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LETTER AND THE SPIRIT
OF THE RULE OF ST. CLARE
Valencia Editorial Asis
These pages are meant for all the daughters of St. Clare who were born at the time of the Post Vatican Council II as a contribution to the noble efforts which they were carrying out in order to bring about their renewal along the guidelines set up by the Church magisterium under the reiterated watchword of Paul VI: “Faithfulness to the founder’s spirit, to their evangelical aims and to the example of their sanctity.” 1 It has been my aim to help make known the ideal sanctity of Clare – as a saint and as a foundress by following step by step the written letter of her Rule. The first edition of this book was so favorably received that it soon went out of print after having it translated to other languages. The general state of our addressee nowadays is quite different: the daughters of St. Clare have been progressively rediscovering throughout the last two decades the root and the essence of their Gospel ideal as well as their mission in the Church. They have also gotten a deeper and more reflective awareness of the spiritual inheritance of their Foundress. This consciousness have taken a crystallized form in their Constitutions which have been definitely approved by the Holy See after a long period of experimentation. This “fundamental code” aims at “protecting their own calling and identity” (Canon 587, 1) and in no way replaces the Rule or lessens its validity. They are rather the expression of a common desire to offer a distinctive “form of life” by putting them sincerely into practice in today’s historical reality. The Constitutions actualize and adapt the 2
genuine spirit of the written letter of the Rule so that faithfulness to it may be assured and guaranteed. This is precisely the service which this new edition would like to offer. To the historical and spiritual commentary of each of the precept of the Rule, we have added its up-to-date actualization which is now embodied in the Constitutions. Surely enough, there is not just one common text of the Constitutions for the Poor Clares. Aside from the one promulgated for the Poor Clares in general, without other denomination, and the other branches, have their own: the Urnanists, who profess the Rule of Urban IV; the Coletines of the reform of St. Colette; the Capuchins; the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration; those of the Divine Providence; the Sacramentarias; and the non-cloistered Clarian Institutes. It is however, quite certain that by coming back to the common Rule and the Spirit of Mother St. Clare, there has been a spontaneous convergence not just on the basic values but as expected on its expression as well. Clare’s Order is up to this time one in name and in evangelical spirit. Having in mind today’s Spanish speaking monasteries, we have just made references to the General Constitutions of the Poor Clares and those of the Capuchin Poor Clares.2
Clare The Foundress
A true pioneer of a new “Form of Life” in the Church, Clare nurtured the only one ambition of following the Poor and Crucified Christ as a humble “little plant of Father St. Francis”. Time and again, both in her Testament and Rule, she acknowledged him as the only founder. But it was the Holy See that has made her known as an authentic 3
Foundress and be accepted as such by making the little Saint Damian Convent the model and reference point for the numerous female communities of “recluses” that were by then either reforming themselves or were being created under that initiative of Cardinal Hugolinus, and known as the “Damianites”, proclaiming her officially as Foundress – “Co-Foundress” we would say today – of a new Order. Thus, in Alexander’s IV Bull of Canonization: “The distinguished and sacred Order of St. Damian, now widely diffused throughout the world, came and had its salutary beginning from this woman. It was this woman, encouraged by Blessed Francis, who initiated this new and holy observance; this woman, who was the first and solid foundation of this great religious way of life.”
The very event of her canonization contributed greatly to her being recognized as Mother and Foundress by all the female monasteries of Franciscan inspiration, a total of 111 across Europe at that early time. St. Bonaventure states in one of his sermons: “those formerly named the Poor Ladies of St. Damian are now called, after her canonization, the Sisters of St. Clare”. 4 The decisive step was taken up by Urban IV through the promulgation of his Rule in 1263, eight years after Clare’s canonization. By a well devised formula, he names her “quasi-foundress of all those who by the name of “sisters, ladies, nuns of poor recluse”, actually belong to the “St. Damian Order”. He solemnly declares: “….whereas this Order of yours received from St. Clare the joyful impulse of its foundation… We, therefore, together with our brethren Cardinals deem it fitting and just, that from now on, it should be known as Order of St. Clare”. 5 4
From the very beginning of cenobitic life in the fourth century, there had been women who opened up monastic foundations always under the umbrella of their corresponding male monasteries. The names of several sisters of saintly abbots are well known. But none of them gave for posterity an amply accepted Rule, or exercised a lasting magisterium, or left behind an Order by her name. How deep was Clare’s awareness of the centrality of St. Damian’s community of poor sisters? It seems to have certainly exercised a real influence on the communities that willingly accepted the usages of St. Damian and even more so, on those that got the “privilege of poverty”, such as Perugia, Monticelli, Florence or Prague. The letters of St. Agnes, the foundress of the monastery at Prague, gave witness to the high degree in which Clare’s magisterium was held. We may glimpse in her Testament a certain degree of consciousness of the responsibility that lies upon the St. Damian community by the fact of “being set as a model, example and mirror to all the sisters called to the same vocation.” Were the text of the “Blessing” truly her writing, though it remains doubtful, we have a proof of what she felt towards the end of her life: as spiritual mother of “all the monasteries of the Poor Ladies”. What seems certain indeed is the concern of the sisters of St. Damian community at seeing their saintly Abbess recognized everywhere as the Foundress of all the Damianites. The text of the “Blessing” was probably sent together with the circular letter announcing the death of the venerated mother “to all the sisters of the Order of St. Damian spread throughout the world”. Clare, recognized Francis as the true Founder of what was later to be called the “Second Order”. We cannot but see her “little plant” richly endowed with the founder’s charism, not only for having given her daughters a Rule canonically approved by the Holy See but also by the 5
presence of mind with which she assumed the guidance of the Poor Sisters and the spiritual inheritance transmitted to all those who, by the official naming of the Church, are known as the Poor Clares On the other hand, all the other numerous institutes of the great Franciscan family look up to Clare as the female version of St. Francis’ evangelical ideal.
What does St. Clare’s Rule represent?
Clare consecrated herself to Christ in 1212 before the altar of the Portiuncula, promising obedience to Francis. After sometime, spent first at the Benedictine Sisters’ monastery of St. Paul of Bastia, and later on at St. Angel of Panzo, Clare took up residence at the church of San Damiano with her first followers. The first three-year period was one of searching and trial. The contemplative community of Poor Sisters was shaping up under the magisterium of Francis and in accordance with a most simple “Form of Life” he gave them in writing. All through this process, other communities of Franciscan inspiration were sprouting after the model of the St. Damian group, sharing in common the withdrawal from the world through the cloister, poverty and simplicity of life. A set of standing rules was by all means necessary as required by Canon Law. The Fourth Lateran Council held in November 1215 forbade the establishing of new religious Orders. As a consequence, the St. Damian community saw itself constrained to embrace the Rule of St. Benedict as its canonical basis, and Clare was regretfully bound to take the title of Abbess. Through a privilege she got from Innocent III, she succeeded in saving 6
what was essential to her calling: absolute poverty without possessions or fixed income. Cardinal Hugolinus, commissioned by Honorius III to care after the Franciscan movement, and in particular, the monasteries of the “Damianites”, wrote in 1218 or 1219 a “Form of Life” where the Rule of St. Benedict was expressly maintained as canonical basis, although some norms being issued were adapted to the lifestyle of the new communities. The Cistertian influence is quite evident: perpetual silence, strict enclosure, continuous fasting with abstinence to just bread and water four times a week at the Major Lent and three times a week at that of St. Martin’s. That rigor did not displease Clare probably, as it answered her longings of immolation, but reasons were not lacking to fear that the treasure of total poverty was not even mentioned at Hugolinus’ statutes. But the St. Damian monastery kept itself strong on its “privilege” that the “little plant” of St. Francis made sure to have it approved by Honorius III. The alarm became more serious when Cardinal Hugolinus became Pope under the name of Gregory IX. He decided to endow with real estate and fixed income the Damianite monasteries, and even tried to do the same with the St. Damian community. Clare did not stop till she got from the Pope himself in 1228 the confirmation of the “privilege”, securing her against anyone who would in future force the community to accept real estate possessions and fixed means of livelihood. Still, a legal basis of the Franciscan inspiration was missing. Along this line, St. Agnes in 1243, from Prague, was urging the Pope that mention of St. Benedict’s Rule should be left out at the profession’s formula and that a new form of life should be written better adapted to the reality lived by the Poor Sisters. The Rule of Innocent IV appeared at last on 1247 wherein the Rule of St. Francis came to substitute that of St. Benedict at the profession 7
formula. Moreover, the Order of the Damianites was set over the jurisdiction of the Superiors of the Order of Lesser Brothers. If this success were to fill up the heart of St. Clare’s with joy, the new Rule, in exchange, contained a clause that surely disappointed her exceedingly: “Let it be lawful for you to receive and have in common and freely retain rents and possessions.” It was then perhaps that the saint, sick and afraid of leaving her daughters behind on that ambiguity, decided to write down her Testament firmly stating there the three main points she deemed unrenounceable: faithfulness to St. Francis, absolute poverty and fraternal unity. She got herself a new confirmation of the “privilege”. Yet, she did not see her ideal guaranteed once she had left the world. On the other hand, Innocent’s IV Rule had met with so strong opposition from most of the monasteries that the Pope himself was to declare on June 6, 1250 that he never meant to make the new Rule mandatory. It was necessary to give stability to whatever had been obtained so far through the “privilege”, and that was not possible to happen but through a Rule that would embody Clare’s ideas. She set herself to work it out. Her form of life would be that of St. Francis, as approved by Honorius III on November 29, 1223, adapted of course to the life of a female contemplative community. Regarding disciplinary prescriptions, especially on the cloister, Clare would have in mind the previous Rules of Hugolinus and Innocent IV, though revised to serve the Franciscan spirit. She would naturally set her own personal unmistakable seal mainly on the passages about poverty and mutual relationship among the sisters. It must lawfully be called St. Clare’s Rule. It was first approved by the Cardinal Protector Reginald on the 16th of September 1252, on behalf of the Pope. The Holy See however, was not satisfied with that approval but wished to 8
authorize it through a Pontifical Bull issued on August 9, 1253. This Bull is like the one with which Honorius III had confirmed St. Francis’ Rule. Just two days later, Clare died fully consoled, holding the Papal parchment within her hands. She had been victorious! The original Papal bull with the text of the Rule was kept as a precious heirloom at the monastery of Assisi; preserved in an ebony case that was rolled among the folds of a mantle worn by the Saint. It was rediscovered by chance in 1893. Its modern translations and editions are made then on the sure basis of an authentic text.6 Clare’s victory, however, did not benefit the whole Order. Ten years later, the Rule of Urban IV came out on October 18, 1253, imposing the common denomination “Order of St. Clare” to all of the monasteries born of the Franciscan inspiration, and granting them to have possessions and fixed income. Furthermore, it did away by omission, with the most personal exhortations and admonitions of the Saint, while multiplying minute disciplinary norms meant to prevent abuses, thus framing the sisters a system of surveillance, frontally opposed to the climate of trustful communion which St. Clare had brought up at the St. Damian community.7
Fundamental Traits of the Fraternity of Poor Sisters According to the Rule of St. Clare
The Bull of confirmation sums up fittingly the very basic contents of the “Form of Life” with this formula: “to live out a common life in the spirit of unity and commitment to most high poverty”. These are the two features firmly established by St. Clare in her Testament and were also stressed by St. Francis, before his death, to 9
the Poor Ladies in his “Last Will” and in a sort of lyrical testament written for them.8 1. Faithfulness to St. Francis Clare declares herself a “little plant” of St. Francis and reaffirms her obedience, as promised to the Seraphic Father and his successors (Test. 4ff). She wishes to maintain union with the First Order as a guarantee to assuring her authenticity to St. Francis’ spirit. Therefore, the Divine Office shall be like that of the Lesser Brothers (III,1). Likewise, both Orders are to have the same Cardinal Protector (XII,12); the Visitator of the Poor Sisters shall always be a Lesser Brother (XII,1); their spiritual and temporal assistance will ever be the responsibility of Lesser Brothers (XII,5); before the Elective Chapter, the General or Provincial Ministers ought to prepare the sisters with the Word of God to fulfill their duty in a spirit of fraternal harmony and unselfishness (IV,2). Yet it is mainly at the Central Chapter on the most high poverty where she mainly appeals to St. Francis (VI,1). 2. Poverty: essential element of evangelical life This is truly the intangible heritage received from St. Francis. The approved decree of Cardinal Reginald sets poverty as the distinguishing mark of the new Rule – “you chose to live in highest poverty”. The commitment of those professing among the Poor Sisters simply consists in “keeping the life and form of our poverty”. (II,4; IV,5) The subject of poverty occupies the three core chapters of the Rule and are the most personal, written down with greatest energy and warmth. (VI, VII, VIII). The Poor Sisters are to remain submissive to the Roman Church as the sign of fidelity to “the poverty and humility of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and His Most Holy Mother, and to the holy Gospel”. (XII,13) 10
3. Oneness in Charity The Rule is written to serve as the guide of an evangelical community whereby all the sisters live together at the same parity level, led by the common endeavor of following Christ through their “Abbess and Mother”, who acts among them as the servant of all, friendly and available, attending to the needs of all both sound and ill (IV,9ff; VII,5; VII,12-20; X,4-7). The distribution of jobs and chores will seek the higher wellness of “mutual love and peace” (IV,22). Work has to be carried out in the spirit of mutual understanding and solidarity (VII,1-5) by observing common life (VIII,9ff. All of them should serve one another at all times as one would wish to be served in a similar situation, but especially so during sickness. They should manifest mutually their own needs with total confidence (VIII,15). They should avoid getting angry or being disturbed with guilt (IX,15). Humble and generous obedience to the Mother will be the expression of the good will of reciprocal service by renouncing selfishness (X,2). In order to build up day by day the bond of fraternity as the foundation of self-giving and selfless love, the sisters will strive to shed from within whatsoever may sound as “pride, vainglory, envy, greed, care and solicitude of this world, detraction and gossip, strife and division, ever solicitous in showing one another the oneness of mutual affection which is the bond of perfection.” (X,6ff). 4. Docility to the Lord’s Spirit in freedom of spirit Like Francis, so does Clare firmly believes in the action of the Lord’s spirit within herself and on each sister. That is why everyone should above all aspire to “posses the spirit of the Lord and His holy operation” (X,9). Readiness to follow the spirit of the Lord rather than the impulse of selfishness gives authenticity to the freedom of God’s children. In order to find such freedom, Clare and her sisters have shut themselves up within the cloister “so as to 11
serve the Lord, spiritually free”, as Cardinal Reginald states in the Decree of Approval. This freedom of spirit, as opposed to servility, comes out at many instances in the Rule, in many ways and forms such as: when an aspirant is allowed “to freely dispose her things as God may inspire her” (II,10); or when a general criterion is set on the reasons for leaving the cloister (II,13); or when it is left up to the Abbess’ discretion to provide the sisters with garments “according to the distinctive character of persons, places, times or needs (II,17);or when the cloister gets open so that the Chaplain may hold services within the monastery on communion days (III,15); or in the flexible norm of silence (V,1-4; VIII,19). 5. Moderation and discretion Her freedom of spirit shows up in the fine and serene evangelical humanness of the aforementioned points, like clothes, footwear, enclosure, silence, etc. by leaving their implementation, in particular circumstances, “up to the prudence of the Abbess or her Vicar”. A noteworthy detail is that each sister is to be given whatever her relatives or others might send her, so that she herself may share it with the other sisters, were she not be in need of it (VIII,9ff). Let us say nothing of the gentleness the sickly sisters should be treated with (VIII,9). 6. Sharing of common responsibility among sisters This is one of the most striking and meritorious aspects of St. Clare’s Rule. The Abbess does not appear as the only one responsible for the concerns of the community, but positively shares it with all of the sisters. In order to accept an aspirant “she is bound to ask the consent of all the sisters” (II,1ff). And it is “the Abbess and the sisters” who jointly deal with the young aspirant, send her to some God fearing people to take from them a 12
piece of advice regarding the disposal of her worldly possessions, and give her afterwards the three tunics and mantle (II,10) All of the sisters take part in the election of the Abbess, and it is they who are to judge whether it is no longer convenient that she should lead the community. They are also to assume the responsibility of removing her from office, and of choosing one in her stead. (IV,7ff). No significant debt may be contracted without the common consent of the sisters; both “Abbess and sisters ought to take care not to receive anything to be deposited in the monastery for safekeeping.(IV,120). The “officials” of the monastery as well as the “discreets” are to be chosen “by common consent of all the sisters” and the sisters may remove them from office and choose others in their stead, if it would seem to be convenient and fitting (IV,22-24). “The Abbess and all the sisters” are responsible in observing poverty (VI,10-15; VIII, 1-6) as well as the care of the sick, the observance of silence and of the enclosure (V,1ff; VIII,19; XI,8). “The Abbess and the sisters” are to treat with broadmindedness the guilty one (IX,5). On the passages stamped more sharply by the seal of her personality, Clare uses the personal pronoun “we” (us/ our) in tune with the style we know to be her own in leading her community, something that affords the text the force of a common commitment; were one to come to us” (II,1); “the life and form of our poverty” (II,14; IV,15); “the form of our profession” (II,22; XI,1); “let no one abide with us …” (II, 24); when our Holy Father saw that we did not fear poverty…but rather held these things a great delight, he wrote for us …” (VI, 2); “and that we may never get apart…he wrote for us” and “I, together with my sisters” (IV, 6-11); “our visitator” (XII,1); “so that we may keep the poverty and humility… that we promised firmly” (XII, 13). 13
The awareness of joint responsibility shines most clearly – call it co-responsibility – in the prescription on the “community chapter” which has two parts: the first one, where all of them – Abbess as well as sisters – accuse themselves of their common and public shortcomings; and the second, where all speak out their minds on matters of the monastery (IV, 15-18). The expression “common good” is several times repeated (IV, 3 & 17; VIII, 1,5). 7. Voluntary enclosure Cardinal Reginald’s Decree of Approval, quoted above, which captured exactly the key points of the Rule, states: “you chose to live in seclusion”. From the very beginning, the Damianites were known as the “Reclused Sisters”. We see this willing seclusion evident in chapter II,13 and in chapter V, where the norms are established for their communication with the outside world, and in chapter XI that regulates the general keeping of the cloister.
Written Letter and Spirit
A Rule is not the only juridical basis by which an Order exists, nor is it a historical document looked upon with reference inasmuch as it contains the initial formulation of the founder’s ideal. The Rule, as an expression of a specific charism and a program of life, holds a perpetuity that causes it to be ever actual and ever adaptable to times and places. But how can a Rule, like Clare’s, remain actual if it was written more than seven centuries ago when social and religious life, i.e. culture, ascetic models, ways of dressing. eating, working, praying – everything - in a word - was so different from what we know today? 14
St. Francis had long foreseen this adaptation problem, and so that his Rule would ever continue being “Rule, life, and form of life” and could face the vicissitudes of “times and places”, he constantly used to distinguish between “letter and spirit”. Jesus had forcefully accused the Pharisees of having brought the law into a deep state of deformation on account of their servile interpretation by holding fast to their own traditions. St. Paul sets the letter that kills against the spirit that gives life (2 Cor 3,6). To Francis’ mind, keeping the Rule spiritually means reading it “purely and simply” after the intention it was written and in agreement with the spirit that enlivens it. That is the only attitude that saves us from pliable deviations and lifeless formalisms. Thus focused, we will not be able to find in the “form of life of the sisters” even a simple precept that may have lost its reason for being, even though its written letter may seem outdated, for it is a commitment of life rather than blind observance of a law. Were the daughters of St. Clare to take the “letter” as it literally sounds, they should have to be satisfied today with receiving the Eucharist only seven times a year (III, 7). By its literal sense, there is no reason for ambiguity but, setting ourselves at the time the Rule was written, when even good Christians did not receive communion more than three time a year, and most of them just once a year, then we realize that St. Clare assigned her community the maximum possible by the mentality and practice of the day. If furthermore we pay attention to the detail that, on those seven communion days, she wanted to see the community gathered around the altar and dispensed with the rule of the cloister, then the “spirit” of the precept and the saint’s intention become quite apparent: a very deep Eucharistic life. This is translated today into a daily active and full participation in the Eucharistic banquet and sacrifice. On the contrary, certain prescriptions whose “letter” had 15
remained unfortunately unfulfilled for centuries, such as the duty of weekly encounters to dialogue on common matters of interest of the monastery and to enhance the sense of the sisters responsibility, have become again more pertinent through today’s efforts of renewal. The renewal and adaptation that the Council desires is only possible on the basis of the “spirit” which is permanent, further than the shifting “letter”. One has yet to learn finding out and applying faithfully and loyally St. Clare’s intentions. We tend by instinct to remain on common ground, avoiding a creative search. Jesus praises the wise disciple of the kingdom of heaven who like a householder brings out from his storeroom new things as well as old (Mt. 13, 52).
Note: For a full groundwork on the contents of this commentary, may I refer the reader to the book “Vocacion franciscana. Sintesis delos ideales de San Francisco y Sta. Clara”. 3rd edition, Editorial Asis, 1989.
Footnotes to Introduction: 1. LG, 45; PC, 2b; Pope Paul VI Evangelica Testification,. 11. 2. “The General Constitutions of the Poor Sisters of St. Clare”
were approved by the Holy See on May 13, 1988. There are 236 Spanish speaking monasteries governed by them, since they profess the Rule of St. Clare approved by Innocent IV on 1253. Of these 168 are in Spain and 68 in America. There are besides, 56 Monasteries that follow the 2 nd Rule approved by Urbanus IV on 1263. Of these 46 are in Spain and 10 in America. The Constitutions of the Capuchin Poor Clares were approved on July 19, 1986. there are 102 Spanish speaking Monasteries governed by them. Of these, 32 are in Spain and 70 in America. Cf. Elenco dei Monastery. Monache Francescane di vita contemplative a cura del Protomonasterio S. Chiarra in Assisi. Assisi 1984. Since then their number has significantly increased. I. Omaechevarria, Escritos de Sta. Clara. p. 199ff. “Sermo II de b. Francisco, Opera omnia, IX, 576. Text in Bull. Franc. II, 509ff. The translation used here is personally done by the author from the Latin text of his book “Escritos de San Francisco y Sta. Clara de Asis”. Lazaro Iriarte, OFM Cap. 3rd Edition, Valencia, Editorial Asis, 1992. I. Omaecheverria, Escritos de Sta. Clara. Translation in “Escritos de San Francisco y Santa Clara” p. 107ff.
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