“Place your mind before the mirror of eternity! Place your soul in the brilliance of glory!”
—Clare of Assisi
A recent Wednesday morning on my book club group-text thread:
Me: Today I get to write 600 to 800 words on a woman from the 1200’s who described herself as a little plant, slept on a bed of twigs, celebrated poverty and said she and her Poor Ladies could eat two meals a day on Sundays and Christmas.
Nicco: I sometimes only eat two meals on Sundays. When I sleep in till noon. 😉
Kat: Yikes. Does that mean only one meal a day on the other days?
Me [going for casual and non-preachy]: Yep. People were weird back in the day.
Shaina: I stepped on the scale this morning and I’m ‘bout to go back on one meal a day. I was doing so good, but need to cut down on the Oreos.
Nicco: Ditto. My curves are trending up, like The ‘Rona.
I hope Clare of Assisi and her Poor Ladies embraced the gift of humor as much as they did poverty, charity and humility. Just imagine what their group-text conversation would have looked like, what memes they might have swapped amongst themselves in the abbey.
As a student and then colleague of Saint Francis, Clare reluctantly led her own group of nuns (the Poor Ladies) in biblical teachings and practices. She was big on contemplating “the Poor Christ” and receiving the “strong arms of poverty” as a spiritual discipline to better identify and relate to Christ and the poor.
It’s difficult not to take Clare’s convictions personally all these years later, to not compare and get a little defensive about our own faith situation, to dismiss her as slightly extreme and misguided. It’s tempting to soften her passion and piety with our modern labels. Strong as she was in spirit, she must have been a tiny waif of a woman. Was she anorexic, maybe a little obsessive compulsive about the poverty thing? Clare was of course a complex and dynamic person like you and me. And what would she have done in the era of Oreos, canned wine, feminism, triathlons, and king-sized Sleep Number beds we’ll never know.
Clare’s writings are not extensive, but they are expressive and insightful, especially her letters to Agnes of Prague, to whom she wrote as a spiritual guide. With joy and exuberance Clare encourages Agnes to renounce her wealth and embrace the bountiful life of Christian celibacy, poverty, and devotion. In her third and fourth letters to Agnes she describes her practice of using one’s reflection in a mirror to contemplate Christ. “Gaze upon that mirror each day . . . and continually study your face within it, that you may adorn yourself within and without with beautiful robes . . .” She goes on to tell Agnes in her fourth letter that the border (or frame) of the mirror represents the poverty of Christ. What encircles, what hems in our contemplative experience with Christ is Christ’s poverty, which she honors as a blessing and a gift.
I tried Clare’s approach to the mirror. Once I got past the stray grays sprouting from my scalp and other facial imperfections, I moved closer. I looked only at my eyes and was able to contemplate Christ much better. This seems to be effective because humans are used to seeking truth in eyes—the eyes of a lover, the eyes of our children, the eyes of a stranger we aren’t sure we should trust. Our actual eyeballs are not that different from anyone else’s. Iris color aside, there is a universal quality. When we gaze into our own eyes as eyes universal, they could be anyone’s eyes, even Christ’s. Then once we imagine a possibility of Christ’s eyes, all else in our line of vision slips away into the periphery. We are focused on the eyes—even through them—and draw from the well of truth we see within.
My favorite teaching of Clare is a simple one from her third letter to Agnes. Clare writes that we, like Mary, carry Christ around with us in our bodies. Our physical bodies carry Christ through the world as if like Mary we are all miraculously pregnant with the divine Son. “As the glorious Virgin . . . carried [him] materially, so you, too, by following her footprints (cf. 1 Pet 2:21), especially [those] of poverty and humility, can, without any doubt, always carry him spiritually in your . . . body, holding Him by whom you and all things are held together . . .” We hold God who holds all of creation, and these holds are more secure than the way we could hold any material, physical possession of this world, says Clare. Now there’s something you could contemplate for a while—with or without Oreos.
[Quotations taken from Clare of Assis: Early Documents, edited/translated by Regis J. Armstrong, Paulist Press, NY, copyright 1988]