Two daughters, Polissena and Virginia, and one son, Vincenzo, had been born to Galileo in Padua. It was the custom in those days that as soon as the daughter of an Italian gentleman had grown up, her future career was somewhat summarily decided. Either a husband was to be forthwith sought out, or she was to enter the convent with the object of taking the veil as a professed nun. It was arranged that the two daughters of Galileo, while still scarcely more than children, should both enter the Franciscan convent of St. Matthew, at Arcetri. The elder daughter Polissena, took the name of Sister Maria Celeste, while Virginia became Sister Arcangela. The latter seems to have been always delicate and subject to prolonged melancholy, and she is of but little account in the narrative of the life of Galileo. But Sister Maria Celeste, though never leaving the convent, managed to preserve a close intimacy with her beloved father. This was maintained only partly by Galileo's visits, which were very irregular and were, indeed, often suspended for long intervals. But his letters to this daughter were evidently frequent and affectionate, especially in the latter part of his life. Most unfortunately, however, all his letters have been lost. There are grounds for believing that they were deliberately destroyed when Galileo was seized by the Inquisition, lest they should have been used as evidence against him, or lest they should have compromised the convent where they were received. But Sister Maria Celeste's letters to her father have happily been preserved, and most touching these letters are. We can hardly read them without thinking how the sweet and gentle nun would have shrunk from the idea of their publication.
Her loving little notes to her "dearest lord and father," as she used affectionately to call Galileo, were almost invariably accompanied by some gift, trifling it may be, but always the best the poor nun had to bestow. The tender grace of these endearing communications was all the more precious to him from the fact that the rest of Galileo's relatives were of quite a worthless description. He always acknowledged the ties of his kindred in the most generous way, but their follies and their vices, their selfishness and their importunities, were an incessant source of annoyance to him, almost to the last day of his life.
On 19th December, 1625, Sister Maria Celeste writes:--
"I send two baked pears for these days of vigil. But as the greatest treat of all, I send you a rose, which ought to please you extremely, seeing what a rarity it is at this season; and with the rose you must accept its thorns, which represent the bitter passion of our Lord, whilst the green leaves represent the hope we may entertain that through the same sacred passion we, having passed through the darkness of the short winter of our mortal life, may attain to the brightness and felicity of an eternal spring in heaven."
When the wife and children of Galileo's shiftless brother came to take up their abode in the philosopher's home, Sister Maria Celeste feels glad to think that her father has now some one who, however imperfectly, may fulfil the duty of looking after him. A graceful note on Christmas Eve accompanies her little gifts. She hopes that--
"In these holy days the peace of God may rest on him and all the house. The largest collar and sleeves I mean for Albertino, the other two for the two younger boys, the little dog for baby, and the cakes for everybody, except the spice-cakes, which are for you. Accept the good-will which would readily do much more."
The extraordinary forbearance with which Galileo continually placed his time, his purse, and his influence at the service of those who had repeatedly proved themselves utterly unworthy of his countenance, is thus commented on by the good nun.--
"Now it seems to me, dearest lord and father, that your lordship is walking in the right path, since you take hold of every occasion that presents itself to shower continual benefits on those who only repay you with ingratitude. This is an action which is all the more virtuous and perfect as it is the more difficult."
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