Clare of Assisi

Daily Reading for August 11 • Clare, Abbess of Assisi, 1253

Although Francis’ life and writings are a primary source for Franciscan spirituality, it is now widely recognized that Clare of Assisi (1194-1253) was not merely a dependent figure but a significant personality in her own right in the origins of the Franciscan tradition. Inspired by Francis’ preaching, Clare dedicated herself to a gospel life in 1212 and became the first woman member of the Order. She held to the same vision of poverty and gospel living in the face of considerable opposition from Church officials. Some historians have suggested that Clare originally wished her sisters to have an unenclosed lifestyle of service rather alone the lines of the lay movement of Beguines. Whatever the case, Clare was forced to accept the Rule of St Benedict for her sisters but this was mitigated in 1216 by papal permission to observe the same “privilege” of poverty as the friars—that is, freedom from normal monastic possessions, buildings, estates, and complex finances. However her moderate Rule for the Poor Sisters (the Poor Clares) was only finally approved on her deathbed in 1253.

Although the sisters were dedicated to a life of contemplation, this should not be contrasted with the men’s dedication to preaching in poverty. Enclosure was not the end purpose of Poor Clare life. This was the bond between poverty and contemplation—contemplation in poverty and poverty as itself a form of gospel-centered contemplation. In her famous Letters to Agnes of Prague Clare writes of Christ the Mirror into which the contemplative gazes and there discovers the poverty of Christ and his intense love of the world expressed in the cross. In turn, Clare suggests that the sisters are to be mirrors to those living in the world—mirrors in which people can see the gospel life.

From A Brief History of Spirituality by Philip Sheldrake (Blackwell Publishing, 2007).

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