Commentary on the Testament of St Clare
In the name of the Lord!
The Lordship of the Son of God
To know somebody’s name gives one access to that person. We are reminded of Moses who during his stay in Midian was confronted with a strange spectacle which the Old Testament describes as the burning bush. He found himself commissioned to return to Egypt and to lead the Israelites out of captivity. Quite understandably he hesitates, and, reasonably enough explains his hesitation, by revealing his problem and stating, frankly: “If the Israelites ask me who has sent me, what am I to say?” The answer is an obscure one - and quite untranslatable: ‘I Am who I Am’ the words we find repeated in the gospel of St John. Our Lord himself says ‘I Am the Good Shepherd’, ‘I Am the way the truth and the life’. Clare herself does not say in the name of Jesus Christ, but rather she appeals to the Lordship of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. His Lordship is given to him by his Father: all gifts flow from the Father - and Christ himself says, “All things are given to me by the Father”. Therefore Mother Clare places all her inspirations under the Lordship of the Son of God, ‘who has been made the way for us’.
he then begins her testament turning to the Father and pointing out that we receive daily blessings from our benefactor the Father of Mercies.
She experiences all things that come her way
as gifts from the hands of the Father,
and therefore we owe the Father the deepest thanks.
Not only is he the Father of Mercies,
he is also the glorious God.
We are led to understand that she accepts her vocation as a daily gift to be received with gratitude.
It is manifest that Clare considered the living of her vocation as an on-going process. On cannot help feeling that thanking God daily for such a great gift takes place deep down in our understanding. It also appears that her choice of attributes, like ‘the immense gift’ and ‘the beloved servant’, expresses her innermost attitude to those gifts.
The Blessed Francis
After placing her first themes, the Lordship of Christ and the merciful Father at the beginning of her testament, Mother Clare moves on to her next motif, the Blessed Francis, qualifying her choice by calling him the Lord’s ‘true lover and imitator’ - and here we note that she selects the words ‘we’ and ‘us’, not choosing to do this in her own name but in that of the community she, therefore, calls upon her sisters to consider the immense gifts which He has bestowed on them. She saw in Francis the image of the fatherhood of God. Although we know very little of her earthly father, Faverone, there must have been a positive relationship between the women and menfolk of the Offreduccio. Clare came from a very secure background with seven knights in the family - every knight had at least ten men at arms. Her security as a person is very evident in her writings and her choices. It is precisely because Francis is such a broken man that his words found a deep response in her. She knows that in him fatherhood is a pure gift from the Father of Mercies, not a personality trait.
Having established her introduction Clare now proceeds to explain in more detail how the calling came about. She mentions her conversion - which leaves one wondering what she was converted from! In the case of Francis the need for conversion is obvious, but we are hard pushed to see immediately what her conversion consisted of. It is only slowly and with hindsight that we begin to understand that she was asked to leave behind the ‘does and don’ts’ of her class and see in everybody the brother or sister of Christ. There was in her community no place for class distinctions or any other form of discrimination: everybody was accepted who felt called to her way of life.
We can rightly say the next element of Clare’s testament is San Damiano. Clare says that Francis ‘filled with divine consolation’ was led to abandon the world. Enlightened by the Holy Spirit, he calls on people to help him to build San Damiano, ‘because ladies will dwell here and glorify our heavenly Father throughout his holy Church by their celebrated manner of holy life’. San Damiano is both a hermitage, reflecting, possibly, elements of the rule of Francis for hermits - and a community place. San Paolo had been a community place and San Angelo a reclusorium. San Damiano combined the two aspects of Gospel living: solitude and hospitality. We are reminded of the gospel of Martha and Mary; our Lord himself exclaimed that Mary had chosen the better part.
It was at San Damiano that Francis met Christ,
searching for guidance
he came here seeking to understand
what God had in mind for him.
Here he had met the Friend
who invited him to continue His work,
here he discovered the loving Friend,
the loving Brother.
Here he understood
that he was to rebuild the church.
Although he did not fully understand what he was meant to do, Francis acted on the limited understanding he had, only to discover that Christ had meant him to rebuild the spiritual edifice of the Church. Because he was faithful to his first misunderstood task, God enlightened the darkness of his mind and gave him more graces, until he finally set out to reform the church at large. One result of this rebuilding was to end the feudal system. The third order members were not allowed to carry weapons or make civil oaths, the intercity wars gradually died out and the feudal system in Europe slowly crumbled. But this is only indirectly rebuilding the church. Some have called the second Vatican Council the ‘Council of Francis’; the return to the Gospel and our identification as the people of God has been a radical rebuilding.
Francis had been inspired by the Holy Spirit to for-tell the future and indeed his words were to become true. Mother Clare on behalf of herself and her sisters is called to bear fruit by living the gospel life in community.
There is in Clare a deep gratitude for the abundant kindness of God, she considered herself privileged to have been called to such a life. Francis himself never referred to her by her own name Clare but called her ‘Christiana’, the Christian woman. Our choice ever deepens our response to God’s call. Clare desires that she and her sisters return to God an increase of His talents. ‘Talents’ here does not refer to the extraordinary gifts that God may give the soul but every ability shared with everybody else.
Clare continues that not only are the sisters a mirror for others but also a mirror for each other in community. The mirror image was a favourite image in Clare’s writings. The mirror is a vision and a symbol: she is not talking about a real or imaginary curved piece of brass or other material, she is talking about the depths of reality in Christ reflected in the human person. The mirror had ‘three parts’ and only in the very ‘midst’ could one expect a clear reflection. In her letter to Agnes she advises her to look into that mirror meaning Christ and behold therein the poverty, humility and, centrally, the sacrificial love of our Lord. This mirror is not only there to reflect for seculars the redeeming love of our Lord; but the sisters themselves are to be a reflection and example to each other.
Clare considers it to be a grace
to be enlightened by the high heavenly Father
to do penance,
here, too, Francis is her guide and her mentor,
because it was through him
that the Lord has given her
the light of his grace.
In the Acts of Canonization a story is told of Francis sending some young women to Clare. One of these, Gasdia, Clare said, would not persevere, as turned out to be the case - but she did accept her. Clare’s principle of acceptance throws the responsibility on the person who asks to enter. We tend as human beings to blame our failures on to others, or on to their rejection of us, whereas the responsibility lies with us. There was in her community no place for class distinctions or any other form of discrimination: everybody was accepted who felt called to her way of life. Acceptance of others is the first poverty, our calling is God’s gift, our response is our responsibility.
Furthermore, Clare explains her willingness to accept the consequences of poverty - such as hard work and distress, and the shame and contempt of the world, a willingness which inspired Francis to have ‘loving care and special solicitude for the sisters as well as for his own brothers’. If the Portiuncula is the cradle of the Order, San Damiano could rightly be called the womb; it was here that Clare with her sisters continued what Francis had begun after he had encountered the Crucified. As Francis had done, she too, contributed to the rebuilding of the Church by her fidelity to the gospel life.
Francis wrote a ‘form of life’ for Clare and her sisters, encouraging them to persevere in Holy Poverty. Clare coming from a wealthy family must have known only too well that the most frequent cause of family breakdowns is quarrelling over wealth and possessions. Material security often results in emotional insecurity. St Paul in his letter to the Philippians talks of a kenosis - Christ emptied himself in Poverty Therefore Clare in her rule, will write later, encouraging the sisters to be strangers and pilgrims in this world. Which means not merely not owning anything - but not to be sad or upset about losing anything. Following Christ therefore means letting go.
This concerns not only material ownership, but, far more, the lettinggo of whatever has happened in the past. The insecurity of external poverty is equalled by interior insecurity, every good thing without exception is the gift of God for which we can be grateful, but which we cannot demand. Francis always mentions poverty and humility side by side. It is humility that enables the poor man to put his trust in God. In the beatitudes, Christ mentions the poor in spirit, meaning those who have no claim before God.
Therefore poverty is the fifth element of the testament relating to Christ and to Mary, she, like her Son, entrusted herself to the Father. Possessing nothing encourages us to trust the Father, who in his mercy takes care of us
Clare foresees, that a time will arrive when those who come after her will be persuaded to abandon poverty. It is true that material poverty needs to be adjusted to present day situations. Interior poverty, however, is an invitation to trust. Not only Clare herself but the sisters present and to come are not to abandon poverty.
The grace of the sisterhood
is a grace that Clare gratefully acknowledges.
Her inspiration is shared in the community.
Clare and her sisters recommend themselves to the Church of Rome, which she refers to as our Holy Mother. We need to keep in mind that during her lifetime Clare experienced the influence of other poverty movements that ended in schism. Even the Mayor of Assisi, Oportulo di Bernardo became a heretic, while his daughter Agnese, became a member of the community. It is for that reason that Clare states plainly the Church for her is the Church of Rome, although that church, at the time was open to justified criticism. In a letter to friends, Jaques de Vitry expresses his distress at what he experienced during his visit to Rome. There is always a place for justified criticism in any human institution, but we have to keep in mind that not only is the Church an institution she is the Bride of Christ and, as such, beyond criticism. The Church is the manifestation of Christ here on earth. Christ acts through the church, with the Church and in the Church. The Church is the people of God, the people he has chosen for his own.
Clare returns to mentioning her father Francis, whom she sees as a founder, planter, and helper in the service of Christ. In alluding to herself an the ‘little plant’, it is possible that Clare refers to her intention to stay in an cloistered life, rather than moving about, preaching as was the custom with other movements.
The poverty we have promised is trust in God which concerns material poverty as well as emotional poverty and spiritual poverty. Life is full of unforeseen pitfalls which render us insecure. Humankind is continually struggling to counteract this insecurity and insurance policies of every kind are the best proof of this need.
We can only appreciate the fruits of redemption, which promise us a better life by realising that our journey through life will always be one of insecurity.
There is only one security -
that is, that God loves us
because he has created us.
Mother Clare at the end of her life
will say with conviction,
“Blessed are you, O Lord,
who have created me.”
Her reflections on the birth of our Lord lying in a manger and his whole love and passion serve her as a model for her own journey through life.
Without any doubt, Christ was loved by his Father, and this was made manifest to him twice, at his Baptism and at his Transfiguration, and yet, ‘though he was the only-begotten Son, he learned obedience through suffering’. He learned to surrender to his Father in Gethsemane and finally surrendered his life into the hands of his Father when he was hanging on the cross. Christ’s human life was one consistent lesson in trusting.
In the book of Genesis we read that Adam was asked to trust by listening to God’s command not to eat of the fruit (whatever that may mean). That was the nature of the temptation Adam was facing - to be like God, knowing good and evil. There is no need for God, if man desires to discern between good and evil for himself. The life of Christ is one continuous act of trust which finds its climax in his final surrender. Therefore we understand poverty to confront us on various levels.
Firstly, material insecurity: Poor Clares forego the ownership of property: our Lord throughout his journey here on earth used what was necessary to life, according to the Gospel of St Luke ‘and the women served him with their means’, we know from St John that there was a common fund - because Judas stole from it!
By our poverty of relationships we render ourselves vulnerable to other people, but there is one certainty that sustains us through out our lives. God is our prime lover, and no human relationship can replace that.
confronts us with the final test of trusting -
and there again Christ is our model,
on the cross he was heard to say,
“My God my God why have you forsaken me?”
and yet he surrendered his life
into the hands of a Father
whose nearness he no longer experienced.
Having been born to an aristocratic family Clare knows from experience that the ownership of land is a tool for power. She even goes as far as stating that the land which is only needful for enclosure should not be cultivated.
In the post-war period an attempt was made to live enclosure in a high rise tower block. The sisters were asked to volunteer and every modern convenience was provided in the living quarters. It was a lamentable failure and the sisters when asked afterwards said it was so claustrophobic that they feared for their sanity.
Another experiment after the II Vatican Council was an attempt to live as Clare would have lived in her time: without running water, sewage, electricity or heating. There the police closed it down!
So what did Clare have in mind when she talks of ‘the integrity and privacy of the monastery’? She does not use the word cloister as such, here.
In the early days of the church, men fled into the desert, trying to find God in solitude, the harsh environment of the desert stripped off every element of comfort: there was just enough to survive on. As the word enclosure means ‘it shuts out’ it thereby creates an empty space, but that empty space needs to be filled with the presence of God, and also with a needful security of living conditions. Enclosure varies, inevitably, according to the geography of the place. Extreme necessity governs the ownership of land; you may grow vegetables for food - but not for sale.
Mother Clare also mentions that the good name of the monastery is a blessing from God.
She admonishes her sisters to show the love they bear for each other by their deeds so that the sisters are able to love God and each other with greater intensityThis is the fifth element in the testament: the grace of sisterhood. Careful attention must be given to the establishing of relationships, it is precisely because mother Clare envisages a cloistered life that the dynamic of human relationships is of such importance. We create relationships by doing things together. Our relationships with other sisters must be one of support. Pope Francis when he went to see the Poor Clares in Assisi, said that here should be a warm family atmosphere
She wishes her sisters to practice obedience out oflove. The mother, ‘the sister in office’, is elected, by vote, by the sisters, she is not, for example chosen by an archangel descending from heaven, but by the qualified use of reason based on a choice made in good conscience by individuals for the benefit of the whole community.
First and foremost the ‘sister in office’, Mother Clare does not use the word Abbess, must be a good listener, seeing in each person the one whom Jesus has looked at and called. As each adult is called to be a parent she must above all nurture her sisters, spiritually emotionally and physically. The custom of calling her Mother suggests a relationship of responsibility for the welfare of the sister. It is in the nature of motherhood to give life and to nurture it. Availability is one of the most important gifts she can provide for her sisters. It is true that we are meant to be adults, but every adult still needs to grow - and in fact it is one of the important elements of married life to support and sustain each other. There is definitely such a thing as the grace of office, but grace builds on nature and it gives insights which ordinarily one would not have.
It is by the example of Christ
in his relationship to the Father
that Clare based her concept of obedience.
It is for the Lord’s sake
that they have given up their own will
to make themselves conformable
to that of the Father.
It is a consequence of original sin,
that we lack trust that the Father’s will
has the best in mind for us.
Spiritual death is possible in our life, it arises from a want of vision. In the Hail Mary we pray for grace at the hour of our death, so we are meant to hold before us the end of our journey, because we make then a decision, which cannot be repeated. Therefore it is important to leave behind whatever it is that burdens us, and look forward to the end of the journey. Hope, which does not mean wishful thinking gives us a certainty thatGod will always love us.
Mother Clare advises us
as we have set out on the path of the Lord
that we continue to walk,
and keep going.
It is the vision of the Church triumphant
that is the Church of the Virgin Mother
and all the saints that draws us on.
Although here on earth we belong to the church militant we have the certainty that exile will end in glory and so Clare ends, beseeching the Lord who has given us a good beginningto grant us perseverance to the end.
In conclusion she assures her dearest and most beloved sisters of the blessing of the Lord, our most blessed Father Francis and my blessing.