“They say that we are too poor, but can a heart which possesses the infinite God be truly called poor?” (Saint Clare)
On 11th August, it was the feast day of Saint Clare of Assisi.
I was not planning to write about this saint for a couple of reasons... Firstly, she is a very old Saint (she was born in Italy during the 12th century), and secondly, the radical poverty of the Sisters of Saint Clare is amazingly difficult to connect with in our modern secular lives.
And yet, since her Feast Day last month, I have had little reminders of Saint Clare – left and right – and I have been unable to take her from my mind… And so, I decided that perhaps I should put pen to paper – or keyboard to screen – and write a little something about the life of this saint…
She is an interesting Saint – Saint Clare – and she was surrounded by saints herself. As a young woman of 18 years old, she heard Saint Francis of Assisi speak during Lent and decided that she wished to follow his rule. Saint Francis encouraged Saint Clare’s vocation, overseeing the shaving of her hair and the giving away of her expensive things when she joined the Benedictine convent on Palm Sunday of that year. Saint Clare refused to return home to her father and in fact, wished to offer more to God. Saint Francis of Assisi oversaw that too, even serving for a time as a spiritual director of the Order of Saint Clare or the Poor Clares (though they were not called that until a decade after Saint Clare’s death, which was after her canonisation). Saint Clare convinced Saint Francis to allow her to live as he and his friars did – in utter poverty. And so, Saint Clare moved to a small house and lived in rags with no shoes on their feet in almost total silence. In fact, Saint Clare was so dedicated to the way of the Franciscans that she was called “another Francis” by those who knew her and heard of her. She constantly resisted the urgings of the various Popes to modify the extreme poverty of her order. She was called to a difficult life!
It is one thing to imagine, romantically, the notion of utter poverty, and quite another thing to live it in real life – to feel it against your skin, to smell it inside your nose and taste it on your tongue. After all, utter poverty means eating whatever food you are given. That means squashy, powdery half rotten apples and rotten bananas and stale loaves of bread and no meat or fish or dairy. That means wearing clothes that are not warm in winter and not cool in summer and that are not flattering and that possibly smell because of the last person who wore them. That means no shoes, and your feet become cold and hard and calloused and your heels crack and bleed and when you walk outside you walk on the dirt and rocks and water and refuse and snow and then wipe your feet off and walk inside too. She was called to a difficult life!
Almost total silence is not a romantic thing. After all, we humans are social creatures. It helps us to talk to each other. If we are sad, it is important to express that. If we are happy, we want to talk about that too. But for Saint Clare and her sisters, there is mostly quiet – no talking or touching unless it is required and mostly that occurs in prayer. It is a lonely life in that sisterhood. She was called to a difficult life!
And yet others came, following Saint Francis and Saint Clare. Saint Clare’s younger sister, who took the name Agnes upon taking her vows, soon joined her. When their wealthy father – still disgruntled by Clare’s religious vows and religious life – sent his soldiers to bring Agnes home so that Agnes could be forced to marry, her body became as heavy as lead, and the men were unable to lift the Saint.
I imagine the fear of that scene. Soldiers in those days were brutal men. They carried swords and wore armour and killed people in face-to-face combat. I imagine them pounding their way into the small house where Clare lived. I imagine them leering and jeering at the nuns there. I imagine their insults and I imagine the fear of those women. I imagine the conflict of feeling of these Saints in having to upset their father to please their God. What a sacrifice. What a commitment. They gave away their Earthly home – never ever to return. Never ever to hear a kind word from their father again.
And so, instead of becoming a wealthy wife, Saint Agnes – like her older sister Saint Clare – became a poor nun.
At the beginning of the 13th century, when the town of Assisi was under attack and Saint Clare was very ill, she took the Blessed Eucharist in the Monstrance and knelt at the gate of her little house and she prayed, “O Lord, protect these Sisters whom I cannot protect now,” And she felt a voice answer, “I will keep them always in My care.”
The Poor Clares – and in fact all of Assisi – were left untouched by the attackers, who experienced a strange and unexplainable fear upon seeing the little town.
It is one thing to romanticise a military attack on a group of unprotected women, and quite another to imagine the reality of the fear and threat to these women. The women would have been considered spoils of war. They would have been passed from one rapist to another and used for the soldiers’ gratification without any regard to their dignity as human beings. They would have been brutalised and tortured. Afterwards there would have been pregnancies with no way to reconcile them within their medieval societies. Saint Clare and her sisters were exposed to the terror of a horrifically unimaginable fate. And yet, they did not run away. They did not grab a sword. They did not stand and fight… They knelt and prayed instead.
For Saint Clare said, “Never forget that the way which leads to Heaven is narrow; that the gate leading to Life is narrow and low; that there are but few who find it and enter by it; and if there be some who go in and tread the narrow path for some time, there are but very few who persevere therein.”
Because Saint Clare understood, “They say that we are too poor, but can a heart which possesses the infinite God be truly called poor?”
I wonder about that poverty of the Sisters of Saint Clare? It seems richer than all the world to me right now…
For with prayer, I stand on Holy Ground where everything is clear. Here. At the Foot of the Cross.