Exactly 10 months (and what seems like 100 years ago) we walked down a little road into the town of Assisi and came upon the Basilica di Santa Chiara. Or for us English speakers, the Church of St. Clare. It was one of the most remarkable days of my trip to Italy. I know a couple of you have been there as well.
You see the bell tower as you walk down the hill but not the church and then you find yourself next to these pink and white stone walls that tower over you, and then the plaza where I stood looking up at the rose window before walking up the steps and going inside.
To be honest I believe Clare would be aghast at the site of something so big, and something so clearly filled with treasures beyond the means of most. Her most fervent prayer was to be so poor that she had only Christ to lean on for everything. That has so often described even our own little church.
This basilica was built after Clare died although her remains are now in the crypt below the high altar. It was hilarious to see the visitors who were nuns snapping pictures of her with their phones.
She spent most of her adult life in the convent of San Damiano which was in a pretty rough neighborhood outside the gated city of Assisi. The cross of San Damiano now hangs in the side chapel and is the one that St. Francis knelt in front of and heard Christ tell him to re-build the Church. Francis was her beloved friend, confidant, and supporter.
It was there that a she gathered and formed her order, befriended the locals, and challenged popes and current thinking that women could not live as austere a life as she and her sisters desired (and probably did.) Her life is marked by an insistence that women could and should have a rule of life as determined and as stringent as a man.
She was bedridden with some illness for most of her time as abbess, but insisted that she work every day weaving fabric for the clothes that the sisters and the Franciscan brothers wore. On her deathbed, Pope Innocent IV finally declared that her rule would serve the order going forward. He was so taken by her that he even attended her funeral.
The Good News of Jesus Christ for Clare was that we do not “go to God” as if God sat in up in heaven awaiting our arrival when we die – if we’re good, but that God has “come to us” in the Incarnation. God has become one of us in the person of Jesus. That to Clare was the most profound and essential part of her faith.
The journey of our faith is the discovery that God is at work at the center of each our lives and that in Jesus, God knows exactly what that looks and feels like. Our work is not to buy or acquire a relationship with God as if we were trying to find something that was way out there distant from us or that we had to perfect or that didn’t exist before we met God. Instead, our work is to open up the image of God that’s already within us. We pray to the God who created us in the first place, the God within us, that is, the one in whom we are created and in whom we live and move and have our being.
Our lives have been given to us to discover something hidden in us that already exists – “the incomparable treasure hidden in the field of the world and of the human heart,” as Clare told her sister in a letter. In other words, where our treasure is, there shall be our heart. Our work is not to protect or keep that treasure locked up in a safe, but to reveal or allow the image that’s already there to become known. We are the dwelling place of God and our work is to make Christ known. Through all this we discover what we already have – the Incarnation – the God with us, in us and through us, is at the center of our being.
I meet each month with a spiritual director. At the end of our time together we always pray and she almost begins with these words: “Bless this fine woman who bears your image and likeness at the very core of her being…” I used to get uncomfortable at those words because my ego would get in the way and I would think, “ah, she thinks I’m a lot more holy than I really am.” Then I realized that we all bear the image of God at the very core of our beings. What I needed to hear was that God needed to be revealed from within me if I would let it. The treasure is already there.
I think this is why Clare was able to live a life of poverty. She had no need for things. Her heart already held the best treasure she could possibly find.
When we were there last October I took you with me in the form of a piece of the polished glass that came from the old church. For those of you who aren’t here locally, let me know and we’ll send you a piece and the story behind it. I left a piece of us in the heart of Chiara’s basilica. I wonder, especially now with Covid sweeping that country, whether our treasure has been found.
One of the few prayers Clare wrote that we still have is this…
What you hold, may you always hold. What you do, may you always do and never abandon. But with swift pace, light step, unswerving feet, so that even your steps stir up no dust, may you go forward securely, joyfully and swiftly, on the path of prudent happiness, not believing anything, not agreeing with anything, that would dissuade you from this resolution or that would place a stumbling block for you on the way, so that you may offer your vows to the Most High in the pursuit of that perfection to which the Spirit of God has called you.
© The Reverend Patty Baker, Vicar
St. Clare of Assisi Episcopal Church