I am on retreat in the Clare hermitage, and so I am taking inspiration from one of my favorite sisters in faith.
Clare of Assisi is a contradiction. She gave up feminine assets (beauty, wealth, family connections, eligibility) as eagerly as most women longed for them. She fought for the ‘privilege of poverty’ like others protect stability and success. She upended accepted values by choosing a life that looked like restriction and enclosure and daily hardship.
She had enjoyed a refined and privileged childhood. Her father was a knight and her mother was a charitable religious matron. Little Chiara and her sisters were raised in castle in Italy where they learned needlework and music, reading, and writing. She was turning out to be a very lovely young noblewoman until she began the secret, chaperoned meetings with Francis that watered the seeds of her faith at 16 years old.
Francis was 28 and had already founded the Friars Minor and astounded Assisi with his radical conversion and joy and preaching of repentance. Their admiration for each other was consumed in their mutual love for Jesus Christ. Clare was compelled to start an order for other women who were seeking to commit themselves to Christ. On the night of Palm Sunday in 1212, Clare took a vow of poverty with Francis and never looked back: “I want only Jesus Christ, and to live by the gospel, owning nothing and in chastity.”
For the next 42 years, Clare slept on a straw mattress, fasted three days a week, wore a coarse brown habit, often did penance, and woke up throughout the night to pray with her sisters as they cared for the poor and changed the world. She and Francis rarely saw each other because he would not allow himself the pleasure of her company. He felt that the lovely Chiara belonged totally to his Lord. She was, in fact, sustained so well by the love of Christ that her reputation as a compassionate healer and wise spiritual counselor made her famous even in her time. Popes sought her wisdom and partnership and urged her to accept a more comfortable life, but she would not compromise her vow. She was content “in God, and for God” and she wrote:
“His affection holds one fast…His kindness fills one to the brim; his sweetness is in overflowing measure. Now, since he is the splendor of eternal glory and the mirror without spot, look steadfastly into this mirror every day, and see in it every time you look—your own face.” She discovered the truth of Jesus’s promise: Abide in me and I will abide in you.
I am encouraged by her story again today because I talk with friends who want what they don’t have, and don’t want what they do have. I get this, too—the longing, the ache, the striving for that elusive thing or person or job or substance or future season of life that looks like it will scratch the itch. The itch never goes away, and the illusions can be instructive in our development. But when they eclipse our view of what we do have right now, we are like cared-for whiny toddlers throwing temper tantrums, or gourmet Christians turning up our noses at the food before us. Clare reminds us that our deepest longing is for the eternal God who is here. We will not be satisfied by anyone or anything else. And that’s OK because the Giver himself has been given. People who want God get what they want! She was able to connect her wanting to its source.
Clare’s enclosure was liberating, too — another contradiction in her story. She stayed in the cloister at San Damiano (the church building that Francis restored) in service and prayer throughout her whole life. She took no pilgrimages or vacations. Instead she fixed the anchor of her soul in the house of God and God made his dwelling in her. She was his tiny house, and she grew in wisdom and grace. Through her and others, the cloister at San Damiano became a source of spiritual energy that radiated throughout the Church, even beyond the borders of her country.
In a way, all of us are cloistered within the boundaries of our lives—even if they are self-imposed—whether by geography, finances, relationship, jobs, recovery, children, illness, or aging. If we take wisdom from Clare, we could look as these “restrictions” as a holy container for God to fill. My first enclosure were the trees because no one would drive me to my friend’s houses—they were too far away. This was not a bad cloister! Some of our enclosures may be toxic, though, and may need to change. But I imagine that many can be embraced like the enclosure of Mary’s womb, the narrow manger, the home of a carpenter, the nails to a cross. Meeting God in the limitations of what has not been given may be part of the journey to our own resurrection, the place where God saves us and reveals the expansive gifts of love.