, Maria Celeste declared that she would agree to the first two conditions but rejected the third because she was “restrained by serious motives and scruples of conscience” which would “never oblige her to such a vow.” (1Crostarosa, 261 #17). On May 25, 1733 Maria Celeste was expelled from the Scala community.
Eight months later, when Giovanni Mazzini, a new candidate for his congregation was encountering objections to changing his spiritual director, Alphonsus defended Mazzini’s right to make such a change by citing St. Teresa of Avila’s frequent movement from one director to another among additional arguments which he presented in a long dissertation. Rey-Mermet himself asks why this line of logic had not applied to Maria Celeste. (2Rey-Mermet, 302)
Alphonsus made the choice to vow obedience to his director, maintaining a human relationship, something highly valued in Italian society. Spiritually and psychologically he needed this connection. He also felt that this was the position from which he could assure the survival of the Congregation in the midst of myriad challenges. Once pushed over the edge by Celeste, once infected by her vision and certitude, once reassured through her of God’s love and intention for him, his commitment was irrevocable.
Celeste, as she had been in the past when necessary, was willing to put even the directives of Jesus aside; to live her contemplative life according to a Rule that did not conform to the original inspiration; to accept everything with the very humility she was accused of lacking and to obey her superiors in all things. But she would not surrender her interior freedom which is what remaining under Falcoia’s direction would require.
We know of how she left the monastery that day with hardly any clothes on her back and of how she spent the next five years applying her religious intuition and her ability to inspire others in needy and more grateful circumstances. In 1738 she was finally able to establish a permanent community in Foggia according to the inspired Rule.
Some would say that with the founding of the Congregation of the Holy Redeemer, any influence Celeste may have had on Alphonsus and the Redemptorists ended. Evidence proves otherwise. With regard to the Redemptorist Rule, Celeste’s original inspiration remained very evident in the Regole Grande (1732-1743) and in the Conza Text, the first text of the Rule approved by the General Congregation in 1747. From this last document comes what is referred to today as the Primitive Rule of the Redemptorists. The texts changed over time but few would argue the absolute grounding provided by Celeste’s revealed Rule in the early days nor the valued inheritance it continues to be for modern Redemptorists.
It is the opinion of some that the personal relationship between Alphonsus and Celeste ended irrevocably and permanently in the spring of 1733. Here evidence has also proved otherwise. Fr. Emilio Lage presents considerable evidence of continuing friendship and mutual respect.
April, 1735 – Alphonsus asked Falcoia’s permission to see Celeste
but was refused.
December, 1736 – Alphonsus saw Celeste in Roccapiemonte.
January, 1747 – Alphonsus showed his confidence in Celeste by
recommending her as a go-between to assure the passage of a document from another monastery in Foggia communicating with the Holy See.
December, 1747 – Alphonsus spoke with Maria Celeste in Foggia
during a mission in the city.
Fr. Lage concludes, “Still more indicative of the esteem in which he held Mother Maria Celeste is his permission given to [Redemptorist Brother] Gerard Majella to visit her frequently at Foggia, to have spiritual talks with her and to exchange letters.” (1Lage, 30) Fr. Ignaz Dekkers adds that according to Celeste’s Autobiography, Alphonsus sent one of his priests to Foggia to seek out charitable support for Celeste’s monastery and that many Redemptorist missionaries visited the holy prioress whenever their pastoral work brought them into the province of Puglia. Alphonsus himself may have visited in 1745 when he preached missions in four parishes of Foggia with fifteen confreres. Celeste also records receiving copies of the songs Alphonsus composed. (Dekkers, 22) Indeed, Maria Celeste’s very arrival in Foggia may have been guided, at least in part, by the influence of Alphonsus. In 1991, an archivist of Foggia, Maria Nardella, postulated that since since Celeste came to Foggia at the invitation of Guiseppi Tortora in whom Alphonsus’ uncle, Monsignor Cavalieri, had placed confidence and trust, Alphonsus himself might have had a hand in the matter.
Maria Celeste Crostarosa has not gone unnoticed outside of the circle of the double institute of Redemptoristines and Redemptorists. To the book Women and Faith – Catholic Religious Life in Italy from Late Antiquity to the Present, Marilena Modica Vasta has contributed an essay on mystical writing which presents Maria Celeste’s work as the prototype for this genre. Vasta wrote:
As intuitively understood by Alphonsus Liguori, Crostarosa’s
autonomy was not born merely of the intensity of her spiritual life, nor
from mystic and penitential fervor, but from a capacity for reflection
with which writing under the direction of her confessor had a good
deal to do, and which, escaping from the routines of “spiritual reports,”
rose to the superior form of knowledge by the broadening and illumine-
tion of the mind. This was a certainty that Sister Celeste felt in her
heart; it gave her the courage – the same displayed in her time by Teresa
of Ahumada – to renounce her spiritual director, Father Falcoia. (Vasta, 212)
This modern literary historian has recognized what may very well have grasped Alphonsus and held him for a lifetime; her autonomy, her capacity for reflection, the illumination of her mind and spirit, and a courageous heart.
A public figure but hidden mystic of the twentieth century, Dag Hammarskjold, an early Secretary General of the United Nations, penned in his journal Markings an admirable description which merely by changing the gender of the pronouns expresses the nature of Celeste’s influential character.
She broke fresh ground – because she had the courage to go ahead
without asking whether others were following or even understood. She
had no need for the divided responsibility in which others seek to be safe
from ridicule because she had been granted a faith which required no
confirmation – a contact with reality, light and intense like the touch of
a gloved hand: a union in self-surrender without self destruction, where
her heart was lucid and her mind loving. In the sun and wind, how near
how remote. (Hammarskjold, 205)