Venerable Seraphina di Dio (Serafina of God)
Seraphina di Dio was born Prudence Pisa, into a wealthy merchant family in Naples on October 24, 1621. Two of her uncles, one from her father’s side, the other from her mother’s, were respected priests in responsible positions.
As a teenager Prudence was kicked out of her parent’s home for several years. Her father was so angry with her for refusing marriage to the man he had chosen for her, for cutting off all her hair and wearing a shabby penitential garment that he threw her out of the house. Prudence lived in the equivalent of a chicken coop in the back yard, and her mother would sneak food to her when the father wouldn’t notice. Prudence saw God’s will in this and understood that she had to be much more dependent on the heavenly Father and thanked God that she could follow a simple, penitential way of life.
From the age of 15, she used to visit the sick, minister to them, and when they suffered from dangerous diseases. She would stay with them day and night. Not only would she prepare them for death, but she ministered to their material needs. Her charity became a byword during the Neapolitan Plague of 1656 which took her own mother’s life. Seraphina prepared her mother for death and actually closed her eyes when she died on August 5th 1656. Christian burial was not allowed during the plague. With her own hands, she dug a shallow grave in the backyard and personally buried her mother.
The plague also took the life of one of her priest/uncles who had spoken to her about the lack of a contemplative community of nuns on Capri. After his death, she continued plans for a monastery, recruited several girls and women from Naples. On May 29, 1661, in the Cathedral, before the Vicar General of the Diocese, Prudence and her companions were clothed with the Carmelite habit. On October 2nd, 1661 they took up residence in the house her uncle had left her. Soon this house was too small and a new, elaborate monastery and Church dedicated to the Most Holy Saviour was consecrated in 1675.
More houses (they were more like Conservatories than Monasteries) were soon formed in the Naples area; Massalumbrese (1673), Vico Equense (1676), Nocera de’ Pagani (1680), Anacapri was opened and dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel (1683) commemorating the Christian victory of Vienna in that year. The houses in Massalumbrese and Nocera de’ Pagani still remain today as Discalced Carmelite Houses. In 1685, Cardinal Caracciolo, Archbishop of Naples asked Seraphina to reform the Dominican Conservatory of Torre del Greco.
She was able to see God in everything she looked at. “…Anything I looked at I was able to turn into a meditation… When I saw it raining, I thought of the refreshment which the rain brought to the earth and that without it the earth would be arid. I would say: ‘If the water of divine grace did not fall on the soul, it would dry up without providing the fruits of good works.’ … The sight of fish swimming in the sea made me remember how the saints are immersed in God… And in such wise everything, even the slightest things, served me for my spiritual nourishment”.
People in her day, as in ours, considered her strange when she continued praising God even in the midst of pestilences and revolutions. Her faith-filled conviction was “All that God did and allowed was beautiful, good, ordered for our good.” Her repeated answer to them was “God could prevent and remove them. He does not prevent and remove them. Therefore, God allows them. And insofar as He allows it, it is a sign that it’s good for our gain because God’s power is filled with this goodness and is with no admixture of evil.”
She was often compared to St. Theresa of Jesus, for whom she nurtured a life-long devotion. Sr. Seraphina of God was graced with deep mystical graces, and was also the founder of seven monasteries in the Naples area. She was granted mystical graces in the sense of being taken up with the Lord and given a loving knowledge of the inner life of God himself. She was so overwhelmed with her vision of the Godhead that she wondered what else could be reserved for her in heaven.
As often happens, Sr. Seraphina’s strongest talents and graces became her heaviest crosses. In her foundations she shared her convictions about religious life with her sisters. She firmly believed that the best guarantee of authenticity of one’s religious experience was a dogged faithfulness to the traditional forms. She was immersed in the church’s liturgy, the celebration of the Eucharist, the Divine Office, the liturgical year, and the feasts of the Saints. She was often led to intimate communion with Christ Jesus at the liturgy beginning with the midnight office. She also stressed the need for silence and solitude as requisites for prayer.
Some of the religious were not as fervent and a resistance movement began, which gathered momentum to the extent that at the end of Sr. Seraphina’s life she was rejected by the majority of the community she had founded. The majority of the sisters cast aspersions on the Mother calling her a tiger, a tyrant, and a public disgrace. This lasted for about thirteen years and at times included the threat of physical violence. She was accused of Quietism even though she had written a document pointing out the errors of this heretical movement. She was confined to her cell for two and a half years without the Blessed Sacrament.
When Seraphina took ill her sisters refused to visit her even though she continually asked for them. Two days before she died she asked the Prioress to look after the sisters who had been so contrary to her, making excuses for their behavior. After her death on March 17, 1699, some of the sisters who were most against her became some of the most enthustiastic promoters of her Cause.
Last content update 08/30/09
For more information on Ven. Seraphina of God and other notable Carmelites – Please see “Profiles in Holiness” – 3 volumes by Redemptus M. Valabek, O.Carm – Edizoni Carmelitane, Rome.