As Franciscans complete the commemoration of the origin of the Poor Clares and the celebration of the feast of St. Clare, a friar knowledgeable about Franciscan history shares insights about the life of Clare of Assisi and her impact on the world. He has researched the history of the Franciscan Order, as well as the implications of the Franciscan tradition on contemporary issues of justice, peace, and the environment. For the essay in its entirety, please click here.
The feast of Clare of Assisi on Aug. 11 brought to a close the celebration of the eighth centenary of her conversion and the origin of the Order of Poor Clares. Clare left her home, her family and the city of Assisi on the night of Monday of Holy Week in 1212 (perhaps 1211), and traveled to the Portiuncola, where Francis and the brothers awaited her arrival. There, before the altar of Our Lady, Clare’s hair was cut, and she promised obedience to Francis. From there, Francis led her to the Monastery of San Paolo where she was accepted as a serving sister. She was soon joined by her blood sister, Catherine, perhaps before they moved to San Angelo in Panzo.
At San Angelo, Catherine was officially received by Francis, who changed her name to Agnes. From there, with Pacifica di Guelfuccio, a neighbor and companion of Clare’s mother on pilgrimages, these three women moved to San Damiano, where they began their life of penance and poverty as Poor Sisters. Over the next 40 years, Clare and her sisters would forge a Form of Life (Rule) in the crucible of their commitment to following in the footprints of Jesus the Way, as shown to them by Francis. That Form of Life was approved by Innocent IV shortly before Clare died, and it continues to enliven the Church and world through the witness of countless women who follow the form and example of the Poor Sisters of San Damiano.
In the past 25 years, scholars from around the world, including Poor Clares themselves, have peeled away some of the accretions of history that have obscured the historical figure of Clare and the origins of the Poor Sisters. Recent studies have helped to appreciate the significance of Clare and her sisters for the Church and world of her day, and provide insights into the importance of the lives of Clare and her sisters for today.
Six fundamental commitments and practices of Clare and her sisters suggest elements important for every Franciscan.
1. Clare’s conversion was not so much an abrupt change of course for her, but rather a choice to follow what lay deep within her own heart. The conversion that Clare models, then, is about being oneself in the sense of one’s best, most authentic self: the self that God calls forth every day as one responds to God’s Spirit at work in each person, community, and the world.
2. From the moment that Clare joined Francis and the brothers at the Portiuncola until her death at San Damiano, Clare would insist on two dimensions of her experience without compromise: the living connection to Francis and the Lesser Brothers, and her commitment to poverty. At the heart of what Francis showed Clare was a way to be in relationship to Jesus Christ, which is what poverty and sisterhood express at this deepest level.
3. The form of life of the Gospel was lived by these women who described themselves as the “Poor Sisters,” that is, as poor women who followed Jesus in sisterhood. The life they created and shared in San Damiano both expressed and reflected the mystery at the heart of Christian life itself — the mystery of God who exists in relationship, the Trinity, three persons in one God. At San Damiano, rich, noble, and poor women came together in communion of life, convinced that they were called together by God. Real lived poverty — the choice to live with what was sufficient for the day — was the condition for authentic sisterhood, and sisterhood made the life of poverty livable.
4. The Poor Sisters lived as servants of one another and those who came to the sisters for help. Clare was the model of the sister as servant, reflecting the image of Jesus who humbled himself, who bent down to the world in his incarnation. Leadership in Clare’s sisterhood was exercised as service, and authority was expressed as co-responsibility and participation in the life of the community.
5. Clare and her sisters at San Damiano were engaged in a lifelong conversation with ecclesiastical authorities, with the Lesser Brothers, and with the tradition of the church regarding their Form of Life. This text of Clare’sForm of Life itself, which was approved by Innocent IV on her deathbed, witnesses to this ongoing conversation of the sisters, as do the Letters to Agnes of Prague. Theirs was a theological conversation, which they engaged in, in order to preserve their charism in the Church.
This kenotic, conversational habit of doing theology at San Damiano began with a respect for and a trust in experience — not the experience of single individuals, but the experience of the “we,” the subject of theological conversation. Clare’s theological conversation relied on the experience of sisters, refined in the crucible of the day-to-day commitment to most high poverty. This shaped a common voice of experience that had a validity and worth, because it was shaped by the experience of unity.
6. Clare and her sisters did not define themselves as contemplatives, as other monastic women of the period were defined. Rather, the Poor Sisters placed themselves among the workers of medieval society through their commitment to manual labor. Yet Clare and her sisters lived contemplative lives at San Damiano. Clare suggested this in her Letters to Agnes, using the metaphor of the mirror of the cross as focus. Clare invited Agnes to gaze, consider, and contemplate three moments of Christ’s life: the poverty of his birth, the humility of his life, and the charity of his passion. The Poor Sisters looked into this mirror, into the real human experiences of the life of Jesus, in order to discover their true identity.
These three moments of the Gospel describe Christ’s choice to live for others: Clare understood that Christ underwent the passion “for the redemption of the whole human race — a significant affirmation in a church and world that excluded non-Christians and heretics.” The purpose of looking into the mirror of Christ’s life was to see one’s self reflected there — the object was to become what you see: the poor, humble, loving incarnate Jesus. For the Poor Sisters, to pray this way was to be transformed by the imitation, or the following, of what one sees there. Thus, Clarian prayer is contemplating in action — seeing Jesus reflected in the mirror of the human life of others — the poor and marginalized, the sick and the suffering, those excluded from society, and one’s brothers and sisters. And this method of prayer was at the same time the Form of Life of the Poor Sisters — prayer and life converged and transformed life into prayer, and prayer into life.
Each of these elements of the life of Clare and the Poor Sisters represents the commitments and practices that sustained Franciscan life at San Damiano. May the life and witness of Clare of Assisi and the Poor Sisters of San Damiano continue to both challenge and enrich Franciscans today, as they have for 800 years.
— Fr. Michael is a full-time visiting professor at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y. He previously taught at St. Bonaventure University’s Franciscan Institute and at the Washington Theological Union.