Women Mystic Series – Saint Clare of Assisi
Continuing with my theme of honoring March as Women’s History Month, I wanted to add to the Women Mystics section of this blog. There are so many mystics I would love to share with you, but with all the interest in the new Pope, and his choosing of the name ‘Francis’ in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, I decided to focus on St. Clare, St. Francis’ devoted student, helper, nurse, and founder/abbess of her own order.
Before doing so however, I wanted to clarify that I try to select women mystics from all different spiritual backgrounds for this intermittent series, and doing so doesn’t necessarily represent support for the traditions within which they believed. I am personally interested in the universality of mystic experience. When I read about individuals’ mystic experiences across time and cultures, the similarities of them never ceases to amaze me. Truly, seeking and experiencing the light (by whatever name) is intrinsic to being human. The experiences may then get interpreted within the framework of whatever belief system the individual is familiar with (as do our own) but that’s of less interest to me. So when researching mystics, and presenting their stories here, I focus on their journey and experiences, rather than on their theologies.
Now on to Clare: First, the biographical basics – like so many of the women mystics from all of the religious traditions that I have researched over the years, Clare’s journey to mystic-hood began when she ran away from home to escape an arranged marriage at the age of 18, in the year 1212. It is amazing how many biographies of women mystics begin this way. It speaks volumes about the limited choices available to women for so long, and the lengths women seekers went to pursue their spiritual yearnings.
In Clare’s case, her spiritual proclivities had been prominent throughout her childhood, and after hearing a new wandering preacher in town – Francis of Assisi – were awakened full force. According to later testimonies by her, she felt a warmth in her heart upon hearing his words, and felt called to the Church. She was from a wealthy family however, and her father had already planned a socially advantageous marriage. He would not support her desire to join the Church.
Soon after, she attended mass on Palm Sunday. The presiding Bishop was handing out palms to select individuals within the parish. Many pushed forward, attempting to gain his attention. Clare sat quietly in the back, and seeing her humility, the Bishop pushed through the crowd and handed her a palm. She took this as a final sign that she should follow her heart and join Francis. She ran away from home that night, and upon arriving at Francis’ order, asked him to accept her into his fold. He cut off her hair, and gave her a simple brown robe to replace her expensive clothes and jewelry (a few locks of her hair were supposedly preserved, and are on display as relics in the Basilica at Assisi.)
Her father did not take this well. St. Francis’ vows of poverty, and those of his order, were extremely controversial at the time, and his preachings in Assisi had caused more than a little consternation among the noble families there. The Church and these families enjoyed a symbiotic relationship, essentially trading money for Church favoritism. Francis was famous for his insistence that the simple life was the path to spiritual awakening. He encouraged his followers – ‘friars’ – to renounce all worldly possessions and focus their efforts solely on prayer, direct spiritual experience, and good works. Clare’s father came after her, and for a time St. Francis hid her by transferring her to a Benedictine nunnery, until her father accepted her decision.
Clare viewed Francis as her spiritual mentor, and embraced his teachings wholeheartedly. In time, she became the leader of the female order associated with the friars, eventually known as the ‘Poor Clares’. She was known for her humility, kindness, and purity of devotion. Her faith gave her great courage, and according to legend twice the order was saved from invading mercenaries because she refused to leave, kneeling calmly in prayer as they approached the enclosure. It’s said that both times the mercenaries miraculously turned back instead of attacking.
Her relationship with Francis is often held up as a model of pure spiritual friendship. She was devoted to him, and served as his private nurse during the illness leading up to his death. After his death, her order grew even more, and many future female saints studied with her. Like many Catholic abbesses of female orders, she was essentially a spiritual teacher who operated her own relatively independent spiritual community of women seekers.
The order’s vows of poverty were often questioned by authorities, including the Pope himself at one point. This is because the vow was not only for the members of the order themselves, but also for the order as an organizational entity. Clare insisted (as Francis had insisted for the friar order) that the organization not be allowed to accrue assets, believing doing so inevitably led to corruption and favoritism. She stood her ground on this, and the Pope eventually relented, and became a fan.
Many miracles are attributed to Clare. Like Francis, she is said to have had a profound connection to nature, enjoying gardening and often praying in the outdoors. Also like Francis, she is credited with having a unique connection to animals, and it is said that wild animals would become tame in her presence.
A more unusual miracle attributed to her occurred on a day she was not able to attend mass due to illness. According to legend, while lying in her bed she suddenly ‘saw’ the service before her, as if projected on the wall. The next day she was able to name all who had attended and even where they had sat. For this reason, she was eventually named the Patron Saint of Television (yes, there is a Patron Saint of Television. And Clare is it.)
Clare’s most famous writings are letters she wrote to Agnes of Prague, daughter of the Bohemian king there. In most of these letters, Clare is urging Agnes to renounce the material life and devote herself to her spiritual path, often in very poetic language. Here she is telling Agnes that devotion to Christ and spirituality will yield her greater riches than any human suitor:
Whose power is stronger,
Whose generosity is more abundant,
Whose appearance more beautiful,
Whose love more tender,
Whose courtesy more gracious.
In Whose embrace You are already caught up;
Who has adorned Your breast with precious stones
And has placed priceless pearls in Your ears
and has surrounded You with sparkling gems
as though blossoms of springtime
and placed on Your head a golden crown
as a sign [to all] of Your holiness.
Of more interest to me are descriptions of ‘light’ that sometimes creep into Clare’s writings. She writes of sitting in contemplation and experiencing eternity, rapturous love, and visions of light. These descriptions from mystics are always what interest me most, as they are so similar to those described by yogis and seekers sitting in meditation the world over. The following passage could have been written by a Hindu yogini, Taoist immortal sister, or Tantric dakini:
“Place your mind before the mirror of eternity! Place your soul in the brilliance of glory! And transform your entire being into the image of the Godhead Itself through contemplation.”
So that is Saint Clare. May you be inspired:-) Namaste-