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The Mirror of Gospel Life

Clare of Assisi by Simone Martini (c. 1284 – 1344)

Homily for the Feast of Saint Clare, given by Brother Desmond Alban SSF, August 11, 2020 at the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, New York, NY

It was on the night of Palm Sunday, 20 March 1212, that Chiara Offreduccio, now known to us as St Clare, left the grand family home next to the Cathedral in Assisi, stealing out by way of the ‘door of the dead’, a doorway kept blocked up most of the time and usually reserved for the passage of the departed. Earlier that day, as he presented her with her palm at mass, the Bishop had indicated his approval for her plans. That night, in the little chapel of the Porziuncula on the plain below the city, Saint Francis and his companions cut her hair, and she exchanged her fine clothes for a plain habit and veil. Shortly afterwards, in her temporary refuge with the Benedictine nuns of San Paulo, near Bastia, her father and other armed members of her family would attempt to bring her home by force, but she clung to the altar. Indeed, it was not long after that her sister left the family home and joined her. Their mother, too, became one of the women who formed that first generation of the sisters now known throughout the world as the Poor Clares. Seven such sisters, Anglicans, live together in a convent near Oxford in England and, while many of us brothers and sisters of the Franciscan First Order through the world may never have even visited or met them, for those of us who have had that privilege, there is a tangible sense of the life-force that issues from this hidden, enclosed life of prayer at the heart of the ministries in which the rest of us are engaged. That is certainly true of the far more numerous Roman Catholic Poor Clares throughout the world.

None of this was remotely in accord with the plans Clare’s family had made for her. Dynastic marriage to further the fortunes of the family would have been the usual intention. But for a noble woman of particular piety a respectable form of Religious Life was just about acceptable. In becoming a nun in an established Order, the expectation would have been that she would have maintained her privileged social status. It would not have been unusual for such a woman to bring her personal maid with her to attend to her needs, but that was not an option for Clare. Instead, in the community she founded, she would be engaged in mundane tasks herself, washing the feet of her sisters and serving their needs, especially in sickness, as they shared in a life of profound simplicity.

Hers was a call to the same radical Gospel Poverty as that lived by Francis and his brothers, and it is likely that her original intention was to share in similar ministries to theirs too, for instance in the care of the lepers banished from city society, something she was able to do for a time before withdrawal to a hidden life of enclosure, in part chosen, in part imposed. And the Church, and Society, demanded that Religious Life for women be placed in a safe and secure basis, not in the Gospel way of ‘Sell all that you have and give to the poor.’ She fought for the rest of her life with powerful people, including a succession of Popes, for what she called the Privilege of Poverty, the right not to be kept in comfort by such means as the possession of lands and estates like those which formed the security of the family from which she had come. The Papal Bull finally granting such a privilege reached her on her death bed.

Like Francis before her, Clare was not interested in those who tried to present her with tried and approved forms of life, even if they had the name of Saints like Benedict attached to them. Her absolute resolve was to live the life that she had been called to live, nothing less, and she was a woman of amazing strength of character and resolve. ‘I did it my way’ one might think, but this wasn’t remotely like any of our own Western individualism, or the egotism of what today is sometimes called the False Self.

Rather, Clare was passionately, truly, madly, deeply, in love with God, precisely because she knew where her truest self was grounded. Indeed, the clue as to the motivation of her life is found in her reported last words, ‘Blessed be you, O God, for having created me.’ [1]

This is not pride or narcissism. Rather Clare’s was a true humility grounded, not in self-hatred or deprecation, but rather in that foundational sense of her immeasurable value as one unique expression of the creative love of God. And that applies to us, too. Each of us was God’s good idea from all eternity

And so, when we discover how the contemplative dimension may be developed in our own lives, as we gaze on the face of Christ who reveals to us the face of God, it is like gazing into a mirror, a mirror that reflects and makes known to us the purpose of the whole created order, and a mirror that shows us ourselves in the most true light, ourselves in the place where we were all intended to grow into the fullness of God’s intention for us. That image of a mirror was one of Clare’s own favorites, and I close with her words in a letter to the daughter of the King of Bohemia who had established a convent of sisters under her guidance. These words to Agnes of Prague are surely fitting for each of us too, as we learn to discover who we are and always have been in Christ.

Place your mind before the mirror of eternity!

Place your soul in the brilliance of glory!

Place your heart in the figure of the divine substance

and, through contemplation,

transform your entire being into the image

of the Godhead Itself,

so that you may feel what friends feel

in tasting the hidden sweetness

that, from the beginning,

God Himself has reserved for His lovers. [2]

[1] The Legend of Saint Clare (1225) 46 in Regis J. Armstrong, O.F.M. Cap. The Lady Clare of Assisi: Early Documents [2] The Third Letter to Agnes of Prague (1238) 12-14 in Regis J. Armstrong, O.F.M. Cap. The Lady Clare of Assisi: Early Documents


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