Dear Friend of Saint Francis:
May the good Lord give you Peace!
It is fitting that this letter be dedicated to Saint Clare, founder of the second Franciscan order that has come to be known as the Poor Clares. She was born in the month of July (the 16th of that month, 1194) and died in August (the 11th) on the feast of San Rufino, the patron saint of Assisi. This year marks the 750th anniversary of the year that the holy lady whose very name means light and “who truly shone in untarnished purity entered the brightness of eternal light.”
As time passes, more and more followers of Saint Francis are coming to realize her importance in the development and tradition of Franciscan spirituality. There is no time like the present to increase our awareness of that fact.
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I have described in previous letters how a true understanding of the spirituality of Saint Francis must begin with his self-understanding as a Penitent. Yet, although the form of penance that she adopted was related to that of Saint Francis, Saint Clare was a penitent in her own right…in a form that was authentic and unique to her particular situation. In comparison to the penance of the poverello, hers, like her conversion, was less dramatic and more private. In effect, she did not have as long a distance to journey, not having had the worldly ambitions that had drawn the youthful Saint Francis down such unproductive paths. Though raised in an affluent family, she appears to have embraced without reluctance the life of conversion (metanoia: turning to God), of poverty and of prayer within the confines of San Damiano, which Saint Francis had repaired with his own hands, predicting one day to one of his friars that this house was destined for use by sisters. Though perhaps not thinking specifically of Saint Clare, we believe he knew her reputation for holiness even before meeting her.
In her own Testament, Saint Clare is revealed as a person of profound passion and conviction. She was fully committed to following Saint Francis but without the voluntary homelessness that was part of his espousal of poverty. This would clearly have been too much for any woman of that time. This difference aside, the content of Clare’s spirituality was clearly patterned after his. Paragraph eight reveals the main themes of her form of religious life: poverty, work, and contempt of the world, all of which rested on a deep love of God…Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
“After the most high heavenly Father saw fit in His mercy and grace
to enlighten my heart, that I should do penance according to the example and teaching of our most blessed father Francis…I voluntarily promised him obedience.”
(Clare of Assisi, Testament)
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By choosing to follow the path of mendicancy (vita evangelica) in memory of the poor and crucified Christ rather than the prevalent monastic course (vita apostolica), Saint Francis adopted a form of life that would be closed to Saint Clare, at least insofar as its itinerant character was concerned. It would have been practically impossible for a young woman living in the early 13th Century to walk the city streets and country roads begging for the most basic requirements of life. So when she did join “the brotherhood,” hers automatically became a contemplative life, first living with local Benedictine nuns. But, in many ways, because of her fidelity to the spirituality that animated his life, this outcome can be said to have fortified the movement. By being both consistent with the Franciscan charism through her embrace of poverty and complementary to the practice of Friars Minor living “in the world but not of the world,” Saint Clare served as a mirror of Saint Francis’ spirituality. By reflecting the insights of the poverello in a manner that was singularly suited to her own circumstances, Saint Clare revealed God in her poverty, her humility, her faithfulness, her prayerfulness, her purity of heart and the radiance to which her name gave witness.
In her own writings, Saint Clare made numerous references to the imagery of the mirror, which was well rooted in ancient metaphysical tradition. For instance, in The Republic, Plato had referred to the reflection of divine ideas in created things. The Old Testament Book of Wisdom referred to wisdom as “that spotless mirror of God” (7:26). And in Saint Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, we read, “Now we are seeing a dim reflection in a mirror; but then we shall be seeing face to face.” (1 Cor. 13: 12a) and “…we, with our unveiled faces reflecting like mirrors the brightness of the Lord, all grow brighter and brighter as we are turned into the image that we reflect” (2 Cor. 3:18).
In a fascinating article, entitled Clare of Assisi: The Mirror Mystic, widely respected Franciscan scholar Regis Armstrong wrote, “For the medieval author the mirror signified a tableau, a portrait or a description upon which a bystander could gaze and receive information or norms for everyday life, two styles of mirror emerge in the literature of the Middles Ages: the instructive and the exemplary.”
Saint Clare refers to the mirror as an important instrument of spiritual theology. In her 1253 letter to Agnes of Prague, she wrote, “Then, at the surface of the mirror, consider that holy humility, the blessed poverty, the untold labors and burdens that He endured for the redemption of the whole human race. Then, in the depth of this same mirror, contemplate the ineffable charity that led Him to suffer on the wood of the Cross and to die there the most shameful kind of death. Therefore, that Mirror, suspended on the wood of the Cross, urged those who passed by to consider, saying: All you who pass by the way, look and see if there is any suffering like my suffering.”
Though she would not say so herself, Saint Clare was effectively a mirror for the spirituality of Saint Francis not only for our appreciation and edification but for Saint Francis’ eyes as well. One can only speculate about the degree to which the permanence and unwavering fidelity of her religious life served to stabilize his own commitment, particularly in times of personal anguish and organizational turmoil. At critical moments in his life, he sought her counsel and found comfort in her presence. He asked her advice before choosing to preach rather than withdraw entirely into contemplative life, and, in his final years, he came to San Damiano as he was experiencing both agonizing illness and deep anguish about the administration of the movement that had begun to grow phenomenally.
Various accounts give witness to this companionship in which Saint Francis and Saint Clare sustained each other spiritually. I share with you one that I enjoyed reading: “In the last year of his life, Francis stayed in a hut ‘near San Damiano’ during a time of excruciating suffering and spiritual oppression. Triumphing through grace over his temptations of spirit, he wrote the Canticle of Brother Sun with its magnificent interplay of masculine and feminine symbolism.” The author continued with a reference to his last hours on earth, “This last hour of earthly contact between Clare and Francis ended in a combination of consolations and affliction. Celano concluded soberly: ‘When he had been taken away, the door which will hardly ever be opened for so great a sorrow, was closed’. On the other side of the door Clare was left to live out twenty-seven years in pursuit of their shared vocation without ‘her comforter in soul and body.’”
“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 whole being into the image of the Godhead through contemplation.”
(Clare of Assisi, Third Letter to Agnes of Prague)
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In addition to the books mentioned above, I draw the following to your attention because they proved invaluable in research that I recently conducted into the life of Saint Clare: Armstrong, Regis and Brady, Ignatius, ed. Francis and Clare: The Complete Works. New York: Paulist Press, 1982; Bartoli, Marco, Clare of Assisi. Quincy IL: Franciscan Press 1993; Franciscan Press, 1993; Peterson, Ingrid, OSF. Clare of Assisi: A biographical Study. Quincy, IL: Franciscan Press, 1993; Vauchez, André, “Female Sanctity in the Franciscan Movement”, The Laity in the Middle Ages: Religious Beliefs and Devotional Practices. ed. Daniel E. Bronstein. trans. Margery J. Schneider. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993. If you read French, you might also be interested in a collection of papers edited by Jean-Marc Charron, University de Montréal, and prepared for the 800th anniversary of Saint Clare’s birth: Claire d’Assise: Féminite et spititualité (Paris: Les Editions Franciscaines, 1998). This book contains excellent articles by notable Franciscan scholars and historians.
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I end this letter with a blessing attributed to Saint Clare: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. May the Lord bless you and keep you. May He show His face to you and be merciful to you. May He turn His countenance to you and give you peace. I, Clare, a handmaiden of Christ, a little plant of our holy father Francis, a sister and mother of you and the other Poor Sisters, although unworthy, ask our Lord Jesus Christ through His mercy and through the intercession of His most holy Mother Mary, of Blessed Michael the Archangel and all the holy angels of God, and of all His men and women saints, that the heavenly Father give you and confirm for you this most holy blessing in heaven and on earth. On earth, may He increase His grace and virtues among His servants and handmaids of His Church Militant. In heaven, may He exalt and glorify you in His Church Triumphant among all His men and women saints. I bless you in my life and after my death as much as I can and more than I can with all the blessings with which the Father of mercies has and will have blessed His sons and daughter in heaven and on earth. Amen. Always be lovers of God and your souls and the souls of your Sisters, and always be eager to observe what you have promised the Lord. May the Lord be with you always and, wherever you are, may you be with Him always. Amen.”
1. Nesta De Robeck, St. Clare of Assisi (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1951)
2. Margaret Carney, OSF The First Franciscan Woman: Clare of Assisi and her Form of Life (Quincy, Ill.: The Franciscan Press, 1993)