Sunday, December 12, 2021

St. Clare of Assisi

Born July 16, 1194, Clare started life as the eldest daughter of an Italian count.  Her mother was a devout woman from a wealthy noble family.  She was known to have taken pilgrimages to the Holy Land and Rome.  She joined Clare's order of nuns later in her life.

Clare's monastic life started when she met Francis of Assisi.  She wished to follow in the steps of Jesus, so Francis had her cut her hair (not something women did in the day) and put on a simple robe (some texts describe it as coarse burlap). A spicy detail involving her father was where he attempted to drag her away from her vows to marry, which Clare forcefully refused, declaring she would only marry Jesus.  After the ruckus, Francis moved her to a Benedictine convent. And so began her life of asceticism.  The other women who joined her became known as the Order of St. Clare or The Poor Clares.  The order exists still today.  St. Francis maintained a vital role in her life throughout.  The order's rule expected the nuns to do manual labor and pray, go barefoot, sleep on the floor and eat no meat. 

Clare's story follows a common theme of many women in the Middle Ages who later became saints. They began life in refined style from "upright families" of some nobility only to turn a back on their families and join convents.  True, this was one of the few respectable options a young woman had in the day.  The two choices were assent to an arranged marriage with an older nobleman or run away to a convent. Still, it is difficult from a 21st-century vantage point to imagine walking away from a feather bed to sleep on the floor the rest of your life. It causes one to realize how profoundly privileged the majority of us are; that we have a much wider variety of options of all kinds such that rarely does anyone pick the monastic life. 

Yet, there is a mystique about monastic orders, especially for introverted people who have cultivated a deeper spiritual life.  I've heard many a church person question the value of monastic life.  There are two ways it has importance and value to us today. 

The first way is that it is a model for living in a sustainable community that may be required in the near future. By sustainable, I mean a relatively self-sufficient community.  The carrying capacity of Planet Earth is far past its limit.  A planet that could comfortably sustain 50-100 million people is burgeoning at the seams with 7 billion-plus.  Lifestyles will have to be radically scaled back as fossil fuel stores run out and climate change eats up arable land. The monastic communities have always known how to live inside their means while supporting nearby people.

The second way is that monastic life focuses on spiritual powers to sustain life's physical dimensions, even outside the convent/monastery.  Prayer brings unseen energy into undergirding the hardships others face, creates safe space, and guarantees a sense of belonging.

St. Clare died August 11, 1253, but she lives on in the life of the Church and many hearts. 


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