Clare in the Time of Coronavirus
We’ve Entered the Landscape of Medieval Saints
Thoughts of Saint Clare in the Time of Coronavirus
I watch news programs and can’t help noticing an appreciable deterioration in the presentation, not just in glitchy sound issues and oddly arranged backdrops, but in the look of the newscasters themselves. One openly admitted on the air the other day: “We’re doing our own make-up!” Of course, they are! We’re all “social distancing”! Some have chosen to forego makeup altogether. It signals that we as a society are in a state of breaking down. The props are being dismantled. The novel coronavirus pandemic is laying bare those expendable accouterments that exaggerate the proportion of our lives and render us a false sense of power and significance. We have grown so accustomed to these frivolities that we’ve hardly given them a thought, until -- just like that -- Coronavirus has swept them away. Now TV personalities are soldiering on without makeup.
And so, by inches and against our wills, we are ascending the high plateau of medieval spirituality and the landscape of the medieval saints.
They were deemed “saints” for a variety of reasons. But a signature feature worth highlighting in this particular moment was the fact that they were masters at living full, abundant, joy-filled lives in the midst of deprivation and, yes, pandemics.
I am thinking of Clare of Assisi in particular. She lived an existence wherein frivolous props did not exist. She vested her hopes elsewhere. And yet she thrived. Her life bore the bloom of a true lover of God. Clare’s story and her testimony can speak to our troubled souls in these modern times as we struggle to navigate the disorienting life in the time of Coronavirus.
Who Was Clare?
Clare (1192-1253) was the eldest daughter of a family of high nobility in Assisi, and the town beauty. As such, she was being groomed by her father for a marriage of rank. He was making all appropriate overtures to secure it and numerous suitors sought her hand. She could have had her pick of them. Instead, she rebuffed them all and abandoned her life of privilege to follow the town upstart, Francis of Assisi, who himself had renounced his rank and family. Together they vowed to live out their lives in penitence and poverty after the mandate given by Jesus when he said, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Matthew 19:21). Clare’s was a high-spirited gesture and she embraced it devotedly. By worldly standards, she made an unreasonable choice to give up power and station to land instead of in the insecure territory of living as Jesus did.
From that point on, however, circumstances changed utterly and her dreams were upended in a stream of catastrophic events that unfolded, one upon the next, even as she undertook the religious life. The few props she’d depended upon (such as the ambulatory mobility and ministering to the poor) were taken from her and more than that was taken--the very picture of her life was turned upside down. All that she thought she was meant to be evaporated in deference life’s brutal intrusions. Yet, even so, after a lifetime of losses, she uttered with her dying breath, “God, you are blessed for having created me."
How could she reach that pinnacle of beatitude after so much sorrow and struggle? More, what can we, in our time, glean from her story?
The Times in Which She Lived
In our current predicament, Americans -- and I dare say all humans everywhere -- have fixated upon “managing” the global outbreak of the novel coronavirus. Many of us watch the daily briefings hoping against hope that the “models” start indicating a downturn. Yet Clare lived in a time when the idea of “managing” a pandemic would be met with a compassionate and sorrowful gaze and a shaking of the head. Clare lived during the 13th century in Italy, a time when pandemics were rampant throughout Europe, hanging the cloud of despair over the land indiscriminately. If tuberculosis did not get you, malaria would find its way in. If not malaria, then leprosy. If not leprosy, then any number of other plagues and fevers lay in wait, like ghosts prowling the unsuspecting landscape, seeking another brave knight to fell--knights like St. Francis himself, who contracted pathogens in his youth and was afflicted by them throughout his life. For Clare, “managing” a pandemic was not where she placed her hope.
Where did her hope lay?
Her intentions in embracing the religious life had been wild and brave -- she pictured herself active, ministering to neighbors and serving lepers, tending her garden, offering prayers for the sick. She imagined the kind of mendicant life that defined the male members of Francis’ order -- traveling around with the message of the blessedness of gospel poverty and, if need be, being martyred for that message. Instead, as circumstances evolved, Francis impelled her to stay in her convent to be the point person (abbess) for other females who desired to follow the Franciscan life. This had not been Clare’s plan when she ran away from home to join Francis. She made the concession only out of obedience to him. Given the new terms for her Franciscan identity, and despite her early dissent, she created a piquant and devout, if constrained, holy kingdom within the walls of that modest convent, arranging her life and those of her sisters within the terms that had been foisted upon her. Clare was a gardener, among other things, and (when she was healthy) she diligently tended to it, as all gardeners must in order to grow a healthy garden. It means preparing the soil, planting seeds, watering faithfully, winnowing out weeds, pruning to ensure robust growth, harvesting fruit, and saving the seeds the begin the entire process again in the following season. She applied garden principles to the care of her convent. She was a nurturer, dutifully overseeing the lives and daily activities of the “poor sisters” who had joined her cultivating their lives and spiritual growth as the gardener tends the garden.
Yet life’s brutal realities changed even that picture. By the time Clare had reached the age of 34, after Francis had died a lingering and tortured death due to the illnesses that had afflicted him, she contracted a malady that had left her unable to walk. From that time till the day she died, she was confined to her bed and animated her duties and longings from the confines of her small dormitory.
As her life transitioned toward immobility, she changed her gaze and applied her vocation accordingly. Over a period of 19 years (between 1234 and 1253) she wrote letters to a young woman of royal descent, Agnes of Prague, who similarly gave up a life of privilege to live out Franciscan poverty. From these letters three principles emerge that served as Clare’s defining themes that kept her sane and hopeful even as her own exterior props were disintegrating.
In her first letter, Clare affirmed the choice Agnes had made in giving up temporal advantages in exchange for the life of poverty: “One clothed cannot fight another naked, because she who has something to be caught hold of is more quickly thrown to the ground.” Clare called this the “great exchange,” like transferring accounts, swapping superficial accouterments of worldly glory for the nakedness, fleetness, and liberation of higher devotion. She lauded Agnes for the freedom she embraced as one no longer enslaved by worldly cravings or attachments. The first theme, then, that emerges from Clare’s wisdom celebrates the one who is (metaphorically) naked in this way, who cannot be thrown down by worldly antagonisms and is free to live boldly and fearlessly.
A second theme, noted in a later letter to Agnes, shows Clare encouraging her to take command of the limited world she lay claim to after “transferring accounts.” Within the context of that higher devotion, she urges Agnes to pursue her singular purpose with fleetness and resolve:
“What you hold, may you hold,
What you do, may you do and not stop.
But with swift pace, light step, unswerving feet,
so that even your steps stir up no dust,
may you go forward
securely, joyfully, and swiftly,
on the path of prudent happiness, believing nothing,
agreeing with nothing
that would dissuade you from this commitment or would place a stumbling block for you on the way . . .”
Clare embodied this principle herself as she took command of her small world, confined though it was, and gave herself devotedly to its cultivation and holiness.
Third, Clare cultivated in her mind a picture of that other invisible world where she vested all hope and kept her heart fully fixed. In her letters she referred to this habit as gazing in a mirror:
“Place your mind before the mirror of eternity!
Place your soul in the brilliance of glory!
Place your heart in the figure of the divine substance
and, through contemplation,
transform your entire being into the image
of the Godhead Itself,
so that you too may feel what friends feel
in tasting the hidden sweetness...”
Clare assures Agnes that all her longings are answered beholding the world behind the mirror, where true life exists. She calls her to “behold the beauty lavishly bestowed upon you, the bride, by the Divine Husband.”
Even so, despite these themes, Clare was sick. She needed help. She was dependent upon others to get through each day. Late in his life, Francis could foresee that Clare’s health was declining and that she was going to need help. Shortly before he died, Francis wanted to help these women reckon with it. He wrote to them: “Those who are weighed down by sickness, and the others who are wearied because of them, all of you: bear it in peace. For you will sell this fatigue at a very high price.”
In sum, Clare’s way of navigating her uncertain world helps us attempt to navigate ours. She transferred accounts and made the “great exchange” of worldly pursuit for liberation and trust of a higher devotion. Under these terms, she “tended her garden,” that is, she took dominion over the little she had, acting hopefully and resolutely, until she creates a flourishing holy habitation. In her interior life, she cultivated a picture of that invisible but beautiful, intimate and robust world of union with her Divine Companion and vested all hope there. She kept her heart fully fixed there. And when the sorrows and debilitation of earth demanded their due and she needed help, others tended to her devotedly and she received their care sacramentally.
What “great exchange” might we make as our transient props begin to give way? What superficialities can we abandon in deference to concrete trust that God is near and will deliver? What areas of our confined lives can we control, recreate and make holy?What pictures of our Heavenly Companion can we conjure in our thinking, praying to open us to hope and purpose? And, if we or a loved one is leveled under the blows of illness, how can we find a way to serve or be served devotedly and sacramentally?
Perhaps TV personalities without make-up is a small step toward the needed readjustment. Perhaps, making the great exchange, we can be freed to embrace new strength and grace-filled hopefulness in heavenly realms that remain fixed no matter what calamities befall the earth. Perhaps, we can sanctify our limited spaces and make them holy, a foretaste of the world behind the mirror. Perhaps we can summon a picture in our minds as to our place in those beautiful realms. Perhaps, now free, we can invest our hope there instead of here. Finally, perhaps, when we die -- as we all will -- we can measure it sacramentally. Maybe then we will have a share in the lucidity Clare expressed when, with her dying breath and despite the many losses and hardships of her life, she saw the beauty in the purpose of her broken life. And not beauty only, but a kind of beauty that blessed God himself.
Wendy Murray is the author of A Mended and Broken Heart, the Life and Love of Francis of Assisi (Basic Books). Her upcoming biography, Clare of Assisi, Gentle Warrior will be released this fall by Paraclete Press. Pre-order today.