Today we celebrate with joy the feast day of Blessed Diana d'Andalo and Blessed Cecilia Caesarini, two early nuns of the Order of Preachers. Both were remarkable in those pioneer days, in laying firm foundations for our future, especially in their fierce vigilance at maintaining the nuns' relationship, juridical and spiritual, with the friars.
Our recent reprinting of To Heaven With Diana! reminded me of some of Gerald Vann's marvelous observations on Diana's character and personality, which yes, does come out, in all its passionate Italian-ness, between the lines of Jordan's letters. Indeed, the greatest gift of all in editing the new edition of the book, was to "hear" Diana's "voice," at times nagging, but always loving and tender. I "heard" her maternal concern for Jordan's health, her desire to ensure that her sisters would remain in the heart of the Order (despite the desire of some friars to "shake off" the nuns), her reassurances of her prayers and those of her sisters, her interest in every aspect of Jordan's work and whereabouts, from his administrative work as provincial, to his vocation recruitment. You certainly get the sense that Diana "commissioned" the wonderful detailed accounts we receive in his letters. Beyond offering a privileged "peek" into their beautiful friendship, the letters also give us invaluable information about the Order's early history.
Now, for the "gems" on Diana, culled from Gerald Vann's Introduction from the book:
"Of her childhood we know nothing; but we know a good deal about her as she was when she first came into contact with the friars. She was of outstanding beauty: decora facie et venusto aspectu, says the contemporary chronicle, lovely of face and charming to behold...Her contemporaries also speak of her as eloquent and learned; and there is no doubt about her charm, her high spirits, her courage, and that faculty of making swift and sure decisions which, as one of her modern biographers remarks, is often found in women who have been brought up in the society of men. She was full of the joy of living; full too of the joy of her own beauty and the power it gave her."
"When (Jordan) arrived at Bologna soon after the death of St.Dominic, Diana sought him out and told him of her adventures and dreams, the dreams that Dominic had shared. From that day forward they were never to be far from each other’s thoughts; of that the letters which have come down to us are sufficient evidence. It is a tragedy that none of Diana’s letters to Jordan have been preserved; but we have the fifty that he wrote to her or to what was soon to be her community—thirty-seven of them are addressed to Diana herself—and their vivid, richly allusive Latin reveals to us not only his own heart but hers."
"Diana herself had her own very distinctive gifts; and as her religious life went on she learned with Jordan’s help and guidance how to free them from what was imperfect in them, how to use them for her religious family’s progress in goodness and peace and happiness, how to make them a more and more perfect offering to God from whom they came. She remained to the end Diana: it is Père (Hyacinthe) Cormier again who notes how she and the two other members of the community who were beatified with her personify the three essential graces of monastic life: Amata, deep humility; Cecilia, the prioress, wise and creative authority; Diana, the greatest grace of them all, perfect love."
We know little of Cecilia's early life, beyond her noble birth, and her entrance into a Benedictine abbey, later to be reformed by St. Dominic (to the consternation of many of the nuns therein). Cecilia accepted the reform and left Benedictine life to become a Dominican nun, later to be called to Bologna as first prioress of the Monastery of St. Agnes (founded by Bl. Diana) to form the first nuns there. We are especially thankful for Cecilia's womanly powers of observation in giving the only description we have of our Holy Father St. Dominic's physical appearance:
“He was of middle height and slender figure, of handsome and somewhat ruddy countenance, his hair and beard of auburn, and with lustrous eyes. From out his forehead and between his eye brows a radiant light shone forth, which drew everyone to revere and love him...” (from the Lives of the Brethren of the Order of Preachers)
Although her reminscences were later discounted (rather haughtily) by later Dominican historians as the hazy and inaccurate memories of a rather dotty old woman, we are happy to report that Cecilia had the last word. When St. Dominic's remains were exhumed in 1947, his bones revealed that, yes, he did have a high forehead, and red hair!
Now, a note on Bl. Amata, missing from the calendar today! She was beatified with Diana and Cecilia in 1891, but was omitted from the calendar because the only thing known about her was that she with them at the Monastery of St. Agnes. (Hmm, that doesn't seem to be a good reason to remove her but then I am not a liturgist!). Here is what Sr. Mary Jean Dorcy, O.P. says of Amata in her book, St. Dominic's Family (p. 109).
"Of Sister Amata, we know practically nothing, but that she was a good friend of St. Dominic, which should, after all, be enough to know about anybody. He, according to legend, gave her the name Amata--which means 'beloved'--and very probably he either sent her to the convent in the first place or was the means of her staying there at the time of the drastic reforms, when the nuns left St. Mary's trans Tiber and whent to S. Sixtus. There was a Sister Amata from whom St. Dominic is said to have cast out seven devils, but it could hardly have been this one. The facts that he personally named her, and that she is buried with the other two, will have to be her title to honor."
May our sisters Diana, Cecilia, and Amata intercede very powerfully for our nuns throughout the world today, especially for good and holy vocations to our monasteries! And, may their prayers for the prospering of the "Holy Preaching" of our friars continue to fill the sons of Dominic with zeal for the salvation of souls.
P.S. And, make sure to stop by Bro. Lawrence Lew's blog, "Contemplata aliis tradere" to read his tribute to our sisters.