Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Santa Chiara: Lady Poverty's Spokesperson

The religious order which St. Francis and St. Clare, both of Assisi, founded was originally named the Order of Poor Ladies of San Damiano. Clare herself proved to be the poorest of the Poor Ladies. Francis called her "the first flower in my garden". Her dedication to Francis' ideal of poverty was legendary among the people who knew her, of all stations in life. Beyond the fact that she been born into nobility and willingly gave up all those trappings, she lived the rest of her religious life in a rough habit and cincture, her head veiled. She and her sisters lived in utter poverty. Renouncing income of any kind from rent or other common property, the Ladies committed themselves to living entirely on the donations of kind-hearted visitors. Francis' friend, Cardinal Húgolin, later Gregory IX, drew up the first rule for Clare's convent and later authorized Clare and her followers to live their unique life of absolute poverty. The sisters went barefoot, slept on the ground, abstained from meat, and never spoke unless it was absolutely necessary. Clare personally wore a hair shirt and took only bread and water on all vigils and daily during Lent. Her deprivations became so extreme that both St. Francis and the bishop of Assisi had to order her to lie on a mattress and to take at least a little bread every day.

Born Chiara Offreduccio at Assisi in 1194, she committed herself to the Franciscan way of life at age 18 and never looked back. Though her family originally opposed her entering religious life, ironically she was later joined in the Order by her widowed mother and two of her blood sisters.

Through the centuries Clare's followers became known variously as the Order of Saint Clare, the Poor Clares, the Poor Clare Sisters, the Clarisse, the Minoresses, the Franciscan Clarist Congregation, or the Second Order of St. Francis: an order of nuns in the Roman Catholic Church. The Poor Ladies, was the second Franciscan order to be established, the first being the Order of Friars Minor, and the third being the Third Order of penitents or tertiaries, of which the secular part was later called the Secular Franciscan Order. The Order of Poor Ladies came into being on Palm Sunday in the year 1212, There are well over 20,000+ Poor Clare nuns in over 20 observances and federations living in over 76 countries throughout the world. The Poor Clares were brought to the United States in 1875 when Mother Maddalena Bentivoglio and her sister Constanza were sent by Pius IX to establish a monastery of Poor Clares of the Primitive Observance in 1878. One branch of the Poor Clares (OSC) follows the "Rule of St. Clare," approved by Innocent IV the day before St. Clare died in 1253. Other branches are the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration (PCPA), originally known as the Franciscan Nuns of the Blessed Sacrament, founded in 1854, and counting Mother Angelica among its members; the Capuchin Poor Clares; and the Colettine Poor Clares (PCC).

Personally, I've had two experiences with the daughters of Clare of Assisi: one, with members of the PCPA in the Diocese of Youngstown in 1954, and the other, with the Poor Clare Colettines in Hawarden, N. Wales in 1993.

On October 3, 1954, in my senior year of high school, our 27 member Brunnerdale Seminary choir was invited by the Bishop of Youngstown, Emmett M. Walsh (lovingly referred to by us twits as "Bishop M & M"), to sing at the consecration of the Diocesan Shrine of Perpetual Adoration at Sancta Clara Monastery, Canton, OH. This was a brand-spanking new chapel, with cushy light green carpetting in the sanctuary. The details of the event are indelibly etched in my memory, for reasons which will become apparent. For the three-hour long ceremony the Poor Clares recruited several of us choir members to serve as acolytes, me, specifically, as the thurifer. Mind you, we'd not known of this until our arrival, and therefore hadn't had anything but hurried instructions as to what to expect or how to proceed.

At a certain point in the ceremony, Bishop Walsh needed more charcoal for the thurible. The dear Sister Sacristan, hovering inconspicuously in the doorway to the sacristy, had put the lit charcoal in a brazier behind the main altar along with some tongs with which to pick up the red hot coals. It was some distance from the back of the altar to the altar steps at the center. I was reluctant to try to carry the charcoal, which proved terribly crumbly, with the tongs. In hindsight, the logical thing would have been to take the thurible from the Bishop's chaplain and bring it to the back in order to transfer the coals from the brazier. But adolescents sometimes don't think logically, and I hadn't done that. Embarrassed to return and do so, I foolishly decided to make a run for the thurible, carrying the charcoal with the tongs. I almost made it, but, predictably, the coals crumbled and fell to the new carpet! Sister Sacristan, who'd been helplessly watching the whole fiasco, just about had apoplexy and hurried forward, stomping on the charcoal so that it wouldn't burn the new carpet. I was trembling by that time, certain that I'd ruined the chapel forever, and totally embarrassed to have brought the service to a complete stop. I don't recall how we eventually got the charcoal to the Bishop, but once that was done I scurried back to the choir loft in disgrace where I had felt I belonged in the first place! A few days later, Mother M. Clare, the Superior, wrote to our director, Fr. Bill Volk: "Particularly for us in the cloister it was no small treat to have a male choir render the chaste melodies of the chant [sic!] in our shrine..." Her unspoken thought, I have no doubt, might have been: "...but not as bumbling acolytes, ruining our beautiful carpet!"

My second experience with the Poor Clares -- the Colettines -- was much more positive, and every bit as memorable, though in a far different way. My journal entry for September 10, 1993 reads: "Walked up to the Poor Clares' Monastery for Eucharist today. Very interesting experience, i.e., they go barefoot. [Ed. note: we were told that sometimes during private individual prayer the Sisters would dance before the tabernacle.] The monastery is small & simple but extremely tasteful...It's in a residential section of Hawarden. They used guitar accompaniment for what was like a combination Office/Eucharist -- no celebrant. At Communion one of the nuns distributed the Sacrament from the reserved bread in the tabernacle...The pamphlet I picked up indicates that they sleep only about 3-4 hours & take their meals standing up! There was a wondrous simplicity, purity, & joyful prayerfulness in the atmosphere..."

Four days later I returned for Eucharist with Nell, one of the other participants on our Wales pilgrimage. My journal notes: "When we arrived it looked like the arts festival had overtaken the main & guest chapels. No one was around. Soon Sr. Beatrix came & ushered us upstairs to a very tiny meeting room with a grill in the center & a similar sized room behind the grill for the sisters. About 18 people eventually crowded in. Then the sisters came in, so it was a very intimate & cozy setting in which to celebrate the feast of the Holy Cross. An older Franciscan priest with a beard celebrated the Mass, rather perfunctorily, I thought. His sermon was ho-hum. At one point he noted out loud that he didn't see a crucifix displayed & that tho it wasn't 'required' there really should be one in evidence. I'm sure the Poor Clares took it with customary humility but I thought that it was rude & unnecessary...One of the nuns jumped up & scurried off to find a crucifix to comply with his observation.

I noticed that the sisters are very deliberate in saying their prayers...Yet those on [our] side of the grill kept rushing through the responses, including the priest...It was a beautiful & even contemplative service, for all the distractions, and I feel very much a kinship with these faithful women of God. I will miss them when I go back..."

Fr. John Julian, OJN, in his Stars In a Dark World (now available at Amazon.com, by the way!) writes of Clare's death:

"On August 11th, in the forty-second year of her religious profession, she was heard to say to herself:
'Go forth in peace, for you have followed the good road.
Go without fear, for he who created you has sanctified you,
has always protected you, and loves you as a mother.
Blessed are you, O God, for having created me.'"

No comments: