Spirit and Charism

Our Community seeks to live the gift and spirit of our founders, Francis and Clare of Assisi and the early Franciscans with adaptation for the 21st century. Following the mandate for Church renewal in our time and responsive to the needs of our global community, we focus on the gospel of Jesus Christ, perennial good news for our hurting world. Our contribution is that of a Community of prayer, mindful of all people. We deeply respect the religious traditions of our brothers and sisters throughout the world and seek to express our solidarity with them in prayer.

Our Community at Prayer

Various The Christian Scriptures and the founding documents of the Franciscan Order invite us to daily conversion, poverty of spirit and love for the community, realizing more and more our absolute dependence on God and interdependence with all of our brothers and sisters worldwide.

January 12, 2019 

Contemplation, Poor Clare theme for 2010.

A Pathway of Prayer: keeping our eyes focused on Jesus: looking, listening, becoming mercy, all of us modeling and mirroring the gospel path for one another in Community.   Some thoughts. 

I begin with a personal story.  It was the late 1950’s and I was a novice, eager, wanting to learn about prayer and Poor Clare life.  We had exposition of the Blessed Sacrament every day, all of us taking a turn, and all day on Sunday.  Sunday afternoons were open without an assigned adorer.  I so longed to be outside in the beautiful California sunshine under a tree with a good book.  And that’s where you would usually find me.  But occasionally guilt would drive me into the Chapel where a single faithful Sister was always kneeling.  Some months later I was at adoration with our two postulants when I heard the same Sister screaming wildly.  She was being taken to an institution where she could receive proper care for her mental illness.  This experience gave me pause for thought. I think that I and we were looking for models, models and mirrors, to help us become who we were called to be. It was a step in learning that the Sister who spent the most time in Chapel was not necessarily the model I wanted to follow. 

Contemplation is a word that holds different meanings for people in different spiritual traditions.  In our Clarian documents it has the sense of gazing upon Christ. The word “contemplation” is not used in the Form of Life of the poor sisters.  Nor are there specific times set aside for silent prayer or adoration.  We are called without a doubt to total surrender into our God who is Love, called to the transformation of our person into Christ so that “I no longer live but Christ lives in me.”  Franciscan contemplation is a path on a journey that is unique to each and every sister and brother even as we walk along together following the footprints of Jesus. 

We see a path laid before us in the early sources of Clare. At the center of “the form of life of the poor sisters which the blessed Francis founded,” is Chapter 6. To paraphrase Clare, after the most high enlightened my heart to do penance, that is, to do mercy, we promised obedience to Francis. Francis assured us that by divine inspiration we were choosing to live according to the perfection of the holy Gospel, the path laid out by the life and teaching of Jesus in the Scriptures, handed on to us through the spirit-filled human communities of the early Church. 

Contemplation for “the order of poor sisters which the Blessed Francis founded” was contemplation in community. The community at San Damiano celebrated the Eucharist and prayed the liturgy of the Hours.  According to Agnes of Assisi, Oportulo’s daughter, “Although Clare had never studied letters, she listened willingly to learned sermons”ProcX,8) On one occasion when Brother Philip of Atri, a friar who had studied at Paris, was preaching, Agnes saw a young boy about three years old with Clare.  Agnes prayed for clarity and received the words, “I am in their midst,” signifying that “I am at the center of my people when the word of God is preached.”  The community was attending together to the Scriptures and sacramental presence of the Lord. In the Eucharist and Liturgy they saw their gospel path laid before them. In “the form of life” the sisters are not encouraged to learn to read. (FL10:8). Many learned by listening to the Scriptures, not by reading them.  It was communication through another person, not from a book.  On the Christmas night before Clare died she “heard the organ, responsories and the entire Office at the Church of St. Francis.”  Another Sister testified that Clare “heard Matins and the entire Office.” Just as Francis and the brothers found their gospel path in listening to the Scriptures in the Church, so too the community at San Damiano kept their eyes focused on Jesus, his deeds and words as celebrated in the liturgy and preached in the homilies.[1] 

“The Father of Mercies” sent his only Son to do mercy among his people.  Jesus is God’s mercy among us; Jesus is the mirror and example of Divine mercy. The Spirit of Mercy entices us out of ourselves by enabling us to follow in the footprints of Jesus, especially of humility and poverty which empty us of self and allow us to become a dwelling place for God, to give flesh to the Christ we carry within us, as Clare teaches. (3LAg

Francis, who feared lepers, met a leper and he did mercy to the leper. In that moment he saw the footprints of the One who became mercy in the flesh to show us the mercy of God.  Francis found a poor rich girl and taught her to follow the footprints of Jesus and do mercy.  Soon there was a great crowd following Francis who followed Jesus, the Father’s Mercy. 

Years passed with Francis faithfully following the footprints of Jesus.  One day on Mt. Alverno while Francis was following the footprints of Jesus, Jesus turned around and met Francis face to face.  There was no longer the One who went before, and the one who followed after. “There was “only Jesus,” Mk: 9, 8b; a transfiguration of Francis.

 Clare cared for Francis at San Damiano.  She saw the wounds on Francis’ body before his death. When Francis died at the Portiuncula the brothers took his body up the hill to San Damiano.  The Sisters wept.  And they carried on, following the footprints of Jesus.

Clare continued to do mercy.  She served and taught, consoled and healed, always following the footprints of Jesus.  And she received mercy from the Father of Mercies through her sisters during the twenty-nine years that she was ill, and from the brothers who were so attentive to the needs of their sisters.  

In 1252 Clare was about 60 years old.  She had been following in the footprints of Jesus with the poor sisters and the lesser brothers for about 42 years.  Cardinal Raynaldo, with the blessing of Pope Innocent IV, had approved the document expressing the manner of life, the manner of following Jesus at San Damiano.  In the final letter of 1253 to “her dearest daughter and mother,” Agnes of Prague, Clare expressed her great joy in Agnes who had given herself to a life following Jesus, “the mirror without blemish.” Clare told Agnes to look into that mirror and see her own face therein, a clear mirror of the divine.  

Francis’ following in the footprints of Jesus tended to be more linear in his journeys than Clare whose journey was at home in San Damiano.  Francis headed for Morocco where the friars had been martryed, to follow Jesus who gave his life for love of us. This journey ended when Francis became ill.  He traveled to the east, as far as Syria to do mercy among the Saracens, inspiring us today to connect with our brothers and sisters of different beliefs. Then there was the time he was stopped from going to France by Cardinal Hugolino because Francis was needed among his brothers to do mercy.  When Francis was not heading out, he was going up: to Mt. Alverno, or across to Lake Trasimemo, always following the footprints of Jesus. 

In Clare’s following of the footprints at San Damiano in community, it was a movement of circling Christ at the center.  We can read the development of gospel life at San Damiano in the four letters addressed to Agnes and her community at Prague, as Clare, in relationship with her sisters and brothers at San Damiano, is brought closer and closer to Jesus.  

In 1234 four nuns from the monastery in Trent, Italy, came to Prague with the Constitutions of Pope Gregory IX to help in the founding of a monastery in Prague. There is no indication why Clare took the initiative to write to Agnes.  It may have been at the instigation of Elias, friend of Clare and Minister General at the time, or of the guardian of the hospice of St. Francis of which Agnes was patron.

In this first letter to Agnes, Clare and the poor sisters had been engaged in their gospel project for 22 years.  They were not newcomers to the following of Jesus Christ.  The main focus of the letter is poverty. Like the rich man who approached Jesus in the Gospel of Mark 10: 17-30 and Mathew 19: 16-22, Agnes had “many possessions.”  She was one of the most materially wealthy women of her time.  She also had earthly power through her father and brother who were Kings of Bohemia.  The twin forces of power and money were at her disposal.  Clare sent Agnes a collage of gospel passages exhorting Agnes to be strengthened in her “service of the Poor Crucified.”  Clare wrote of poverty as a lady, as in the poem, The Sacred Exchange, and uses the word “exchange” later in that same letter to Agnes. Clare points to poverty as the compassionate handmaid that Jesus came into our world to embrace, holding up Lady Poverty to Agnes as a model of freedom in following in the footprints of the Crucified.

In the second letter dated 1235 Clare commended Agnes for “holding fast to the footprints of him to whom you merited to be joined in marriage.”  The sure guide for her proposal of gospel life was Elias, the Minister General of the brothers.  The sisters were obliged to follow the successors of Blessed Francis. 

In letter three, 1238, Clare wrote: “And I sigh with so much more exultation in the Lord, as I have known and believe that you supply most wonderfully what is lacking both in me and in the other sisters in following in the footprints of the poor and humble Jesus.” 

In letter four, 1253, Clare rejoiced with Agnes who has obtained the “form of life of the order of poor sisters that the blessed Francis founded…” 

According to the “form of life,” the sisters are to “work in such a way that, while they banish idleness, the enemy of the soul, they do not extinguish the Spirit of holy prayer and devotion…” We sisters of Clare are called to continual prayer.  The days of liturgy and service yield to silent, intimate times of prayer when the footprints of Jesus lead us into the darkness of night, the nights and early mornings that Jesus spent in prayer with the Father. How did Clare find time and place to pray in the small, cramped quarters of San Damiano?  Clare lingered after Compline, praying with tears (Proc X, 3).  Sister Pacifica, who was with Clare from the beginning at San Damiano said that Clare “kept vigil much of the night in prayer”(Proc I, 7). According to Sister Benvenuta “Clare was very persevering, day and night, in prayer,” and Clare was the one who woke the Sisters for Matins (Proc II, 9).  Sr. Benvenuta also said that there was a special place where Clare “usually went to pray” (Proc II, 17).  When Clare returned from prayer her face was glowing (Proc. IV, 4). [2]  Various forms of illness are named frequently in the remembrances of Clare’s life at San Damiano.  Sickness was surely an occasion of solitude and suffering in prayer.

Some points for reflection:

1-Was there a practice of the Sisters that enabled them to remain in “holy prayer and devotion” even as they went about their work?  

2-How does continual prayer work its way of transformation in our daily lives?

3-Can we detect an aspiration or mantra that may have sustained their focus?  

4-It seems that the “Our Father” was the most frequently prayed prayer. What place does the “Our Father” have in my daily journey in prayer?

 5- How do we deal with interruptions?  As we listen to the gospel stories we hear how Jesus is continually interrupted in his ministry and prayer.  Is that not like our experience in Community life?  The footprints of Jesus in the gospel stories lead us on the path of interruptions that lead to transformation. 

6. At times images take the place of words drawing us into deeper relation with Jesus.  What are your favorite images that evoke prayer?. 

 6. What about sleep?  How do I pray the wonderful gift of sleep? “I sleep but my heart watches” (Song of Songs) .   Do I surrender into sleep as practice for the final surrender into God? 

Beth Lynn, Poor Clares, Minneapolis

 


[1] In Psalm 77 we find one of the saddest lines in the Scripture: though all of creation revealed God’s love for his people “no one saw your footprints”  (Wed. Wk II Morning Prayer). 

[2] A personal note. When we were in Zambia the two of us from Santa Barbara had brought along the custom of praying prostrate with our foreheads on the floor of the chapel.   One day we were leaving prayer and our leader said to us, “Your faces are not ‘glowing’; they are all scrunched up.” From then on I decided to pray sitting on my heels.  It is a much better position for prayer and there is no danger of falling asleep.

Images

Multitudinous words flow through me  every day.
Very few do I hold.
Images settle deep within
Tug at my spirit
Call for transformation
Show me where
There’s beauty to be found.

                          Sister Gabriel Zwiener