St. Clare of Assisi, whom we celebrate today, is famous largely because she seems ever in the shadow of St. Francis. Her beautiful name, Chiara, means “light” or “bright” in Italian, and was often used to denote a woman with blond hair, which is somewhat unusual among Italians.
You can read all about her life here, so I’m not going to repeat the details. Just a few reflections.
To me the starting point, as with just about everybody, is that she, like St. Francis, was a child of her times. To understand people of the past, we have to try as far as possible to disconnect ourselves from our present-day prejudices and perspectives. Much of what we take for granted today, including our attitudes and moral or cultural outlooks, simply were not part of their lives in the past. Sometimes we think that the main differences between us and the people of the past lie in technology and progress. We have flush toilets and they had to use outhouses. Or, they thought the earth flat, we know it’s round. They were in the “Dark Ages,” and we “enlightened.” And so on.
When we become attuned to the differences, we can also see the similarities. The time of Francis and Clare was marked by great social and economic change, when great wealth was generated through trade, and when increasing numbers of desperately poor people permeated society. It was also a time when Church leaders had pretty much sold themselves out to the pursuit of comfort and wealth, and neglected to live in a way that modeled the following of Christ to ordinary people.
In this culture, Francis and Clare were profoundly countercultural. If you read their lives, it’s hard not to think they went way overboard in rejecting almost everything and choosing only absolute poverty. But they had a point to make. And sometimes to make a point, you have to find ways of talking louder.
But, it’s important to see this poverty not as deprivation but as a choice to be filled with love. One who truly loves will give up everything for the beloved, without hesitation or compromise.
Toward the end of her life, St. Clare developed along-distance but very close relationship with a woman she never met face to face. Agnes of Prague, a noble woman of Bohemia had heard about this holy woman of Assisi from some Franciscan missionaries, and wrote to her seeking guidance. They discovered in each other a kindred spirit. In a letter, which is read in today’s Liturgy of the Hours, Clare speaks of Jesus Christ as a mirror, in which we see both ourselves and him in one image of love. Mirrors in those days were very imperfect plates of polished brass, with a rough distorted image along the edges, getting truer as you approached the center. She advises Agnes – and us – to pay attention to the sides, and them to move to the center – the depths – where we allow our Beloved to draw us into the deepest delight of his love. It’s a beautiful reading, and I suggest it’s worth a few minutes to meditate on a way the lets its wonderful images speak to the heart.