Clare of Assisi was beautiful, noble, and a great saint of the church. I can totally relate to her. But not for those reasons.
I relate to Clare, whose feast we celebrate today, for other reasons. First, we both left home at about the same age to follow Christ in ways that pretty much freaked out our families. “God will provide” is an easy thing for a seventeen year old girl to say; not so easy for her parents to accept. Of course, Clare persevered in living the “privilege of poverty” all her life, even in the face of familial and papal opposition, whereas I decided after a year or so that it’d be more helpful to go to nursing school.
But I also relate to Clare because, as a contemplative, she risked everything for the gospel in a way that many people wouldn’t understand. If you’re a medical missionary and risk exposure to Ebola, your sacrifice has meaning even from a purely humanistic standpoint. But a contemplative spends a large chunk of her life simply gazing into the face of God. What does this accomplish, what does it produce, in a world where productivity is everything? As the Virgin Mary says in Rowan Williams’ book Ponder These Things, “Only in relation to Jesus will any of this make sense, and I am not in much of a position to guess what that sense might look like.” I’ve come to think that the question, “How much of my life makes sense if there is no God?” is a pretty good gauge of our commitment, our willingness to risk it all for the gospel.
I admire Clare because, although she was as gentle and decorous as a nobly-born lady should be, God help the man who didn’t see past her demure exterior. Clare would get her own way in the end, whatever the opposition. It’s well known that she fought to her dying breath for her Poor Ladies to be allowed to live without personal or even communal property—that whole “God will provide” thing again. But another story I heard in Assisi has it that Clare and her sisters, being women, were not allowed to sing the daily offices. As head of the community, Clare humbly assented to this restriction. But centuries later, it was discovered that her breviary was full of musical notation. I can just hear her saying “Yes, my lord Bishop,” and then scurrying back to the chapel at San Damiano and having her sisters sing a few scales to warm up.
Clare loved and followed Francis, but she was more than a passive reflector of his light—“Sister Moon” to his “Brother Sun.” I love Clare because she didn’t try to replicate Francis’ life. Instead, she connected to some core ideals, and incarnated them in her own way. Clare was more than a “light in Francis’ garden.” She was an intelligent, learned, spirited and courageous woman who lived passionately and held nothing back. I can only hope that, apart from Christ, my life will turn out to be as meaningless as hers.