Saint Clare of Assisi, Virgin and Abbess

004For the Sake of Jesus Christ God placed Saint Scholastica at the side of our Patriarch Saint Benedict; in a similar way, He placed Saint Clare, Chiara Offreduccio, at the side of the Seraphic Patriarch Saint Francis. There is something singularly appealing about Saint Clare of Assisi. In many ways she resembles Saint Francis, and yet Clare is Clare . . . fearless, spontaneous, unconventional, and strong-willed. She could have satisfied the expectations of her family and of society by marrying some promising young nobleman. Or she could have entered some respectable and established monastery; with her family background and her personal gifts, she would certainly have become a grand Lady Abbess and wielded the crosier over a comfortable little monastic domain, but Clare cared little for conventions and respectability. She did not hesitate to put behind her “houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children and land” (Matthew 19:29) for the sake of Jesus Christ and of His Gospel.

Running After Christ

Our Lord says, “If any man has a mind to come my way, let him renounce self, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Clare was not content with simply following Christ by putting one foot in front of the other. There was nothing of the foot-dragging disciple about her. She was compelled by a burning passion to run after Christ, to run towards Christ the Bridegroom.

And at midnight there was a cry made: Behold the bridegroom cometh, go ye forth to meet him. (Matthew 25:6)

Running, of course, is a theme dear to Saint Benedict: "Run", he says, "while ye have the light of life, lest the darkness of death seize hold of you". Again, in the Prologue, he says, "We must hasten to do now what will profit us for all eternity" and, still again, "as we go forward in our life and in faith, we shall with hearts enlarged and unspeakable sweetness of love run in the way of God’s commandments" (Prologue, Rule of Saint Benedict).

Saint Clare was not unfamiliar with the Rule of Saint Benedict. She seems to have been marked by her stay among the Benedictines of San Paolo in Bastiola, and then among the Benedictines of Sant'Angelo Panzo. It is said of the virgin Saint Cecilia, Famula tua, Domine, quasi apis tibi argumentosa deservit, "Thy handmaid, O Lord, served thee like a busy bee". I can picture Saint Clare, like a busy bee, gleaning from the Rule of Saint Benedict nectar and pollen for the production of her own Rule.

With Swift Pace and Light Step

The song of Clare’s heart was, I think, that verse from the Canticle of Canticles: “Draw me after you: we will run in the fragrance of your perfumes” (Canticle of Canticles 1:3). Clare adds her own commentary:

O heavenly Spouse! I will run and not tire, until you bring me into the wine–cellar, until your left hand is under my head and your right hand will embrace me happily, and you will kiss me with the happiest kiss of Your mouth. (Fourth Letter to Agnes of Prague)

The writings of Saint Clare are full of movement. She is drawn on by the love of Christ. One sometimes has the impression that the impetus of love leaves her breathless. To Agnes of Prague she wrote:

What you hold, may you always hold, what you do, may you always do and never abandon. But with swift pace, light step, unswerving feet, so that even your steps stir up no dust, may you go forward securely, joyfully, swiftly”. (Second Letter to Agnes of Prague)

conver-3The Immovable Clare

Clare’s spiritual journey is characterized by movement; at the same time, once the dynamic Clare had made up her mind, she was immovable. Saint Clare was not impressed by the show of power, not tempted by the allurements of prestige, not intimidated by threats of violence.

I Will Seek Him The Lady Clare had the single–minded determination of the bride in the Canticle of Canticles. Leaving her family house under cover of night on Palm Sunday of the year 1212, she ran to the church of the Porziuncula in search of the One whom her soul loved. “Upon my bed by night I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer. I will rise now . . . I will seek him whom my soul loves” (Canticle of Canticles 3:1–2).

Sponsa Christi

Clare was drawn to Jesus Christ passionately: to his poverty, to his Gospel, to his Passion and, above all, to the adorable Sacrament of his Body and Blood. The Holy Spirit had already ignited a spark in her soul when, hearing Saint Francis preach, it was fanned into a great flame. The flame burned brightly in the dark little church of the Porziuncula on the night Francis clothed her in a rough tunic, girded her with a rope, cut off her hair and covered her head with a sacred veil, the ancient sign of the sponsa Christi, the virgin consecrated to Christ.

A Joyful Brightness in the Church Clare’s living flame of love attracted others to into the circle of its radiance. Other “Clares” followed her, or rather, followed Jesus Christ with her, joining their lights to hers, forming a joyful brightness in the whole Church, cherishing the “privilege of poverty” above all things. Without heartfelt gratitude I think today of all the Poor Ladies I have had the grace of knowing: those of Bethlehem Monastery in Barhamsville, Virginia; those formerly of Eindhoven in Holland; those of Borgo San Pietro in Assisi; and those of Drumshanbo and of Cork here in Ireland.

The Love You Had At First

What is Saint Clare’s message to us today? What is Saint Clare's message to you, dear Dom Finnian and Dom Elijah in these days leading up to your profession? In looking at Saint Clare's burning desire to run after Christ and to share the life and the sufferings of “the One whom her soul loved,” we become aware of our own foot–dragging and sluggishness. Clare’s shining light shows up the compromises with darkness in our own lives. Remembering the Lady Clare, the mystical word of Christ to Saint John echoes in our hearts:

I know your works, your toil, and your patient endurance. . . . I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you: that you have abandoned the love you had at first. (Apocalypse 2:1-4)

A Rekindled Passion for Jesus Christ

The feast of Saint Clare calls us back to our “first love”, not at all in a condemning or censorious way, but gently, joyfully, brightly. Let this then be the grace of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass today: a re-enkindled passion for Jesus Christ, to whose love, as our father Saint Benedict says, we are to prefer nothing. «Nihil amori Christi praeponere» (Rule of Saint Benedict, Chapter IV, 21).