St Clare and the Problem of Poverty

This post is little more than a question. St Clare, whose feast we keep today, is very closely associated with what is known as the privilege of poverty. She fought hard to ensure that her nuns should live as St Francis and she had desired, owning nothing, reliant on the goodness of God to provide for their needs. Today, most religious take a vow of poverty. The way in which it is interpreted depends on the individual Order or Congregation. Benedictines, of course, don’t take vows of poverty, although as part of our vow of conversatio morum we undertake to live with the frugality proper to monastic life, and our being in solemn vows means that individually we own nothing at all. In practice, whether you visit a small Benedictine monastery such as ours, or a Poor Clare community such as the one nearby at Much Birch, you will see buildings and material goods being used by the nuns. Poverty in this context does not mean destitution; it has much more to do with detachment.

My question is very simple. Those of us who live religious life know how important it is to strip ourselves of attachment to anything we can ‘privatise’, including the status it is sometimes thought to confer. What I would like to know is whether this has any significance or value to those who are not in religious life. Sometimes one hears people saying, ‘Oh, you’re a nun, you don’t need such-and-such’ or even, as has happened to us, ‘I was going to throw this out as it’s worn out but thought maybe you could use it’. Clearly, there is some conception of religious poverty at work, even if it is a rather strange one, but does it connect with the search for God and the attempt to live a holy life? In other words, is poverty one aspect of religious life we need to present differently if it is to be seen for what it truly is? Thoughts, please.

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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.

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