St. Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church

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Bloomington, Indiana 47401

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Meditation for Good Friday (March 25, 2016)

Liturgical Color: Purple

Reverend Doctor Lyle E. McKee


Olimpia Fulvia Morata

On this dark day we call good, we complete our sojourn among the significant women of the Reformation. We started with Katharina von Bora, the Lutheran Matriarch who helped to pave the way for clergy marriage. We spent some time with Argula von Grumbach, a remarkable woman of Bavaria who debated with the best of men in her time. We got to know significant mother-daughter duos-Elisabeth von Brandenburg and Elisabeth von Braunschweig, both exiled for their reforming zeal; and Marguerite de Navarre and Jeanne d'Albret led the French Reformation through diplocacy and political acumen. Katharina Schutz Zell published extensively to bring the light of the reformed gospel to Strasbourg. Marie Dentiere worked diligently in Switzerland. And this evening we turn to the halting Reformation even in Italy.

It may feel a bit odd to shoehorn our Lenten series on the women of the reformation into Holy Week. But if you've been paying attention to these women, maybe not so much. This may be especially true for the reformer Olimpia Fulvia Morata.

Olimpia was a 16th century Italian scholar and teacher. As with all of the women we have gotten to know, she was remarkable for overcoming the usual limits placed upon those of her gender. Her epitaph affirms this: "Nature denied you nothing of all her gifts with one exception: that you were a woman." A bit backhanded, but supposedly complimentary for her day.

Olimpia redefined herself. Witness this poem by her hand:

Never did the same thing please the hearts of all,

And never did Zeus grant the same mind to all...

And I, though born female, have left feminine things,

yarn, shuttle, loom-threads, and work-baskets.

I admire the flowery meadow of the Muses,

and the pleasant choruses of twin-peaked Parnassus

Other women perhaps delight in other things.

These are my glory, these my delight.

Olimpia was born in Ferrara, Italy in 1526, one of five children of the humanist Fulvio Pellegrino Morato (1483-1548) and Lucrezia Gozi Morata. Her father served as a teacher of grammar and a tutor at the court of Ferrara first under Alfonso 1 d'Este and his son. At the peak of his career Morato was exiled from Ferrara. He was increasingly influenced by Protestant teachings, Calvin primarily. He lectured on Erasmus, Luther, and Zwingli. That his daughter Olimpia became a budding scholar is no surprise. By the age of 12, she could write and speak both Greek and Latin. She also studied grammar, history, and moral philosophy. Soon scripture became her primary source of interest and the main object of her work. Already in her teens she was writing sophisticated poems in ancient, classical format, some in Greek.

In her youth she already felt that she had to emphasize her genderless spirit. In the Middle Ages, women who wished to pursue an intellectual life were forced into a sort of genderless limbo. Her marriage to a man who was supportive of her was pivotal to her flourishing. Both society and the church found the emancipated educated women who shunned marriage and slipped away from male control the most troubling of their gender.

When Olimpia was 16, the Inquisition became a powerful force, executing even some of her acquaintances. It had a profound effect on her life and relationships. Even she was banished from court. By the time of her return, following her father's death, the vital sub-community of Protestants had all but disappeared because of the Inquisition.

Despite oppression, pressures of gender expectations, and the Inquisition, Olimpia survived and kept on with her teaching and studies, where she found a fresh focus: her Protestant faith. Two things made this possible: her extraordinary talents and determination to study, and her marriage to a partner who encouraged her. In a letter to a friend, she wrote: "God has also given me as a bride to a man who greatly enjoys my studies."

She was married in 1550 to a German doctor, Andreas Grunthler (c. 1518-1549). He was trained in classical studies prior to his study of medicine. The two fell madly in love. And in time, they moved to Andreas' homeland. There Olimpia thrived in the strongly rooted Protestant traditions in Germany, and she deepened her knowledge in the nuances of the new theology, studying the reformers' writings and Protestant documents. She started more fully to embrace the Reformation itself. And she worked to provide Italian translations of reforming works that might benefit her fellow Italians.

Much of what we know of Olimpia comes from her letters. She wrote 52, 49 of which were in Latin, the rest in Italian and Greek. But most of the letters she received were destroyed with the rest of her possessions during a siege. In what survives, we see a woman concerned with nurturing relationships, teaching, and spiritual guidance.

The mid-16th century was a very troubled time. The 1553-4 siege of Schweinfurt dramatically changed her life. And in the period between the ending of the Schmalkaldic War and before the Peace of Augsburg, Catholic and Protestant towns and princes continued to negotiate over dominance and issues of religious freedom. Facing the possibility of execution if they were caught, Olimpia and her husband escaped Schweinfurt on foot. They struggled to find shelter and lost everything they had, including their dear books. Andreas was even taken prisoner, but was fortunately released under Episcopal protection.

Despite her struggles, she gained a reputation as a scholar, even among an international group of university men. And she corresponded with reformers such as Luther and Melanchthon. She worked actively to spread Luther's works in Italian.

Here's an interesting bit that reveals her devotion, written to her sister: "Make sure a day does not pass without reading with devotion and praying to God through Christ that He will illuminate things for you in the Holy Scripture with the interpretation. Get up very early, a little earlier in the morning." She persistently wrote about the importance of study, scripture reading and praying together, and of the fruits of enlightening conversation. She also reminded her friends and her pupils about the need to trust themselves into the care of their God. In the name of friendship she could exhort women to pursue these otherwise discouraged activities. And instead of composing treatises, she discussed theological matters in her letters and dialogues.

Olimpia was personally comforted by the doctrine of predestination-a Calvinist doctrine, most likely because of the troubles of war that plagued her. The siege depleted her body, and she contracted fever and tuberculosis. She narrowly escaped the plague, but knew she would not recover. She died on October 26, 1555, only 29 years old, followed within weeks by her husband and brother, both victims of the plague.

A prominent theme in Olimpia's writings is that of suffering. She chose in troubled times to translate Psalms about endurance and hope in suffering. She pondered theologically upon the meaning of suffering. Her last letter stated her conclusion that all Christians must suffer for their faith. And her own suffering led her to identify with the suffering of others, especially those joined with her in faith, feeling a responsibility to help those who suffered for their faith.

And so, perhaps you discern in this final woman of the reformation in our series a fitting theme for this Good Friday. She faced as did her Lord the suffering that accompanied her passion. She bore that suffering with hope and faith. And she died with words and thoughts of new life and new hope beyond the grave.

Olimpia Fulvia Morata proclaimed the gospel of grace with her life. She bore the cross of her faith nobly and well. She studied and prayed diligently, and she worked hard to share both insight and faith with all in her purview. May her witness help reveal to us something of the cost and intention of our Lord on this day. Amen.

 

 

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