The Humility And Wisdom Of St Clare

The Humility And Wisdom Of St Clare March 15, 2023

Chris Light: St Clare With Lantern / Wikimedia Commons

It should be impossible to think about the Franciscans without thinking of St. Clare. She, in many ways more than St. Francis, helped keep the Franciscan community together. She was humble, and through that humility, was able guide and direct the Franciscans after the death of St. Francis, making sure they preserved the charism given to their order. Her humility produced, as a fruit, a better understanding and appreciation of the humility and poverty of Christ. That is, it gave her great insight and wisdom. In many respects, she was to Francis the way Mary was to Christ, for after Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, Mary stayed behind to guide and direct the early church in the way only she could (with all the special knowledge, wisdom, and understanding she had been given as the “throne of wisdom); if early Christians knew anything about Jesus’ youth, she would have had to have been one of the main sources of this knowledge, which why tradition suggests she served as a witness and guide to St Luke in the compilation of his Gospel.

Without Clare, the Franciscans might have strayed far more from the charism given to them than they did. She made sure that the spirit which St. Francis received continued to thrive. While, to be sure, she did this mostly by her own lived-example, she also sometimes engaged others, putting to words what they needed to hear. We can see some of this in her letter to Agnes of  Prague; in it she connected the Franciscan spirit of poverty with the incarnation: the one who is Lord of all came not to lord it over others but to serve everyone with love; Jesus willingly took on the poverty of humanity with human poverty so as to show us the way of true glory:

He says: For the foxes have dens, and the birds of the air have nests, but the son of Man, Christ, has nowhere to lay His head, but bowing His head He gave up His spirit.

If so great and good a Lord, then, on coming into the Virgin’s womb, wanted to appear despised, needy, and poor in the world, so that people who were very poor and needy, suffering excessive hunger of heavenly nourishment, may become rich in Him by possessing the kingdom of heaven, be very joyful and glad, filled with a remarkable happiness and a spiritual joy! Because, since contempt of the world has pleased You more than its honors, poverty more than earthly riches. You have sought to store up greater treasures not on earth but in heaven, where rust does not consume nor moth destroy nor thieves break in and steal, Your reward is very rich in heaven! And You are virtually worthy to be called a sister, spouse and mother of the Son of the Most High Father and the glorious Virgin.[1]

Poverty is not something to be despised. The poor are not to be hated or maligned. They are not to be mistreated. We are not to consider them as morally inferior or lazy. We are not to treat them as being worth less than the rich. We are, rather, to see how they connect to Christ because Christ connected himself with them. The way of the world and its riches are limited. Though they have value, and a good their own,  a good which can be and should be embraced, that good was meant to be shared with all and not limited to those who are rich and power. Jesus, the Word of God, shows us this in the incarnation: for, in reality, he possessed far more than any earthly wealth, and yet, even then, he willingly divested himself of it in order to share with the world the bounties of the kingdom of God. Franciscans understood this, thanks to Francis, but also thanks to Clare. Those who are poor are not to be rejected. Indeed, they can and should be seen to possess many blessings. They are to be respected and loved, not treated poorly or inhumanely, for God, in and through Jesus, showed us the poor will be welcomed first, that indeed, there is a preferential option for the poor:

For I firmly believe that you know the kingdom of heaven is promised and given by the Lord only to the poor because shew who loves what is temporal loses the fruit of love; that it is not possible to serve God and money, for either the one is loved and the other hated, or the one is served and the other despised; that one clothed cannot fight another naked, because she who has something to be caught hold of is more quickly thrown to the ground; that one who lives in the glory of earth cannot rule with Christ; and that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. [2]

This was the early Franciscan spirit, one which Francis and his early followers embraced. And it is because of this they were welcomed by the people. They were not coming in as lords lording it over others. They did not act smug or superior due to riches or power. They loved the people and were one with them. The took special care for those who society normally ignored or abused, like the lepers. This is why Francis was so attractive to the medieval world. For the people were poor and needy, and instead of being ridiculed or denied by Francis, they were embraced and lifted up and cherished by him. This, sadly, is something which the church needs to learn and relearn throughout the ages. Francis was seen as helping to restore the church because he brought it back to its principles. The preferential option for the poor, when it is neglected, leads to all kinds of problems within the church. To reform the church, the poor and the needy, the outcast and the dispossessed, need to be lifted up. It was what Christ did. He emptied himself of divine glory in order to share with creation the bounties of the kingdom of God. We, as a church, need to embrace that kenosis. Francis represented this in his time; he showed the radical way of Christ which the church has forgotten, and it is a way which we need to hear and see lived out today, especially by those who are religious or those who serve as leaders in the church. Clare continued with that theme, and made sure that it would not be forgotten.

[1] St. Clare, “The First Letter to Agnes of Prague (1234)” in Clare of Assisi: The Lady. rev. and trans. Regis J. Armstrong, OFM (New York: New City Press, 2006), 45-6.

[2] St. Clare, “The First Letter to Agnes of Prague (1234),”  46.

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