August 11: St Clare
ST CLARE: AN EXAMPLE TO THOSE LIVING IN THE WORLD
Today, I would like to take the opportunity to present St Clare, "the poor little plant" of Francis, as a model not only for contemplative nuns, but as "a mirror and example to those living in the world", according to St Clare’s own words, in her Testament:
"For the Lord himself not only placed us to be a model for others as an example and mirror, but also (a model) for our sisters whom the Lord will call to our way of life so that they may be a mirror and example to those living in the world... Therefore, if we live according to the form mentioned above, we shall leave others a noble example" (Testament 19-23).
Clearly, St Clare is a model of contemplative prayer and of the entire contemplative dimension of the Christian and Franciscan life, but I do not intend to dwell now on that obvious aspect.
I'm sure you will remember the Letter of our Ministers General on the occasion of the Eighth Centenary of the birth of St Clare. It was addressed to those who love Clare and Francis throughout the world. Reading it in preparation for today's feast, I found other less obvious aspects of St Clare that show her to be an excellent example for lay people, especially for the Secular Franciscans, and particularly for women.
Clare, together with her mother Ortolana, is included in a list of women who brought honour to the Church, "because of their good reputation and their good work for the poor. Among their human virtues, particular praise was given to their exemplary care of house and family, their tireless service, their domestic work, their friendliness, their courtesy, their affability, their open hospitality, their interest in cultural, civic and political problems. There was also their great compassion for the weak and the poor of every kind, and that discretion and practical good sense which were appropriate in one who had to be, always, within and outside the house, the' Lady', the Mistress" (n.4). Here, we have excellent examples of secular life sanctified by women.
"From her youth, everything about Clare had distinguished her as a unique and unmistakable 'lady'. She was a strong person, courageous, creative, attractive, and gifted with rare human and maternal affection. She was a person of good and beautiful love, towards God and towards humankind and every living creature. A mature person, she was sensitive to every human and divine value" (n.5). Isn't this the ideal of the Secular Franciscan woman?
Even in the period of her youth spent in her father's house, we note her life of penitence, mercy and generosity towards the poor: a way of life esteemed by all, both within and outside the house. Clare "already gave herself to a form of life practised by many young women all over Europe, independently of any wish to enter a monastery or convent" (n.9): they were sisters of penance and poor women of Christ.
"It is not a marvel that such a noble gentlewoman, who lived as a penitent in the world, should be revealed for what she truly was, deep down, - a 'new' woman - as soon as she met Francis... the 'new man,' (n.11). These two persons, after Jesus Christ and his Mother, are the models for all Franciscans.
The fame of the virtues of Clare, after entering the religious life, "filled the houses of illustrious women, reached the palaces of duchesses, penetrated finally into the rooms of queens. The cream of the nobility vowed to follow her footsteps, and, in holy humility, renounced the pride of ancestry and blood. Some, suitable for marriage to dukes and kings, responded to the public fame of Clare, and undertook hard penance; some, already married to powerful men, also imitated Clare, according to the possibilities of their situation,' (n.16). This means that these married women, leaders in political and cultural life, were Franciscan Tertiaries, or what we call today Secular Franciscans.
"Clare and Francis, ‘renewed in the spirit', knew how to portray that gospel ideal for the masses of ordinary people, going beyond the usual feudal categories of clerics and monks" (n.28) and nuns. "Francis and Clare, 'at the feet of all', underline the urgency of finding again in our times, through conversion, a true desire for universal and cosmic brotherhood, free from every proud form of egoism" (n.59).
Universal brotherhood embraces Christians and non-Christians alike. Cosmic brotherhood is that "kinship" with all creatures that the present Rule of the Secular Franciscans speaks about (Art. 18).
I invite you to read the Letter of our Ministers General again, but keeping in mind those living in the world, especially the Secular Franciscans. I believe that it will help us to present St Clare, in particular to Secular Franciscan women. May we all find in St Clare our model, "mirror and example", for our entire life, according to our vocation, whether religious or secular, Franciscan or not.