Poverty and Powerlessness

Today is the feast of St Clare. To some, she is merely an adjunct of St Francis: the rich young woman who fled to him for refuge, became a nun and founded an Order we know today as the Poor Clares. The more scholarly will recall that she is the first woman in history we can be sure wrote a Rule for her community, which during her lifetime was called the Order of Poor Ladies. She had to fight, and fight hard, to maintain her original inspiration against clerical opposition. Her joyful and radical embrace of poverty was simply not understood, and much pressure was put on her to make her Rule more Benedictine in character. Just two days before her death, on 11 August 1253, Innocent IV confirmed her ‘privilege of poverty’ in the bull Solet annuere.

So much for history. It is easy to sentimentalize Clare’s vocation and that of her sisters after her, but I think most Franciscan friars would agree that if you wish to experience Francis’s ideals lived in all their rigour and purity, you must go to the Poor Clares. Clare’s theology of poverty is spelled out in her four letters to Agnes of Prague. They are not an easy read. Benedictines don’t make a vow of poverty and often have difficulty in understanding those who do. We make a radical renunciation of private ownership and are committed to living austerely, without excess; but the Poor Clares go further. They embrace the powerlessness of being dependent on others, of perpetual fast, of being genuinely poor.

There is much talk about poverty at the moment, usually by those who have never experienced it at first-hand. Religious poverty tends to be dismissed as mere play-acting by those who see only the externals. I don’t pretend to understand the Poor Clare vocation but I do know how necessary it is for the Church today. There is more than one way of sharing the poverty of the poor and allowing the grace of God to flood it with joy and gladness. The Poor Clares have something important to teach us all.


8 thoughts on “Poverty and Powerlessness”

  1. As a Buddhist who has always found St.Francis inspirational, (I’m even going on a pilgrimage to Assisi soon), and who has a particular interest in issues surrounding female monastics of all traditions, may I join you in your prayers for the Poor Clares today.

    It’s heartwarming to know that just as there are Buddhist monks and nuns today who practice according to the original rules established by the Buddha 2,600 years ago requiring them to live in utter dependence upon the laity for their simple requisites, so too there are Poor Clares maintaining their own spiritual tradition of complete renunciation.

    May all beings be safe, well, happy, and peaceful!

    • I do not think it is fair that one human being should live in utter dependence on another. We are surely each responsible for ouselves and to abrogate this responsibility to another human being places an unfair burden on that person.

      • But they don’t make themselves dependent on anyone in particular. Just on people *wanting* to give. No religious wants money from anyone who doesn’t want to give it. Personally I see a sister at the station and I wedge money in her bag 🙂

    • Andrew – meant to say that my message was for you. I am currently hard a work and resent any of my income being paid over to those who are fit for work.

  2. Thank you for your comments. Special prayers for you today, Clare, as it’s your feast! The Facebook API has been very slow today, so that’s probably why you couldn’t post. Deborah, I think possibly you have misunderstood Andrew and the Buddhist tradition from which he is writing. When the Dalai Lama asked if two of his monks could spend a year with our then community, we found that while we had a great deal in common, we also had difficulties because we use words and concepts differently. I hope my post on St Lawrence had something applicable on the subject.

  3. I love what Pope Benedict said in his reflection on St Clare:

    “The church is indebted to women.”

    I posted about it today I was so touched by his words.
    Blessings and +PAX

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