POPE BENEDICT SPEAKS OF ST CLARE:
The Pope devoted one of his Wednesday audiences to telling the story of “the courageous woman of Assisi” and how the beauty of her life and message can still speak to our world.
“The Whole Church Is Indebted to this Courageous Woman”
One of the most beloved saints is without a doubt St. Clare of Assisi, who lived in the 13th century and was a contemporary of St. Francis. Her testimony shows us how the whole Church is indebted to courageous women rich in faith like her, capable of giving decisive impetus to the renewal of the Church.
Then who was Clare of Assisi? To respond to this question we have reliable sources: Not only the ancient biographies, such as that of Thomas of Celano, but also the acts from the canonization process promoted by the Pope only a few months after Clare’s death, which contain the testimonies of those who lived with her for a long time.
Born in 1193, Clare belonged to a wealthy aristocratic family. She gave up nobility and wealth to live poorly and humbly, adopting the way of life proposed by St. Francis of Assisi. Although her family was planning her marriage to an important personality — as was the practice in that time — with a bold gesture inspired by her profound desire to follow Christ and her admiration for Francis, Clare left her family home when she was 18 and, accompanied by a friend, Bona di Guelfuccio, she secretly met the Friars Minor in the small church of the Portiuncula. It was the afternoon of Palm Sunday of 1211.
Amid general shock, a highly symbolic gesture took place: While his companions held lighted torches in their hands, Francis cut her hair and Clare was clothed in a coarse penitential habit. From that moment she became the virgin bride of Christ, humble and poor, and she consecrated herself totally to him. Over the course of history innumerable women like Clare and her companions have been fascinated by Christ who, in the beauty of his Divine Person, fills their hearts. And the entire Church, through the mystic nuptial vocation of consecrated virgins, shows what she will always be: the beautiful and pure Bride of Christ.
In one of the four letters that Clare sent to St. Agnes of Prague, the daughter of the king of Bohemia who wished to follow in her footsteps, she speaks of Christ, her beloved Spouse, with nuptial expressions, which might be surprising, but which are moving: “Loving him, you are chaste, touching him, you will be more pure, letting yourself be possessed by him you are virgin. His power is stronger, his generosity loftier, his appearance more beautiful, his love gentler and all grace finer. Now you are enfolded in his arms, he who has adorned your breast with precious stones … and has crowned you with a crown of gold marked with the sign of sanctity” (First letter: FF, 2862).
Above all at the beginning of her religious experience, Clare had in Francis of Assisi not only a teacher whose instruction she would follow, but also a fraternal friend. The friendship between these two saints is a very beautiful and important element. In fact, when two pure souls meet, inflamed by the same love of God, they draw from their mutual friendship a very strong stimulus to undertake the way of perfection. Friendship is one of the noble and lofty human sentiments that divine grace purifies and transfigures. Like St. Francis and St. Clare, other saints have also experienced a profound friendship on the same path toward Christian perfection, such as St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane Frances de Chantal. And it is precisely St. Francis de Sales who writes: “It is lovely to be able to love on earth as one loves in heaven, and to learn to love one another in this world as we will eternally in the next. I am not speaking here of the simple love of charity, because we must have this for all people; I am speaking of spiritual friendship, in the ambit of which two, three or more persons exchange devotion, spiritual affections, and truly become one spirit” (Introduction to the Devout Life, III, 19).
After spending a period of some months in other monastic communities, resisting the pressures of her relatives who in the beginning did not approve of her choice, Clare established herself with her first companions in the church of San Damiano, where the Friars Minor had prepared a small convent for them. She lived in that monastery for more than 40 years, until her death, which occurred in 1253. A firsthand description has come down to us of how these women lived in those years at the beginning of the Franciscan movement. It is a report full of admiration from a Flemish bishop, James of Vitry, on a visit to Italy, who states that he met a great number of men and women, of all social classes, who “leaving everything for Christ, fled from the world. They are called Friars Minor and Sisters Minor and are held in great regard by the Lord Pope and by the cardinals. … The women … dwell together in various hospices not far from cities. They do not receive anything, but live from the work of their hands. And they are pained and profoundly disturbed because they are honored more than they would like, by clerics and laity” (Letter of October 1216: FF, 2205.2007).
James of Vitry keenly understood a characteristic trait of Franciscan spirituality about which Clare was very sensitive: radical poverty associated with total trust in Divine Providence. Because of this, she acted with great determination, obtaining from Pope Gregory IX or, probably already from Pope Innocent III, the so-called Privilegium Paupertatis (cf. FF, 3279). Based on this, Clare and her companions of San Damiano could not own any material property. It was truly an extraordinary exception in regard to existing canon law, and the ecclesiastical authorities of that time granted it, appreciating the fruits of evangelical sanctity that they recognized in the way that Clare and her sisters lived. This also shows that in the Medieval centuries, the role of women was not secondary but rather was considerable. In this regard, it is appropriate to recall that Clare was the first woman in the history of the Church who composed a written rule, subject to the Pope’s approval, so that the charism of Francis of Assisi would be preserved in all the feminine communities that were being established already in great numbers in her time, and that wished to be inspired in Francis’ and Clare’s example.
In the convent of San Damiano, Clare practiced heroically the virtues that should distinguish every Christian: humility, a spirit of piety and penance, charity. Even though she was the superior, she wished to serve the sick sisters herself, subjecting herself also to very humble tasks: Charity, in fact, overcomes all resistance and one who loves makes every sacrifice with joy. Her faith in the Real Presence in the Eucharist was so great that on two occasions, prodigious events were witnessed. With the exposition of the Most Blessed Sacrament alone, she succeeded in repelling the Saracen mercenary soldiers who were about to attack the convent of San Damiano and devastate Assisi.
These episodes, like other miracles about which records were kept, drove Pope Alexander IV to canonize her only two years after her death, in 1255, sketching a eulogy of her in the bull of canonization in which we read: “How vivid is the force of this light and how strong is the clarity of this luminous source. Truly, this light was enclosed in the retreat of the cloistered life, and outside it radiated luminous brilliance; it was recollected in a small monastery, and expanded outside throughout the vast world. It was kept inside and spread outside. Clare, in fact, hid herself, but her life was revealed to all. Clare was silent, but her fame cried out” (FF, 3284).
And this is precisely the way of things, dear friends: It is the saints who change the world for the better, they transform it in a lasting way, injecting in it energies that only love inspired by the Gospel can arouse. The saints are the great benefactors of humanity!
St. Clare’s spirituality, the synthesis of her proposal of sanctity, is gathered in the fourth letter to St. Agnes of Prague. St. Clare uses the image of the mirror, which was a very widespread image in the Middle Ages, rooted in the patristics. And she invites her Prague friend to look at herself in that mirror of perfection of every virtue, which is the Lord himself. She writes: “Happy certainly is she who is granted to enjoy this sacred union, to adhere with the depth of the heart [to Christ], to the One whose beauty all the blessed multitudes of the heavens admire incessantly, whose affection impassions, whose contemplation restores, whose goodness satiates, whose gentleness fills, whose memory shines gently, from whose perfume the dead will return to life and whose glorious vision will make blessed all the citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem. And given that he is the splendor of glory, pure whiteness of the eternal light and spotless mirror, look every day in this mirror, oh queen, bride of Jesus Christ, and scrutinize continually in him his face, so that you will thus be able to adorn yourself completely within and without … shining in this mirror are blessed poverty, holy humility and ineffable charity” (Fourth Letter: FF, 2901-2903).
Thankful to God who has given us the saints who speak to our heart and provide us an example of Christian life to imitate, I would like to conclude with the same words of blessing that St. Clare composed for her sisters and that still today the Poor Clares, who carry out a valuable role in the Church with their prayer and their work, keep with great devotion. They are an expression from which arises all the tenderness of her spiritual maternity: “I bless you in my life and after my death, as I can and more than I can, with all the blessings with which the Father of mercies blesses and will bless in heaven and on earth his sons and daughters, and with which a spiritual father and a spiritual mother bless and will bless their spiritual sons and daughters. Amen” (FF, 2856).