By Charlotte King
Saint Clare was born in the small northern Italian town of Assisi in 1194 to a noble, wealthy family. When she was 18 she resisted pressure from her family to marry and secretly ran away to join St Francis and his followers. She was unable to follow the itinerant lifestyle of the Franciscan brothers however, because travelling without possessions and begging openly for alms as the friars did was not considered appropriate for a woman. Instead, she founded her own monastery at San Damiano, a small church just outside Assisi. Nevertheless, she remained committed to the Franciscan vision of following the ‘Poor Christ’ and, with Francis as her inspiration, she developed a unique spirituality of her own, eventually becoming the first woman to write her own monastic Rule, which was eventually approved in 1253.
Clare’s letters to Agnes of Prague are a valuable insight into Clare’s personal spirituality and theology, not only because few other examples of her writing exist, but also because Clare felt a special bond with Agnes, who she described in her last letter as ‘half of my soul’. Agnes was like Clare in many ways. She too was noble, the daughter of the King of Bohemia. Agnes had refused all offers of marriage including one from the German emperor himself. Instead she chose to found a monastery, which she entered on June 11th 1234. It was then that Clare, who had been abbess of her own monastery for almost 22 years, began correspondence with the 23 year old Agnes.
It was the ideal of living a life of absolute poverty that bound Clare and Agnes together. Both wanted to imitate Jesus (who they believed had renounced all worldly possessions) by living in monasteries that were not endowed with money from tithes or earnings from large tracts of land, but survived purely on the harvests from their own small gardens, alms from the faithful and, ultimately, the providence of God. However, this way of life was insecure and potentially unsafe. Although both women managed to maintain the poverty of their monasteries, they faced great opposition from Pope Gregory IX and his successor Innocent IV.
Clare’s second letter to Agnes was written after Gregory had endowed Agnes’s monastery with the revenues from the nearby Hospital of St Francis, against Agnes’s own wishes. In the letter Clare demonstrated her determination and her readiness to defy authority for the cause she believed in. She told Agnes to remain steadfast in her commitment to poverty ‘believing nothing, agreeing with nothing, which would dissuade you from this resolution’. Furthermore, she told Agnes that if ‘anyone’ (which was a clear reference to the pope) should try to dissuade her ‘even though you must respect him, do not follow his counsel’.
In her third letter, Clare made it clear that her way of life was not simply about self-denial and poverty. This letter was a response to Agnes’s plea for advice after Gregory had again attacked her way of life, this time by relaxing the rule on fasting for her community. Again Clare told Agnes to ignore the pope, explaining that sisters should always eat ‘Lenten fare’, yet she also advised Agnes not to concentrate on the worldly troubles she faced, but to seek solace in contemplation of God.
‘Place your mind before the mirror of eternity!’ she advised and she explained that this would bring Agnes joy because of the ‘hidden sweetness’ of God. She also emphasised the importance of moderation in fasting, because ‘our flesh is not bronze nor is our strength that of stone… offer to the lord your reasonable service and your sacrifice always seasoned with salt’. This highlights the fact that Clare was a moderate penitent in contrast to some other religious women of the period, who went to extremes of self-mortification, even cutting off pieces of their own flesh as Mary de Oignes did.
These passages from Clare’s letters to Agnes should remind us that, despite its prominence in the literature on Clare, her devotion to poverty was simply one aspect of her spirituality, and it was subordinated to her higher aim of achieving spiritual union with God. It is also important to note that despite attempts of contemporaries (especially men) to compare Clare to the Virgin Mary, and despite a modern tendency to see her only as a female version of Francis, it was in fact Jesus who was at the heart of all Clare’s letters to Agnes and thus Jesus was at the heart of her spirituality. For Clare, the defining characteristics of Christ were his ‘blessed poverty, holy humility and ineffable charity’ and it was these qualities that she strove to emulate above all others. She also emphasised virginity and chastity as essential virtues in both herself and Agnes because by remaining virgins, they could become the brides of Christ in heaven.
In emphasising poverty and humility Clare was copying Francis, and by describing herself and Agnes as the ‘brides’ of Christ, she was using familiar religious imagery of the time. However, Clare’s letters to Agnes also reveal her own understanding of these concepts. Although Clare began her first letters emphasising the Franciscan concept of the ‘admirable exchange’ in which the good Christian gave up worldly status and possessions in return for later heavenly rewards, by the third letter, Clare was suggesting that such spiritual joy could be experienced here on earth too.
In this third letter, Clare told Agnes that Jesus not only came down to earth to redeem us, but also remained here inside his followers. She explained, ‘The heavens with the rest of creation cannot contain their creator. Only the faithful soul is his dwelling place’. This conception of her relationship with Jesus allowed Clare to stress to Agnes that spiritual joy and fulfilment were attainable in this life too: ‘therefore 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.’
It is passages such as this that make Clare’s letters to Agnes so valuable. While sources written about her often stress her abstinence and fasting, her enclosed way of life and her self-denial, Clare’s own writings show that she was someone who felt herself fulfilled and lived a joyous life. At a time when the male-dominated church specifically barred women from almost all echelons of ecclesiastical life, Clare managed to bypass this structure and experience direct spiritual union with Christ himself. It was this that made poverty so important to her, not simply that she was a disciple of Francis. Clare created her own distinctive way of life based upon the belief that an imitation of Christ’s poverty was ‘the perfection which will prompt the King Himself to take you to Himself’.
Marco Bartoli, Clare of Assisi, (London : Darton, Longman & Todd, 1993)
Joan Mueller, The Privilege of Poverty, (Pennsylvania, 2006)
Joan Mueller, Clare’s Letters to Agnes, (St Bonaventure University, 2001)
Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast, (University of California, 1987)
Catherine M. Mooney ed., Gendered voices : medieval saints and their interpreters