By Jessica Coblentz
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in 2015.
On this feast of St. Clare, I envision her in a simple brown habit at the window of the monastery dormitory, and the vicious mercenaries of Emperor Frederick are just beyond the opening. They have taken the grounds of St. Damian’s in Assisi and invaded the cloister where Clare and her religious sisters live. Upon hearing of the incursion, Clare, a sickly abbess, requests to be placed at this window in the direct path of her enemies. She brings with her a silver vessel that holds the consecrated host, a monstrance, with which she is now famously associated.
Paintings of this scene often depict Clare prayerfully lifting the monstrance. From the Blessed Sacrament shoot rays of light that blind the bloodthirsty soldiers. Clare’s Legend reports that after she heard the voice of Christ in the form of a small child, the insolence of the army turned to fear in a single moment. “Quickly they climbed back over the walls they had scaled, utterly vanquished by the power of the virgin’s prayer” (Ch. 23, trans. Christopher Stace).
This hagiographical tale is often presented as one of Clare’s numerous miracles. From the time I first heard it as an undergrad at the California university that bears her name, it also stood out to me as a compelling image of Christian discipleship. In it, Clare embodies the radical foolishness of the Gospel that we are called to live as Christians (1 Cor). Amid a world where violent threats are to be countered with weapons, not intercessions for protection and peace, Clare’s decision to confront an army with a sincere prayer and the Real Presence of Christ will appear silly to most. Yet for a Christian who had whole-heartedly committed herself to the Gospel, violence was not an option. And prayer was not her only option, of course; we’ve learned this from decades of watching the Christian non-violence movement in our own time. But prayer was the non-violent response to which Clare had been commissioned in monastic life. She courageously staked her life and the lives her sisters on the Christian Way to which she had been called.
While the story of Clare’s monstrance is, admittedly, historically dubious, it fits in among many other stories about how Clare boldly entrusted her life to the Gospel. As a young teenager, the beautiful maiden defied social and familial expectations when she ran away to commit herself to the Gospel life that Francis preached and embodied. Instead of joining one of the many women’s religious communities already in the area, she pledged herself to the newly emerging Franciscan way. Throughout her life she petitioned tirelessly to establish official guidelines for her new community of religious women, refusing the pope’s insistence that their commitment to strict evangelical poverty was not fitting for women. Only after her death did Gregory IX officially sanction the way of life Clare petitioned for, making her the first woman in Christian history to author a Regula.
When meditating on the life of this saint, I often wonder: Where did Clare’s courage and conviction come from? Recently, I find myself drawn to two factors that seem to have encouraged these incredible qualities in her life. First, Clare had a profound sense of her unique calling from God. Clare lived in a world full of assumptions about who she ought to be and how she ought to live, just like us. Yet she was able to see past these pressures to discern who God had created her to be. I suspect that her commitment to prayer had something to do with this. While advice columns, self-help books, and conversations with trusted mentors and friends can aid us in learning about ourselves, we ultimately find our true vocations before God and God alone. (This is, in fact, what St. Francis told his brothers—and perhaps Clare, too). So often we preoccupy ourselves with instructions from the world around us instead of taking the risk of being before God in solitude. Solitude is risky because in it we may discern a calling that requires us to act foolishly, just as Clare did.
Second, Clare surrounded herself with a Christian community that supported her as she lived into her vocation. This community helped Clare sustain her special calling amid the consequences of her countercultural life. St. Francis, for example, took this young woman seriously when she sought him out. He became a friend and advisor who championed her pursuit of a new kind of women’s religious life, even encouraging her to take on the role of abbess when she did not envision herself as that sort of leader. Although Clare had to discern her own vocation before God, she also found companions who helped her remain true to her calling and understand it in new ways as time went on. True friendship encourages us to live more deeply into the lives we were made for, I think, and Clare had friends like that.
When I envision Clare at the window of her dormitory, praying with that silver monstrance aloft, I see a miracle that we can live out in our own way, in our own time. Certainly, Clare was called to a monastic life of prayer that differs from the sort of Christian life that most of us will live. But if we practice a spirituality that fosters courage, taking the time to know our true selves before God and surrounding ourselves with a community of support, as she did, then I think we can also live brave Christian lives—lives of mercy, nonviolence, forgiveness, and justice. These are the everyday Christian miracles of our time, and they require Clare’s courage.
Jessica Coblentz is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, IN.