Monday, August 11, 2008

Celebrating St. Clare of Assisi

Today (August 11), members of the Franciscan family throughout the world celebrate the life and witness of Clare of Assisi (1193-1253). Along with Francis, she can be rightly considered as cofounder of the movement for spiritual renewal which bears his name. Though she called herself, “La Piantacella” or “the little plant” of Francis, Clare-- by dint of her deep prayer life, keen insight, and strong will -- was no less important to the development of Franciscan spirituality than Francis himself. Contemporary reflection and scholarship, fired by the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, have only served to enhance and highlight her important and lasting contribution.

The oldest of the three children of Ortulana and Favarone di Offreduccio. Clare was born to the Assisi aristocracy, while Francis belonged to the emerging, but still politically frustrated bourgeoisie. In the civil war between these two competing power blocs, Clare’s family was actually forced into exile in nearby Perugia. Ironically, it was in a later conflict with Perugia that Francis first entered into battle and was captured as prisoner of war.

Though of different class and caste, Francis and Clare nevertheless met and became acquainted with each other in Assisi. Twelve years her senior, Francis had just begun public ministry following his initial conversion. Clare was drawn to his message and to the ideal he proposed of living the Gospel life by following in the footsteps of Jesus. He became her spiritual director and guide, and encouraged her to realize her own vocation. Shortly after Palm Sunday in the year 1212, Clare left the protective confines of Assisi to be received into religious life by Francis himself at the little church of San Damiano outside the city’s walls. From there, she was escorted to a nearby monastery of Benedictine nuns and then lived in a number of other houses for women religious until she was eventually able to establish her own community—again, at San Damiano.

Like Francis, Clare suffered initially from her family’s outrage at her decision to embrace a religious calling. The men in her extended family tried, by force, to retrieve her, but she adamantly refused. In time, they relented, and eventually one of her sisters was to join her in community. In medieval Europe, it was well-nigh impossible for a woman, let alone a vowed religious one, to live outside the protective custody of either her family or cloister. Clare, then, was forced to find a way to live the Gospel life within the constraints of the monastic structure. And she did exactly that. For forty years she served as abbess at San Damiano and as foundress of the community of women known in her own time as the Poor Ladies (and, after her canonization, as the Order of St. Clare). By the end of her life (in fact, quite literally just before her death), Clare was able to see her Rule accepted by the Church. In this singular achievement, otherwise unheard of in the medieval world, Clare became the first woman to write her own Rule for religious life.

What was so significant about this Rule? It mandated that the sisters should live in poverty, without the security of the various endowments and benefices which otherwise ensured the existence and continuity of monastic life. Just as the friars did “in the world”, the followers of St. Clare were to live sine proprio, “without anything of one’s own”, albeit within the context of the cloistered enclosure. In addition, the sisters were to live an essentially egalitarian life, with no special ranks or privileges—an unheard of innovation in monastic life. The abbess was to be considered the servant of her sisters.

In terms of their spirituality, Clare and her sisters departed from traditional monastic thinking as well. As the Franciscan scholar Ilia Delio writes, “Whereas the monastic ascent is marked by a Neoplatonic structure in which the material world is transcended in pursuit of spiritual perfection, Clare emphasized the Incarnation as the starting point of union with God.”. . . . “This emphasis on encountering God incarnate in relationship—as brother or sister—was and remains a significant departure from the traditional monastic ideal." (Clare of Assisi: Heart Full of Love, pp. xiv ff). From the obscurity of her cloister in San Damiano, Clare was sparking a spiritual revolution whose effects are experienced even to this day..

As Poor Clare Sister Clare Andre Gagliardi writes in her essay on the 750th anniversary of Clare (St. Anthony Messenger, August, 2003), “ (her)) entire life was lived in trust of the God whom she knew loved her. She needed little material wealth because she trusted that God would care for all her physical needs. God never let her down. It takes deep faith to live so, but anyone who has tried to live dependent on God learns quickly the joy of simplicity. . . . Contemplative living was Clare's reason for living simply. One needs to be poor to have the space to meet God. Clare, by her way of life, witnessed to others the one thing necessary and found herself united with all people in sharing her need for and reliance on God.”

Sister Clare writes further: “Clare learned that embracing the cross opens one totally to God, who keeps teaching the depths of love. This union with God unites neighbors. Our suffering becomes one with that of others. Together, we learn the compassion and love mirrored by Jesus. . . Our own struggle with sinfulness teaches patience and forgiveness as we encounter the mistakes and failures of others. Conversion is the only route to transformation. Poverty frees and enables Christians to face the cross. In experiencing the cross, we—like Clare—are transformed.”

Francis and Clare enjoyed a shifting and developing relationship throughout their lives: initially he was her mentor and spiritual director. But over time, those roles changed significantly, with Clare offering spiritual counsel to Francis and and the friars, and eventually providing for his physical care in his protracted illness. Francis died at age 47; Clare was to outlive him by more than a quarter century. During that time, by her presence and prayer, she served as a vital center of gravity for the burgeoning Franciscan movement, especially as it continued to experience its institutional growing pains.

Today, we honor and give thanks for the life and example of our sister and spiritual mother, Clare of Assisi, and all of our Franciscan sisters. And we give thanks especially for our sisters the Poor Clares. Their powerful witness of prayer, service, simplicity of life, and dedication of the Gospel lies at the very heart of the vocation we share.

Quotes from St. Clare of Assisi:

"The soul of a faithful person is greater than heaven itself, since the heavens and the rest of creation can not contain the creator and only the faithful soul is God's dwelling place and throne. As the glorious Virgin of Virgins carried Jesus materially, so we too, by following in her footprints, especially those of poverty and humility, can without a doubt, always carry Him spiritually in our chaste and virginal bodies, holding the one by whom all things are held together, possessing that which in comparison with the other transitory possessions of the world, we will possess more securely." (Third Letter to Agnes of Prague)

“What you hold may you always hold. What you do may you always do and never abandon. But with swift pace and light step and unswerving feet, so that even your steps stir up no dust, go forward securely, joyfully, and swiftly on the path of prudent happiness. May you believe nothing, agree with nothing that would take you from this resolution, or put a stumbling block for you in the way. so that you may offer your vows to the Most High in pursuit of the perfection to which the Spirit of God has called you.”
Clare’s blessing….

Gaze upon Christ,
consider Christ,
contemplate Christ,
as you desire to imitate Christ.
Second Letter to Agnes of Prague (c.1235)

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