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The Poor Clares

Sr Francisca OSC

When Clare of Assisi wrote the first Rule for women religious in the history of the Church, the big question was whether she would be given papal permission to observe that Rule even in her own monastery of San Damiano just outside Assisi. The Pope was not happy about her insistence on total poverty and reliance on God.  He wanted to grant her land and holdings for security, and said to her ‘If you are troubled about your vow, we can absolve you from it’.  ‘Holy Father’, was the answer, ‘absolve me from my sins, but not from following Jesus Christ’.  The Pope was not happy with her reply and it was only when she was on her death bed in August 1253 that the longed-for papal bull of approval reached her.

Had Clare any inkling that in the year 2012, when her daughters celebrated the 800th anniversary of the founding of her Order, they would number some 20,000 and would be found throughout the world, in every continent except Antarctica?  Maybe she had, because in spite of all the difficulties she was experiencing at that time in having her Rule recognised, in that Rule, she had written: ‘Let the abbess, with discernment, provide them with clothing according to the diversity of persons, places, seasons and cold climates, as in necessity she shall deem expedient’.  So she seems to have envisaged her sisters travelling out from Assisi, not only throughout Italy and into France, Germany, Spain and Bohemia, which had happened even during her own lifetime (she sent her own sister, Agnes, as abbess to the monastery in Florence, and she corresponded with another Agnes, formerly a princess of the royal house of Prague in Bohemia), but much further afield, into many very different ‘places … and cold climates’.  From Europe they gradually went onwards and outward, to the west, to Canada, to America both North and South; to the east, to the Philippines, to India, Sri Lanka and Japan; to the south, to Africa, Australia and New Zealand and to the north, even as far as the Scandinavian countries and the Baltic states.  Wherever in the world they brought the light of Clare through the centuries, their main work and objective has always been prayer and contemplation and they have always seen as their most important task the praying of the Liturgy of the Hours, the Divine Office (it has many names), by night and by day. This Prayer of the Church offers praise and worship to God and celebrates the sacramentality of time, of the hours, days and years. At regular times throughout the day: dawn, the beginning of the working day, midday, at evening and at nightfall, and then again at midnight, the sisters are in Choir, praising and thanking God and bringing before him the needs of the world and the Church, of nations and of individuals. Clare wanted her sisters to be ‘a support for the frail and failing members of Christ’s Body, the Church’ and it is by their lives of prayer that they do this. Clare’s teaching on prayer was very simple, but very profound: ‘Place your mind before the mirror of eternity! Place your soul in the brilliance of glory! Place your heart in the figure of the divine substance and, through contemplation, transform your entire being into the image of the Godhead itself, so that you too may feel what his friends feel in tasting the hidden sweetness that, from the beginning, God has kept for those who love him … gaze on him, consider him, contemplate him as you desire to imitate him’.

While he was still alive, Francis had promised Clare: ‘for myself and for my brothers always to have the same loving care and special solicitude for you as for them.’  This promise was very important for Clare; the link with the friars was one of the foundation stones of her order.  And this promise the friars have kept; the two branches of the order, although different in aims and inspiration, have always worked together.  So as the brothers travelled into mission territory to bring the Gospel, the sisters were never far behind, supporting their brothers by their lives of prayer.  As there were different branches of the male Franciscan family, so there were different branches of the women’s order begun by various reform movements, all trying to recapture the ‘original spirit’ of the founders.  So those Poor Clares who followed the reform of St Colette in the fifteenth century, mostly in northern France and Belgium, became known as ‘Colettines’ and those sisters who were attached to the Capuchin friars in the sixteenth century were known as ‘Capuchinesses’.  However, these differ-ences have largely disappeared today since all religious families were requested after the Vatican Council, to renew and update their Constitutions. Today, vocations in the affluent west are not as plentiful as they were in Clare’s day, but in the developing world they are numerous – in Africa and the Philippines, in particular, and now sisters are coming from these areas to renew Poor Clare life in its European heartland.

Although enclosed by tradition, Poor Clares have always been at the heart of the Church’s life and mission, sometimes sealing their dedication with their own blood as martyrs, like Blessed Josephine Leroux during the French Revolution.  The Order has included women of learning and education, like Clare herself and such women as Catherine of Bologna and Battista Verano who wrote and published theological treatises and were skilled artists and musicians.  There have been women with mystical gifts such as Veronica Giuliani, and women who followed in the humble footsteps of Jesus the carpenter, women like Ven Margaret Sinclair who was born in an Edinburgh slum in 1900 and worked in McVitie’s biscuit factory before entering the monastery in Notting Hill in London, only to die very soon afterwards of tuberculosis.

The light of Clare still shines brightly in her daughters today as they try to live according to her spirit and ideals in a world that is very different from that of the thirteenth century but where her spirit of simplicity, poverty, joy of heart, humble labour and constant prayer are still an attraction for many.  f

 Sr Francisca OSC has been a Poor Clare nun for more than fifty years, and is the cook for her monastery in Arkley, Barnet.  In her ‘spare time’ she obtained a PhD in Historical Theology.  She has published widely in her academic areas of liturgy, monasticism, feminist studies and Franciscanism and is a part-time lecturer and Visiting Scholar at Sarum College.