In this age of hi-tech gadgets and cyberspace, what relevance could a medieval saint possibly have for us? It is over eight hundred years since St Clare left home and began the Poor Clare Order along with St Francis. The following reflections and prayers are an attempt to introduce this extraordinary woman to the people of our times, and to look at ways in which she can continue to inspire us today.
In this time of great change, when so many things we took for granted are no longer certain, and the world seems to be out of control, we can marvel at how St Clare trusted that Jesus would always come through for her – He Himself was the Way, when it was unclear what would happen next. In response to a friar who was encouraging her to be patient during her final illness, she replied in a firm voice:
After I once came to know the grace of my Lord Jesus Christ through His servant Francis, no pain has been bothersome, no penance too severe, no weakness, dearly beloved brother, has been hard.
What is striking is her courage, right to the end.
She lived trusting that ‘ by turning everything to their good God co-operates with all those who love him ’ (Romans 8:28). In this spirit we pray.
Lord Jesus, in these times of insecurity and anxiety,
we are stretched in so many ways,
spiritually, physically, financially.
People are no longer given their true dignity,
and so much that we treasure is gone.
It is hard at times to trust.
Help us to anchor ourselves in You,
whose love for us is unchanging.
May Your Spirit lead us in Your way.
May our hope in You give us the peace of soul You promise.
At the beginnings of St Clare’s new religious community, the sisters had to contend with many difficulties. St Clare goes as far as outlining some of them in her rule – ‘poverty, hard work, trial, shame and the contempt of the world’.
When St Francis saw how well the sisters had coped with all their difficulties, he was very moved and he gave them a Form of Life, which was to be their guiding inspiration. In it he said they had
‘ … taken the Holy Spirit as a spouse ’, and it is clear from her life that St Clare had. This is an unusual term for a nun, as Saint John Paul II said in a letter to the Poor Clares, but he also said that it showed that there was a ‘resonance’ between her life and Luke’s account of the Annunciation, when Our Lady was filled with the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit strengthened Our Lady to deal with suffering in her life. And the Holy Spirit was the source of St Clare’s inner strength too.
As she lay dying, St Clare spoke these words to her soul:
The One who created you has infused the Holy Spirit in you
and then guarded you as a mother does her littlest child.
(Process of Canonisation 11:3)
St Clare lived her life in the light of the Holy Spirit’s grace and this sustained her in all her difficulties and carried her at this final hurdle. In this spirit, we pray a prayer written by St Francis (Lt Ord 50–52).
Almighty, eternal, just and merciful God,
Give us miserable ones
the grace to do for You alone
what we know You want us to do
and always to desire what pleases You.
Inwardly cleansed, interiorly enlightened
and inflamed by the fire of the Holy Spirit,
may we be able to follow
in the footprints of Your beloved Son,
our Lord Jesus Christ,
and, by Your grace alone,
may we make our way to You, Most High,
Who live and rule in perfect Trinity
and simple Unity,
and are glorified God almighty,
forever and ever.
We will all experience times when the fear within seems to engulf us. When this happens, it seems that we cannot see the way forward. We are often paralysed by these fears and anxieties. It is part of the human condition. Perhaps that is why one of the things we hear most in Scripture is ‘Do not be afraid’ (Isaiah 43:1) or ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled’ (John 14:1). It seems that God knows that we need to have it hammered home to us. He is stronger than our fears and He has conquered. We need only entrust ourselves to Him and we can claim His strength, which comes from the Holy Spirit.
St Clare had very little material security in her life. She faced huge obstacles bravely, trusting in God. In writing to her friend St Agnes of Prague and seeking to encourage her in the difficulties she was experiencing, she said (2 LAg 13–14)
Go forward securely, joyfully and swiftly,
on the path of prudent happiness
agreeing with nothing
that would dissuade you from this commitment.
In this spirit we pray.
Lord, I am often filled with fear when I think of the future.
I am haunted by past mistakes and hurts,
afraid of what the future might hold and I feel paralysed.
I surrender it all to You now.
I ask You to heal all that is wounded in me
and trust You to take care of all I worry about.
You are the One who makes all things new.
With You I will go forward,
securely and joyfully,
Today, self-fulfilment is of concern to many people – and, of course, it is important to develop ourselves to our full potential. However, if our focus is concentrated solely on ourselves, we will never find contentment, because a life that is self-centred is not a happy one. What is important is to try and find the balance between realising that everything we have received is a gift and, then, having the liberty to relax into enjoying this with a grateful heart, because Jesus came that we may have life to the full (John 10).
When St Clare was called by the Lord, she deliberately set out on a path that was uncertain, living a life of poverty that left her exposed and vulnerable. In this, she learned to depend on God to carry her. As she grew into this way of life and saw that the Lord actually did support her, she came to appreciate more and more how much she was loved. And it was this that nurtured her true self-worth, and gave her an inner strength that continued to grow. When the time came for her to die, she cried out, ‘May You be blessed, O Lord, You who have created my soul’ (L Cl 46). It is very beautiful to think that at the end of her life, she had no regrets and was happy to be who she was. It shows a great inner strength and harmony.
And so we pray.
You tell us in Scripture that we are precious in Your eyes
and that You love us (Isaiah 43:4).
Help us to truly believe this,
so that we can come to appreciate our true worth.
We seek happiness in many ways,
chasing the latest products,
thinking they will make us more acceptable.
And yet our hearts are created for greater things
and remain restless until they rest in You.
We ask You to heal the wounded areas of our hearts.
Help us to make a gift of ourselves to others,
so that we may find ourselves in this giving.
Let us appreciate our giftedness,
so that we can come to thank You for creating us.
St Clare was determined that the sisters would not earn revenue from property. Instead, she wanted the sisters to rely on the providence of God, keeping themselves by the work of their hands. She spoke of ‘the grace of work’, because she realised that to be able to work was, in itself, a great gift. When we can do something productive, it gives meaning to our lives.
The reality of life in their monastery was very difficult, with about fifty sisters living in a very cramped space, with no fixed income. What prevented this from disheartening them and reducing their existence to mere drudgery was the attitude that St Clare inspired in them. She stressed that they were to be employed in such a way that ‘idleness, which is the enemy of the soul’ would be banished and which would not extinguish the ‘spirit of prayer and devotion’ . For her, as for St Francis, this ‘spirit of prayer and devotion’ was the most important thing and everything else had to take a back seat. She saw their work as enabling them to return to the Lord an increase in the talents given by Him and so kept the Lord’s goodness to them before their eyes constantly, as their incentive.
Lord, we thank You for the gifts You have given us.
We thank You especially for the grace of employment.
We thank You for the work that we do
and the people we work with.
We ask You to help us as we work,
so that we may apply ourselves to the best of our ability.
When we struggle or feel stressed out,
or are just bogged down with the drudgery of it all,
help us to have a clear vision of purpose in our lives.
We pray for those who are unhappy in their work,
especially those who experience bullying.
May Your grace help and sustain them.
So many people cannot work, either because they cannot find work (which is a very big issue today) or because they are unable to work. St Clare appreciated that our dignity does not depend on what we do; it is the quality of our lives that matters. Every human being has an inherent dignity because we are made in the image and likeness of God. In this, she is a great witness to us today, when unemployment is so high. She knew the interior struggle of being unable to work because she was invalided for the last twenty-seven years of her life. This brought her into dependence on others, so she can empathise with us in our daily struggles.
St Clare outlined some of the difficulties that the community in San Damiano, which had about fifty sisters in it, had to struggle with – ‘deprivation, poverty, hard work, trial, shame and the contempt of the world’. As their leader, she was intensely aware of what was needed to provide for them all.
And, in the midst of all of that, she fell ill and remained bedridden for the remainder of her life. It is clear that, though not unemployed in the sense that we would look at it today, she experienced many of the things that those who are unemployed have to contend with – insecurity, the sense of not being able to contribute in the way that we would like to, not being able to exercise our abilities. In addition, there are the things she mentions herself – poverty, deprivation and shame.
Yet somehow, living in such dependence, she came to a serene acceptance of what was her lot. She saw that Christ was most powerful and accomplished the most when everything was stripped of Him on the Cross. She gained inspiration from that.
I thank You for the gifts that You have given me for work,
especially for the gifts of health, strength and the necessary talents.
You know how painful it is for me at this time,
not having the opportunity to put these gifts to use in rewarding employment.
And so I ask You for the graces I need to cope with unemployment.
I ask You to provide for my needs
and those who are dependent on me.
Help me when insecurity, fears and feelings of uselessness
rob me of peace
and help me to remember that my value as a person
doesn’t depend on whether or not I have a job.
May I find employment in which I will find fulfilment
and contribute in a positive way to society.
I ask this in Jesus’ name.
St Clare was a saint who knew the reality of sickness at first hand – she was bed-ridden for the last twenty seven years of her life. According to the testimonies of her sisters, she bore her infirmity well and was a source of consolation and refuge for all of them. Not only that, the sisters came to her when they were finding it too difficult to cope with their own illnesses. Many of them testified that they were cured by her prayers.
St Francis also turned to her when healing was needed. He sent friars in need of healing to her for prayer and, when very ill himself, he came to San Damiano, the monastery of St Clare, in order to be taken care of. At this time, when he was extremely sick, he wrote a canticle for the sisters in which he said, ‘Those weighed down by sickness and the others wearied because of them, all of you: bear it in peace’ (Ct Exh 5).
Her own experience of illness enabled St Clare to respond with compassion for those suffering. And yet she encouraged them to see beyond the pain they were suffering. She wrote:
If you suffer with Him, you will reign with Him,
weeping with Him, you will rejoice with Him.
Second Letter to St Agnes 21
Confident of having someone who knows what the pain of sickness involves, we ask her to pray for us now.
lover of the poor Christ,
Who bore your own sufferings with patience.
Your trust in God’s promises helped you to keep going in your own suffering.
You lovingly tended the sick in your own monastery:
you were there for anyone who asked your help,
and interceded for them in their misery.
We ask you to intercede for us with Jesus,
who always heeded your prayers
and obtain for us the healing
of which we are in such need.
The ancient spiritual tradition of the Church, explicitly connects the enclosed-contemplative life to the prayer of Jesus "on the mountain", or solitary place not accessible to all but only to those whom he calls to be with Him, apart from the others.