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Seasonal Reflection: St. Clare of Assisi

by Thomas Hartle, OFM

HartleThomas1The feast of St. Clare, lifelong friend of St. Francis of Assisi, is celebrated Aug. 11. Below, Holy Name Province’s spiritual assistant to the Poor Clares shares his thoughts on the first abbess of the Second Order of Franciscans.

In an age when the Church was attempting to renew itself — coming to terms with a century of change and coping with movements seeking a return to a more authentic Gospel life — the institutional Church was ill equipped to respond adequately.

While trying to adapt to a changing world, the Church sought to check and contain, if not completely enclose, the new society that was emerging.

A major paradigm shift was taking place and the Church was slow to take stock of the economic revolution and the growth of urban society that was increasingly manifesting itself. Instead, the Church opted to remain entrenched in rural feudalism.

A Push and Pull
To this end, the Church relied upon arid legalism, a bureaucratic and autocratic papacy, and the Roman curia to address the major issues of the times. But history would show that the institutional Church was ill adapted, if not powerless, either to suppress or to meet the challenges of history. Among them were:

  • The onslaught of money
  • The rise of nationalism
  • New forms of violence (wars between cities and towns, the Crusades, majores vs. minores)
  • The struggle between attraction and resistance to wealth, power and fleshly pleasures

It was into this world that Clare and Francis of Assisi chose to live the Gospel by following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. It was folly to the Assisians and a stumbling block for the institutional Church; but to Clare and Francis, it was joy and salvation.

stclareClare’s Response
To this end, Clare entered into a love affair with Christ that grew and deepened in the crucible of suffering that was to afflict her. The death of Francis, her extended period of sickness following his death, and the attempted efforts of Rome to moderate and interfere with her way of life, seem to have fueled her inner life as the spouse and lover of Christ.

A formidable person, Clare was a woman with whom to be reckoned. Determined and combative, she was a woman with infinite patience. She used stubborn diplomacy and perseverance to carry out her plan of life, even defying the pope over the issue of absolute poverty. She assumed responsibility for the steps necessary to assure the success of what she valued above all else: to live the Gospel and follow Jesus Christ while remaining close to Francis and the Order and faithful to the Church. This fidelity was not without suffering; she rebuffed all pressure from anyone who tried to convince her to bend.

When death finally came to embrace Clare, she spoke to herself and said, “Go securely and in peace, my blessed soul. The One who created you and made you holy has always loved you tenderly as a mother her dear child. And you, Lord, are blessed because you have created me.”

Clare of Assisi was a woman with a sense of wonder who delighted in the Lord. She was a woman of light who enlightened many. She was aflame with the love of God and was a woman ahead of her time. Her holiness was manifested less by miracles performed than by a virtuous life lived. We can infer from Clare that holiness is not the absence of imperfection or character defects, not even the absence of sin, but rather a life lived in the awareness of God’s presence.

Certainly, her presence radiated the light and goodness of her Lord.

— Fr. Tom, who lives in Boston, was appointed spiritual assistant to the Poor Clares in 2008, after having served in this role for 10 years previously.