This image of the bare 13th century refectory of the Poor Ladies of San Damiano contains within it a later fresco depicting decorous Roman cardinals gathered around a richly prepared table eating, while Saint Clare and her sisters obediently kneel and wait on their powerful guests.
It is the perfect image of contrasting power and poverty in the Church, with which to illustrate the Third Letter to Agnes of Prague, written in 1238. Agnes had now been granted the “Privilege of Poverty” so her contemplative community was free from the worries of managing endowed property, which was the great trap for medieval religious life. The irony was that this privilege could only be granted by the wealthy and powerful princes of the Church. The fresco in this picture says it all. You can read the Third Letter of St Clare to Agnes of Prague here.
Clearly, there was a crisis in the convent in Prague and Clare responds to Agnes in a letter which contains both spiritual counsel and practical advice on fasting, passing on instructions she had received directly from Saint Francis (who had been dead for more than a decade when this letter was written.) The absence of any surviving return correspondence from Agnes makes Clare’s letter quite intriguing, for the first part of it clearly addresses a crisis: “May neither bitterness nor clouds overwhelm you, O Lady most beloved in Christ.”
Clare’s pastoral delicacy is beautiful to read, and it shows what a wonderful and wise community leader she must have been. She refers openly to overthrowing pride and “the vanity which destroys the human heart” and she reminds Agnes of the fate of kings and queens who are victims of an illusion and therefore will be left with nothing, for this is “deceptive glory”.
Clare urges her to cling to Christ, but note how she also beseeches Agnes to “Cling to His most sweet Mother who carried a Son whom the heavens could not contain; and yet she carried Him in the little enclosure of her holy womb and held Him on her virginal lap.” The theme is developed into another metaphor, that we too should become mothers of Christ: “As the glorious Virgin of virgins carried Christ materially in her body, you, too, by following in His footprints, especially those of poverty and humility, can, without any doubt, always carry Him spiritually in your chaste and virginal body.”
Again, for those of us visiting these letters as part of our Lent reading, the last part of the letter contains advice on fasting. Possibly connected with the crisis that Agnes is going through, there has clearly been an issue around fasting practices in the convent at Prague, and Clare’s advice suggests too rigorous a fasting rule has contributed to the spiritual crisis. So she explains the fasting arrangements at San Damiano and advises Agnes to change her practice to a less exaggerated asceticism and a more moderate fasting rule, for “our flesh is not bronze nor is our strength that of stone.”
As I read these letters, I am also conscious of one more difference in the lives of these two extraordinary ladies. Agnes was enclosed in the urban convent she and her brother Wenceslas had founded in the centre of Prague, following a close copy of the Rule of the Poor Ladies of San Damiano. An urban monastic life in a colder and darker climate. Clare could look out of her rural convent at the rolling Umbrian hills, bathed in the sunlight of a Mediterranean climate. Looking out to the south east she could see, across the olive groves the mountain of Subasio where – just at the top of the tree line under the pointed summit in the photo below – Saint Francis and his ragged troop of troubadour brothers had built hermitages at the Carceri, and sang their praises of God through the Canticle of Brother Sun. Indeed Clare’s letters must have been to Agnes like rays of spiritual sunlight.
In the final part of this series next Sunday, I present my introduction to the Fourth Letter to Agnes of Prague, as I experienced it in 2009, reading it in the dormitory of San Damiano where Clare died not long after writing it. The Fourth Letter is the most remarkable of all.