The Rev. Canon Laura Howell
Trinity Church, Bethlehem
The Middle Ages was not a good time for women who wanted to step outside their social boundaries. In some ways, women who had wealth were even more restricted than those who lived in poverty–they were subject to their fathers, husbands, brothers or guardians.
On Palm Sunday, 1212, 18 year old Chiara Offreduccio went to church to participate in the ritual that would declare that she and the other girls of Assisi were now of marriageable age. But Clare refused to present herself to the Bishop to receive the traditional palm branch at the end of the service. Instead, in the middle of that night, she ran away from the family home to join Francis and his band of mendicant friars. He cut her hair in a ritual resembling monastic tonsuring and the beautiful, wealthy young woman put on monastic garb. Francis hid her in a nearby convent. Eventually, the men of her family found her and tried to drag her back home, but she refused to go, and insisted that she would stay with Francis and his companions. She sold everything she owned and distributed the proceeds to the poor.
Clare was a problem. She had heard Francis preach passionate sermons of devotion to Holy Lady Poverty and was determined to follow him. Such a choice was unheard of for a woman of that age. Even nuns were required to be cloistered and under the governance of a men’s monastery. Clare rejected that tradition and began to lead a life of the utmost austerity, without having any income, owning any property or goods of any kind. Many women were attracted to the life of complete sacrifice to God and service to the poor. Two of Clare’s sisters and her mother eventually joined her. They lived by begging, by gardening for their food, and by spinning and sewing. But for many years, they were pressured by the church to take up the life of the “ordinary” nuns.
With Francis’ encouragement and assistance, Clare drafted a Rule of Life for her little order, now called The Poor Ladies of San Damiano, or “Poor Clares”. In it she codified her and Francis’ insistence that the women should never have any possessions or property. Two days before she died, a document arrived from Pope Innocent III, approving the radical way of life that was as close to Christ’s as possible. She died on August 11, 1253.
Clare has left us some remarkable writings, primarily providing advice to other monastics and praising holy poverty. In her first letter to Blessed Agnes of Prague, she wrote:
O God-centered poverty, whom the Lord Jesus Christ who ruled and now rules heaven and earth, who spoke and all things were made, condescended to embrace before all else!…What a great and laudable exchange, to leave the things of time for those of eternity, to choose the things of heaven for the goods of earth, to receive the hundred-fold in place of one, and to possess a blessed and eternal life.*
Francis’ and Clare’s embrace of poverty was done for the love of Christ–to be as much like their beloved Lord as possible. And to make available any goods that they happened to acquire for the use of the poor, whom Christ blessed, and held up as the inheritors of the kingdom. Our world is not so very different from Clare’s. It is a time where huge amounts of food are discarded, while people starve; where except for a few hours a week lovely churches are empty, while people sleep under bridges; where we have to build extra storage units for our stuff, but some children have no clothes to go to school in. Perhaps a bit more of Clare’s Christ-like poverty and concern for others might be a healthy antidote. She said, “We become what we love, and who we loves shapes what we become.” Which leaves us with the painful question, “What does what we are, say about what we love?”
O God, whose blessed Son became poor that we through his poverty might be rich: Deliver us from an inordinate love of this world, that we, inspired by the devotion of your servant Clare, may serve you with singleness of heart, and attain to the riches of the age to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
*Francis and Clare, The Complete Works.* Trans. Regis J. Armstrong, OFM CAP and Ignatius Brady, OFM. NY: Paulist Press, 1982, pp. 192-193.