St. Clare of Assisi: Defeating power with poverty and conscience
The Sisters of the St. Clare of Assisi Federation of Poor Clares of Umbria and Sardinia recall Mother Clare's insights on the right to own nothing and the duty to obey only God and one’s conscience.
The right to not own anything. The duty to obey only God and conscience, discerning the orders of authority. The hunger strike, moreover, as a peaceful instrument of fidelity to God and conscience, placing one’s inert body sideways as a stumbling block, without caring about life.
Still today, Mother Clare of Assisi speaks with a clear, extremely relevant voice: the voice of her Rule — the first in Church history written by a woman for women — and that of her revolutionary life choices which speak directly to the women and men of today.
For instance, the Rule for which Clare fought eight centuries ago, says that disobeying an order which violates the relationship of trust with God is a duty, not an option; a principle stated in Clare’s Rule of 1258 which, in accordance with the Pope’s will, was, however, destined not to go beyond the circle of women who called Clare “Mother” in the San Damiano Monastery. And, historically, so it was.
Clare’s Rule says: “Let the sisters, however, who are subjects [...] be firmly bound to obey their abbess in all things they have promised the Lord to observe and which are not against the soul and our profession.”
Unprecedented words for the time, context and content, and because they were written by a woman who, 800 years ago, would have been under patriarchal protection from the crib to the tomb, the last of the least.
She already prophetically upheld the duty to disobey anyone who orders you to do evil, even authority figures. Indeed, she believed that this was precisely what obedience to God meant.
A rule ‘alive and challenging’
An authentic interpretation of those extraordinarily relevant words was recently provided by the sisters of the Federation of Saint Clare of Assisi of the Poor Clares of the Italian regions of Umbria-Sardinia.
They produced and signed a three-volume study on the woman they too today call Mother (Chiara D’Assisi, edizioni Messaggero Padova, reprinted in 2018).
They began the work in order to listen attentively to Clare’s words and charism, and they found themselves before a rediscovered Rule that was alive and challenging.
Living the Franciscan “most high poverty” in fidelity to the Gospel is at the heart of it. In the 13th century, this claim to total freedom seemed absurd, almost scandalous. And today, this is what the study of the Clarian resources captures.
With regards to obedience, the volume entitled “Il Vangelo come forma di vita” (The Gospel as a Way of Life) says, “It is implied that if a command falls outside legitimate spheres it can and must be disobeyed; disobedience to an illegitimate or unjust command is obedience to truth and to the value that the command should have mediated but did not.”
Right to possess nothing
The life which takes shape again today from the historical and documentary research of the Poor Clares is not, therefore, that of a woman who chose mortification, contemplation and the renunciation of the world in expectation of otherworldly lands.
Her choice, which she conveys to us today, was, on the contrary, that of a fighter in the world, even from the cloister. Moreover, a choice of integral love requires fighting to safeguard love.
Clare taught and teaches us that the fighter’s sharpest weapon is the right to possess nothing.
Clare fought long so that the privilege of poverty (privilegium paupertatis) would become a right. She fought, above all, so that it would be the shield of those who wanted to follow the Franciscan way of life.
It obtained formal recognition in 1228 when Pope Gregory IX wrote to the nuns of San Damiano: “We strengthen [...] your proposal for Most High Poverty, indulging you by the authority of the present letters, so that you can be compelled by no one to receive possessions” (Sicut Manifestum Est, Perugia, 17 September 1228).
Clare explained to Princess Agnes of Bohemia that the fighter must be naked so as to not provide the adversary with any handholds.
The privilege of poverty allows one to slip through the hands of the enemy, however much violence he may wield. There is nothing submissive about this image. There is strength, determination, even shrewdness.
Sowing seeds of future
Even today, the right to have no possessions provokes us. In a society of compulsive consumption, possession is the new social “virtue” and the source of slavery.
Clare, to whom the poor sisters of today give voice, says that possession is not a virtue. Nor is obedience when it demands violence against the free conscience.
If one wanted additional proof of the integral relevance of Clare, one can recall another of her inventions as a fighter. It was the year 1230.
A papal bull, the Quo elongati, de facto separated Clare and the community of San Damiano from the spiritual care of Francis’ friars minor.
Clare, thus, sent back the friars who brought food for the “poor recluses” in the cloister. And no one, poverty privilege in hand, could challenge her disobedience or deny her the right to protest.
It was a hunger strike by women and a strike for love. The poor little sisters (and recluses) of San Damiano won. Indomitable in their obedience to God, as recluses they even sowed the seeds of our future.