Mar 14 2014
What you hold, may you always hold
by Clare of Assisi
English version by Regis J. Armstrong, OFM CAP & Ignatius C. Brady, OFM
What you hold, may you always hold.
What you do, may you do and never abandon.
But with swift pace, light step,
so that even your steps stir no dust,
securely, joyfully, and swiftly,
on the path of prudent happiness,
agreeing with nothing
which would dissuade you from this resolution
or which would place a stumbling block for you on the way,
so that you may offer your vows to the Most High
in the pursuit of that perfection
to which the Spirit of the Lord has called you.
— 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 trinket /
This poem by Clare of Assisi clearly has a beauty about it, but it isn’t necessarily clear on the first reading what she is truly talking about. What, for example, is it that is held which she hopes may always be held?
Clare wrote this poem in a letter to Blessed Agnes of Prague, whom she is encouraging into ever deeper states of union with the Divine.
What is “held” in the first line is the awareness of God within, what Clare refers to elsewhere in her letter as Agnes’s “many virtues” with which she is already “adorned.”
What Agnes (and we) “do” in the second line is the continual practice of that awareness, which must be done “with swift pace, light step, / unswerving feet.”
But why must our steps “stir no dust”? The dust is the busy-ness of the world, reflecting our busy thoughts. Action must be performed without inner disturbance. Action must be performed without it even being action in the ways defined by the world. We must move through life without leaving a personal (egoistic) trace of our passing. This is similar to the metaphor used in the East that, for the enlightened, all action is like writing in water.
When you do so, you “go forward / securely, joyfully, and swiftly, / on the path of prudent happiness,” that is, on the supremely poised path of divine bliss.
|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.
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 as 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.