Commemoration of St. Clare of Assisi, nun
Song of Solomon 2:10-13
1 Peter 4:1-2
What you hold,
may you always hold,
What you do,
may you always do and never abandon.
But with swift pace, light step, and unswerving feet,
so that even your steps stir up no dust,
may you go forward securely, joyfully, swiftly,
on the path of prudent happiness,
which would dissuade you from this resolution
or which would place a stumbling block
for you on the way,
so that you may offer your vows
to the Most High
in the pursuit of that perfection
to which the Spirit of the Lord has called you.
-- St. Clare in her second letter to St. Agnes of Prague (1235)
Clare (1194-1253) was the daughter of a wealthy family. She was eighteen when one day she heard a local friar preaching in the marketplace and was moved to not only take his words to heart but to follow in his teaching of following Jesus in a life of poverty, prayer and service. Of course, her family did not approve and forcibly brought her home, but she escaped with a companion and fled to the preacher whose name was Francis. Together they founded a convent for an order of women following the rule of Francis. The order, called the Order of Poor Ladies and finally the Poor Clares, attracted young women from well-to-do homes despite the rigorous life required by the rule that Francis had established and Clare strengthened. They were strictly cloistered although they nursed the sick, wore homespun brown robes, went barefoot, ate no meat, slept on pallets of twigs, prayed for the world and practiced silence except for necessary speech. Of all the sisters of the order, none was more rigorous in her observances than Clare. She wrote to other abbesses as the order spread beyond Assisi and some of her letters to Agnes of Prague, a correspondence lasting over twenty years, are still in existence. In the last months of his life, Francis, now blind and ill, came to her convent at San Damiano and Clare cared for her long-time friend and mentor until his death. She herself died in 1253 and was canonized two years later. St. Clare is considered the patron saint of goldsmiths and those who work with gold, those with eye diseases, laundry workers, embroiderers, telephones, television, and television writers.
What would make a young woman give up a life of luxury to live in a manner every bit as dire as the poorest of the poor, as Mother Teresa called them? Most of us today would scramble to live a life where the food was good and plentiful, clothes were rich and fashionable, houses large and roomy (although without indoor plumbing like we know it) and parties, dinners and entertainment were frequent. It's hard to understand but then, many young women today give up everything to enter the religious life, work hard, pray often, sleep rough and own nothing (or next to it). Many try, not all succeed in following the vocation that they believe God set before them, but enough do that religious orders still exist, still follow the rules set down centuries and more ago, and still make a difference in the world. It's a call from God to do something special -- and anyone who answers a call from God whether to the religious life, ministry or even as a committed lay worker shares in that specialness.
Religious orders have rules for living and practicing their faith, rules that are binding on each individual within or seeking to become part of the community. Rules are often seen as restrictions on freedom, telling what may be done and what is not allowed. The more rules, the more restrictions. Yet rules sometimes offer freedom itself. When the boundaries are firmly understood and accepted, it can free up the mind and body to go about life, doing what needs to be done and serving where service is needed. We often chafe at restrictions on what we consider our freedoms, but if we think about it, without rules we would have anarchy -- and nobody really wants that (except anarchists, of course).
I seem to live in a world where people are concerned with themselves and their possessions/entitlements. It's a world of having to have the biggest, newest, fastest, most expensive or most fashionable. I have to stop and remember that also there are nuns who are in this world and yet removed from it. They don't acquire, they serve instead of demanding to be waited on, they spend their lives taking care of the people most others would either ignore or try to keep out of their neighborhoods, and they pray often for those who, for some reason or other, cannot or will not pray for themselves or others. The lives of nuns used to be not so different from how they lived in the world, but today, religious life is a very different thing. That there are still young (and some older) women who voluntarily choose to live a communal life and one that demands poverty, chastity, obedience and often un-Godly hours is, in my humble opinion, more than just a ministry or just a vocation. It's living Jesus' teachings and dedicating oneself to the work of the kingdom, whether enclosed behind monastery walls or living in a community outside.
Clare and her sisters in religion, regardless of the rule they follow or the order to which they pledge themselves, show me what it means to really be willing to empty oneself and be filled anew. They give me an example that the young man who could not sell all and follow Jesus couldn't do, and yet they do gladly and willingly. They show courage and strength, and many, like Clare, weren't and aren't afraid to stand up to authority when necessary. I have a feeling that if she were here today, Clare might not be on a bus but she might be encouraging her nuns to do what they believe is right and God's will for them as women, as religious, and as citizens of a broken world that needs more healing and not more fractures. Whether behind monastery walls, walking about a busy city or standing up for what they believe God wants them to do, there is something admirable and, yes, compelling about them. It isn't always easy to follow God because sometimes God leads in some pretty non-traditional and unworldly ways.
Sometimes I almost wish I had the call and the strength follow their path.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday August 11, 2012, under the title "Clare of Assisi, nun."