Dear Friend of Saint Francis:
At the age of 17, a young lady born into one of the most prominent families of Assisi set aside her expensive dress, allowed Saint Francis to cut her hair and clothe her in a rough tunic and a thick veil, and vowed to follow a life of penance and prayer. It was March 18, 1212, Palm Sunday.
To avoid scandal, Clare Offreduccio di Favarone at first resided with the Benedictine nuns of San Paolo, near Bastia. But her father had others plans. He had intended for her to marry, so he became furious at the news of her secret entry into religious life. He tried persuasion and even intimidation to bring her back home. But the gracious lady who would come to be known as Saint Clare of Assisi held her ground. Soon she was joined by her younger sister Agnes.
Once others joined with them, Saint Clare and her sister were established in a rudimentary building beside the simple chapel of San Damiano, situated outside the town. The poor church, which had been rebuilt by Saint Francis a short time before, was ceded to them by the Benedictines. Thus was founded the first community of the Order of Poor Ladies—the Poor Clares.
Named Clare by her mother because of an answer that she received in prayer, Saint Clare radiates still a wisdom that is remarkable. Humble but tenacious; poor in possessions but rich of faith; simple in action but profound in writing, her life is worthy of admiration.
The mother of Saint Clare (said) how, when she was excepting the child and was standing before the Crucifix praying for help in the dangers of childbirth, she heard a voice which told her that she was to bring forth a great light which would greatly enlighten the world.
“Canonisation Process,” Clare of Assisi: Early Documents
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For centuries, Saint Clare stood in the shadow of her spiritual master. No doubt she would have wished it that way. But studies undertaken during the past few years reveal a person who merits particular attention, if only because it adds another coloration and texture to the rich Franciscan tapestry. What can we learn by considering the varied influences on her chosen life of poverty and joy?
A full answer would require exploration of her entire life and the precise circumstances in which her beliefs and religiosity developed. I chose here rather to focus on a particular influence that has intrigued me for some time.
There is no doubt that the spirituality of Saint Francis was and always remained the foundation of her own worldview, theology and religious practice. But like Saint Francis, she constantly hungered for the Gospel. In The Legend of Saint Clare, we read, “She provided for her children, through dedicated preachers, the nourishment of the Word of God and from this she did not take a poorer portion.”
Like many of her contemporaries, liturgy was her chief source of spiritual nourishment. She would hear the word both read and commented. The Holy Spirit would guide her attention to focus on certain expressions or images. For Saint Clare, poverty, humility and charity were three qualities to be ceaselessly contemplated in Christ, observed in humanity and lived in discipleship. Her intense observation of poverty in the Incarnation and Passion of her Lord, both the fruit of God`s own humility and charity, led her to feel compassion for her Saviour, and to choose that path in solidarity, and then to feel a similar charity for humanity affected by poverty that is not of its choosing.
Contemplation and compassion were linked too in an ancient tradition dating back to the Fathers of the Church. The bishops, priests and friars who preached to the Poor Ladies would surely have transmitted a familiarity with patristic thought. Among these would surely have been neighbouring Cistercians. We might also add the influence of the Victorines who certainly had an impact on the writings of Saint Bonaventure.
In the prologue to his book on the tradition commonly associated with the Abbey of St. Victor in Paris during the 12th century, Steven Chase writes, “In Victorine spirituality contemplation gives birth to charity…We can look at the parts of Victorine spirituality metaphorically as a set of mirrors. Each mirror reflects back upon the whole: contemplation, compassion and charity.”
He concludes, “As with the majority of Christian spiritual traditions, Victorine spirituality finds its most ecstatic intimacy in Trinitarian and Christocentric reality…each (experience) leads to a single possible response: humble compassion. At its most basic, Victorine compassion leads us always forward toward an ever-growing expectation of the holiness of all things.”
According to Marco Bartoli, the theology of Saint Clare has many fascinating dimensions. These gravitate around two principal poles: Christ as mirror and example, and Mary as sign of spiritual motherhood.
Saint Francis had emphasised the need for brothers and sisters of the order to serve as an example and mirror of Gospel living but Saint Clare carried the image of mirror much further and applied it explicitly to Christ. The images of Jesus both as a most holy and beloved child as well as the Crucified One were important both as mirror and example. These led logically to the theme of the mystical marriage which is most evident in her letters to Blessed Agnes of Prague who is a fascinating person in her own right. Born of King Ottakar of Bohemia and Queen Constance of Hungary, she entered the order of Poor Ladies and began to correspond with Saint Clare.
The image of mystical marriage led Saint Clare directly to a development of Marian spirituality. The emphasis on marriage and motherhood distinguishes hers from the spirituality of Saint Francis. That is perhaps not surprising, given their respective genders. But it may also suggest the dominant influence of Cistercian theology in that it resonates with the work of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. Nonetheless, the coloration is typically Franciscan. Mary is portrayed as a poor woman, the mother of a poor child.
Inasmuch as this vision of him is the splendour of eternal glory, the brightness of everlasting light and an unspotted mirror, look into this mirror every day….Look at the parameters of this mirror, that is, the poverty of him who was placed in a manger and wrapped in swaddling clothes…Then in the depths of this same mirror, contemplate the ineffable charity which led him to suffer on the wood of the Cross and die thereon the most shameful kind of death.
Saint Clare of Assisi, Fourth Letter to Blessed Agnes of Prague
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Keith Warner argues that three things distinguish the spirituality of Saint Clare from that of other religious women of her day: poverty, contact with her Franciscan brothers, and enclosure: “It was not new for women to want to dedicate themselves to God in prayer, but it was to do so without the security of land and possessions. It was not common for cloistered women to have spiritual friendships with religious men, or to have a cloister that permitted women to travel outside a monastery. Yet these were issues that Clare felt very strongly about, and defended vigorously.”
Saint Clare chose enclosure freely. Prayer was her chosen path. But it was not to be expressed without a fraternal regard toward visitors and the outside world. Exposure to the brothers, though carefully regulated, would ensure the bond needed to remain faithful to Franciscan family values. Church officials tried on two major occasions to prohibit friars from being their preachers and confessors but she resisted by fasting and succeeded to maintain the fraternal link.
But it is the virtue of poverty that caused the most controversy. Saint Clare believed that an uncompromising commitment to poverty was essential for the imitation of Christ, which was an attitude that was central to Saint Francis`s own relationship with God. The Church, including every pope that ruled during her lifetime, was ambivalent, sometimes objecting, sometimes approving.
Saint Clare was afflicted by illness during the last 28 years of her life, often on the brink of death. Claiming and holding on to the “privilege of poverty” was a source of both anguish and consolation. Innocent IV granted her wish in her final days. But the pain, now entirely physical, continued. Bartoli writes, “The longer her agony went on the greater grew the popular devotion. San Damiano became a shrine. After the pope, came prelates and bishops. Clare received them all.”
During her final days, three of earliest brothers of Saint Francis were her comfort—Juniper, Angelo and Leo. They surely reminded her of her beloved mentor. Her final solemn blessing was a mother’s simple and sincere expression of love for her sisters. It bursts forth with confidence in God and the biblical counsel of poverty.
Finally she turned to her weeping daughters to whom she recalled in a praising way the divine blessings while entrusting them with the poverty of the Lord. She blessed her devoted brothers and sisters and called down the fullest graces of blessings upon the Ladies of the poor monasteries, those in the present and those in the future.
“Canonisation Process,” Clare of Assisi: Early Documents
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May the lives of holy heroes inspire you to seek the heart of God. May God bless you and give you peace. May God fill your heart with love and joy.
Fraternally in joy and hope
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