Letter 9 - June 10, 1539
We only have copies of this letter and none of them carries an address. However, one copy has this annotation by Father Angelo Cortenovis (1727–1801):141 Letter of the Very Rev. Father Anthony M. Zaccaria to his spiritual guide, Mother Mistress Angelic Paola Antonia [Negri] about an initiative of St. Barnabas. The accuracy of this address finds confirmation in a letter of Father Giovan Pietro Besozzi to Giovan Battista Fontana dei Conti, the author of a highly hagiographic biography of Paola Antonia. After accusing her of several grave faults, Besozzi adds: “...and other similar ones mentioned in a letter of Father Anthony Mary.”
The reader is already acquainted with this Angelic Sister.142 On March 4, 1538, at the age of thirty she was elected Mistress of novices. From then on she built an extraordinary reputation as a gifted Mistress of spirituality. She won the admiration of everyone she met, including cardinals, bishops, and other prominent persons. Among the Barnabites her ascendancy grew by leaps and bounds. As a member of the mission bands in Vicenza, Verona, and Venice, her preeminent contribution effected a stunning religious revival.143 Her sudden decline was brought about by two related events. In 1551, on mainly political pretexts and not excluding Paola Antonia’s outrageous behavior,144 the Republic of Venice banished the Barnabites and the Angelics from its territory. A trial by the Roman Inquisition followed in 1552 resulting in several drastic injunctions. Contacts between the Barnabites and the Angelics were to be kept at a minimum; the Angelics were to be cloistered; Fra Battista’s teaching was to be shunned. As for Paola Antonia she was stripped of all authority, ordered to leave the Angelics, and confined to St. Claire convent in Milan. Some time later she either escaped from the convent145 or left it for health reasons146 and died on April 4, 1555.
Manifestly, this letter is tantalizingly enigmatic. The reason is that it deals with a tantalizingly enigmatic person, Paola Antonia Negri.
This is the enigma: was she authentic or fake? Was she a saint or a sinner?147 Did she undergo a radical change from being a saint to a sinner? According to Fr. Giovan Battista Besozzi, Paola Antonia Negri’s spiritual decline began after the death of Anthony Mary, her remarkable spiritual mentor.
At the time of this letter, twenty-five days before his death, was Anthony Mary aware, at least dimly, that something was wrong with his beloved Angelic Paola Antonia? The traditional view of various scholars, dating back to the 16th century, is that Anthony Mary was fully aware of Paola Antonia’s change for the worst, certainly a sign of his God-given discernment and foreknowledge, and in this letter he clearly targeted her for censure, foreseeing her final downfall.148 Critics of this interpretation point out that it is not so much based on a dispassionate reading of the letter, but is rather colored by the dramatic turn of events in her life subsequent to Anthony Mary’s death.
If Anthony Mary was not fully aware of any wrongdoings on the part of Paola Antonia, this letter would at least suggest a partial awareness. In any case, his principal concern appears to be to warn the novices to be on guard lest they be inclined to mimic someone’s reproachable behavior. Who is this someone? Anthony Mary does not say. He is too discreet to embarrass anyone. He proceeds by hints and intimations. In order to bring home his subtle point, he seizes on the fact that the next day, June 11, is the feast of St. Barnabas,149 “the Companion of our common patron, the chaste Paul.” He then adopts an ingenious, even artful and at times contrived analogy. Barnabas introduced Paul, the former Saul, to a suspicious audience: Paul still looked like Saul but in reality was a different man. Similarly Anthony Mary suggests to the novices that perhaps their Mother Mistress seemed to be engaged in wrongdoing but actually she was above reproach. However, if she indeed was engaged in wrongdoing, she should be able to detect in this letter an admonition aimed at herself.
The text of this letter is taken from the copy made by Fr. Angelo Cortenovis for the Archives of St. Barnabas in Milan, and collated with copies kept in the General Archives in Rome.
SPIRITUAL-THEOLOGICAL THEMES OF THE LETTER
- Saul, the Persecutor
-“[Paul] tried every possible way to mingle with the other Christians in order to get acquainted with them and to be acknowledged by them as a Christian; but they were afraid and suspicious of him as though he were still the same persecutor, and so they dared not keep his company.”
-Saul, Mirror of What a Person Can Become
-“Barnabas says: “Behold Saul,” that is, the very countenance of our sinful old Man—the mirror of our first evil inclinations or passions.”
- Paul, the Pillar of the Church
-“Barnabas made him known to all and showed him as a pillar of the Church and the one who had almost attained the first place in the apostolic mission.”
- The Chaste Paul, Imitator and Preacher of Christ
-“Tomorrow we celebrate the Memorial of St. Barnabas, the companion of our common patron, the chaste Paul…the great Paul who wanted to be a living example of the suffering Christ.”
-“Tell them that this Paul preaches to them a Christ Crucified under every aspect: crucified not only in His own body, but in theirs, too.”
Guastalla, June 10, 1539
MY ONE AND ONLY BELOVED MOTHER AND MY
OBEDIENT DAUGHTERS IN CHRIST, GREETINGS.
Tomorrow we celebrate the Memorial of St. Barnabas, the companion of our common patron, the chaste Paul. I can’t help taking this occasion to use, in dealing with you, the same approach that Barnabas used in dealing with the great Paul who wanted to be a living example of the suffering Christ in reality as well as in everyone’s estimation.
You must know, of course, how St. Paul, just after his conversion, went for the first time to Jerusalem. He tried every possible way to mingle with the other Christians in order to get acquainted with them and to be acknowledged by them as a Christian; but they were afraid and suspicious of him as though he were still the same persecutor, and so they dared not keep his company.
That was when Barnabas, leading Paul by the hand, presented him to the Apostles and told them: “Here he is, the one who was, etc.; and then Christ appeared to him, etc.; and he did this and that, etc.”150 By presenting Paul in person this way, Barnabas made him known to all and showed him as a pillar of the Church and the one who had almost attained the first place in the apostolic mission. All the while Paul was keeping secret his own merits, and at the same time he was drinking great draughts of self-satisfaction, unafraid of savoring his own exceedingly sweet praises.
Likewise, dear Mother, if it pleases you, I would like to show you how freely great saints behave. Yes, I would like to make you see that what in them, because of their lofty perfection, is an experience and a sure sign of a consummated holiness, can become in us, instead, an occasion of certain ruin or a sure sign of not having eliminated our first and inveterate bad habits, as is apparent in the story told by St. John Climacus about a certain saint who felt so sure of being totally free of gluttony that he tempted the devil with a bunch of grapes to see if the latter would in turn tempt him in the same way.151 The other case is that of someone who wants to know for certain to what extent a certain passion is suppressed in himself or in others. He first arouses that passion by words, gestures, and the like, then, observing the matter very closely, waits for the results, and from them he deduces both his own and other people’s interior state.
I will not mention here certain things that only you can understand, but rather those which also our Angelics can grasp, leaving those other things for your spirit to ponder.
Barnabas says: “Behold Saul,” that is, the very countenance of our sinful old Man—the mirror of our first evil inclinations or passions.
Look, I say, at the idle talk of this or that would-be saint: she chatters endlessly like a finch or a monkey; she is seldom seen at prayer, always involved, as she is, in external occupations; she enjoys sleeping a lot, even lying abed lazily. Is this not the face of Saul, that is, the picture of our sinful old Man?
But this is nothing yet. She wants to be served; she keeps her cell well equipped with comforts and elegance; she always speaks in a reproachful mood; she is never ready to say a comforting word to anybody; she shows that she holds nobody in esteem. Well, what do you think all these attitudes mean, but that the bad habits of the old self are still laying hold of her?
Moreover, she is never satisfied; she is always under the siege of temptation, and her spiritual knowledge is always cloudy and doubtful. In a word: she gives clear signs of being the same person as she was when living in plain clothes, or, at least, of being still imperfect or very little changed.
Her stomach relishes only the best of everything. What else does that prove, but that she is a first rate glutton? She can hardly wait without showing anger on her face; she cannot keep herself kneeling without leaning on the edge of the seat; she is so sensitive to everything around her that her blood pressure goes up easily. What else does all this reveal but a great moral feebleness?
And see for yourselves if this is not so: she gets easily tired; she suffers headaches when she has to sit at the grate; she cannot bear the troubles of her neighbor. [In this description] one can see everything except the portrait of a mature person.
All this is Saul—namely, the portrait of the imperfect person. “But keep quiet,” says Barnabas, “don’t forget that to a person, like the one just described Christ appeared, etc...” If you pay attention, you will find hidden that this person is a saint interiorly and exteriorly. If you take the trouble to understand her every aspect, as I lay open this poor creature, I am quite sure she will blush and lower her head to conceal her real self.
But see whether, when she speaks, she is not touching and inflaming you deeply; when she speaks seeming nonsense, she is actually fully aware of your situation and works on it accordingly; see whether in her constant restlessness she doesn’t achieve something new for herself and for others; see whether, when she leaves you, she never omits an edifying word or unspoken sign or gesture; see whether in her seeming absent-mindedness she is actually fully aware of your every move and inspires you with good thoughts and stimulating suggestions.
Now, keep perfectly quiet, for I have something else to show you. When she misses the time for prayer, just then she manifests her rich interior life. When you see her upset and in pain, as if anxious to learn something from untutored people, she is only showing self-contempt and a willingness to appear unlearned. When you see her elegantly arranging her cell, she is actually trying to be an object of ridicule and wishes to hide the consolations received from Jesus Crucified as well as the instructions imparted by St. Paul. With one and the same word she brings both death and life; in one swoop she inflicts wounds and heals them.152
Enough. Anyone willing to examine carefully her actions will indeed recognize in her Saul’s portrait, but Barnabas will assure us that she is not what she appears to be now, and what she appeared to be in the past.
My dear Mother, I could go on and on, but I would not like to arouse bad feelings against me. Besides, you can tell them the rest.
The only thing I wish to add is this: tell the Angelics not to take such liberties. I can assure them that they would achieve results quite opposite to those obtained by that person, and, instead of making great strides in perfection, they would perhaps descend deep down into the hell of absolute imperfection.
Therefore, not idle talk, but a strict silence is expedient and necessary for them. Acting, talking, and thinking without interior and exterior control is unbecoming and unprofitable to them. Failure to renounce themselves while following their own whims could poison them to death since their wishes are worldly. Were they in a position of authority, they would grow presumptuous; were they knowledgeable, they would become proud; were their spirit dissipated, they would become slack; were they unwilling to renounce their will, even in good things, they would not only become coarse but would entirely disaffect themselves from Paul and his way of life.
Do reflect and see what a great harm is caused by seeking one’s comfort, by drinking [and eating] with pleasure, if not so much wine and exquisite food, at least maudlin sentimentality and self-complacency. If they are not blind, what I have just said will show them how much spiritual harm will come about.
In conclusion, tell them that this Paul preaches to them a Christ Crucified under every aspect: crucified not only in His own body, but in theirs, too—and entreat them to chew well this one word. If, because of their obtuseness, they do not quite understand it, ask my teacher Paola153 to make it clear to them; for I am sure that that tongue so inflamed and so sharp will supply what I would tell them.
That’s it, dear Mother.
[Guastalla], June 10, 1539.
Your Father and son,
Anthony Mary, Priest
- We display false humility when, while belittling ourselves in public, we hold in our heart a great opinion of ourselves which becomes manifest when others belittle us.
- Persons who are truly holy sometimes strive to appear imperfect in order not to be praised by people. They use ways and methods proper of sinners, but these are only expedients to hide true holiness.
- In all of us who are truly imperfect those ways and methods are not expedients but rather real defects. Even though we may try to pass them as expedients we have purposely created to appear humble, they remain outright vices.
- Idle talk, lack of perseverance in prayer, and laziness are real defects, not pretenses.
- And when, feigning illness or inability, we demand to be served, get angry if we are not treated as we would like, and are never satisfied with what we receive, we show ourselves to be not only imperfect but even reprehensible.
- Habitual discontent with the meals that are served, good as they may be, anger, impatience, refusal to kneel on the pretext of infirmity are all signs of lukewarmness and rejection of the cross.
- We need to limit idle talk, practice internal and external obedience, die to ourselves, deny our ego, and think little of those positions that could excessively increase our self-esteem and drag us into self-flattery.
- We are called to crucify our own selfishness and imitate Christ Crucified who humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross.
- Do I at times display a seeming humility in order to be valued as simple and modest?
- Am I able to hide and keep my good deeds unknown so that I will not be praised for them, for after all they are a gift from God?
- Do I at times pass as harm sustained real faults, human limitations, illnesses caused by bad habits, all things of which I profess to be innocent even though I am not?
- Can it also happen that words, useless talk, erratic prayer habits, lack of commitment, are made believe to be things we end up doing just because we need to vent our feelings, or because we are weak, frustrated, tried by the ups and downs of life, crushed by the serious difficulties we encounter, when in reality they are simply signs of spiritual indolence?
- Do I sometimes argue that I deserve better meals due to what I do and loose my temper if I am not pleased?
- Do I lessen my commitment to prayer when I am tired?
- Do I find it hard to obey and submit to others?
Guastalla, June 10, 1539
Unfortunately we do not possess the originals of any of these three letters, therefore we have to rely on the accuracy of copies.
The copies by Fr. Angel Cortenovis which are in St. Barnabas, Milan, and the ones by others in Rome, entitle this Letter IX:
Letter of the Very Reverend Father Anthony M. Zaccaria, about a situation in St. Barnabas, to his spiritual Guide, the Mother Mistress A(ngelic) P(aola) A(ntonia) Negri.
Truly the letter is addressed to the Mother "the only and beloved together with the obedient daughters in Christ," which means all the Angelics, and not necessarily only the novices.
We have to say right away that even this letter does not want to be and it is not a meditation or a conference on a specific theme, but an occasional writing prompted by the desire to resolve a concrete situation.
The most convincing explanation for this quite difficult writing is that the Saint had something to say to his daughter and guide, a warning to give her, although with the great reverence and devotion which he nourishes toward her, but also with the great freedom and warmth of one deeply in love with his Angelics: he feels secure about her, advanced in virtue, but he is worried about the novices who, in following some of her strange ways, might be led astray.
The bottom line of the letter is that we should never judge by appearance; because we could have the very strange situation where a saint would purposely do some strange things, which at the appearance are not at all virtuous, with the idea of hiding the virtue itself!
The Saint is pressing this issue because of a particular situation involving the Mother and her Community. Since it is the vigil of the feast of St. Barnabas he gets the clue from an episode of his life and his companion St. Paul. Step by step he follows the episode through a process of parallelism which should be clear and easy, but instead turns out to be very difficult and artificial: very clearly, it is due to his effort to speak by innuendoes, trying to make them understand without saying much, to preserve the veneration of the daughters toward their Mother Mistress.
So the Saint writes:
Remember when St. Barnabas had to present the newly-converted St. Paul to the Christians in Jerusalem, who were not trusting him? He said: You see here Saul, the Saul who has been a persecutor, etc... but since the Lord has appeared to him, he has become another person, quite different from the one he seems to be...
I will do the same with you; I will present to you a fictitious saint, who at the appearance will look just like Saul, full of defects and imperfections. But once you remove the veil hiding him in humility, you will discover the true reality, and I will say about him/her things so marvelous that they will cause him/her to blush (out of modesty).
Now St. Barnabas says to the people in Jerusalem: Behold Saul! At the appearance he is the previous man, the persecutor: the old man, which incarnates our bad passions!
And I tell you about this saint who speaks like a bird... in other words we see in him/her everything but perfection: truly he/she seems a Saul, that is, the picture of the old man with his passions...
But be careful, be careful, St. Barnabas continues: you see only the face of Saul, that is, only what is visible; but inside you must know that he is one to whom the Lord has appeared.
Be careful, I add: you see this poor creature... But if I remove the veil you will discover the exterior and interior aspect of a saint. Watch and see that when she speaks, the hearts burn inside (like the disciples of Emmaus, Lk 24:32); look and see how, not to reveal that Christ Crucified and St. Paul have spoken to her, she appears to be foolish, etc...
In other words look at her whole life, and not only to some instances, and you will see that indeed it seems the face of Saul; but Barnabas (that is me, Anthony) will assure you that it is not what it appears to be.
But whom is he talking about? Of any fictitious saintly man or woman? But he is using almost all the adjectives in the feminine...!
But be careful because, if what he is writing would increase her daughters admiration and veneration toward her, she will have to apply to herself the warning he has given at the beginning: the acting as not saints not to be believed to be saints, belongs to great saints (like Paul who, as he listened to the praises by Barnabas, was swallowing them but without the danger of sweet complacency; or like that Saint who, as reported by Clymacus, was tempting the devil itself with a beautiful bunch of grapes!).
In the Saints, in the great Saints, these kinds of peculiarities are signs of sure sanctity, but in us (in me, in you, my dear Mother, in all) they would be the occasion of sure ruin.
But it is enough. I could say other things, my dear Mother; but I do not want any misunderstanding. In case, you will tell them. But, please, tell the others not to try any of those peculiarities, because they are not for them; rather, it could happen that if they wanted to prod temptation, it would happen to them the opposite than in the one person (who? still any saintly man or woman!?)..., and instead of growing in virtue, they would fall in the imperfection of imperfections.
Babbles are not proper for them... It is not good for them to run after their desires, etc. For them it is bad to swallow, I do not say the gulps of Paul, but even just a little complacency.
Tell them instead that this Paul preaches them a "Christ Crucified left and right," and crucified in themselves. If they do not understand it, then, tell to my Mistress Paola (Paola Negri herself, a rhetoric and most efficacious way of addressing the same person), tell her to explain it to them with her flaming tongue.
No more, my dear Mother. And the letter comes to a close with a sudden rush of thoughts, but he has to stop.
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This letter has led many biographers of the Saint to believe that the first and most beloved spiritual daughter of the Saint was in danger of falling from the summit of perfection, reached so fast under his leadership, to "the imperfection of imperfections."
This was the opinion of Bugati’s too (Apostolic Trial, 1049 v - 1051), and of our Cardinal Fontana in his famous "Scrittura" for our Saint’s Beatification, where the commentary on this letter, presented as a prove of the Saint’s supernatural gift of discernment and of prophecy, is eight pages long (142-149).
For sure, after reading this letter, one is impressed by what Father Besozzi wrote about Negri (the "Apologia" which was never published):
If we were not blind, we would have known his spirit. But a doctrine was taught, and was transmitted from one to another, that all the evils and imperfections by Negri had the purpose of hiding her holiness; for example, when she was talking a lot, joking, laughing, it was said that she was doing this because the fire of the Holy Spirit was burning in her heart; when she was well dressed and adorned with beautiful things in her room, she was doing it to seem a beggar, and similar things, which were contained in a letter by Father Anthony Mary. And so they were led like blind people.
The reference to the letter of the Saint is explicit, and the correspondence of the Besozzi’s accusations with the warnings by the Saint is very evident.
Although very doubtful about the prophetic vision, this is affirmed even by Fr. Premoli in his edition ofthe "Letters" (p. 53, n. 1) and also in his "Storia dei Barnabiti nel "500" (p. 49):
The Saint had thought to see in his spiritual daughter some peculiar conduct; way and means which could be considered as licenses sometime taken by the Saints to avoid the esteem surrounding them, and which then are more to be admired than imitated. We have no doubt that this is how he looked at them in Paola Antonia, but he was afraid that the novices would look at them differently, which would have been for them, not yet saints, to come down to the lowest of imperfection. Therefore, he warns them, very delicately, since the letter has to be communicated to others, to pay very serious attention to it.
It is not the moment and the place to go over the events of the life of this extraordinary Angelic (1508-1555), and one of the most outstanding female Figures of the Pre-Trent church in Lombardy and in the Venetian territory.
It seems that the Negri family of Castellanza had at relationship with the Saint and the Countess of Guastalla even before two of the sisters (Paola Antonia, baptized as Virginia, and Battista, baptized as Angela) became Angelics, while one of the brothers, Camillus, received our habit on November 29, 1534, from our Saint. We have met another sister, Partia, a widow, who went to live in the monastery of St. Paul, among the first Angelics sent to the Vicenza mission.
Paola Antonia was the first to receive the habit of the Angelics, on February 26, 1536, from the hands of St. Anthony Mary. Her reputation was such that the Holy Founder made her right away Mistress of Novices, and the Countess Torelli privately professed obedience into her hands. She was also very instrumental for the vocation of many of our Fathers and of many Angelics, especially from the Venetian territory; and the members of the third Institute, the Married, felt very obliged toward "their dear Mother, very faithful and holy guide in Christ Jesus."
Among them there was Besozzi, the Notary Public of Milan who drafted, in April of 1538, the document for a donation by the Countess to the Monastery of St. Paul, with Zaccaria and two of his companions as witnesses, and on April 12, 1539, for the donation of the house of St. Ambrose. Two years after the death of the Founder he received the Barnabite habit, while his wife, Vienna de' Dati, became an Angelic. He was the successor of the Co-founders and five times was re-elected Superior General, and was called the "second Founder of the Barnabites in the 1500's." He died at the age of 81, assisted by St. Charles Borromeo, on June 17, 1584.
It will be this Fr. Besozzi to allow Antonia Paola Negri to exercise the authority she had shared in the government of the Congregation, in the visits to the Missions, in the Community Chapters, and he will have to face her when he thought she was using excessive zeal, and more yet when, hit by the interdict by the Venetian Republic (February 21, 1551), she was the leader of a defying group of ten or twelve, who, even after the intervention by the Holy See (1552), preferred to leave the Congregation (among them Fr. Mark Anthony Pagani, who later joined the Capuchins, leading an exemplary life worthy of canonization).
But the fight became more intense and even bitter, after her death (April 4, 1555), when someone tried to publish under her name the "Spiritua1 Letters," which Besozzi was claiming as his own, blaming himself for having allowed the manuscripts to circulate under the Negri’s name, to give them more prestige and authority: "...we had such a devotion toward this woman, and what we saw in her was such that we considered her to be an Angel, and we would have gauged out our eyes for her sake... Our First Parent was deceived in such abundance of grace, and he regretted; we too regret it..."
We have to stop here, hoping that through future studies the truth will be revealed.
Her life had many similarities with the one of her spiritual guide, Fr. Battista da Crema, whose reputation today has been totally reevaluated. Even the circumstances of their death were very similar, as both of them died outside their own religious community, but not of their own free choice. For sure all these painful and disorienting episodes helped her in the process of purification following in the footsteps of the Cross and assimilating the Crucified Christ in her
life. But besides these painful episodes we have those "Spiritual Letters" which were the tools of a marvelous apostolate, used widely in the spiritual conferences (collazioni), or for private meditation, and still today admired as some of the most outstanding documents of the spirituality of the 1500’s. Thanks to the efforts of Rev. Joseph De Luca and Mrs. Guarneri all of them have been published in their "Archivio della Pietà Italiana."
It is not worthy to waste time over the title "Divine Mistress," which was given to Negri not only by her most fanatic followers, but even by the Holy Founder and his companions. This title was one of the central accusations by the Serenissima of Venice to ban her and her followers, but truly that was used only to hide political and personal jealousies.
It is taken for granted that this title, although today it sounds awful in our ears, at that time was very common. For example the Holy Founder called divine not only that "divine Paul" or "our divine Father Fra Battista," or his Angelics and divine Daughters in Christ, the Mother Prioress, etc. (Letter V), but also that Priest Castellino, who, later, in some instances of his life did not appear to be that holy!
In the same way, if in this letter as in others, the Saint calls Negri "his Mother and Guide," we have to remember that this too was "a common practice at that time, also among other Servants of God when they used to write to religious persons with a certain holy reputation. Let us take the example of St. Cajetan Thiene, who in all the letters he wrote to Sister Laura Mignani, a nun of the Holy Cross in Brescia, and to Sister Maria Carafa, Superior of the Monastery of Wisdom in Naples, and his spiritual daughter, he calls each one of them as honored Mother in Christ, and begs especially Mignani to accept him as her dear child; and in all the letters he signs himself as: "Your son in Christ," or "arid son in Christ, Cajetan Priest."
Since we already know her, we can mention Sister Angela Panigarola, Prioress of the St. Martha Monastery, who was the spiritual director, in person and through letters, of the two brothers bishops Briconnet, and also Monsignor Bellotti of Ravenna, Founder of the "Eternal Wisdom," who later published all her revelations and her life.
 Fontana, op. cit., p. 142.
 April 21, 1537, he was ordained a priest, in the Monastery of St. Paul, where his two sisters were. He died on August 26, 1542, at the young age of 35.
 Letter to the Cardinal of St. George, Protector of the Barnabites. Premoli,"Storia dei Barnabiti nel ‘500," 137-38.
 Bugati, op. cit., p. 1051.