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SILENCE, THE ATMOSPHERE OF CONTEMPLATIVE LIFE
• The Treasure of Silence
Silence in the Rule of St. Clare
• The Parlor • Towards a Right Adaptation
CHAPTER V, 1-17 Let the sisters keep silence from the hour of Compline until Terce, except those who are serving outside the monastery. 2Let them also continually keep silence in the church, the dormitory, and the refectory, only while they are eating. 3They may speak discreetly at all times, however, in the infirmary for the recreation and service of the sick. 4Nevertheless, they can communicate always and everywhere, briefly and in a low tone of voice, whatever is necessary. 5 The sisters may not speak in the parlor or at the grille without the permission of the abbess or her vicar. 6 Let those who have permission not dare to speak in the parlor unless they are in the presence and hearing of two sisters. 7Let them not presume to go to the grille, moreover, 8 unless there are at least three sisters present [who have been] appointed by the abbess or her vicar from the eight discreets who were elected by all the sisters for the council of the abbess. 9Let the abbess and her vicar be themselves bound to observe this form of speaking. 10[Let the sisters speak] very rarely at the grille and, by all means, never at the door. 11 Let a curtain be hung inside the grille which may not be removed except when the Word of God is preached or when a sister is speaking with someone. 12Let the grille have a wooden door which is well provided with two distinct iron locks, bolts, and bars, so that it can be locked, especially at night, by two keys, one of which the abbess should keep and the other the sacristan. 13Let it always be locked except when the Divine Office is being celebrated and for the reasons given above. 14Under no circumstances whatever may a sister speak to anyone at the grille before sunrise or after sunset. 15Let there 113
always be a curtain on the inside of the parlor, which may not be removed. 16 No one may speak in the parlor during the Lent of Saint Martin and the Greater Lent, 17except to a priest for Confession or for some other manifest necessity, which is left to the prudence of the abbess or her vicar.
The Treasure of Silence
The gift of speech is precious. Through it we make our brothers sharers of our whole inner world: ideas, feelings, objectives, visions. God has sent to the world His Word “made man”, and the word of every man may be an instrument of salvation. On the other hand, however, who can fathom the capability of that “tiny member”, the tongue? “Nobody can tame the tongue… We use it to bless the Lord and Father, but we also use it to curse people who are made in God’s image.” (James 3, 5-9) The gift of silence is precious. The saying of Pythagoras is well known: “If what you are going to say is not better than silence, shut up.” There is a passive silence that is folding over and over oneself. But there is also an active silence wherein a man finds out for himself, deepens into the whys and wherefores of things and events, opens up to the reality of God, the one who pries into the depths of our being and manifests himself at the innermost, a closed door(Mt 6, 6). It is in silence that man gives shape to the word or message he tries to convey to others. “Nobody speaks more safely than the one who loves silence.”1 Jesus prepared the announcement of the Good News by the silence at Nazareth, and during his public life he often resorted to fecund silence at deserted places and the stillness of the night, and in silence communed with the 114
Father. Mary’s presence appears in the Gospel as a silent reflection: “She treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” (Lk 2, 14). To live only for God “in solitude and silence” is one of the traits assigned by Vatican II to contemplative life (PC, 7). The atmosphere of silence is not only called for by personal quietness, but also and mainly by charity that brings us to respect in our brothers and sisters the stillness they came to look for at the conventual retreat, to give themselves up to prayer, study, work and reflection. In today’s world, human activity cannot do without noise and hurry. For that reason, the advantage of conventual peace in a rhythm of silence and tranquility is all the more to be esteemed.
Silence in the Rule of St. Clare
Monastic tradition had long since given grand importance to silence. With the Carthusians and Cistercians silence had come to be looked upon as a value by itself. It could be said, that for them, the tongue was only properly used when connected with divine praises; for the community with the brothers, cut down to the minimum, they had to resort to conventional signs. St. Francis did not want at his fraternity the cult to silence for silence sake. He longed for it and exacted it from his brothers as a requisite for the spirit of prayer and of fraternal intimacy, though it should never be an impediment to joyful and spontaneous communion. The first Rule stated: “Let them strive to keep silence whenever God may give them the grace.” We can see that, by the context, the motive was no other than charity. From among the brothers the Saint was well aware that not all possessed 115
the “grace” of silence at the same degree. There were among them taciturn, like brothers Bernard and Silvester; affable like brother Masseus; talkative like brother Juniper. In the Rule for Hermitages, Francis wrote: “Let them strive to maintain silence after praying Compline and may end their silence after Terce.” He did not accept fiery taciturnity in the bosom of the fraternity. To the one who took to the eccentricity of talking through signs, he described as a hypocrite without vocation. (2 Cel, 28). The Rule given by Hugolinus to the Poor Recluses, noted for its accented rigorism, imposed on them “continuous silence”. “Let continuous silence be kept by all at all times, so that it is not allowed either for one to talk to another or for another to talk to her without permission, except for those on whom some teaching office or duty has been enjoined which cannot be fittingly discharged in silence.” (Hug R, 6). This norm was equally binding for the sound and the sick. The Rule of Innocent IV maintained in total strictness “continuous silence”, adding serious monition to the abbess who ought to very “eagerly attend to where, when and how permission to speak is given to the sisters”. At this Rule, the Cistercian influence is quite apparent at the detail of “religious and modest signs” the sisters are to make use of, with the exception of the sick and those taking care of them at the infirmary. This discipline of perpetual silence had strongly influenced the features of the San Damiano community – let us not forget that the first Visitator of the Poor Ladies was a Cistercian – to the point that Celano wrote circa 1228 at the first life of St. Francis: “They have so attained the unique grace of ….silence that they scarcely need to exert any effort … to restrain their tongues; some of them are so used to silence that, bound to talk, they can hardly manage to fittingly shape up the words.” (1Cel, 20). 116
When, at last, Clare was able to give her daughters a form of life of Franciscan inspiration, she omitted mentioning that “continuous silence” inspired as it was on a different concept of community life, and she limited it only to the times and places where it had a reason for being. Charity demands that the repose and recollection be respected at the times most appropriate for prayer; thereby the norm already extant among the Friars Minor is here prescribed: strict silence from the Hour of Compline, destined to sanctify night rest, up to the Hour of Terce, after which the daily household chores get started. There are certain places wherein the atmosphere of silence must be honored at all times: the church, the bedroom (the one at San Damiano was continuous) and the dining room. The Rule notes that silence at the dining room is to be kept by the sisters only while they eat. It has indeed been a common monastic practice to eat either in silence or listening to a lector. There is nevertheless a place where the discipline of silence must totally give way to the greatest goodness of charity: it is in the infirmary. There “they may speak discreetly at all times, however, in the infirmary for the recreation and service of the sick.” This does not mean that silence has no reason for being outside these times and places. St. Clare supposes that the atmosphere breathed during the whole day is one of peace and recollection. Still she knows that oral communication is needed to personal and collective harmony: “Nevertheless, they can communicate always and everywhere , briefly and in a low tone of voice, whatever is necessary.” And it does not say that to do so, they should have the mother’s permission, as the two previous Rules required. It is the sisters themselves who should judge about the need of an atmosphere of silence conducive to safeguarding the treasure it contains. 117
Clare set the example. Her first biographer records that she was “sparing in her words” and lover of silence (L Cl, 36). In the Process of Canonization, the sisters declared that “her speech was always about matters of God and did not want to talk about worldly things nor the sisters mentioning them.” (proc., I,9; III, 3; VI, 10; X,5). Urban IV’s Rule would again “impose “continuous silence” and again mentions the “signs” at the communing of the sisters, but introduced the “community Recreation” on certain days. St. Clare’s Rule does not mention it expressly, but from the recollections of the sisters at the Process, we can infer that there were at San Damiano certain times of fraternal relaxation when they could speak “about our Lord Jesus Christ, the festivity of the day, the examples of the saints and about other good and upright things”. (Rule of Urban IV, IX, 19). The Constitutions emphasize the importance of silence as condition sine qua non of contemplative life, be it to perceive the Lord’s presence at the depths of the soul and keep our love attentively listening to His voice, as well as for the right harmony of the sister’s toil and repose. It belongs to the conventual chapter to determine the times and places of major silence in consonance with the Rule. A time of daily recreation is prescribed as a means of promoting fraternal understanding and as necessary to ease the tension within the day employed at prayer and work. It pertains to the abbess to appoint the place and the time of recreation after having heard the conventual chapter. Some free days are likewise foreseen to restore energies and health. (Gen CC, art. 81-82, 100; Cap CC, 94-96, 142.).
With regards to communication with the outside world, St. Clare’s Rule maintains in almost all its strictness, the discipline drawn up by the Rules of Hugolinus and Innocent IV which had the character of general canonical discipline. Beside’s the Superior’s permission, the presence of two other sisters is required when going to the parlor; and of at least three assigned by the abbess herself among the counselors if the place to talk with outsiders is the “grille”. The “grille” the Rule speaks of is the one connecting the sisters choir with the church. There will be on its inside a curtain to be drawn back at the preaching of God’s Word and when it is necessary to talk with someone. The “grille” with a wooden door provided is to remain firmly shut except at the time of liturgical celebrations( mass, Divine Office, preaching), and of communicating with a person. The Rule makes no reference to grilles when speaking of the parlor but of just a set curtain. The Saint mitigates here the rigor imposed by the earlier Rule of Innocent IV, that said: “At the parlor, let there be an iron sheet bored with holes and set with iron nails in such a way that it may never be opened, and on the inside, a black woolen cloth hindering them from seeing and being seen.” Urban IV’s Rule, posterior to Clare’s, would regain the imposition of the “grating” or perforated iron sheet will be strongly set with iron nails long enough as to protrude outwards.” (ch. 16). On the other hand, it keeps in all its rigidity the disposition of the previous Rule on the “listeners”, without insisting on their duty of “hearing whatever is said to the sister or whatever she tells the visitor” as stressed at Hugolinus’ Rule.
The suppression of visits to the parlor during St. Martin’s Lent and the Greater Lent, unless for the sake of confession or other manifest occurrence left to the abbess’ prudence - is an originality of St. Clare’s Rule. It is indeed a very reasonable waiver at penitential times and fitting of course to persons who profess withdrawal and retirement on account of their contemplative life. It is this will of wavering that Clare would have wished to set at the base of these external precautions rather than causing the sisters to breath a climate of protection and distrust.
Towards a Right Adaptation
We have emphasized the details on which St. Clare departed from the discipline imposed on the poor ladies by previous Rules, and those she accepted, though ever with that fine sense of serene humanism so truly hers. How would the Saint apply nowadays her Rule’s spirit? Allow me one historical consideration on the detail of “the listeners”. In the thirteenth century and the following centuries, not only a nun but no decent woman would take the liberty to talk alone with a stranger. A father would not allow her daughter to leave home unless she was well accompanied and watched. A husband on traveling would leave his wife at rigid confinement and under protection. The honor of the husband and the repute of the family were coming in at stake. A woman treated all through her life as a minor had to endure the effects of a series of moral and social worries which she was to accept as natural. On the other hand, one must not forget that at many monasteries and in the course of time at the Poor Ladies too, there abounded nuns without a trace of vocation, cloistered for life by family interests or other motives little 120
evangelical. They did not and could not love that unavoidable separation. For want of a sincere will of seclusion, they had to resort to other various means of protection and to a well set up system of vigilance. Today, fortunately, all that has changed. Women have shown their capacity to answer for themselves, better perhaps than men. It is no wonder to anyone seeing a young lady going to work, or to the university, or traveling abroad for a long trip, alone. A husband, however, jealous does not leave his wife at home under lock and key. If we are witnessing nowadays on the part of women a peculiar demand of affirming their own autonomy by setting themselves up in life with full responsibility, we are not to ascribe it, unfortunately tardy, to the Christian principle of equality of both sexes. (Gal 3, 28). To a young one who breathes this climate and who does not come to get herself cloistered in a convent unless she is moved by an impulse or renunciation, how can we burden with a return to worries and attitudes of times gone by, causing her to breathe an atmosphere of distrust and restraint unjustifiable with the Gospel? So we must not wonder why the “visible and invisible” listening is disappearing as one of the “obsolete practices” that should be left behind by expressed will of Vatican II (PC, 16). Today, however, exactly as on the thirteenth century, a daughter of St. Clare should esteem and enhance the welfare of silence and retirement, never forgetting that among her renunciations, the withdrawal from her own family is not the least. There is no more efficacious safeguard of this treasure than the joyful commitment of the entire community pledged to maintain it. Farther on we will speak of the theme of cloister. Let us see now how communication with the outside world has been actualized in the Constitutions. The proper place for this is up to now the “parlor”. The whole of the previous scrupulous legislation had in mind to prevent possible 121
abuses and has been reduced today to the simple prescription of the Church legislation at “Venite Seorsum”: “physical and effective separation according to the Order’s tradition and circumstances of the place. Contacts with relative and other acquaintances ought to be coherent with the option of retirement and spiritual freedom and faithfulness to the preferential love to Christ. For that very reason, each sister should limit the number of her visits at the parlor, as well as at epistolary correspondence and phone calls to relatives and friends in consonance with that Gospel criterion and also by the sign of obedience. Be it at the parlor or at any other manner of external communion, let the sisters endeavor, after St. Clare’s exhortation, to ever diffuse the perfume of their good repute by their behavior. At a point so delicate as that of correspondence by writing or by speech, the Constitutions invite to knowing how to reconcile respect to the person, charity and discretion with the requirements of recollection and poverty. (Gen CC, art. 51, 125 -128; Cap CC, 108-109).
Footnote to Chapter 8:
1. Imitation of Christ 1, I, 20, 2.
FOLLOWING THE LIFE AND POVERTY OF JESUS CHRIST
• • •
The Three Main Chapters of the Rule The “Privilege” of Highest Poverty “Not to receive nor have possession or property” Most High Poverty in the Constitutions
Chapter VI, 1-15 After the Most High Heavenly Father saw fit by His grace to enlighten my heart to do penance according to the example and teaching of our most blessed Father Francis, shortly after his own conversion, 2I together with my sisters, willingly promised him obedience.. 3 When the Blessed Father saw we had no fear of poverty, hard work, trial, shame or contempt of the world, but, instead, regarded such things as great delights, moved by compassion 4he wrote a form of life for us as follows: “Because by divine inspiration you have made yourselves daughters and servants of the Most High King, the heavenly Father, and have taken the Holy Spirit as your spouse, choosing to live according to the perfection of the holy Gospel, 5I resolve and promise for myself and for my brothers to always have that same loving care and solicitude for you as [I have] for them.” 6 As long as he lived he diligently fulfilled this and wished that it always be fulfilled by his brothers. 7 Shortly before his death he once more wrote his last will for us that we – or those, as well, who would come after us – would never turn aside from the holy poverty we had embraced. 8He said: “I, little brother Francis, wish to follow the life and poverty of our most high Lord Jesus Christ and His holy Mother and to persevere in this until the end; 9and I ask and counsel you, my ladies, to live always in this most holy life and poverty. 10And keep most careful watch that you never depart from this by reason of the teaching or advice of anyone.” 11 Just as I, together with my sisters, have ever been solicitous to safeguard the holy poverty which we have promised the Lord God and blessed Francis, 12so too, the abbesses who shall succeed me in office and all the sisters are bound to observe it inviolably to the end: 13that is to 124
say, by not receiving or having possession or ownership either of themselves or through an intermediary, or even anything that might reasonably be called property, 14 except as much land as necessity requires for the integrity and proper seclusion of the monastery, 15and this land may not be cultivated except as a garden for the needs of the sisters.
The Three Main Chapters of the Rule
The three chapters that refer to the ideal of poverty make up the very heart of St. Clare’s Rule. It encompasses a life of total detachment, earthly insecurity without possessions or fixed income to follow the poor and humble Christ more closely, a desire for minority that seeks its means of livelihood in the daily labor of the sisters and dependence upon men’s good will; finally, a renouncement that becomes an inner disappropriation and bears fruit in the unlimited self-giving of fraternal charity: that is the context of chapters six, seven and eight, and should be read as a unity. The saintly Mother has poured in them the greatness of her adhesion to Christ and fidelity to Francis’ teaching through inflamed and vigorous expressions. Throughout her life she was engaged in defending this ideal and would bequeath to her daughters as the most esteemed treasure. These chapters constitute the most original and personal portion of the Rule. Even its language turns alive, she speaks in the first person, employs too the “we” as if desirous to make all her sisters partakers of what is to her a most sacred commitment. She starts off by recalling, by repeating whatever she had written in her Testament, the origin of her vocation of 125
poverty, a grace that came to her through the example and teachings of Francis. “On hearing St. Francis had chosen the way of poverty” – recalls Joannes de Ventura at the Canonization Process – “she proposed in her heart to do the same thing.”(Proc., 20, 6) To follow the Poor Christ, Francis left behind the easy abundance at the home of Pietro Bernardone, the merchant; Clare had abandoned the palace of the most noble Favarone clan where ”great sums were spent”. (Proc., XX, 3), had her personal patrimony sold and its proceeds be distributed among the poor. The commitment of poverty – by the Saint’s logic springs from the voluntary promise of “obedience” done by her to Francis together with her sisters. The San Damiano group, under the spiritual guidance of the Poverello, had devoted themselves from the beginning with fervor, on trustful abandonment. to that faith adventure. And Francis witnessed joyfully such an eloquent fulfillment of the truth of the Gospel. It was just after that first experience when he dictated for them the “form of life”, so simple indeed. Clare reminisces so in this terms: “When the blessed Father saw we had no fear of poverty, hard work, trial, shame, or contempt of the world, but instead, regarded such things as great delights, moved by compassion, he wrote the “form of life” for us.” This kind of experience they had started was very hard, not only for want of comforts but, because it meant the breaking off from all conventionalism. They were to confront the misunderstanding and contempt of the high society of Assisi. It would take them long to appreciate the gesture of those young ones, most of them from good rank, at undertaking a humanly speaking absurd lifestyle. Clare saw herself bound to inspire her sisters on whenever the effects of so hard a life were felt and downheartedness begun to appear. “Bear it courteously …. Bear the burdens of poverty patiently…., the weight of humility humbly. The patience of those whose vision springs from a 126
consideration of the Divinity produces the delights of paradise for the patient one and will purchase the riches of an eternal reward.”1 The “form of life” given by Francis could be summed up, as Clare interpreted it, in the commitment of never departing from holy poverty. Clare reproduces furthermore the text of the Saint’s “last will”, his spiritual testament for the Poor Ladies: inviolable fidelity to the life and poverty of our Most High Lord Jesus Christ and his most holy Mother. By this fidelity, Clare and her sisters would ever to be on guard against anyone who might try to deviate them: “And keep careful watch that you never depart from this by reason of the teaching or advice of anyone”. And in her Testament, after giving the same recommendation, she adds: “We would in no way turn away from it, as the Son of God never wished to abandon his holy poverty while He lived in the world. And our most blessed father Francis, having imitated his footprints, never departed either in example or in teaching from this holy poverty.” (T, 34-36). Poverty is one instruction of struggle even for the other communities that follow the example of San Damiano. The following of Christ is the central theme of her letters to St. Agnes of Prague. At the second line, after the original greeting, ”Greetings and perseverance in a life of the highest poverty”, Clare entreats her spiritual daughter to fight for the privilege of poverty over there at Prague with the same firmness that she herself is doing in Assisi: “If anyone would tell you something else or suggest something that would hinder your perfection or seem contrary to your divine vocation, even though you must respect him, do not follow his counsel. But as a poor virgin, embrace the Poor Christ. Look upon Him who became contemptible for you, and follow Him, making yourself contemptible in this world for Him.” (2 L Ag, 17-19). 127
That is what she practiced literally: humble and respectful resistance, succeeding at conjugating unwavering love to poverty with submission to the hierarchical Church. Those were not at all easy attitudes that assuredly tortured and purified the Saint’s spirit.
The “Privilege of Most High Poverty
The distinct trait of the Franciscan fraternity, in regards to poverty, is that the stress is not laid on personal renunciation but mainly on the group’s. The suppression of individual ownership does not find a humane compensation on the benefits of common life. The commitment of a life in poverty is inspired by the lack of security Christ chose for himself and his immediate co-workers: it’s liberation for the kingdom. St. Clare wished to give flesh to this ideal at the female community of San Damiano with the sense of adventure and heroism it means to a group of recluse women. It was usual at that time that each monastery would procure their letters of privilege. These are certain exemptions like the state of enjoying the support of feudal lords or the intrusions of some bishops, taking advantage of the occasion of the passing of the Supreme Pontiff. Clare wished too for the little San Damiano to have its “privilege”. Bound to accept, by virtue of the Fourth Lateran Council decision, the Benedictine Rule, which presupposes each monastery be well endowed with fixed income and possessions, she hurried up to obtain from Pope Innocent III “for greater security” as she says in her Testament (42) the guarantee of being able to maintain with perfect fidelity the embraced poverty without fixed means of livelihood. 128
The author of Clare’s Legenda reports: The Pope himself with great joy wrote with his own hand the first draft of the privilege that was sought after, so that an unusual favor might smile upon an unusual request.” (LCl, 14). Rightly this document of singular importance in the history and spirituality of St. Clare’s Order is being published next to her Rule and Testament. Innocent III seems to have drawn its first draft as if taking dictation from Clare: so sharply the motivations match her ideas. He praises therein that “you propose not to have any possessions whatsoever, clinging in all things to the footprints of Him who became for us the Way, the Truth and the Life”. (Privilege of Poverty, 3). The penury of things does not frighten them, since they entrust themselves to the heavenly Father who feeds even the birds in the sky and clothes the lilies in the fields (Mt 6, 26-30). It ends up by validating the privilege with the solemn usual formula of similar papal grants: “Therefore, we confirm with our apostolic authority, as you requested, your proposal of most high poverty, granting you by the authority of [these] present that no one can compel you to receive possessions.”(Privilege of Poverty, 7) There follows a very significant clause that disappeared later from the text: “And if any woman does not wish to, or cannot observe a proposal of this sort, let her not have a dwelling place among you, but let her be transferred to another place.”2 In 1218, Honorius III took under the protection of the Holy See all the monasteries that, following the example of San Damiano‘s were also adopting the same kind of life, “without possessing anything under heaven but their houses and churches”, as long as they kept themselves without 129
possessions or fixed income.3 Cardinal Hugolinus, pioneer of that movement, did not even mention in his “form of life” that radical poverty. Maybe he was able too soon to ascertain that not all “Damianite” communities were equal to the task of facing the wants inherent to such a lack of security, and as Pope by the name of Gregory IX, he begun to offer possessions and fixed income to some of the monasteries and to San Damiano itself. Clare refused point blank. We know it from the Process of Canonization: “The Lord Pope Gregory of happy memory wanted to give her many things and buy possessions for the monastery. But she would never consent.” (Proc., I, 13; II, 22; III, 14). On the occasion of St. Francis’ canonization, the Pope paid a visit to her beloved San Damiano community. This was the blessed moment for Clare to obtain from him by entreaty the confirmation of the “privilege”. The biographer recounts how the final dialogue went by. Gregory IX insisted on Clare to bend herself and receive possessions and fixed income and was unable to understand such a locked and bolted resistance. “If you fear for your vow”, he told her at last, “we absolve your from it.” “Holy Father” – she said, “I will never in any way wish to be absolved from the following of Christ.” (L Cl, 14). And the Pope had to give in before the firmness of Francis’ faithful disciple; the confirmation of the privilege was signed at Perugia on September 17, 1228. It did not take a long time before some other monasteries began asking for it: Monteluce of Pergia got it on June 16, 1229, and a little bit later Monticelli at Florence, by the express request of St. Agnes, the sister of Clare who had been sent to govern that community. St. Agnes of Prague got the same grace on April 15, 1238 for the monastery founded by her, though the text was a bit altered. In her Testament, Clare recalls the determination she exerted on having this right to total poverty confirmed, by 130
means of privileges gotten from different Pontiffs, “so that we may never depart from it”. For that very reason she bequeaths to her sister the very same heritage she got from Father St. Francis. This would be her final recommendation before her death: “After calling together all her sisters, she entrusted the Privilege of Poverty to them.” (Proc., III, 32).
“Not to receive nor have possessions or property”
As Clare gave that last recommendation to her sisters, she was eagerly expecting the approval of her Rule. Finally this arrived on time for her to die kissing it joyfully, since the “privilege” was finally included therein. What prompted Clare to seek papal approval for a Rule made to her heart’s content was precisely the new danger threatening the faithfulness to poverty through the promulgation of Innocent IV’s Rule on 1247. There we read: “You may be permitted to receive, to have in common and to freely retain income and possessions. A procurator – one who is prudent as well as loyal – may be assigned in every monastery of the Order to deal with these possessions in a becoming way.” (Innocent IV’s Rule, 11). The sacred commitment entered into before God and Saint Francis and to be inviolably kept by the abbesses to come and by the sisters, consists on “not receiving or having possessions or ownership of themselves or through an intermediary, or even anything that might reasonably be called property.” (R, VI, 12-13) What did St. Clare exactly mean by the clause? Some wanted to read it as a mere renouncement to “juridical 131
property”. That would have been the solution the first Order had earlier found to interpret officially the collective poverty imposed by St. Francis’ Rule: the Order as such is incapable of possessing, but, as in reality, it does possess. These possessions belong either to the benefactor, if they keep ownership, or to the Holy See. In fact, the Friars Minor had obtained in 1247 from Innocent IV an apostolic brief declaring the goods of the Order property of the Holy See while the brothers would just enjoy their simple use. The conscience of those in charge of the Order rested thus at peace, but such a juridical pretense seemed to most of the brothers a subterfuge in order to evade the demands of real poverty. On the side of the jurists of the Roman curia, there were attempt too to offer a similar solution to the Poor Ladies. St. Clare however was not interested just on a poverty consisting only on the renouncement of the “right of property”, but on the reality of a life poor and uncertain where the sisters would experience everyday the freedom of those who have nothing to lose and their dependence on God and men. Those “possession or properties” are to be understood in the sense of the “privilege” and of the Testament.(Prin., 42) We are to see her expressed intention to avoid juridical subterfuges at that explanation. …”that is to say, by not receiving or having possessions or ownership either of themselves or through an intermediary” (R, VI, 12). There is no document whatsoever declaring goods of the Poor Clares as property of the Holy See. On the contrary, that “as much land as necessity requires for the integrity and proper seclusion of the monastery “(R, VI, 14) is truly property of the community as well as the building itself. Even on this property the Saint sees the danger of making out of it a means of economic security: “This land may not be cultivated except as a garden for the needs of the sisters.” (Cl’s R, VI, 132
15). The primary role of this adjoining land appears more clearly at her Testament. The necessary isolation for the life of retirement and solitude chosen by the sisters and of course the suitable growth of the spirit, but never trespassing the limits set by poverty and without lucrative considerations: “…that they do not acquire or receive more land about the place than extreme necessity requires for a vegetable garden. But if for the integrity and privacy of the monastery, it becomes necessary to have more land beyond the limits of the garden, no more should be acquired than extreme necessity demands. This land should not be cultivated or planted, but remain always untouched and undeveloped.” (T, 53-55). This prohibition clashes today with the concept that we have today on the social use of goods, and rightly so. At the Middle Ages, things were not considered this way. Still, a subsequent reflection made Clare to suppress that clause when stating her Rule. What she absolutely wants to bar is new sources of subsistence being created on the basis of possessions acquired by the monastery. Consistent with this norm, if she were to receive a land through last will, she had it immediately sold without giving in to the temptation to round off the patrimony and live out of its income, as it was usual at the monasteries of the day. That is how a piece of real estate was sold in 1238 to the Cathedral chapter with the consent of all the sisters.4
Most High Poverty in the Constitutions
Gospel radicality, specifically the liberating efficacy of total poverty, as Francis and Clare understands it, has not lost any freshness at all, but acquires new value of 133
availability for the kingdom and a prophetic testimony before a society of consumerism and comfort in opposition to the position of that large sector of mankind that stays in destitution. What is the option that corresponds to us, children of Francis, and specially so the “poor sisters” as heirs of St. Clare’s firmness at defending her “privilege”? Let us see how the Constitution actualize this fundamental Gospel commitment of “observing the poverty and humility of our Lord Jesus Christ”. Before anything else, it determines with precision the Gospel and Franciscan foundation, i.e., the option of God’s Son, “who became poor for us in this world and lived and died like a poor.” It emphasizes the trait of the “external and internal disappropriation” that Franciscan poverty affords by freeing the religious’ heart not only from the attachment to earthly property but even more so from all selfish and affective “appropriation”. The binomial “povertyhumility”, i.e. “minority” inseparable. It is not enough being juridically poor, i.e. using things on a full dependence from the abbess, but the total detachment must be lived positively, as truly poor in deed and spirit. The personal disappropriation being the fruit of “common life” by which whatsoever the sister receives, whatever security is handed over to be invested on the whole community’s benefit, each receiving from it whatever she may need. Franciscan poverty does not only condition the life of each sister personally, but the community as such is as well obliged to live up real poverty and give witness to the same. Therefore it is not permitted to receive real estate, perpetual bequests nor fixed income. These prohibitions do not concern those professing Urban IV’s Rule. But it is not opposite to the Rule to receive subsidies and pensions of social security, like any poor, when the need so requires or social laws grant them. 134
The normal means of livelihood and subsistence will be labor, and when the fruit of labor and the rest of revenues is not enough, the sisters, within the limits of necessity, may have recourse to the Lord’s table, i.e. the benefactors. As true poor, they must feel solidarity with the rest of the poor who daily experience the anxieties of poverty and the humiliation of their social condition. The Constitutions add, as is natural, some concrete norms on the use and administration of goods, taking into account the limits and exigencies of poverty, austerity and simplicity that should stand out in buildings, furniture, utensils, instruments of work, etc. The communities ought to be open to the needs of the Church and of the world even though experiencing their own wants, and are to be even ready to share their own resources with other communities of the Order that might be in need(Gen CC, art. 32-39, 144159; Cap CC, 116-131). Footnotes to Chapter 9: 1. The Notification of the Death of St. Clare, 21-22.
2. J.F. Godet, “Les Escrits”, pp. 196-199.
3. I. Omaecheverria, “Escritos”, pp. 209-216. 4. I. Omaecheverria, “Escritos”, p. 54 ff.
POVERTY AND LABOR
• The “Grace” of Working
Honest Work and Common Benefit The Alms, A Subsidiary Means
• Sharing in the Fruit of Labor
CHAPTER VII, 1-5 Let the sisters to whom the Lord has given the grace of working work faithfully and devotedly after the Hour of Terce at work that pertains to a virtuous life and the common good. 2They must do this in such a way that, while they banish idleness, the enemy of the soul, they do not extinguish the spirit of holy prayer and devotion to which all other things of our earthly existence must contribute. 3 At the Chapter, in the presence of all, the abbess or her vicar is bound to assign the work of her hands that each one should perform. 4Let the same be done if alms have been sent by someone for the needs of the sisters, so that a prayer may be offered for them in common. 5Let all such things be distributed for the common good by the abbess or her vicar with the advice of the discreets.
The “Grace” of Working
To practice voluntary poverty by eluding the general law of working would be to distort essentially the evangelical concept of work. According to Vatican II, “human work” … proceeds from the human person who as it were puts a personal seal on the things of nature and reduces them to her or his will. By their work people ordinarily provide for themselves and their family, associate with others as their brothers and sisters, and serve them. They can exercise genuine charity and be partners in 137
the work of bringing God’s creation to perfection. Moreover, we believe by faith that through the offering of work to God, humanity associates with the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, whose labor with his hands at Nazareth greatly added to the dignity of work.” (GS, 67). Jesus joined poverty and labor not only in the shop at Nazareth during his hidden life but during his public life as well when renouncing together with his disciples a fixed means of subsistence. It was the work then for the proclamation of the kingdom: journeys, curing the sick … all that exhausting fatigue that the evangelists mention more than once. For this work, Jesus did not look for a direct remuneration though teaching that also at apostolic task, “the laborer is worth his reward”. It was advantageous to the kingdom itself that the spokesmen of the Gospel would “give free of charge what they themselves received free of charge”. The remuneration would have to come out of the gratitude from those who had received the benefit, and out of their generosity held up that economic fund, ever meager, whose trustee was the Iscariot. Out of that purse emerges what is for the purchase of whatever was necessary and also to help the poor (Jn 13, 29). At his first Rule, St. Francis presents labor as the normal means of subsistence and the manner of practicing poverty – minority, by serving mankind, and of practicing fraternal friendship with the lepers. St. Francis refers especially to manual labor belittled at that time, without excluding though other activities. All of them should fill up the general condition: “not to quench the spirit of holy prayer and devotion to which all other things of our earthly existence must serve”. Work should not be looked upon as a hindrance but rather as a means of communing with God. St. Clare who almost literally reproduced St. Francis’ decreed Rule, insists on the requisite of a work done “faithfully and devotedly”. To work “faithfully” is an 138
expression of biblical reminiscence (Jn 5, 15) a text quoted too by Vatican II to point out the awareness of responsibility and precision every chore is to be done with when considered as a calling. To this same value of calling refer both St. Francis and St. Clare with the expression “grace of working”. Human faculties, personal preparation, ability and spirit of initiative are as many of God’s gifts, which no one should selfishly “appropriate”, but should be returned back to God by setting them all to the brethren’s service. The “grace of working” may be different in each sister since God’s gifts are different too. What really matters is that each one develop to the maximum and turn into useful service his own resources of nature and grace. Nothing is more beautiful in a religious community than the helping of one another by all its members through a right distribution of activities, attending both to personal qualities and to “common benefit”. That is the way to work “faithfully”. But it is also necessary to accompany work with prayer. Each specific activity has its own time. While we are given to prayer, our whole attention is directed towards God, leaving aside any other occupation; while at work, our attention is focused on the perfection of our work. But work, no matter how intense it might be, does not draw us away from God; it is just working with Him. The art of turning work into prayer, as we read Brother Rufinus used to do, depends on the degree of intimacy with God each one enjoys, i.e. on the advancement of ones prayer life. To work “devotedly” is working under God’s gaze. Diligently, lovingly, joyfully, in delicate harmony with the sisters and in the spirit of service.
Honest Work and of Common Benefit
St. Clare points out the time on which work is to start at the contemplative fraternity: “after the Hour of Terce”. There was then at San Damiano a style of horarium for monastic work and distribution of activities. The Rule does not go down into other details. It only points out that the work the sisters carry out ought to be “honest and of common benefit”. St. Francis speaks also at his first Rule and Testament about this condition of “honesty”, not in the sense the expression was given to , as if there were some work worthier than others, but on some activities not suitable to persons committed to exemplary lives and spirit of service.. In the case of a contemplative community it would be less suitable to that “honest work” that would be an obstacle to devoting oneself to prayer and withdrawal from the world. Or the kind that would turn the convent into a factory materializing the day’s timetable and the appraising of persons by their productivity. The time schedule and the rhythm of work must be subservient to the wellness of the spirit and the serene equilibrium of fraternal rapport of each sister. Work of “common benefit”: this expression is distinct to St. Clare’s Rule and deserves being taken into account. When a contemplative community lives on fixed income, without the need of remunerated work, and more so when the difference between “choir sisters” and “sisters of obedience” assigns to the latter the common domestic chores, there exists the danger of wasting time on occupations of scarce or none beneficial; or even worse of falling into “idleness, the enemy of the soul”. From of old, the great worry at monastic communities was what St. 140
Bonaventure terms ”monstrous state between contemplative and active life”1 A slovenly and too exhausting work is bad, but idleness is even worse. St. Clare follows here a precise logic. She had resolutely rejected all possessions and anything that seemingly have something to do with fixed income. Neither was she ready to solve economic security through the contributions of the candidates, as we saw. As a consequence, labor was not only a means to ward off idleness but the sine qua non means of livelihood in a community that, as such, was and wanted ever to be willingly poor. Thus the formula poverty-work remained firmly assured. Jacques of Vitry, who observed closely the kind of life of the Brothers and Sisters Minors, wrote in 1216 regarding the latter: “They live near the cities in various hospices. They accept nothing, but live from the work of their hands”.2 Clare set the example of assiduity at work. “She never wanted to be idle at any time; even during the time of her illness, she made herself rise up in bed and spin.”(Proc., VI, 14; I, 11). The works fitting for women had at that time a very narrow field. Outside fancy work, spinning, knitting, embroidery, needlework, hardly any other could be thought about, at least within the cloister. Besides this remunerated labor, the Rule foresees farming the small piece of land next to the monastery, but exclusively the purpose is to have the necessary vegetables for the community. Things have changed a lot today. On one hand, labor typically for women is no longer sufficiently paid on account of industrialization and advanced means of production. On the other hand, the presence of women at multiple posts of labor in modern society has opened up many new possibilities for cloistered sisters. The vast majority of communities are finding activities more or less productive, enough at least for the limited needs of a life in 141
poverty. The importance that recent papal documents give to the useful work of sisters as means of livelihood and testimony to the Christian world is well known.3 From this point of view it can be said that it is much easier today than at Clare’s time living without fixed income and entrusting to labor the material subsistence. At last it has been proven that work of common good, done as a family, with the generous cooperation of all the sisters, without selfish individualism and unjustified absences, is an excellent means of fraternal understanding.
The Alms, a Subsidiary Means
Jesus had taught his disciples to depend on the loving providence of God that never abandons those who forsake everything for his kingdom. St. Francis termed that providence as “God’s table” ever set for the poor. “When we are not paid for our work – he said in his Testament – let us have recourse to the Lord’s table, begging alms from door to door.” The Saint establishes always the same norm: first of all, work; if work is not enough, alms. But in no way must alms substitute work. Begging as a means for living at the cost of others, is certainly anti-social and anti-Gospel. It is only when one is unable to work or totally gives himself to men’s service at activities not directly remunerative – as for example, time devoted to prayer or divine praises – that he has the right to solicit the charity of others. That was exactly the meaning of that clause at the eighth chapter of the Rule” “let them confidently send for alms”. To go out to beg for alms was the responsibility of the extern sisters and also, as proved by several historical testimonies, of the Friars Minor in charge of the spiritual 142
and material assistance of the Poor Ladies (Proc., I, 15; III, 13). In general, nowadays it is no longer a matter of “sending “ for alms. There are other ways of having recourse at the Lord’s table, i.e. of soliciting the benefactor’s good will. But the principle still stands: only when work does not render enough and on condition of a real need. To do otherwise – St. Francis teaches - is tantamount to becoming a “thief of alms” and depriving the poor of what actually belongs to them.(l Per, 111). Moreover, unfit means or those not consistent with Christian sincerity that could hurt the good name of religious contemplatives are to be avoided.
Sharing in the Fruit of Labor
Poverty joined to work must serve to strengthen fraternal life. For that reason, St. Clare wishes that manual work done by the sisters be distributed at the community gathering “in the presence of all”, by the abbess or her vicaress. It refers no doubt to the garments and other articles for the use of the sisters.4 The only title a sister can adduce to benefit from the fruit of common work is need, and this is not the same for all. That is the criterion that, as we saw, the Rule establishes at the second chapter regarding clothes. It coincides with that of St. Francis’ Rule: “Let each one with confidence manifest his need.” The same has to be done – St. Clare adds – “if alms have been sent by someone for the needs of the sisters”. And, as if she could foresee the abuses of favoritism and whims that may damage fraternal equality, the Saint insists: “Let all such things be distributed for the ‘common good’
by the abbess or her vicaress with the advice of the discreets.” This is another example of the importance the Saint was giving to that essential of fraternal life, namely, community openness together with the sense of responsibility on the part of all the sisters, something that cannot be achieved without a fine sensitivity to the requirements of justice on the part of the superior: “in the presence of all”. Apart from this, the “little plant of St. Francis” did nothing but to abide by that sort of lyrical last will the seraphic Father had left the Poor Ladies on those very days when he wrote too the Canticle of Brother Sun. He composed for them “some few words with song”, thereby exhorting them among other things, to provide with discretion their bodily needs through the alms God might give them.5 The Constitutions consider work as inherent to human condition, as a means to balance spiritual life by avoiding idleness, and as a “grace” that the sister must not render useless. It is inseparable from the life of professed poverty and humility; it is the ordinary and more honorable means of providing for the common needs, and it is an expression of fraternal service. Even if alms willingly offered and the aid of persons were enough, the useful work is to be sought after. Work done in common is to be usually preferred; the sisters are to work with fidelity and devotion at God’s eyes, carrying out with care and neatness the orders entrusted to them and avoiding the dispersal of energy at activities of personal interest not consistent with poverty and obedience. Regarding the acceptance of work, care should be held that they be compatible with contemplative life and with the sisters’ capabilities. Those that overload too much the working day or that engross the faculties or require an excessive preoccupation and attention of mind should be 144
rejected. Work that is related with the spreading of religion or the promotion of divine worship or those that help the destitute are to be preferred. Regarding the distribution of domestic chores, the personal natural aptitudes and the preparation of each sister are to be considered, providing for a convenient technical improvement, always under the sign of obedience. There may be one in charge, under the abbess supervision, of regulating and coordinating manual work. There is also a special recommendation on the “value of time” of whose usage each sister will have to give an account to the Lord, since it is an opportunity granted us to “let all our actions be for the good of everybody, and especially of those who belong to the household of the faith”. (Gal 6, 10) Gen Cc art. 109-115; Cap CC, 132-136.
Footnotes to Chapter 10:
“Epist. Off. I; Opera omnia”, VIII, 469). I. Omaecheverria, “Escritos”, p.36. Pius XII: Constit. “Sponsa Christi”, Nov. 21, 1950; PC, 14. The original Latin text is usually interpreted as if talking about the distribution of the work each one of the sisters is to carry out by charge of the abbess; such a meaning though does not seem to agree with the grammatical construction, specially if we take into account what follows about the distribution of alms received, preceded by an “idem fiat”, “let the same be done”. (Where is footnote # 5?)