Sunday, September 27, 2009

Clare of Assisi: A Heart Full of Love

By Ilia Delio, St. Anthony Messenger Press, 129 pages.

Mystery surrounds Clare of Assisi probably for the simple fact that her close spiritual friend, St Francis of Assisi, so deeply touches and energizes Christianity to this day. Professor Delio has made the case that St Clare has a religious depth and charm all to herself, though the book does make many connections to St Francis and his movement.

Clare of Assisi situates Clare in the complicated religious and political environment of medieval Italy. Thus while Clare and her sisters wanted to share the suffering and poverty of the world, and were blessed in this vocation by Francis, the ecclesiastical authorities disallowed the plan, though a thirteenth-century traveler indicates that at first Clare and her sisters might have gotten their wish: “According to this account, these brothers and sisters 'went into the cities and villages during the day to preach the Gospel and give themselves to the active world, but they returned to their hermitages or solitary places at night, employing themselves in contemplation.'”

This book combines Franciscan history with general Church history and modern spiritual and psychological teaching. For example, Delio discusses the importance of the mirror to thirteenth-century society, and how Clare used it to teach theologically: “Clare calls us to a similar level of self-knowledge through the mirror of the cross. The mirror calls us to accountability as we begin to contemplate the image we see. It impels us to consider our behaviors as we place our mind, soul and heart in the mirror and embrace the image reflected there in a new way.”

Clare of Assisi outlines a demanding Franciscan theology of sacrifice, sacramental thinking, and, above all, a life of love and service to others. It is therefore not necessarily a nice or easy book to read, as it goes to the heart of human sinfulness.

It preaches the Franciscan attitude of thankfulness and grace but only by first plowing through some heavy, even depressing, stuff on human brokenness: “Many people know they are finite. Few, however, will admit they are poor. To say that I am poor is not to confess that I am without money or material things, but that I am dependent on another, first, for the source of my own existence and then for every breath of air I breathe at every moment of time. My poverty says to me that I do not have to exist at all.”

This tendency among current Catholic spirituality writers to emphasize brokenness in the vein of Herni Nouwen's Wounded Healer can seem a bit tiresome after a while, as it turns the reader away from a more heroic view of the faith, one held by people as diverse as JRR Tolkien and Pope John Paul II. Conversely, this dense book does have its inspiring gems that make it a worthwhile read: “Poverty is not so much about want or need; it is about relationship.”

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