Essay

The Cookies of Lady Jacoba

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This past summer, as part of an NEH seminar on Dante. I visited the beautiful town of Assisi, home of St. Francis. While we were there, we were given a tour of the spectacularly frescoed Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi by one of the Franciscan brothers. It’s an awesomely (in the true sense of that word) impressive place—a testament to the incredible (and continuing) impact of Francis’ example on generations of Christians.

But one of the things that struck me most came when we visited the room that held some of the Francis’ few belongings, saved by his disciples—among them, a cloak and, surprisingly for the barefooted Francis, shoes. These all, our Brother told us, were gifts from the Lady Jacoba. And then he told us her story:

A Roman noblewoman, Jacoba dei Settesoli married into the Frangipani family but was widowed young. When Francis came to Rome to seek permission for his order from the Pope, Jacoba went to hear him preach and then invited him to her house to seek his advice about how she could live a devoted religious life. But Francis urged her to remain outside of the cloister—and some traditions have it that he established the 3rd Order Lay Franciscans for her. She turned over her business affairs (and substantial landholdings) to her sons and devoted her life to charity, providing, for example, substantial financial backing to Franciscan works.

She also became Francis’ close friend. And here’s where the shoes and the cloak come in: so close of a friend that she was the only one who could (or would) convince Francis as he grew sicker in his last days to take better care of himself and put on some shoes already.

She’s also the person he wanted with him as he was dying. He sent for her, but as legend has it, she was already at the gates, bringing with her the delicious almond cookies she was known for—and which he especially liked.

When she arrived in Assisi, Francis’ disciples—in the manner seemingly common to all disciples—didn’t want to let her in; in this case, because she was a woman, forbidden to enter the monastery. But Francis wouldn’t hear of it and demanded that “Brother Jacoba” should be welcomed. She remained with him until he died. And when she herself died, she was buried in the basilica’s crypt, near Francis. And to this day, Franciscans exchange almond cookies on the date of Francis’ death, acknowledging her sweet role in his life.

In the great splendor of that Basilica and the grand narrative of Francis’ life that it presents, I was deeply moved that the Brother took time to tell us this smaller story.   Awed by their goodness and their seeming strength, I think we sometimes forget that saints need taking care of, too. And that the work of providing sturdy shoes and favorite cookies and deep friendship is equally God’s work. Thanks be to God for the Lady Jacobas of the world, and what they make possible in the lives of the saints. And for the comfort that comes from friends who show up, even before we know we need them.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

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