Read an Excerpt
Saint Clare of Assisi
What you hold, may you always hold. What you do, may you always do and never abandon. But with swift pace, light step, unswerving feet, so that even your steps stir up no dust, may you go forward securely, joyfully, and swiftly, on the path of prudent happiness.
Imagine, if you will, a woman of about forty, coiffed and veiled, fine of feature, and thin as a willow. She is propped up in bed, though maybe we should say "on pallet," lest we suggest even a trace of comfort, and the spinning that normally occupies her is set to one side. She is writing, deeply absorbed: "What you hold...."
The year is 1235. Francis of Assisi has been dead for nine years. His friend and foremost disciple, Clare, is abbess of the Poor Ladies at San Damiano, and at least twenty-two other houses of the order look to her, for leadership. Her mother has joined her, as has her sister Agnes. The woman to whom she is writing is another Agnes who is particularly dear to her, though they have never met.
Agnes of Prague was a princess, daughter of the king of Bohemia. From her infancy she had been victimized by the elaborate system of political marriages that connected the royal families of medieval Europe. Betrothed as a baby to the son of the duke of Silesia, she had been packed off to the Silesian court to live until she and her intended were grown. She was just three when the young duke died and she was sent back to Prague. Off to Austrianext, sometime in her early teens, stated now to marry the son of Emperor Frederick II. Her fiancé jilted her, though, and once again she was back in Prague. Her father would have avenged her with a full-scale war, but Agnes dissuaded him.
Fresh offers of marriage came in one from England's royal court, another from Frederick II himself, whose wife had since died. At this point, though, Agnes had had enough, and to his credit, her father backed her up. With his blessing, she would forego marriage and undertake a life of charitable works. About this time she met a small band of Franciscans who had come to eastern Europe telling tales of wondrous goings-on in Assisi. They spoke of a beautiful young noblewoman who had renounced everything to follow God.
To the twenty-year-old princess, as to thousands of European women, the story of Clare and her Poor Ladies was a powerful catalyst. In 1232, Agnes built a hospice and then a convent for Poor Ladies with an adjoining residence for the Friars Minor who would be their spiritual guides. When construction was well under way, she wrote to Clare, and in 1234 Clare sent five members of her order to Prague. Along with seven young women from Prague's wealthiest families, they entered the new convent. Agnes herself was among them.
In a worldly sense, Agnes was perhaps Clare's greatest "catch." We have only the four letters Clare wrote her and none of the ones Agnes presumably wrote. The joy they convey and the utter confidence are supremely Franciscan, and so is the unconcealed affection. In the fourth and final letter, written just before her death, Clare writes: "If I have not written to you as often as your soul and mine as well desire and long for, do not wonder, or think that the fire of love for you glows with less delight in the heart of your mother. No, this is the difficulty: the lack of messengers and the obvious dangers of the roads" (Early Documents 47).
Until rather recently, Clare's, story has always been told as an adjunct to that of Saint Francis. This is understandable enough, for Clare fits into that narrative with such exquisite rightness that if she had not turned up on cue, the chroniclers would surely have had to invent her. If they had invented her, they could not have improved on what she truly was beautiful and courageous, as fair and serene as Francis was dark and lively, the contemplative fulcrum to his life of active preaching and teaching. From the minute she enters Francis's life, an irresistibly romantic subplot opens out.
Indeed, in some tellings, the subplot very nearly takes over, for as soon as Clare and Francis meet, the conventions of the courtly love tradition swing into play, if only on the subliminal level. The elements that make for romantic legend are all there in the story as it has come down to us. Clare's contemporaries swore she really was beautiful, that she was nobly born and widely esteemed for her kindness to the poor. Before her birth a mysterious voice was said to have told her mother she would bring a brilliant light into the world. The chroniclers loved to play with her name and called her "bright," "unsullied," "spotless," "gleaming." They spoke of Clare's radiance when she rose up from prayer and reported that even the place where she prayed would be lit up afterward. They marveled that despite her enclosed life, the light that was "Chiara" spread nonetheless throughout the world.
Francis himself, "God's troubadour," was at least as romantically appealing a character as Clare. Leader of the revels in Assisi before his conversion, a one-time knight-in-arms, he was a man with a past and, even after his conversion, a kind of spiritual outlaw. Clare's initiation into the spiritual life at Francis's hands, moreover, was easily as dramatic as any elopement. And if their liaison was never consummated in any worldly sense, all the better, for unconsummated love was a staple theme of the courtly love tradition.
To say of Francis and Clare that they were "in love" with each other in the ordinary sense is, I think, incorrect inadequate and I will try to explain why....Enduring Grace. Copyright © by Carol L. Flinders. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.