dormitory 4

The dormitory of San Damiano where Saint Clare died on 11th August 1253.

Introduction

Clare wrote her community’s rule: the simple forma vitæ given to her by Saint Francis which she developed into a more complete form of life with all the guidelines needed for regulating relationships within an enclosed life. This was the earliest religious rule that we know to have been written by a woman. She struggled for years to get papal approval for it, which finally arrived two days before her death in August 1253.  Shortly before this, and with her health failing, Saint Clare wrote her last letter to Agnes of Prague.  You can read it here on the website of the Poor Clare Colettines at Ty Mam Duw.

In my final introduction to these letters I would like to take you on a journey to Assisi.  I read the first three of these letters while studying in Rome and preparing to write an essay on Franciscan spirituality. Realizing I had not really given Saint Clare very much attention, I began reading her modest output, including the letters.  I was so moved by reading the first three letters that I decided to engage with the last letter in a more reflective way, and I caught a train from Rome’s Termini station to Assisi.  Early next morning, I read the Fourth Letter from Saint Clare to Agnes of Prague in the dormitory in San Damiano convent where she wrote it shortly before she died.

Meditation

That November morning, I walked from the house of the Anglican chaplain in Assisi where I had stayed overnight, near to the site of the house where Clare was born, and past the Basilica of St Clare where her remains lie.  Then down the hill between the olive groves, to San Damiano.  By prior arrangement with a Franciscan friar, I was let into the building two hours before it normally opens to pilgrims and tourists.  I made my way up the winding medieval stone stairs to the first floor dormitory.

What had begun in Rome as an academic exercise had now led me to this special place.  I went there with a simple idea:  to read the Fourth Letter there and maybe get closer to the life and spirituality of Saint Clare. I hoped for some encounter with the author of these letters.  Instead, something more fundamental happened, and I believe it could happen to anyone reading these letters.  If we allow ourselves to enter into the spirit of these letters, they can take us into the heart of the lived experience of the Incarnation.

I sat on the bare tiled floor near to a flickering lamp on a stand. Tradition holds that Saint Clare died in this corner of the dormitory.  It felt very special to be there and to prepare to read the last letter.  I certainly felt moved by that space, but if I was looking for Clare I didn’t find her.  For my attention was pulled powerfully in a different direction.  On the end wall of the dormitory there is a modern icon of Saint Clare cradling in her left arm a miniature version of the San Damiano Crucifix. (See  notes below.)

I sat down. The floor tiles were cold.  A murmuring of psalms could be heard echoing up the stairwell: the friars had begun saying their morning prayers in their chapel below.  Outside the window there was birdsong in the cloister.  I quietly sang a setting of the Canticle of the Creatures that I remembered from earlier in my life as a novice in Dorset and I said the morning Office.

Then, I spent a while meditating on the first three of Clare’s letters to Agnes.  If you have followed my series of introductions, you know the letters are framed by the common central metaphor of the mystical bridal relationship: the soul as Bride of Christ.   We have seen how Clare uses supporting metaphors in the First Letter to illustrate her ideas, beginning with the metaphor of ‘commerce’ [commercium] or divine-human exchange of gifts. Then she develops her theme in the Second Letter with the metaphor of ‘the journey’, and another extended metaphor, of God’s indwelling.  This leads up to her discussion of vanity in the Third Letter that we examined last week.  In that third letter she also introduces a new metaphor which holds a special place in her spirituality, the ‘mirror’ [speculum] which she then develops fully in the Fourth Letter .

Sitting on the floor of the San Damiano dormitory, I read this letter with its mirror metaphor. Each time the mirror was mentioned by Clare, I felt drawn to the icon where Clare is depicted cradling the crucifix in her left arm.  She says in the letter: “Look into this mirror”.  I looked at the icon and saw how she holds the crucifix.  I was beginning to connect.  Clare was pointing.  It was all becoming clear.  Clear as Clare.  Here’s how she employs the mirror as an image to explain the workings of the soul’s transforming relationship with the crucified Christ:

Look into this mirror every day,
O queen, spouse of Jesus Christ,
And continually examine your face in it,
So that in this way you may adorn yourself completely,
Inwardly and outwardly,
Clothed and covered in multicolored apparel,
Adorned in the same manner with flowers and garments
Made of all the virtues as is proper,
Dearest daughter and spouse of the most high King.
Moreover, in this mirror shine blessed poverty,
holy humility, and charity beyond words,
as you will be able, with God’s grace,
to contemplate throughout the entire mirror.

There is an implicit reference here to the Pauline mirror imagery in Corinthians: “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.” (II Cor. 3:18)   Clare refers to the Crucified as the Mirror. The San Damiano Crucifix – the focus of spiritual life in her monastery – must have been foremost in her mind.  It was the whole focus of their life in that convent: that painted Syrian icon of the crucifixion.  The Mirror.  And now, in this moment, in this place, my whole attention was on the icon depicting Clare cradling the Crucifix in her left arm with her right hand on it.  The icon itself was a mirror of the words in the Fourth Letter.  I looked at the icon.  Again I read the words in the letter:

Draw me after You!
We will run in the fragrance of Your perfumes,
O heavenly Spouse!
I will run and not tire,
until You bring me into the wine-cellar,
until Your left hand is under my head
and Your right hand will embrace me happily
and You will kiss me with the happiest kiss of Your mouth. 

Clare holds Christ crucified, the Mirror, and she becomes a mirror herself.  She invites us all to gaze into the Mirror as she invited Agnes of Prague.  She encourages us to draw forward to share in the ever possible joy of sanctity.  There in that dormitory I knew for a moment, a precious and glorious moment, that I was looking past Clare and into the Mirror.  The Mirror was looking at me.  I had gone to that place looking for Clare but she had been pointing away from herself.  She had been pointing to Christ and there He was.  I was holding Him and He was holding me.  I could see myself in Him. It was a moment without time. My tears fell on the bare terracotta tiles of the dormitory floor.

It was half an hour before I could continue reading the letter.  In a way, I now saw the finishing of the letter as a less important task.  I had now discovered the true reason why I had been drawn to that place.  But I completed my mission: I had gone there to read it, so I continued reading until Clare’s final farewell to Agnes:

Farewell, my dearest daughter, to you and your daughters until we meet at the throne of the glory of the great God, and desire this for us. Inasmuch as I can, I recommend to your charity the bearers of this letter, our dearly beloved Brother Amatus, beloved of God and men, and Brother Bonagura. Amen.

And sitting there on the dormitory floor, reading the last words of Saint Clare to Agnes, this final question arose in my mind. Did those two named brothers, Amatus and Bonagura, arrive in Prague on foot with this letter also bearing for Agnes the news that Clare had died and gone to the throne of the glory of the great God?

Final reflection

Beyond the particular circumstances of her enclosed life and the culture of the times in which she lived, it is not a remote spiritual model that Saint Clare holds out to us, but a practical one communicated with simple wisdom and great clarity.  Her genius is not just to demonstrate that this is true and achievable, but to convince the reader that nothing less than this can satisfy.   Clare points us to the heart of her lived experience of the Incarnation. What comes across clearly through these letters is that prayer is a way of living rather than an activity.  For some there is – as T.S.Eliot says – a timeless moment, “a moment in and out of time”, but for one like Saint Clare there is a lifetime of that experience.

We can also observe that the mirror metaphor is used frequently in the primitive Franciscan movement and it can be regarded as a key term in the vocabulary of the friars.  In Thomas of Celano’s Vita Secunda of St Francis, the saint’s life is ‘mirroring’ Christ and readers are exhorted to “look into this mirror of his life learn all perfection,”[1] and these words were written in 1247 just six years before Saint Clare wrote her last letter to Agnes.  This is one example of many repeated uses of the mirror metaphor in the context of God’s reflection in the humanity of Christ and His reflection in the poverty of humanity.

While Clare was familiar with spiritual writings of her time, and her employing of the mirror metaphor per se is certainly far from novel, the way in which she uses it deserves our attention, for it is she alone in her time who applies this metaphor directly to Christ.  “Clare does not moralise or reflect abstractedly… but she pictures in her letters how the transformation into Christ can be stimulated and celebrated by contemplating Him as a mirror.”[2]

811clare37At the very centre of Clare’s model of Christian spirituality is her constant astonishment that the King of Glory became the lowest of creatures, and her letters witness to a spiritual life lived fully in that tension between those two extremes.  The metaphors she uses of the sacred commerce, the journey and the mystical bridal union with Christ, as well as the mirror metaphor of her final letter, speak of an authentic experience of the living Christ in her life.These four letters from Saint Clare to Agnes of Prague give us a beautiful insight into the lives and struggles of these two inspiring women, their spirituality and their pastoral sensitivity, and they also contain snapshots of the battle to establish their rule.

dormitory 3

The last letter to Agnes of Prague was written here in the dormitory not long before Saint Clare died.

When the approval of her rule arrived on 9th August 1253, Clare died thinking that she had succeeded. Sadly, less than ten years after her death, all the Poor Clares’ houses were forbidden by the Church to practice the institutional poverty they had fought for with such single-minded resolve.  The bold founding vision of Saint Francis and Saint Clare was undermined by the leaders of the squabbling branches of Franciscan friars and by the hierarchy of the Church.  They were scandalized by institutes that wanted to practice the poverty of Christ.  

A final note

The Poor Clare Colettines at Ty Mam Duw in north Wales have asked me to make a copy of these Lent articles on Saint Clare’s Letters to Agnes of Prague, in a printable document that can be circulated to cloistered sisters who do not see the Internet.  Here are the four Lent Sunday articles plus the follow up Monday articles by Jess, as a downloadable Word file: AATW Saint Clare Articles Lent 2016

 

References:

[1] Regis J. Armstrong et al., eds., Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, Volume II, The Founder, (New York – London – Manila, 2000), p.221.

[2] Edith A. Van den Goorbergh and Theodore H. Zweerman, Light Shining Through a Veil: On Saint Clare’s Letters to Saint Agnes of Prague, (Leuven: Peeters, 2000), p.219.  This is a very readable commentary on the letters and traces remarkable patterns through the texts, suggesting that Clare’s literary style reflects the art of embroidery, which was an activity practised by her and the sisters in San Damiano.

The San Damiano Crucifix:

In my article I refer to the way that one level of meaning in Saint Clare’s mirror metaphor is the icon of the cross, the San Damiano crucifix. Many readers will probably be familiar with this 12th century icon of the cross as it is a popular image in the Catholic world.

The photograph here shows the present location of the San Damiano crucifix.  It hangs in the Basilica of St Clare in Assisi but was formerly in San Damiano, where it was discovered by Saint Francis in his conversion. Christ said to him from the cross: “Francis rebuild my Church which is in ruins.”  It is a Syrian inspired cross probably painted in the icon workshops in Spoleto in the 12th century.  (My earlier writings here on the hermit tradition of Spoleto explain the Syrian connection.)

Basilica of St Clare

St Clare’s Basilica, Assisi

Also below is a high resolution copy of the crucifix which shows the work in fine detail.

Kreuz von San DamianoBasilika Santa Chiara Assisi, Italien

San Damiano crucifix (high resolution image)

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