October 4 – Clare & Francis of Assisi
These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.
Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.
Clare & Francis of Assisi, faithful servants
Francis of Assisi (c.1182-1226) and Clare of Assisi (c.1194-1253) are among the best-loved saints in the Christian tradition. Over the centuries they have captured the hearts and imaginations of men and women of all nationalities and creeds. People everywhere have been attracted to their manifest spirituality, their Christlike nature, and their genuine simplicity, devotion and compassion. Their lives are increasingly relevant to today’s world: in 1979 Pope John Paul II named Francis as ‘Patron Saint of Ecology’ and recent studies of Clare portray her not only as a fervent disciple of Francis but also as a new leader of women and ‘a light for our time’. Francis and Clare shared a similar vision—a love of the crucified Christ and a desire to lead a biblically-inspired, simple life modelled on the example of Christ in the Gospels. The chief characteristics of their spirituality may be treated under four headings: poverty, contemplation or prayer, mission and creation.
Francis and Clare embraced voluntary poverty because they wanted to imitate Jesus who had made himself poor for us (2 Cor. 8.9). Christ’s freely-chosen material poverty defined their whole manner of life. Francis’ understanding of poverty was shaped by Christ’s total obedience to the will of the Father. He saw in Jesus’ obedience a revelation of the humility of God. Clare, on the other hand, had a more ascetical understanding of poverty. She focussed her devotion on the ‘poor Christ’. For Clare, the spiritual life consisted of conforming oneself to the poor Christ by the observance of the most perfect poverty. Poverty was the door to contemplation. By living in poverty, Clare maintained, one might enter upon the ‘narrow’ way that leads to the kingdom of heaven. Following Christ’s example, both Clare and Francis vowed to use only that which was needed and to live without owning anything—no lands, no income, no saving up ‘for a rainy day’, no possessions beyond what was needed for daily life. Poverty was a source of their joy and freedom. It was a treasure to be sought, the ‘pearl of great price’.
Both Clare and Francis emphasized the close association between poverty and prayer (contemplation). For Clare, the ‘poor Christ’ was a mirror into which she gazes. She was awe-struck by the poverty of Him who was placed in the manger. She was overwhelmed by the mystery of God’s love that led Christ to suffer on the Cross. Her prayer gives us insight into her life of contemplation: ‘Gaze upon Him, consider (Him), contemplate Him.’ Her way of being was to be a mirror to others living in the world. Clare was careful to point out that no other work was to supersede the spirit of prayer and devotion. For Francis, however, contemplation was focused on the Eucharist. Participation in the Eucharist was tantamount to the apostles’ own experience of being with the earthly and incarnate Jesus. Thus, the mystery of the Eucharist enabled Francis to ‘see’ the poor and crucified Christ and to respond in a similar form of humility. The simple prayer that Francis taught his followers expresses his intense devotion to the Eucharist: ‘We adore You, Lord Jesus Christ, in all your churches throughout the world, and we bless You, for through Your holy cross, You have redeemed the world.’
Francis’ idea of poverty was also linked to his understanding of mission. In poverty Francis found a freedom that fostered reconciliation. In the spirit of poverty he urged his followers to adopt a simple, non-polemical style of missionary presence, to renounce any desire to dominate, and to minister mostly among the poor. Francis was accustomed to saying, ‘The poor are sacraments of Christ for in them we see the poor and humble Christ.’ When a brother asked if it were proper to feed some robbers, he responded affirmatively, for in every person he saw a possible thief and in every thief a possible brother or sister.
Finally, Francis’ concern for the environment was also shaped by his devotion to Christ. While the whole created order is a reminder of God’s goodness and to be received as gift, there are certain things that are worthy of our special love and care because they symbolise aspects of the nature and activity of Christ. Thus, rocks reminded Francis of the rock that was Christ, lambs of the Lamb of God, trees of the Cross, and lights of the Light of the World. In Francis’ magnificent hymn, the ‘Canticle of Brother Son’, he expresses his vision of a reconciled world that reflects the poor and crucified Christ. This, it is commonly said, is the deepest meaning of the Francis’ stigmata: his being becomes what he ‘sees’, he lives the life of Christ as literally as it is humanly possible.
Contributed by William Emilsen