Today our church commemorates Clare, a 13th century abbess in Assisi, Italy. As I write, my current circumstances are probably as different as could be imagined from Clare on her bed of not-even-straw. I’m next to a suburban municipal swimming pool watching my daughter play. A can of fruit-flavored water is beside me and I’m mulling the purchase of a bag of Cheetos, but I don’t want to turn my computer keys orange. The text assigned from Ecclesiastes for today says, “the surfeit of the rich will not let them sleep.” Ouch. Rather than marvel at how far we’ve come (or how far fallen), I’m thinking about where Clare and I meet. It’s too simple to list all the places where we diverge.
Clare started something amazing. She heard Francis of Assisi preach and there was no turning back; he cut her hair for her and she clung—bodily—to the chapel altar when her family tried to get her (her sister joined, too, and when her father died her mother came along as well). The joy of simplicity and “privilege of poverty” spoke to her soul, and empowered her to share that passion with others.
The order she founded continues to this day and has a lively history: a story about the putridarium of Italian 16th century Poor Clares just came up on the Atlas Obscura page I follow on facebook. One Italian convent created a room with seats where the dead nuns were placed. Their living sisters would go and pray among the corpses to become more mindful of the transitory nature of earthly life. As the nuns mummified, the fluids that remained would drain out and their bones collected for ossuaries. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
There are all kinds of grisly stories about ancient pieties, and who knows what Clare herself would have thought of that particular practice. When a pope thought to relieve her of some of the extreme disciplines of poverty she practiced, she retorted, “I need to be absolved from my sins, but not from the obligation of following Christ.”* It’s not hard to picture her first in line.
Sitting here poolside, I think of what I tell my congregation: that God calls us to be faithful, not successful. That our own modest attempts at holiness are precious, that real happiness is to be found when we truly put ourselves in the path of God’s will. That “try harder” isn’t exactly a recipe for salvation. I love Ash Wednesday as much as the next priest, but I’m in no hurry to linger with the dead.
Clare longed to be close to God. For her, that meant escaping the confines of the life planned for a wealthy Italian woman so she might live in community. That was her vocation. When dinner is late and I have too many meetings, I might complain that *I* would be closer to God, too, if I didn’t have actual responsibilities in the world. But it turns out that my vocation is in the world, right in those same responsibilities.
I won’t share the expression of her calling, but I do want to share in the deep soul-quenching joy that is fulfilled only in God. I want to learn not to settle for the stuff I have or what people think of me or the particular sensory pleasure of this moment. To be clear—the sensory pleasure of the moment is significant. So many people lack basic access to clean water, and here there’s enough to drown. Swimming? Not a burden.
Clare’s immediate community would go on to pray with the dead. Mine needs time in the pool. Our faith in God is the only thing big enough to bring us into community across worlds and time. This is a wonder, and I will be grateful.
*Reprinted in Wikipedia, from Pirlo, Paolo O. (1997). “St. Clare”. My First Book of Saints. Sons of Holy Mary Immaculate. pp. 178–179. ISBN 971-91595-4-5.