I was 13 years old when the film, Francis of Assisi was released. Being a good Catholic girl who was brought up on devotion (and being a new teenager), I was swept away by the total renunciation of Francis upon his conversion (what many called madness), the ideal of his community life with his brother friars, beggars all, who had only what God provided, and – especially perhaps – his relationship with the beautiful and sainted Clare who followed him to a life of poverty and praise of God. My fondness, although probably skewed by my age and the media, still endures for both of these saints.
Today we celebrate the feast of the real-life Clare who chose hardship over a life of ease, poverty over wealth and devotion to God and the things of God over everything else. She was 15 years old when she first encountered Francis and was awakened to God who was already shining through him. At age 18 she left her parents’ home to follow the way of his community and at 21 became prioress for life to the women who had followed her into this life of seclusion and austerity, becoming the order that survives today as the Poor Clares. These women went barefoot, slept on the ground, ate no meat and observed almost complete silence. Their emphasis was on gospel poverty; they possessed nothing and subsisted on daily contributions.
I was fortunate several years ago to visit the convent of San Damiano where Clare lived and died. There is nothing of the cinematic in that place, but one can easily sense the holiness that has lived within those walls for centuries. It is said that each time Clare emerged from a period of prayer, her face shone with a radiance that dazzled all those around her. That serene beauty was visible to me in the faces of the pilgrims sitting in silence on the floor as I entered the room where Clare died.
The spark of God can be lit at any time in any way in our lives. For Clare it was the presence and eagerness of Francis as he spoke of “Lady Poverty” to the 15 year-old Clare. For me watching a movie at 13 it was less “new news” because I was at that time being taught by Franciscan Sisters who inspired me each day at school as well as and especially Mother Marianne (now a canonized saint) who left the familiar life of her convent in Syracuse, New York in the early 20th century to work with the lepers – so dear to Francis – on the island of Molokai in Hawaii. But inspired we were. No matter the beginning, the living out or the end of our journey. The key is, I think, the willingness to recognize that fire, the sign of God’s call to whatever life holds for us, that leads to a yearning for a depth that can only be realized if we keep the spark alive by fanning the flames of love.