MYSTICISM: Clare Of Assisi by Bernard McGinn

Clare Of Assisi by Bernard McGinn

From The Flowering of Mysticism

The theme of finding Christ in and through Francis of Assisi was central to all later Franciscan piety and mysticism.  No more perfect example of this is to be found than in Clare of Assisi (1193–1253), Francis’s first female convert to the evangelical way of life and the founder of the “Poor Ladies of San Damiano,” the source of all the later groups of women who identify themselves as Franciscan.  As she put it in the Testament that she wrote late in life in imitation of that left by Francis: “The Son of God became our way, which our most holy father Francis, his true lover and imitator, showed and taught us by word and example.”

Francis’s special love for Clare, whom he used to call “the Christian,” is evident in his own writings and in all the hagiographical accounts.  A number of recent treatments, influenced by contemporary gender studies, have explored the dynamics of their interaction, seeking to show how Francis found in Clare a feminine complement to his own single-minded devotion to following the gospela nd suggesting that they are best viewed as joint partners in the creation of the new apostolic form of life.  It is a striking example of the important interactions between men and women in the beginnings of the new mysticism.

The emerging image of Clare as a spiritual leader offers an analogue to attempts to discover the “real” Francis in the midst of the differences between Il Poverello’s own writings and the images developed in the Francis hagiography.  Clare’s authentic writings, though not extensive (only a third as long as those ascribed to Francis), are not only varied in genre but also display a rather diverse picture of her from that revealed in the subsequent hagiographical accounts.  Though brief, these writings provide us with real access to her own voice (as contrasted with what we know of Mary of Oignies, for example).  Most medieval and modern conceptions of Clare have been more shaped by the famous Legend of her life written not long after her death and (in recent historiography) by the valuable “Process,” that is, the official document recording the testimonies presented in evidence for her canonization, but the investigation of the “real” Clare, like that of the historical Francis, needs to begin with her own writings.

The appeal to Francis found in Clare’s authentic writings is a helpful starting place for grasping her mystical theology.  All of Clare’s writings date to after Francis’s death; it is obvious that the role that he plays in them is in part polemical – Clare was using the image of her canonized friend to defend her own (perhaps better, their own) understanding of absolute poverty against those who wished to modify it.  This is why Francis is omnipresent in the Testament that Clare wrote to guarantee the continuity of their mutual vision, while only moderately strong in her Rule, and almost absent from the Letters to Agnes that summarize her own spiritual teaching.  The depth of Clare’s personal attachment to Francis is brought out in a vision reported in the Process for her canonization.  According to the testimony of Sister Filippa, Clare recounted to some sisters a vision she had in which she saw herself carrying a jug of hot water and a towel to Francis (probably a reminiscence of her nursing him during his illness of 1223 when he stayed at San Damiano).  The vision, whether a dream-vision or not (we are not told), suddenly switches scenes, and, instead of Clare serving Francis, she sees herself as climbing a ladder to reach Francis who is standing at the top.  Then Francis, in the manner of the maternal figure of an abbot made popular by Bernard of Clairvaux and others, nourishes Clare from his own breast in a striking portrayal:

And when she reached Saint Francis, the saint uncovered his breast and said to the virgin Clare, “Come, take, and suck.”  And when she had sucked the saint admonished her to suck again.  While she sucked, what she was sucking was so sweet and delightful that she had no way to describe it.  When she had sucked, the nipple or mouth of the breast from which the milk came remained in blessed Clare’s lips.  And when she took what remained in her mouth in her hands, it seemed to her that it was gold so bright and clear that she saw everything there as if in a mirror.

The powerful symbols of this account express a remarkable reversal of genders as Clare is nourished by the Heavenly milk of “Mother Francis.”  Her sense of identity with Francis as a babe at his breast helps explain Clare’s plantula beatissimi patris Francisci [plant of blessed father Francis], as well as ancilla [slave] (eleven times), famula [hand maid], (three times), and serva [female slave], (once).  The golden nipple that becomes a mirror (mirrors are a central symbol in Clare, as we shall see below) appears to represent their common forma vitae [way of life], that is, the dedication to poverty which reflects, or gives meaning to, “everything” (tucta) in their lives.

Clare of Assisi was the first woman to write her own rule for religious life, and (what is more remarkable) to have it receive ecclesiastical approbation.  That she could not have done this without Francis – Francis alive and Francis dead – in no way detracts from her own genius and energy.  Francis alive provided the forma vitae , that was the core of her vision of a new kind of religious life for women; Francis dead and in Heaven was the celestial patron she used with remarkable astuteness to overcome papal opposition to the regularized form of a life of absolute poverty for women that she managed to see approved on her deathbed.

The fundamental characteristics of Clare’s ground-breaking rule, especially its emphasis on absolute poverty, manual labor, and the common life, have been studied by Marco Bartoli among others. Clare’s Form of Life (she did not call it a Rule herself) is no more a mystical document than any other rule for the religious life, monastic or mendicant, however much it was designed to provide a context designed to foster intense encounter with God.  Her own interior life, like that of Francis, is largely hidden in the Rule, as it also is in her Testament, which is more a public exhortation than an interior revelation.  Fortunately, a series of four letters that Clare wrote ca. 1230–1253 to Agnes of Hungary, daughter of the king of Bohemia, who had rejected marriage to Emperor Frederick II in order to join the houses following the poverty of life of the community of San Damiano, provide more direct insight into her own life with God.

The Letters to Agnes are written in an ornate style different from that found in the Rule and Testament, one reminiscent of the marriage of supple Latinity and spiritual expressivity in Cistercian and Victorine authors of the twelfth century.  Reputable authorities have noted that these relatively brief letters do not concentrate on the theme of contemplation, but then few letters from monastic contemplatives did.  As a woman, and therefore an illiterata (i.e., someone untrained in either the monastic or scholastic modes of theology), she could scarcely be expected to leave extensive mystical commentaries on scripture.  Nevertheless, the mystical elements enshrined in these letters guarantee Clare a significant role in the contribution of thirteenth-century women to mysticism, though perhaps not completely to the “new” mysticism.  Clare’s teaching looks back to the twelfth century at least as much as it shares in the new developments found in contemporary female authors.

Clare was not primarily a visionary in the manner of so many other thirteenth-century women.  Not only does she not describe such experiences in her own works, but the only major vision ascribed to her in the canonization process was the vision of Francis noted above.  The Process is even quite chary of speaking of her ecstatic experiences, mentioning only a rapture that kept her insensible for more than a whole day one Good Friday.  While Clare certainly shows a respect for the Eucharist she was not fundamentally eucharistic in her prayer life, as were so many other female mystics of the time.  Finally, while she makes considerable use of the nuptial language of the soul as spouse of Christ (which appears rarely in Francis), she does so more in accordance with twelfth-century erotic mysticism (though with some variations), rather than in the manner of the “excessive” eroticism that characterizes many thirteenth-century women.

The nuptial aspect of Clare’s mystical piety is rooted in her adoption of the formula found in Francis concerning the individual Christian as “mother, sister, and spouse of Christ.”  This mode of describing our relationship to Christ is in turn founded on the theology of the indwelling of Christ in the soul, as is evident from a passage from the third Letter to Agnes:

So, it is clear that by God’s grace the soul of a faithful person, the most worthy creature, is greater than Heaven, since Heaven and other creatures are not able to grasp the Creator and only the faithful soul is his dwelling and throne, and this is possible only through the charity that the wicked lack.

For Clare this indwelling theme is presented within a Marian setting – the Blessed Virgin is the first and exemplary “cloister” (claustrum) that contains Christ the Creator.  The sister who is a mother of Christ due to the charity that lives within her and which she expresses by mutual love for all, by that very reason also shows herself to be Christ’s spouse.

Clare develops the theme of the mystical marriage both in traditional accents of the Song of Songs and with a new tonality expressive of the Franciscan emphasis on the love of the poor and crucified Jesus.  Six key passages in the Letters to Agnes describe spiritual experience in the language of nuptial union.  Although Francis’s forma vitae had identified the poor ladies as spouses of the Holy Spirit, Clare herself always speaks of Christ as the Bridegroom.  A number of the nuptial texts in the Letters are rhetorical evocations of the power of mutual love in a manner not unlike those found in the Cistercian mystics.  Other passages, however, display new notes.  In the second of the Letters, for example, Agnes is invited as a “poor virgin to embrace the poor Christ.”  She is to gaze upon and follow the one who was made contemptible for her.  Clare continues:

Most noble queen, look upon, consider, contemplate and desire to imitate your Spouse, “beautiful beyond the sons of men,” (Psalm 44:3), who, for your salvation, was made the vilest of men, despised, beaten and scourged in many ways over his whole body, dying in the midst of the agonies of the cross.

This emphasis on the love of the crucified Christ, of course, was also important to Francis, but he never developed it in the context of the spousal motif.  Also noteworthy in this text is the fourfold program beginning in two forms of visual meditation (intuere – considera) and moving on to contemplation (contemplare) for the purpose of imitation (desiderans imitari).

Two extended passages on Agnes as bride in the third and fourth of the letters present aspects of the marital relation between Christ and the virginal soul that demonstrate why Clare, despite the brevity of her writings, can be numbered among the significant female mystics of the thirteenth century.  In the third Letter to Agnes an extended passage summarizes her spiritual teaching and introduces a key mystical theme not found in Francis – the notion of speculum, or mirror.  Clare praises Agnes both at the beginning and at the end of this lyrical passage for the virginity and devotion to poverty that have enabled her to outwit the devil.  Within this envelope of praise she includes an invitation to a deeper understanding of what it means to be a Bride of Christ:

Place your mind in the mirror of eternity; place your soul in the splendor of glory; place your heart in the figure of divine substance and transform yourself totally through contemplation into the image of his divinity so that you may feel (sentias) what friends feel in tasting the hidden sweetness which God himself has reserved from the beginning for those who love him.

So, the contemplation of God in Christ (as the references to Hebrews 1:3, and 2 Corinthians 3:18 indicate) is the means whereby the bride is transformed into Christ and comes to taste the divine sweetness.  The highly visual emphasis involves a synaesthetic richness typical of the evocation of the spiritual senses present in such classic monastic mystics as Gregory the Great and Bernard of Clairvaux.  The second part of the inclusion provides another view of this transformation by its teaching (cited above) on the divine indwelling by which the virgin bride becomes a mother of God after the archetype of Mary.

The mirror image occurs again in the final letter, which the dying Clare sent to her beloved Agnes.  Here the mirror describes Christ as both the Divine Lover and the model and inspiration for the Franciscan way of life.  Once again, Clare begins from the text of Hebrews 1:3, here combined with Wisdom 7:26, a reference to Christ as Eternal Wisdom:

She [i.e., Christ as Wisdom] is the “splendor of eternal glory,” (Hebrews 1:3), “the brightness of eternal life, and the mirror without stain,” (Wisdom 7:26).  Gaze daily into this mirror, O Queen, Spouse of Jesus Christ, and always behold your face there so that you may adorn yourself, within and without, “with a many-colored garment,” (Psalm 44:10).

In an extended allegory, Clare invites Agnes to behold the three essential virtues of the Franciscan life in the Christ-mirror.  The poverty and humility Divine Wisdom manifested in being born in a manger appear at the “beginning” (principium) or edge of the mirror.  The surface (medium) of the mirror continues to display these virtues in the later events of his life, while the depth (finis) of the mirror allows Agnes to “contemplate the ineffable charity by which he willed to suffer on the wood of the cross and there to die the most shameful of deaths.”  Such contemplation of the events of Christ’s life in the mirror that is he himself aims toward heightening desire for erotic contact with the Divine Lover, something that Clare sets out in the language of the Song of Songs.  Though she does not say so here, a passage from the Testament shows that Clare insisted upon the reciprocal nature of gazing into the mirror.  By attentive contemplation of the Christ-mirror the sisters of San Damiano come to be established as “a form in example and mirror for others, but also for our own sisters whom the Lord will call to our vocation [e.g., Agnes and her community], so that they may serve as a mirror and example for those living in the world.

This important text leads us to the final issue concerning Clare’s relation to the new mysticism.  Many, though not all, of the themes of Clare’s mysticism come from the treasury of the earlier medieval teaching on contemplatio; it may also seem that Clare’s retreat from the world into the enclosure of San Damiano was also typical of monastic separation and is therefore at odds with the democratizing and secularizing tendency of the new mysticism noted earlier.  This is not the case, however, especially because Clare conceived of her commitment to Francis’s forma vitae as involving a new public responsibility for the entire church.

The fifth and eleventh chapters of Clare’s Rule give feminine enclosure both a more flexible interpretation and a less central place than the rules that Gregory IX and Innocent IV had attempted to impose on San Damiano.  As Jean-François Godet puts it, Clare’s model was “a life of withdrawal, not a life of confinement.”  A measure of withdrawal was necessary so that the practice of humility, poverty, and mutual charity enshrined in the apostolic forma vitae of the Poor Ladies could shine more brightly as a mirror for women and men still living in the world, as both the Testament and a passage in the third Letter to Agnes make clear.  The paradoxical way in which Clare and her followers withdrew from the world in order to become a more manifest example of light and love to it was not lost upon her hagiographer, but it was never expressed with more lyric intensity than in the Bull of Canonization.  These lines can serve to summarize key values of the new apostolic forms of mysticism that began to flourish shortly after 1200.

She was kept inside, and remained outside.  Clare was hidden, yet her way of life was open.  Clare kept silent, but her fame cried out.  She was concealed in a cell, but she was taught in the cities.  It is no wonder that so bright and gleaming a light could not be hidden, but must shine forth and give clear light in the Lord’s house.

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