Today, August 11th, we celebrate the feast of Saint Chiara Offreduccio (Clare) of Assisi.
Saint Clare’s story begins at the age of eighteen (or seventeen), when she escaped with St. Francis in the dead of night, led through the woods by companions carrying burning torches, to kneel before an altar and consecrate herself to God. She then cut her hair, removed her jewelry, and exchanged her gown for sackcloth. She would begin a new life of prayer and contemplation, a life that has had a profound impact on the world to this day.
Though Clare dreamed of joining Francis and his friars in wandering the world to beg for their daily bread, she and Francis both knew that it was not safe for her to do so. So she brought her order of Poor Ladies into a convent, where they lived owning only the building that they needed for shelter and the garden that they needed for food. They would later petition the Pope to allow them to own nothing at all.
I have no doubt that Clare seemed just as strange to her contemporaries as she does to us now. In fact, the Pope himself was hesitant to approve her order; he struggled to comprehend how her refusal to own property, the ideal of “holy poverty” taken to its extreme, could ever work practically. But in a time when the Church was growing increasingly extravagant, this disciple and dear friend of St. Francis reminded us of the freedom that comes from going without.
This is not to say that property is bad. We celebrate, and rightly so, the independence and security that comes from owning your own house, owning your own car, and knowing where your next meal will come from. But saints often go to one extreme to remind us of our need to steer clear of the other. As G.K. Chesterton said in his biography of St. Thomas Aquinas:
The Saint is a medicine because he is an antidote. Indeed that is why the saint is often a martyr; he is mistaken for a poison because he is an antidote. He will generally be found restoring the world to sanity by exaggerating whatever the world neglects, which is by no means always the same element in every age. Yet each generation seeks its saint by instinct; and he is not what the people want, but rather what the people need.
And St. Clare’s bravery was exactly what the people of her time needed, and in many ways what we need today. This lifestyle reminds us of how utterly dependent we are on God, and how little security we truly have.
In his biography of St. Francis, the saint from whom Clare drew much of her spirituality, Chesterton tells a story in which Francis retreats into a cave and emerges a changed man. Chesterton imagines Francis walking out of the cave on his hands, and seeing the world hanging upside down. (Fun fact: Mumford and Sons references this passage in “The Cave.):
If a man saw the world upside down, with all the trees and towers hanging head downwards as in a pool, one effect would be to emphasize the idea of dependence. There is a Latin and literal connection; for the very word dependence only means hanging. It would make vivid the Scriptural text which says that God has hanged the world upon nothing. If St. Francis had seen, in one of his strange dreams, the town of Assisi upside down, it need not have differed in a single detail from itself except in being entirely the other way round. But the point is this: that whereas to the normal eye the large masonry of its walls or the massive foundations of its watchtowers and its high citadel would make it seem safer and more permanent, the moment it was turned over the very same weight would make it seem more helpless and more in peril. St. Francis might love his little town as much as before, or more than before; but the nature of the love would be altered even in being increased. He might see and love every tile on the steep roofs or every bird on the battlements; but he would see them all in a new and divine light of eternal danger and dependence. Instead of being merely proud of his strong city because it could not be moved, he would be thankful to God Almighty that it had not been dropped; he would be thankful to God for not dropping the whole cosmos like a vast crystal to be shattered into falling stars. Perhaps St. Peter saw the world so, when he was crucified head-downwards.
This doesn’t need to be a frightening vision; in fact, Chesterton goes on to say that it inspires a profound gratitude. Because God does not let us fall, no matter what might come at us. Being infinitely in danger only means that we are infinitely protected.
I’m sure Francis and Clare saw, as Chesterton saw, that living an uncertain life makes us even more aware of this infinite protection, and our infinite gratitude. Francis and Clare learned to abandon everything to God, to trust him with even the clothes on their back and the source of their next meal. They learned to be aware and thankful of the fact that God provides. And by letting go of fear of the future, they learned to live more and more in the present.
Saint Clare of Assisi, pray for us.