Saint Clare of Assisi


By Fr John Cooper OFM Cap

Evelyn Underhill, the English Anglo-Catholic author of "Mysticism", called St Clare "The Hidden spring of Franciscan Spirituality". I believe Evelyn Underhill was complaining about the lack of information she was able to get on St Clare in her time. Today, that information is now available thanks especially to those who have translated works and given us critical texts of her writings. So, today, do we know St Clare any better?

Celebrations of St Clare have tended to shy away from the miracles in her life, but we who love the lives of the saints tend to peg them down in our memory by their miracles. The danger of this is that so informed we are in danger of thinking we know them.

However, St Clare's life was not without miracles. Olive oil jars were miraculously filled after she blessed them. A very heavy door came off its hinges and fell on top of her, but when a number of sisters in panic rushed to lift it off, instead of finding her crushed she was not harmed and said it felt like no more than a blanket. The sick were cured when she made the sign of the cross. When she prayed in deep meditation a rainbow aura surrounded her.

On Christmas night she saw the Mass in the Basilica of St Francis although she was more than a mile away, too ill to rise from her bed. So clear was the vision that the next day she could name the friars present at the celebration. For this last miracle she has become the patron of Television. Her rapport with animals was so dramatic that her cat demonstrated an uncanny understanding of her wishes and used to bring things to her when she was too ill to rise. There are enough miracles to make us happy.

To understand the influence she had on society we need to remember that St Clare was not a peasant girl; she was a noble woman. She may, out of love and devotion to Christ, have dressed like a peasant girl and served all her sisters like a humble servant, but she was not uneducated. In fact she wrote Latin quite well. Her letters are arguably her finest work, but they betray her nobility as they are in fact one noble lady writing to another.

Understood in their historical context they are fascinating, because Agnes of Prague - to whom she writes (now today Saint Agnes of Prague) - had just rejected the opportunity of becoming Empress of the Holy Roman Empire and entered a Poor Clare convent. In fact we owe St Agnes of Prague a great debt in forcing St Clare to reveal the secrets of her contemplative vision. St Clare does so in a very feminine way, like a woman sharing the secrets of how to make oneself really beautiful for her beloved.

St Clare had a way of expressing the transforming power of the contemplative vision. She stretches the soul beyond normal comprehension when she says:

"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."

It is not possible here, to give an adequate insight into the contemplative dimensions of St Clare’s life. It needs greater space, real study and time for reflection. I wonder how many times St Agnes of Prague read those letters of St Clare. I suggest to you, that like a clear spring of pure water, we need to come back to St Clare again and again.