By Lenora Grimaud

One of the charisms of St. Clare was the charism of “poverty;” poverty of spirit, as well as physical and material poverty. St. Francis revolutionized the meaning of “poverty.” Prior to St. Francis, poverty had become merely an ascetical practice or discipline. St. Francis introduced poverty as a charism, a gift, based on the incarnation of Jesus: “His state was divine, yet he did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave, and became as men are; and being as all men are, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross. (Phil. 2:6-8). Jesus did not choose to come to us as a grown man, but he came to us as a tiny, helpless and dependent infant, born of a woman. The story of Jesus being found in the temple after three days of searching by his parents, (Luke 2:41-52) is another example of the obedience and poverty of Jesus. Jesus was the Son of God and knew that [he] must be busy with [his] Father’s affairs.” Even so, Jesus recognized and honored his parent’s authority over him. He returned with them and lived under their authority, and grew in wisdom and grace.

This gift of poverty is also a special love for the poor and the poor in spirit. It enables a person to be an advocate and servant to the poor; to see the poor as equal to all; to live in solidarity with the poor. It is a call to “minority”—to meekness and littleness; an abandonment and trust in divine providence. It is a call to serve and identify with the minorities. St. Francis and St. Clare were both given this charism, and it became the dominant charism of the whole Franciscan Family.

St. Clare lived in the city of Assisi, a small village of around 3,000 people. The poor were looked down upon by the rest of the people. They were denied many of the privileges and benefits granted to others in the Church, including a pew to sit in during the celebration of Mass. They were deprived of the “fullness of life” that Jesus came to bring to us. Clare was aware of the injustices placed upon the poor, and sensitive to their needs and suffering. She contemplated Jesus as the “poor and suffering Christ” of the Gospels. In him, she saw the poor around her. In the poor, she saw Jesus. She felt called to evangelize the poor by mirroring Jesus and the Gospels to them. She could only do this by entering into solidarity with them—becoming one of them. She served them by making herself their equal; less than their equal: “His state was divine, yet he did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave, and became as men are” (Phil 2:6). In Clare, the poor would see Jesus who humbled himself to become one of us. In this holy mirror, the poor would also see themselves.

In contemplating the poor Christ, Clare saw the infant Jesus in the crib; helpless; dependent; with nothing of his own. He could do nothing for himself. The crib was symbolic of Mary, his mother, who is also symbolized by the Ark of the Covenant, the altar, the tabernacle, and the monstrance. Clare saw the poverty of Jesus at the beginning of his life, as a babe, and at the end of his life in his passion and death on the cross. So, Clare saw that she could serve Jesus and witness to the Gospel by embracing him in the poor; becoming one with them by living in solidarity with them, as Jesus did with mankind through his Incarnation. She would be his handmaid by becoming the “crib” to hold the poor in her arms.

St Clare’s call to radical physical poverty and her ministry to the poor was generated by the people in her midst; the poor and the needy. It was their need that called her forth to ministry. The poor around her determined what her ministry would be and how she would live out the Gospel, by calling her forth. There was no one around to take up the cause of the poor, to be their advocate, until the Lord raised up Francis and Clare. Clare lived out her whole life in Assisi with the poor. In her day, there were only two classes of people: the rich (wealthy merchants and the nobility), and the rest of the people (various degrees of poverty). The Church of that time sided with the rich. Clare chose to stand with the poor, even though she came from nobility and had many servants while growing up in her family life. She freely chose to leave it all, and to become a servant of the servants; a “handmaid of the handmaids.”

Today, the poor represent everyone who is in need, and everyone who is aware of their need for God. It is the homeless, prisoners, the handicapped, those who are ill, aids victims, the illiterate, those lacking in sufficient education, the deaf, the blind, the mute, unwed mothers, orphans, the bereaved, immigrants, refugees, those who are abused, single parent families, divorced and separated, children of divorced and separated, those who have lost their faith, those who have lost their hope, homosexuals, those who are outcasts, sinners, prostitutes, alcoholics and drug abusers, the emotionally and mentally ill, the unemployed—the list is endless. In every age, the “poor” represents all minorities—those who have no defense and no voice. The only one who are not poor, and can't be served, are those who are self sufficient; who refuse to acknowledge the need for God in their life; who trust only in themselves. In actuality, they are the poorest of all and have nothing, while the poor have everything.

St. Clare was well aware that riches and possessions have a way of blocking us from the freedom to really live in the kingdom of God. The more we have, the more we have to lose. The more we have to lose, the more we hold onto and cling to what we have, and the more attached and possessive we become. When our hands are full of what the world has to offer, they cannot be open and free to receive what God has to offer. For St. Clare, poverty was freedom; to let go of all that stands in the way of love and in the way of doing God’s will. It is freedom from all that can enslave us. Poverty is to acknowledge that everything we have comes from God, and to give up all personal claim to everything; to have nothing that we call “our own.” It is a spirit of sharing and unity; of all for one and one for all. There is no exclusivity, no spirit of ownership or possessiveness.

Originally, St. Clare and the sisters followed the rule of St. Francis. Clare and Francis, confronted with the absence of any legal foundation for the primitive “Form of Life,” were trying to create a base for the continued existence of San Damiano, using a formula that would meet with Church approval. Boldly, Clare appealed directly to Innocent III for a papal exemption from the usages of traditional monasticism which allowed for ownership of goods, and, even required such ownership. The exemption was called the “Privilege of Poverty.” This privilege represented for Clare a guarantee that her community could not be obliged to adopt an existing rule. She wrote, and fought for, her “rule” in order to set her sisters free from the existing rules. This was no small task, and she persevered to her death to gain the approval of the Church and acceptance of her rule. Pope Innocent gave approval when she was on her death bed. It seemed that Innocent had, therefore, helped her to create an entirely new form of convent community, which maintained itself on alms and the profits of manual labor in the same way as the Franciscans. At that time, Canon Law stated: “Lest too great a diversity of religious orders lead to grave confusion in the Church of God, we strictly forbid anyone in the future to found a new order, but whoever should wish to enter an order, let him choose one already approved.” Clare opened the door to change for religious orders for women. This attempt to be self-supporting without ownership of property became the core of life for Clare’s foundation. The most important words of the Privilege assured her that “No one can compel you to receive possessions.”

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