Perhaps like me, you are always searching for glimpses of hope, of joy, of belief that point to the Divine Presence in the ordinary days. Perhaps like me, you also find yourself skeptical of those glimpses when your eye first spies them. Perhaps you started out easily believing, and then… someone called you naive, or a church betrayed you, or a friend who once shared your hope scoffed at your joy, or a myriad of other wounds occurred… and you began to question your own understanding of God’s Presence. Perhaps you began to doubt that He is even still here, among us. Perhaps the idea of His speaking to us personally seems out of date, like ancient history. I’ve been there too. And today, I’d like to suggest that ancient history may be one way we can experience a glimpse of God’s Presence together, and see that He is still speaking to us today.
During the Middle Ages in the Italian hillside village of Assisi, there lived a girl named Clare. This was 1200 years after Christ walked the earth, and more than a millennium after His disciples built the early church. Italy was besieged with fragmented politics, preoccupied by the Crusades, and divided by the frequent struggles for power between the Roman Emperors and the popes. Just like today, there was a lot to distract people from seeing the Presence of God in their daily lives. One dark spring night in 1212, eighteen year old Clare decided to escape many of those distractions. She fled her father’s wealthy, aristocratic household and the promise of a prosperous marriage in order to support St. Francis in his newly founded order by taking vows of charity, humility and extreme poverty. Other women soon joined her, and Clare founded her own order, known as the Poor Clares, who refused to own property, begged for their food, and joyfully served the Assisi community. Clare’s impressive example leads me to wonder what glimpse of the Divine she herself might have seen that spurred her on.
Throughout her life, Clare continually defied the social norms and male voices of authority to assert her own God-given convictions. Clare became the first woman in the history of the church to write her own rule of order–guidelines for their way of life. After two attempts to assign her a rule of order written by men, both of which ignored Clare’s conviction to own no property, Clare asked for the opinions of her sisters and wrote her own, which was approved just two days before her death in 1253. This female assertion was truly radical for that era, and by the time of her death, leaders, bishops and even the pope visited Clare in her abbey to seek her wise council. Another major difference in the Poor Clares from the other orders of the time was that all the sisters were considered equal in rank and they made all life decisions together. As their abbess, Clare considered herself “the servant of the sisters” and chose to lead by example rather than direct instruction.
From the records we have, Clare did all this with a surprising spirit of joy! While living in extreme poverty, what shines through in her personal communications is not suffering, but joy. Her letters to St. Agnes of Bohemia–a Hungarian princess who chose poverty to follow Clare’s example–are filled with proclamations of happiness and rejoicing. In her third letter to Agnes, Clare writes, “I am filled with such joys at your wellbeing, happiness, and marvelous progress through which, I understand, you have advanced in the course you have undertaken to win the prize of heaven (Phil 3:14).” Later in the same letter, she says, “Therefore, dearly beloved, may you too always rejoice in the Lord (Phil 4:4). And may neither bitterness nor a cloud of sadness overwhelm you, O dearly beloved Lady in Christ, joy of the angels and crown of your sisters!”
In learning more about Clare, it becomes clear that her exemplary service and sacrifice came out of the Divine glimpses of God she experienced. Rather than one miraculous encounter, her glimpses of the Divine seem to be wrought out of simple moments of prayer and service. As we search for our own glimpses of God, like Clare, we too can ask Him for His humility, His sacrifice, and His joy, and these gifts can open our eyes to His Presence all around us.