Dec 02 2009
When You have loved, You shall be chaste
by Clare of Assisi
English version by Regis J. Armstrong, OFM CAP & Ignatius C. Brady, OFM
When You have loved, You shall be chaste; when You have touched, You shall become pure; when You have accepted, You shall be a virgin.
Whose power is stronger,
Whose generosity is more abundant,
Whose appearance more beautiful,
Whose love more tender,
Whose courtesy more gracious.
In Whose embrace You are already caught up;
Who has adorned Your breast with precious stones
and has placed priceless pearls in Your ears
and has surrounded You with sparkling gems
as though blossoms of springtime
and placed on Your head a golden crown
as a sign of Your holiness.
— from Francis and Clare: The Complete Works: The Classics of Western Spirituality, Translated by Regis J. Armstrong, OFM CAP / Translated by Ignatius C. Brady, OFM
/ Photo by ahisgett /
When we really read this poem, we discover that it has a sort of monastic, spiritualized eroticism to it.
Notice the repeated counterpoint of the first line:
When You have loved <-> You shall be chaste
when You have touched <-> You shall become pure
when You have accepted <-> You shall be a virgin
When God is the Beloved, ideas of celibacy and sexual purity are turned on their head. Virginity is attained by the very act of yielding to the Divine embrace.
I also especially like the line, “In Whose embrace You are already caught up…” In the normal consciousness, we tend to think that we are bereft of God’s embrace and must desperately seek it out. St. Clare is saying, no, we are, in fact, already enwrapped in that embrace. The only effort necessary is to truly recognize it.
Those final phrases, being adorned by God with “precious stones” and “sparkling gems.” That suggests to me how spiritual awakening not only reveals our own inner light, but also how the world around us glimmers. All of existence, inner and outer, is revealed to be secretly shining: a thousand colors, ten thousand facets, all reflecting a single light.
|Clare of Assisi|
The story of St. Clare is closely linked with St. Francis of Assisi. Clare was twelve years younger than Francis and, like him, was raised in Assisi in a wealthy family. Clare was the third of five children. Because of age differences and coming from different ends of town, Clare probably did not know the young, profligate Francis before his conversion. Doubtless, though, she heard of the spectacle of how Francis renounced his family and wealth and his subsequent wanderings through the countryside helping the sick and the poor.
At the age of 15, arrangements were made for Clare to marry, but she refused. When she was 18, Clare heard Francis give a series of sermons during the Lent season. On Palm Sunday, late at night, Clare snuck out of her family house and, outside the walls of Assisi, met with Francis and his followers. She put on a simple habit and Francis personally cut off her hair as a symbol of her renunciation.
Francis arranged for Clare to stay at a local Benedictine convent, since it would not have seemed proper for her to stay with Francis and his fellow monks. A few days later, Clare’s family discovered where she was staying and tried to drag her from the convent. Only when she revealed her cropped hair did they relent and give up claim on her.
In this story of escapes and secret meetings, there are elements of a chaste and spiritual love affair, much like the ideals of courtly love found in Francis’s beloved Troubadour songs. But the relationship between Clare and Francis should not be so overly simplified. Clare saw in Francis someone who could lead her to espousal with Christ.
Clare founded a women’s community at San Damiano embodying the Franciscan ideal of radical poverty. Other women soon joined, including Clare’s sister and, eventually, Clare’s own mother. But, whereas Francis encouraged the Franciscan brothers to move through the world, witnessing and engaging in the lives of the sick and the laboring class, Clare’s community of women led lives of enclosure, contemplation, and mutual support.
Church authorities had already begun to oppose Francis’s insistence on absolute poverty for his followers. Those in his favor saw this approach as impractical, while the wealthier prelates resented the implied criticism of their excesses, a criticism which paralleled some of the other mystical poverty movements of the time that had been judged to be heretical. But for a group of enclosed women to follow vows of strict poverty was almost unthinkable. Clare spent much of her life defending the right of the “Poor Ladies” (now called the Poor Clares) to maintain their obedience to poverty.
Francis often turned to Clare for advice and inspiration. When Francis was torn between a life of prayer and one of preaching, it was Clare who advised him to speak, saying, “God did not call you for yourself alone.” The Canticle of Brother Sun, Francis’s masterpiece of poetry, was composed while he was encamped outside of Clare’s convent of San Damiano. When Francis was afflicted with the stigmata, Clare made him slippers to protect his bleeding feet.
Clare lived twenty-seven years beyond the death of Francis. During most of those remaining years she was apparently ill with a mysterious sickness that kept her bedridden, though she remained a strong-minded and determined woman throughout that period.
Despite her position of abbess, she was true to the humble Franciscan ideal by serving the sick, waiting table, and washing the feet of the begging nuns. She came from prayer, it was said, with her face so shining it dazzled those about her. In spite of her ongoing struggles with Church authorities — or perhaps because of them — popes, cardinals and bishops often came to consult her.
Clare was declared a saint sixty years after her death.
Go calmly in peace,
for you will have a good escort,
because He who created you
has sent you the Holy Spirit
and has always guarded you
as a mother does her child
who loves her.
— St. Clare of Assisi