Book Review: Clare of Assisi: Gentle Warrior by Wendy Murray
“Why care about Clare?” This is the initial question Wendy Murray poses in her 2020 book Clare of Assisi: Gentle Warrior (Paraclete Press, $19.99). As a First Order Brother, this is a question I have also asked myself. Before reading Murray’s book, I had limited exposure to Clare’s personal story. I knew a bit of her vocation from my novitiate classes, such as Clare’s fleeing to Francis in the night, her enclosure at San Damiano, and her final days. While fascinating in itself, no wellspring of desire to learn more about Clare arose within me. After all, as Murray readily admits in the book’s introduction, Clare was a derivative of St. Francis. Is not Francis therefore the more necessary of the two for reading and studying? However, perhaps moved by the Spirit, I picked up Wendy Murray’s vivid and illuminating portrait of the Lady Clare and found myself engrossed in Clare’s biography.
The role of St. Clare in the Franciscan leggenda is severely underappreciated. Clare was one of the few people who actually knew Francis when his order of penitents was still in its formative years. She later assisted him during some of the most critical moments in his life and the life of the Order. In 1220, for example, unable to manage the chaos of his expanding order, Francis resigned as Minister General and sought the advice of Clare (who urged him not to do it, by the way). Five years later, after receiving the stigmata (the appearance of the miraculous wounds of Christ) Francis sought rest at the monastery at San Damiano with Clare and the sisters. Finally, as church leaders pressed the Sisters to live enclosed lives (resembling Benedictines) with financial endowments (thus preventing the need to beg for alms), Clare actively opposed these changes. She fought for and won the “privilege of poverty”, meaning the sisters would remain active in the world and reliant on God and the financial generosity of the brothers and the surrounding communities. Two days before her death, she obtained papal approval for her Rule of Life, preserving what she could of this holy poverty. She was the first woman in Christian history to ever have her own order’s Rule of Life. Since her death in 1253, thousands of women have devoted themselves in service to the world in the path forged by St. Clare of Assisi.
My earliest memory of the Poor Clares was as a 2nd-grade Catholic school student visiting their monastery in the outskirts of our town in Kokomo, Indiana. In preparation for the trip, my classmates and I were told we could not come in contact with the sisters. The Poor Clares lived and worked behind a screen, called a grille. We heard they rarely go outside the monastery, and if they do, they have to have permission first. Twenty-two years later, what memories and images remain of that first visit to the monastery are vague. However, what I do remember are the smiles radiating from the sister’s faces as we entered into their own world, if only for a little bit.
Years later, as an Anglican Franciscan brother, I write to the Poor Clares in Kokomo every now and then, asking for their prayers and providing updates of our life here at San Damiano Friary. Thinking of the Sisters reminds me of their immense devotion to Our Lord and the indispensable service they provide to the church. I know since my first visit in 1998 the Sisters have always kept me in their prayers. They have a beautiful vocation, one which goes largely unrecognized and overlooked. Thankfully, I am told by the Reverend Mother Abbess about a woman in her mid-20s entering into the novitiate at the monastery. Deo gratias!
Murray’s book helped me realize and appreciate the degree to which Francis’ story is intimately bound with Clare’s. There is much more to this book than what I am able to discuss here. I found myself spiritually warmed reading Murray’s exploration of Clare’s theology of bridal mysticism. Clare’s letters to Agnus of Prague, which Murray provides in full in the book’s appendix, provide us with some of the best surviving examples of this beautiful theology. “Transform your entire being into the image of the Godhead Itself,” writes St. Clare to Agnus, “so that you too may feel what friends feel in tasting the hidden sweetness that, from the beginning, God Himself has reserved for His lovers...May you totally love Him Who gave Himself totally for your love, at Whose beauty the sun and the moon marvel, Whose rewards and their uniqueness and grandeur have no limits.” For anyone who has ever sought to do the will of God, Clare provides the words so many of us are unable to articulate.
To exclude the story of Clare or to undermine her importance in relating the story of Francis ultimately does a disservice to both. One cannot truly say they know our Holy Father Francis unless they come to know the life of our Holy Mother, Clare of Assisi.
Brother James Nathaniel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.