Selected Readings for the Franciscan Feast
of Saint Clare of Assisi
But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body.
Everything was going swimmingly for Saint Francis and the boys until a young woman wanted to join them. A young, wealthy woman of prominent family. Strong-willed, devout Clare had become enamored of Francis' extraordinary way of life. She especially wanted to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, as Francis was doing. That is, she would be poor.
It had been revealed to Francis that the easiest, fastest, most direct route to holiness was poverty. The Church had longed believed that the martyrs went directly to heaven when they were executed. They were immediately known as saints. In fact, until that time the Church had not developed a sophisticated system of canonization; it hardly needed any since very few non-martyrs were honored as saints.
In imitation of the martyrs, devoted men and women practiced asceticism. They might be monks or hermits; and lived on minimal food, prayed throughout long nights and shunned the comforts of roof and mattress. They wore bristly hair shirts under their clothing, and sometimes chained themselves to certain sites. Or they rambled about as homeless pilgrims. In return these ascetics enjoyed the respect of Christian laity who supported their lifestyle with food and drink.
Francis adopted that way of life but gave it a clearer focus when he espoused "Lady Poverty," the long-neglected widow of Jesus Christ. He ignored those passages that suggested Jesus had a home in Capernaum and permitted his disciples to carry a purse. Francis preferred to dwell upon Jesus' birth in Bethlehem; his flight into Egypt; and his peripatetic way of life. He recalled Jesus' remark, "Birds have nests; foxes have holes but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." Finally, and most tellingly, Jesus died in naked poverty on the bare wood of a cross and was laid in someone else's grave.
Jesus' poverty included the shunning of his family, the desertion of this disciples, the betrayal of Judas, the denial of Peter, the hostility of the Pharisees, the hysterical curses of the Jerusalem mob, the condemnation of all legitimate authorities, and the abandonment of his God.
In Jesus' crucifixion Francis saw the perfect love of the Son for the Father and, in his Resurrection, he saw the absolute fidelity of the Father.
Francis aspired to live as Jesus had lived. To his surprise, many young men also wanted to live like that. They could sleep in an abandoned barn; they could do manual labor, accepting no more payment than one day's wage. If that failed they could beg as lepers, the lame and the blind had done for centuries. It would be a life of complete abandonment to the Providence of the God who hears the cry of the poor.
In the meanwhile they were free to sing and dance and celebrate God's mercy and tell all the world about Him -- because the world and the Church had largely forgotten Jesus. No one loved poverty; and, obviously, if you don't love the wife (Poverty) you cannot love the spouse (Jesus.) They hardly knew who Jesus was and when they represented him in pictures, statues and crosses he was seen as powerful, secure, comfortable and happy.
Francis came to know Jesus intimately through poverty. His disciples would too. But could women follow in that way?
Mary had, certainly, with Joseph's protection. And now this 18-year-old Clare wanted to. When she came to Francis and the fellows there in the woods he accepted her. She was persistent and he could not turn her away. After cutting her hair and providing some rags to clothe her, he introduced her to a Benedictine convent to await further developments.
Not long afterward other women fled the debutante life of Assisi and Francis installed the group in his first repaired chapel, San Damiano. The building was barely adequate, with an enclosed garden and walls to protect the defenseless women in a savage world of constant warfare.
In her later years, after Francis died, Clare of Assisi would return his favor as she protected his spirit. His troubled community struggled to live with his simplicity as the Church (rightly) insisted that they train their preachers and teachers in the true faith. Then, as now, heresies were rampant and everyone who could read and most of those who could not read considered themselves expert in religion.
The friars would acquire books and libraries, and accept chairs at major universities. Clare and her sisters, enclosed in a small monastery, remained totally dependent upon the charity of Assisi. They had no land, no estates, no serfs or peasants to support them. When a marauding Saracen army ravaged the Umbrian Valley they were defenseless. By the grace of God, they were not attacked.
The friars would learn from the sisters how to live with property in the Spirit of Francis. Despite their roofs and beds, and eventually their automobiles and computers, they could still espouse Lady Poverty with that total abandonment which Saint Clare demonstrated.