August 2002

Dear Friends of St. Francis:

May the Lord give you peace.

The life of Saint Clare of Assisi (August 15) can be seen as perhaps the clearest window we have into the essential elements of the spirituality of Saint Francis. While she described herself as “the little plant of the most blessed Francis,” it was her genuine humility that prevented these words from adequately representing the very real influence she had on his life.

According to canonization documents, her mother named her Clare (Fr. Claire: luminous, clear) because of a vision she had that promised her a safe delivery. The pious woman was convinced that her daughter would be “enlightened” by God. Events were soon to confirm the appropriateness of the choice. Born into privileged circumstances, Clare was deeply moved by the deep faith of the slightly older “fool for Christ” of Assisi. When she was 18, she heard him deliver a series of Lenten sermons and on the evening of Palm Sunday, she arranged to meet with him and his brothers at the Chapel of St. Mary of the Angels. There Francis gave her a penitential habit and sheared off her long hair as a sign of her marriage to Christ.

After the most high heavenly Father saw fit by His grace to enlighten my heart to do penance according to the example and teaching of our most blessed Father, Saint Francis, I, together with my sisters, willingly promised him obedience shortly after his own conversion.(Form of Life of Clare of Assisi)

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There is no doubt that Francis and Clare shared a very deep friendship as well as a bond of total dedication to Christ and His gospel. Of all of his followers, she was the most faithful. When the time came for Francis to discern the manner in which he was to live the gospel life, he turned to her for guidance…trusting that she would express the will of God. Though he was torn between a desire to live in prayer as a recluse and an inclination to serve the Church more actively, Clare counseled him to go into the world: “God did not call you for yourself alone, but also for the salvation of others.”

During a period of dejection, Francis camped outside her convent at San Damiano. It was there that he composed The Canticle to Brother Sun, and there where he was comforted by her after receiving the stigmata. Later, as he approached death, Clare became seriously ill, and during the hours following his passing, his brothers transported his body to San Damiano where Clare “was filled with grief and wept aloud.”

She survived him by almost 30 years, and left in her testament only a discreet recollection of the emotional pain she endured with dignity and fidelity to the cross of Christ: “We take note of the frailty which we feared in ourselves after the death of our holy Father Francis. He was our pillar of strength and, after God, our one consolation and support. Thus time and again, we bound ourselves to our Lady, most Holy Poverty.”

Christ is the way and Francis showed it to me.

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The writings of Saint Clare are few but revealing. Among them are a testament written in the manner of the Testament of Saint Francis, and four letters sent to Agnes of Prague.

The testament is Clare’s last (and successful) attempt to defend the evangelical way of life which Francis gave to her and the Poor Ladies in the Form of Life he wrote in 1212: “In the name of the Lord! Amen. Among the other gifts that we have received and do daily receive from our benefactor, the Father of Mercies (2 Corinthians 1:3), and for which we must express the deepest thanks to the glorious Father of Christ, there is our vocation, for which, all the more by way of its being more perfect and greater, do we owe the greatest thanks to Him. Therefore, the Apostle (writes): “Know your vocation.” (1 Corinthians 1:26). The Son of God has been made for us the Way (cf. John 14:6), which our blessed Father Francis, His true lover and imitator, has shown and taught us by word and example. Therefore, beloved sisters, we must consider the immense gifts that God has bestowed on us, especially those that He has seen fit to work in us through His beloved servant, our blessed Father Francis, not only after our conversion but also while we were still [living among] the vanities of the world…In the Lord Jesus Christ, I admonish and exhort all my sisters, both those present and those to come, to strive always to imitate the way of holy simplicity, humility and poverty and [to preserve] the integrity of our holy way of living, as we were taught from the beginning of our conversion by Christ and our blessed Father Francis.

“May the Father of Mercies (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:3) always spread the fragrance of a good name from them (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:15), both among those who are far away as well as those who are near, not by any merits of ours but by the sole mercy and grace of His goodness. And loving one another with the charity of Christ, may the love you have in your hearts be shown outwardly in your deeds so that, compelled by such an example, the sisters may always grow in love of God and in charity for one another.

“I also beg that [sister] who will be in an office of the sisters to strive to exceed the others more by her virtues and holy life than by her office…Let us be very careful, therefore, that, if we have set out on the path of the Lord, we do not at any time turn away from it through our own fault or negligence or ignorance, nor that we offend so great a Lord and His Virgin Mother, and our blessed Father Francis, the Church Triumphant and even the Church Militant. For it is written: “Those who turn away from your commands are cursed.” (Psalm 118:21). For this reason I bend my knee to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Ephesians 3:14) that, through the supporting merits of the glorious and Holy Virgin Mary, His Mother, and of our most blessed Father Francis and all the saints, the Lord Himself, Who has given a good beginning, will also give the increase and final perseverance (cf. 2 Corinthians 8:6, 11). Amen.

“So that it may be better observed, I leave you this writing, my very dear and beloved sisters, those present and those to come, as a sign of the blessing of the Lord and of our most blessed Father Francis and of my blessing, your mother and servant.”

Agnes of Prague was a princess, whose cousin was Saint Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-1231), patron of the Secular Franciscan Order. The Franciscan Institute Outreach website comments that the letters Saint Clare wrote to her are “profoundly mystical. They develop various themes of feminine spirituality, particularly the mystical marriage with Christ; consecrated virginity; praise of the virtue of poverty; the contemplation of Christ, poor and crucified; the Blessed Virgin in the mystery of the Incarnation; practical norms for fasting and abstinence; the humility of Christ contemplated in the various mysteries of His life.”

Place your mind before the mirror of eternity! Place your soul in the brilliance of glory! Place your heart in the figure of the divine substance! And transform your entire being into the image of the Godhead Itself through contemplation. So that you too may feel what His friends feel as they taste the hidden sweetness that God Himself has reserved from the beginning for those who love Him. (Letter to Agnes)

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Is someone who walked this earth some 800 years ago still relevant to us today? The most compelling answer to this ubiquitous question can be found in the opening paragraphs of the preface to Clare of Assisi: Early Documents by Regis Armstrong, ofm cap. in which he implies that she is the quintessential reminder of the fact that it is “the poor who pray,” echoing the words of the founder of Madonna Houses, the Russian pilgrims of past centuries as well as the Sufi mystics. “To pray: that is to turn towards God in faith and love, to search in silence for the absolute, to be transfigured into this mirror of Christ that Clare holds before us. But to pray is also to repeat the “have mercy on me” of the repentant sinner and to be constantly united to the intercessions of the Mother of God: “They have no wine…” no love, no food…To pray with the urgency of both love and need, from the essential poverty of a heart devoid of illusions and self-seeking: how can this become obsolete as long as God is known on earth and Christ reveals Him? Clare is universal like Francis because poverty has centered her heart and life on an unchangeable and unique object.”

Let (the sisters work) in such a way that(…)they do not extinguish the Spirit of holy prayer and devotion to which all other things of our earthly existence must contribute.
(Form of Life of Clare of Assisi)

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Saint Clare helps us to form a more complete understating of Franciscan spirituality by unveiling a perfect complementarity between its masculine and feminine aspects. While she modestly described herself as the little plant of Saint Francis, we can more aptly think of her as its flower.

May the good Lord bless you with the grace to follow Saint Clare in her fidelity to the Word, in her prayerfulness and in her confidence in His providential care. May He grant you peace and a heart bursting with joy in the Resurrection.

Fraternally,

richard