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Women Mystic Series – Saint Clare of Assisi

March 24, 2013
Painting by Giovanni di Paolo, 1455, depicting a famous legend in which Clare intervenes with a wolf to save a child's life

Painting by Giovanni di Paolo, 1455, depicting a famous legend in which Clare intervenes with a wolf to save a child’s life

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-

17 Comments leave one →
  1. March 24, 2013 6:45 pm

    Thank you, I loved this and not only as we share the same name! (although mine is with an ‘I’). I had literally just old a friend that in a peer coaching call tomorrow I’d like to discuss women and spirituality, then miraculously your post came through. I feel I have a great starting point for my own thoughts now 🙂

  2. March 24, 2013 7:40 pm

    Hi Claire, one of my daughters is named Clara, although not after Saint Clare but after the lead character in the Nutcracker, but still learning more about Clare of Assisi made me like the name even more. Yes, my foray into researching women mystics really started on a whim many years ago, but has profoundly influenced my path. I just found so many amazing women I had never heard of who had experienced such profound spiritual realizations and transformations. And so many found ways to function very autonomously within the very restrictive societies, and religious organizations, to which they belonged – like Clare, they formed their own female spiritual ‘sanghas’ (as you probably know, the Buddhist word for spiritual community.) It was the best way they had of pursuing their spiritual yearnings and for creating lives centered in their own power. Which isn’t to discount the horrendous persecution many suffered, but retelling their stories in a way that emphasizes the spiritual power they did claim is very empowering to us now I feel.

    I also like researching them because of the interfaith perspective it has given me – that the experience of light is universal, although each of us may interpret it differently, based on our cultural and religious framework.

  3. March 24, 2013 8:40 pm

    Thank you for sharing this, Lisa. It’s always a pleasure to learn more about mystics and the mystical traditions through them. One thing that I noticed was the similarity between “Clare” and “clear” or “clarity”. With her connection to the light and the way it seeped into her writings, it seems like a wonderful connection!

  4. March 24, 2013 10:23 pm

    Thanks Jay, I agree! As I mentioned in my other comment, one of my daughters is named ‘Clara’ and according to our baby book at the time it means ‘bright one’, also a great connection. I do think that the feeling I got while reading about Clare was that her vows of poverty were very much about maintaining clarity and purity of mind, unencumbered by material possessions or concerns – really the classic renunciate path, as in so many traditions.

  5. March 24, 2013 11:03 pm

    This is going to be a very interesting series!
    The issue of money and spirituality is a complex one. I do not think it is necessary to abandon worldly life and monetary possessions to have spiritual experiences. Not at all. There is nothing dirty about money — it’s just about convenient exchange. However, it is so easy to be caught up with monetary pursuit — that it may be wise to keep at least some distance.

    It’s like chocolate. I don’t think a bit of dark chocolate is bad for health, but it’s so easy to overdo it!

  6. March 24, 2013 11:16 pm

    Akemi, I agree, but I also understand the historical influences that led so many seekers over the centuries to renounce worldly life. In the case of Francis and Clare and their orders, the Italian elite and the Catholic Church were pretty corrupt, with lots of payment for special treatment etc., and that included monasteries of some orders (wealthy families would subsidize monasteries in exchange for special treatment) so they decided upon vows of poverty partly to avoid getting caught up in that – to maintain their integrity. But of course in some cases, across many different spiritual traditions over the years, vows of poverty almost became a sort of self-punishment or self-denial, and that was never supposed to be the point in and of itself.

    I have to say, although I completely agree that financial abundance and spirituality aren’t mutually exclusive (and I at one point made a lot of money working in corporate America myself), I have gotten somewhat uncomfortable in the last few years with how much some people link money and spirituality, in the name of ‘abundance’. I do think it’s easy to get caught up in it, and when it’s in the name of spirituality, at a certain point it can lack integrity. I have often thought of doing a post on this, as I think it’s an interesting topic. There are so many different models out there right now for spiritual services – there’s the pay for service model, in terms of readings and the like, but there is also the ‘dana’ model that largely comes from Buddhism, in which tiered donation amounts are suggested, so that people of different means can benefit. It’s an interesting thing to think about…and also how much is too much? How much do any of us really need? At what point are we caught up in the cycle of desire, pretending it’s about ‘need’ when it’s really about ‘want’? I don’t think the answer is the same for everyone, but there is a lot to be said for simplicity…

  7. March 25, 2013 1:21 am

    Another wonderful read, Lisa, thanks. I am quite deep into ‘stuff’ these days as I delve into all the issues around my vocal cords, and have not been able to make time for your course through Daily Om for which I signed up. But always can make time for your blog!

  8. March 25, 2013 1:23 am

    Also, I keep forgetting to ask you to change “Heart On My Sleeve” In your blog roll to “CAJA House Blog,” thanks!

  9. March 25, 2013 1:54 am

    I have been a longtime admirer of Claire. After a profound spiritual experience at the old mission in Capistrano at age 12, I became completely obsessed with the saints and martyrs of the Church. I was especially fascinated with the women, mostly the mystics and Doctors of the Church like Claire and Saint Catherine of Sienna. I was moved and encouraged, and still am, by their courage and determination to pursue their own truth and destiny in spite of suffocating and sometimes life-threatening social constraints.

  10. March 25, 2013 2:10 pm

    Thank you for sharing this….beautiful, inspiring and empowering! I will be staying with this series also….looking forward to your next post!

  11. March 25, 2013 8:13 pm

    Cate, link done! I have a lot of link updates to do actually. No worries on the DailyOm course, you will have access to it forever, so you can do it whenever it feels right. You have more than enough going on right now. I will get over to your blog soon and catch up.

  12. March 25, 2013 8:15 pm

    Hi Taurean34, yes it’s really very interesting to learn about the ways many of these women created their own ‘place’ within social constraints. And much of the medicine practiced within the orders was some of the best of the time. Have you studied Hildegard of Bingen? She is another fascinating one, and is said to have devised some of the most sophisticated women’s health practices around at the time.

  13. March 25, 2013 8:17 pm

    Hi Phila, glad you enjoyed it. I call it a series because I already have write-ups on several other women mystics here: (the historical ones are on the bottom.) I add to it a few times a year. Always tough trying who to write about!

  14. March 26, 2013 5:50 pm

    Reblogged this on The Spirited Soul and commented:
    Growing up Catholic, these two Saints of Assisi, Clare.and Francis.were my favorite. Now my “religion” is Mysticism, for all the reasons Lisa pointed out here in this beautiful and timely post.

  15. March 31, 2013 5:28 pm

    Off topic. I have nominated you for the Liebster Award.

  16. April 1, 2013 8:48 pm

    theseveninds – thanks so much that is very kind of you.

  17. April 1, 2013 8:57 pm

    Very welcome! Namaste. 🙂

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