Saturday, August 11, 2007

St. Clare

Today is St. Clare's Day. She is my very favourite Franciscan person, I think. There's a long article this month on the online St. Anthony Messenger site, and I've taken the liberty of extracting a few bits, since they are so much better than anything I could write myself:

Within each of us is the potential to be a light focusing attention on God's presence in our world. Clare of Assisi's life reveals just how much light she shed.

As a friend and as cofounder of the Franciscan movement, she supported Francis as he discerned God's message for himself and his followers. Together with her sisters, she wrote the first Rule written for religious women by a woman. She modeled the ability for the authority or power of a group to be held by the entire group (collegiality).

This year, the Franciscan family throughout the world celebrates the 750th anniversary of Clare's death in August 1253. Her life continues to speak to all of us. She challenges us to incorporate simplicity, singleness of purpose and unity within families and communities into the complexity of our 21st-century lives...

Clare was born in 1193 in Assisi, a small town in the scenic Umbrian Valley of Italy. She was born of nobility, the oldest child of Ortulana and Favarone di Offreduccio.

At the end of the 12th and the beginning of the 13th century, Italy was a cauldron of political and military strife. Society was divided into two groups: the maiores and minores. The maiores were the nobility. The minores were former serfs, who had become merchants, craftsmen and field workers. These two groups were continually fighting for power among themselves.

In her early youth, Clare was exiled to Perugia. While the men in the family were off fighting their wars, the women chose to live as penitents. Ortulana, along with her daughters, as well as other women among Clare's family and friends, were fasting, praying, bringing food to the poor and visiting prisoners.

This time of suffering and exile became a time of spiritual formation. Many of the women living with Clare in Perugia, including her mother and sisters, later became some of Clare's first followers in San Damiano.

In 1205, Clare's family returned to Assisi. Francis had already begun his conversion. He had publicly renounced his father and started rebuilding San Damiano. In 1208, he began preaching. Clare's cousin Rufino became one of his early followers.

Clare's household had to have experienced the stir that Francis was causing. An eyewitness, cited in the Acts of the Process of Canonization [of Clare], said that, during this time, Clare went to hear Francis preach, gave him some money to rebuild churches and to feed the poor, and arranged to talk to him in private.

Clare and Francis were both experiencing God breaking into their lives, changing them and calling them to give themselves over to God. Both were facing unknowns and both were probably frightened and unsure of themselves. It must have been a comforting grace to meet a kindred spirit and to encounter another human being who was experiencing the same call and facing the same doubts.

Clare's sister Beatrice tells us (in the document of the canonization process) that Francis first initiated the visit with Clare. Some speculation suggests that women were asking to join his movement and Francis needed a strong woman to lead the others...

Francis and the brothers received Clare on Palm Sunday night at the chapel of St. Mary of the Angels (the Portiuncula) in the year 1212. Shortly after this, she was taken to San Paolo, a Benedictine monastery in Bastia.

The men in Clare's family were not happy with her following Francis. Their power and wealth were diminishing with the changes in society. Clare was beautiful and they had hoped that her marriage would bring prestige and continued wealth into the family. They followed her to San Paolo with every intention of bringing her home.

Clare instead held on to the altar and claimed sanctuary. She had made her choice. She would never turn back.

Clare's sister Catherine, soon to be called Agnes, joined Clare. The two lived for a while with a group of Beguines (13th-century women under vows) in Sant'Angelo in Panzo until Francis brought them to the church of San Damiano. There, the Lord gave them sisters and their community grew quickly...

Clare's community was to be vastly different from the monastic communities of her time. The sisters were to live poorly without large land holdings. Like Francis, their Rule would be to embrace the gospel form of life. They would all be of equal rank, and all decisions affecting their life would be made by all of them.

They would have an abbess, but she would consider herself "the servant of the sisters" and she would lead more by her example of virtue than by instruction or admonition.

Clare was the perfect follower of Francis. She understood his message and would spend her entire life making it a lived reality. Her life and the lives of the early sisters, however, were not easy ones.

Francis died young. Clare outlived him by 27 years. She remained firm and kept the ideal alive, despite Francis' absence and the dissension among his brothers. The Church would see the poverty of her life as too difficult. She negotiated with popes and worked to get her Rule approved until the day before she died—August 10, 1253...

Clare was a woman of prayer, and 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.

Clutter blocks freedom and blurs perception. Living simply helps one develop an attitude or willingness to be emptied. One quickly learns what is important. Those who live simply learn to live with open hands: to appreciate what is given but to be equally willing to let go, when letting go is what is needed.

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...

Clare wrote four letters to Agnes of Prague, the queen of Bohemia, who became a Poor Clare. (Clare's sister Agnes is known as Agnes of Assisi.) In her third letter to Agnes, she writes, "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."

Taking these words to Agnes seriously would change the way people look at themselves and others. The answer lies within. The realization of this "indwelling of God" calls for a respect and an appreciation for who we are. Clare taught her sisters to see themselves as temples of God, mirrors of Christ and revelations of the Holy Spirit. Such servanthood holds none of the unhealthy implications of being either slaves or doormats.

It calls us to mirror the self-emptying compassion we have seen mirrored in Jesus. It is the same Jesus, as we clearly know, who dwells in our neighbor. Our neighbors are also temples of God, mirrors of Christ and revelations of the Spirit. Our God dwells in each of us and each of us uniquely manifests our God.

Like Mary, we are called to birth our God for one another, to bring to life the reality of God's presence.

"One needs to be poor to have the space to meet God." I wish I could explain how those words make my heart sing! There is so much to the life of prayer that is hidden, that belongs behind closed doors, or far away from anyone (Matthew 6.6; Matthew 14.23; Luke 6.12, and so on...) and true poverty is like that. Jesus called it a blessed state (Matthew 5.3; Luke 6.20).

Jesus wasn't talking about the poverty of injustice, the grinding famine that so many in the world are facing today, so much as about being "poor in spirit" (Matthew 5.3). Francis and Clare were like that. Their very real physical poverty, being chosen as it was, was an almost sacramental reflection of their spiritual poverty and purity, that known emptiness, emptied-ness, that is the place of God; and that has its holiest parallel in the virgin womb of our Lady, by which "all generations will call [her] blessed" in that she was empty so that she might bear God.


Kelly Joyce Neff said...

thanks, Mike!
blessings to you on this day of the Seraphic Mother's anniversary.

Jane R said...

Thanks Mike, lovely and instructive.

Mike Farley said...

Thank you, both! It was a blessed day, too, one way or another...