Walking in the Footsteps of St. Clare

John Aherne, OFM Features

The Basilica of St. Clare in Assisi (Photo courtesy of Georges Jansoon)

The Basilica of St. Clare in Assisi (Photo courtesy of Georges Jansoon)

To recognize the Aug. 11 feast of St. Clare of Assisi (1193 – 1253), a student friar reflects on the experiences of the young woman who left her family, her friends and her status to follow God and a man named Francis. The author recently returned from a retreat in Italy – with two other HNP friars – in preparation for professing solemn vows on Aug. 27. He is grateful for the opportunity to “have walked in the footsteps of this powerful woman and even more so, for her witness of the truth of Christ.”

What might it have been like for St. Clare to leave her family, her friends, and her status to follow the will of God and a strange, charismatic man named Francis?

Several other friars and I, in Assisi preparing to take solemn vows, spent one evening trying to answer that very question. We gathered at dusk outside of the home where St. Clare may have lived to retrace her footsteps on that Palm Sunday night as she fled her home for the Church of San Damiano. Guided by John Kruse, Ph.D., we made our way by torchlight through the cryptic alleys of Assisi as the sun began to set and the moon began to shine ever more brightly in the darkening sky. It was clear why we came to Assisi to prepare for our lives as Franciscans: walking the same roads St. Clare may have walked, seeing and touching some of the same buildings she may have passed made her journey and her spirit come alive. Hers is a journey and spirit of descent and freedom— two fundamental aspects of Franciscan life.

You cannot follow St. Clare’s path without experiencing profound descent. As was befitting for someone of Clare’s noble lineage, her family’s home was perched high on one of the steepest inclines in Assisi. From there, she and her family would have been able to follow the comings and goings of their neighbors and cast a wary eye — from a safe distance — on the lower classes living on the slopes below. On that evening, Clare — echoing Christ’s incarnation and St. Francis’s renunciation of goods — began her own descent to the heart of God. She plunged out of her house and the safety of her social class, down the well-maintained roads of upper Assisi, down the side alleys and poorer roadways, preparing to tumble down the dangerously wild hills to meet St. Francis and begin her life. Following her footsteps that evening provided a strange sense of liberation; in a city where so much of the day is spent going up and down and up and down hill after hill, it was a relief to finally let go and simply walk down. To let a force larger than yourself take over and pull you to the depths of where you are simply meant to go.

The streets of Assisi

The streets descending into Assisi (Photo courtesy of John)

And where St. Clare was meant to go is where we are all called to go: to live in the freedom of God. As beautiful and as enchanted as Assisi is, there is something a little claustrophobic about the city. As we followed Clare’s path toward the city gate, we found ourselves on constricting, twisty streets, following oddly angled roads and tight, confining alleyways. We also never felt as if we were alone — there were plenty of people out on the streets that evening, and even when there was a break in the crowds, we wondered who might be watching us from the many tiny windows that looked down on every road and piazza.

After making our way through the narrow entrance of Porta Moiano, specifically designed to keep strangers out and citizens in, we were suddenly overwhelmed by a profound sense of openness. Where there were walls and porticos, there was now nothing but vastness. Where there were prescribed streets and alleys, there was now nothing but wilderness. Where there were dozens of eyes peering at our every move, there was now just sister moon, peaceful and bright, looking without judgment on us and on the rolling hills of the Umbrian countryside.

The view

The vista from Assisi (Photo courtesy of John)

How pleasant Clare’s well-mannered life as a noblewoman must have been. But how exhilarating that vast expanse of space just outside the city walls. And how exciting her descent into the untamed splendor and freedom of God. The liberation she must have tasted as she turned away from Assisi and the expectations of her family toward this gorgeous vista was just a forerunner of the true freedom she would find in the cloister of San Damiano. There, after placing her mind before the mirror of eternity and her soul in the brilliance of glory, she would experience the very same freedom Christ experienced on the cross. The true freedom of God.

Of course, it is impossible to know exactly what was going through St. Clare’s mind on that night she gave up everything to follow Christ. But on this Feast of St. Clare, I am grateful for the opportunity to have walked in the footsteps of this powerful woman, and even more so for her witness of the truth of Christ: that descent can lead to the heights of glory, and that turning our backs to the boundaries we’ve always known can lead to the greatest freedom of all.

john-aherneBr. John, a native of New York City, professed his first vows as a Franciscan in 2012. He and George Camacho, OFM, and Edgardo Jara, OFM, plan to profess their final vows this month.

Editor’s note: Friars interested in writing a reflection for HNP Today on a timely topic — a holiday, current event, holy day, or another seasonal theme — are invited to contact the HNP Communications Office at communications@hnp.org. The newsletter’s previous reflection — written by Thomas Hartle, OFM, about the Feast of the Porziuncula – was published on July 27.

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