Clare of Assisi Founder of the Order of Minoresses (Poor Clares), 1253
Born in 1193 in Assisi of a wealthy family, Clare caught the joy of a new vision of the gospel from Francis’ preaching. Escaping from home, first to the Benedictines and then to another order, she chose a contemplative way of life when she founded her own community, which lived in corporate poverty understood as dependence on God, with a fresh, democratic lifestyle. Clare became the first woman to write a religious Rule for women, and in it showed great liberty of spirit in dealing with earlier prescriptions. During the long years after Francis’ death, she supported his earlier companions in their desire to remain faithful to his vision, as she did. Some of her last words were: “Blessèd be God, for having created me.”
2 Corinthians 4. 6-10
For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.
We all know of St Francis of Assisi, but only on a recent visit to Italy did I realise that in the next generation (early 1200s) a second saint came from Assisi as well – Clare of Assisi. She was born into a wealthy family, but under the influence of Francis’s preaching she left her home to become a member of a contemplative community. First she joined the Benedictines, but eventually founded her own order, popularly known as ‘the poor Clares’.
The order chose to live in utter poverty – or, as Clare would put it, in utter dependence on God. She was the first woman to write a Rule of Life for a religious order, and through her inspiration her order was (and is) run on democratic rather than authoritarian lines.
In Italy today her order is still key to the Church’s working amongst the poorest in society, not from a benevolent charitable attitude, but from a position of equality with the poorest. The order’s convents are places of refuge for the dispossessed, the refugee, the unlucky and the foolish. All are welcomed with simple hospitality.
Today’s Bible passage – surely Paul at his best – reflects a similar dependence on God. Paul did not surrender all his worldly wealth in the same way as Clare, but he was very aware of his own fragility and that of his followers. Like Clare he saw that the very fragility which is so often frustrating to those who wish to run effective religious institutions, is in fact their greatest strength. It is in the fragility that utter dependence on God is found. It is in the poor clay jars of his dispirited followers that Jesus himself is found.
In the United Kingdom and across the Western world, churches are very keen to develop effective evangelism strategies, and to use some of their wealth for the purpose. Perhaps Paul and Clare can teach us rich Western churches a thing or two. The best evangelism strategy might just be, like Clare, to jettison our wealth and use our poverty for the purpose instead. Their experience is that it is a far better strategy for evangelism than anything money could buy.
God of peace, who in the poverty of the blessed Clare gave us a clear light to shine in the darkness of this world: give us grace so to follow in her footsteps that we may, at the last, rejoice with her in your eternal glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.