August 2011 – Letters from Assisi VIII

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

August 2011

Dear Friend of Saint Francis,

The Gospel of Luke contains numerous references to the dangers of inordinate attachment to wealth. He quotes Jesus as counselling his disciples to travel without being encumbered by possessions. He admonishes them to eschew privilege and to deal wisely with power. He reveals, including in their more insidious forms, vices related to anxiety and selfishness.

In the parable to the rich fool, he warns, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist of the abundance of possessions.” (12: 15) He adds, “Be on your guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly.” (21: 34)

In fact, this is the foundation for Chapter 10, verse 6 in the rule of Saint Clare of Assisi, “I admonish and exhort the sisters in the Lord Jesus Christ to beware of all pride, vainglory, envy, avarice, care and anxiety about this world, distraction and murmuring, dissension and division.” Her strict observance of the counsel that the Lucan gospel provides is an important reason why her memory is one of sanctity radiating across the ages.

Some people that we put on a pedestal and call saints came by a circuitous route in order to attain that status. They were worldly before being struck by grace. Others walked a fairly straight road, intent from an early age to conform their lives to spiritual values. Saint Clare of Assisi seems to fit into the latter category.

Saint Claire was so named because it was assumed that somehow this child would illuminate the shadows of the world. Her anxious mother prayed fervently while the child was still in her womb, and received this insight: “Fear not for you will safely give birth to a light which will shine on all the earth.”

Saint Francis would often preach in her presence in Assisi. He knew of her holiness even in those early days. On Passion Sunday, 1212, at the church of St. Mary of the Portiuncula, mother church of the fledgling fraternity, she begged Saint Francis to receive her in the community of hermits. He agreed but immediately entrusted her to the care of Benedictine Sisters in the nearby monastery of San Paolo delle Abbadesse.

She was soon transferred to Sant’Angelo in Panzo where a small group of women were living in a manner that better suited her spirituality of penance. But this would not last long. She desired something more closely aligned with the poverty that Saint Francis advocated, without privilege—a form of living unheard of for the women of that time.

The move to the modest chapel of San Damiano was decisive. She would never leave this place which was so dear to Saint Francis. Along with a small group of sisters, she would live in utter simplicity in a style that was substantively Franciscan, even as it differed in appearance from the life of the friars.

The Poor Ladies, as they were known initially, would live in an enclosure that was meaningful. Like the walls surrounding medieval cities, this one would provide physical but also spiritual security. It was a sign of fidelity and devotion to a heavenly spouse. It was also the locus of a spiritual family that would grow in virtue as the sisters worked through the challenges of daily living in a confined space of sanctity.

The origins and scale of San Damiano convey a great deal about the spirituality of the early sisterhood. Never conceived as a monastery, it was in fact a rural chapel made of stone—restored by stone by Saint Francis himself—modest in proportion, as were the primitive oratories at Rivotorto and the Portiuncola. According to Marco Bartoli, it would have been surrounded by wood and straw buildings similar to the “hovels and huts of the Assisi peasants and country folk.” Although stone structures of bare necessity would be erected, such as a dormitory, an infirmary, and a small refectory, San Damiano would “always have an unfinished air.”

The community of San Damiano was an eremitical community right from the start, composed of women who followed to the letter the Gospel precept to ‘seek first the kingdom of God and his justice.’ They sought to live their life of prayer in isolation and separation from the world.
Marco Bartoli, Clare of Assisi

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The tiny church dedicated to Saints Cosmos and Damien that became the home of Saint Clare for all of her adult life is a short distance downhill from Assisi’s ancient southern wall. This was the second time in recent years that I walked down the cypress-lined, cobblestone steps to this quiet oasis. Surrounded by silver-grey olive groves, the little rustic church is surprisingly simple, even for a Franciscan site. Its facade of small stones and pebbles features a modest, unornamented rose window, intersected in its lower part by a three-arched portico.

I advance reverently into the church, drawn by the felt presence of those who understood what the world would either ridicule as foolishness or dismiss as mystery—the joy of spiritual poverty. The furnishings of the austere interiors seem original. Everything appears to stand undisturbed since the death of the poverello’s dear spiritual friend in 1253.

I descend to the Crucifix chapel that Saint Francis restored. The Byzantine cross against which Jesus seems to stand, almost resurrected, accompanied by angels and saints, is a replica. The original now hangs in Saint Clare’s Basilica that was built after her canonization. A small window and grille separates the chapel from the choir. The saint and her sisters seem only out for a moment as I enter the paneled choir with its rough, age-stained backboard and kneeling benches. The vaulted ceiling is whitewashed, as are the windowless walls. But nothing symbolizes poverty as much as the primitive lectern. The cobblestone floor must have cooled the sisters during scorching summer days.

In the silence, I can imagine psalms sung in peace and joy as I walk, sometimes alone, through Saint Clare’s private garden and oratory, the dormitory where she died, the cloister and refectory. I feel the peace of hearts united with Jesus, and the joy of a project so filled with meaning.

The form of life of the Order of the Poor Sisters that Blessed Francis established is this: to observe the Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, by living in obedience, without anything of one’s own, and in chastity.
Chapter One, (Rule) Form of Life of the Poor Sisters

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Saint Clare’s legacy is impressive. Although she left few writings (a rule, a testament, a blessing and five letters), it is noteworthy that she was the first to have a new rule of life for a community of women approved by the pope. The degree of emphasis that she placed on the “privilege” of poverty was unique.

She also stands out as a pillar of faith, hope and love. She spent more than 40 years in the tiny convent of San Dimiano and endured many hardships. Her confidence in the vision of Saint Francis must have been a source of strength for him. He certainly found incredible joy in his first female follower, especially as she lived in the very place where he had initially heard the call to “repair” the church of Christ. Saint Clare was a significant part of that project, standing up as she did to those who would have undermined it.

Among the symbols that are prominent in her writings are mirrors that reflect the virtuous aspirations of the human heart, and the narrow door which recalls that the path to holiness that requires discipline, wisdom and humility is not a wide, worldly boulevard.

Like Saint Francis, Saint Clare was a mystic. This is especially evident from her theology of the mystical marriage which was the subject of her letters to her friend, Blessed Agnes of Prague, daughter of the king of Bohemia. Just as Saint Francis had wanted to become a knight to a very particular Lord, namely Christ, Saint Clare understood the call to be the bride of Christ as the most fulfilling of vocations. These were elaborate images, rich in analogy and meaning.

Her compassion for Christ in his suffering, her deep desire for union with her beloved and her maternal care for her sisters brought this image to life. Mystical marriage made sense of silence to be intimate with a lover only present in Spirit; humility in the presence of holiness; poverty that imitated the vulnerability of the Crucified lover; and love that is faithful to the grace of God who is Love.

O spouse of Christ, because, since you have totally abandoned the vanities of this world, like the other most holy virgin, Saint Agnes, you have been marvellously espoused to the spotless Lamb, Who takes away the sins of the world.
Saint Clare, Fourth Letter to Agnes of Prague

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May the brilliant star that still shines fill your heart with joy. May Jesus give you peace.

Richard Boileau

Crib and Cross
Franciscan Ministries