the beginning of the Franciscan Movement of the
thirteenth century and the inauguration of the
Franciscan Order, which is the largest in the Church
today and which God himself promised Francis would
endure to the end of time.
of Clare? She was beautiful. She was rich. She could not
preach with Francis in the streets. She could not beg
her bread from door to door as his followers did. She
could not be a sign of contradiction to the world in the
same manner that he was. So Clare went to him and told
him of God’s summons in her soul, asking him what to do.
Francis told her. And that was the beginning of his
Second Franciscan Order, the cloistered Poor Ladies who
were later to be known familiarly as the Poor Clares.
Assisi’s loveliest debutante of 1212 want to lock
herself up in a cloister? Why did laughing, singing,
sought-after Clare want to live in silence and prayer?
Why did a girl whose home was a castle desire to be
poor, to live by the work of her hands and the alms of
the faithful? What the world calls “everything,” Clare
assuredly had. It was not enough. Her heart was too
great to be filled with less than the whole. She simply
plunged herself into the Heart of God. There she could
fulfill her destiny. There she would be another sign of
contradiction to those who look for happiness everywhere
except in God.
was scarcely a social misfit. She was definitely not
neurotic, nor was her pretty sister, Agnes, who became
her first follower. It required an extraordinary
fortitude for two thirteenth-century girls to stand firm
against their raging relatives, their indignant friends,
their baffled suitors. It takes the same courage today,
not to “talk down,” but to live down the objections of
those who demand that talented young girls do something
more “useful,” than loving God and being His
immediately, directly and utterly.
Certainly Clare was not a frustrated young woman. She
could have had everything the world calls good, but it
was not good enough for her. She preferred what God
calls everlasting good and realized her own full
capacities as so great a woman could never otherwise
have done. Lazy? A cloister sinecure? Clare had grown up
surrounded by servants, but she wrote in her Rule that
her nuns were to consider work as “a grace.” And they
were expected to use the grace persistently.
closer a soul draws to God, the more entirely she is
dedicated to Him, the more she radiates God. The poet
has declared that Our Lady “had this one work to do /
let all God’s grace shine through.”
the contemplative Poor Clare. Her mission is to be
God’s, to let Him shine through her on all the darkness
of misery which shrouds the world. And as in St. Clare’s
age, so in our own, people understand this without any
need to reason about it – the common people, the
suffering, the sinners. They flocked to Clare’s poor
little monastery in the thirteenth century to ask her
prayers for their sick, their prodigals, and their
friends. In our century, the monastery doorbell is rung
by the lonely, the discouraged, the despairing. The
monastery mailbox holds wistful appeals for compassion
and understanding, pathetic confessions of mistakes.
people take it for granted that the Poor Clares,
cloistered from the world, are closer to its heartaches
and miseries than any others simply because they live
hidden in the embrace of God. To understand the
contemplative vocation properly is to know that its
apostolate is universal and timeless.
Clare has stepped apart from the world and has thus got
a better perspective on it. She has left the world not
because she hates it, but because she wants to love more
purely and more realistically.
the wars of nations and the scourge of evil leaders of
men are her concern, but the small bickerings that
threaten the peace of the family down the street.
not beg the light and grace of the Holy Spirit only for
the workings of the United Nations, but for that one
little boy in Schenectady whose mother is worried that
he may flunk in arithmetic. St. Francis of Assisi was a
great contemplative but God asked him to sacrifice his
love of silence and retirement to preach the Gospel, to
let his contemplation overflow into his active
apostolate. St. Clare of Assisi had a burning missionary
heart, but God asked her to channel all its energies
into the love and reparation of the cloister.
mission field was the whole world, though she would
never see the world. Together their lives were a unit,
and each the perfect complement of the other. It needs a
great heart to fashion a contemplative, a capacity for
love so wide and deep that only God can fill it, a
missionary zeal so ardent that no fewer than all the
souls in the world can satisfy it.
Christian motherhood and consecrated virginity form a
marvelous entity. Each is a fulfillment, and each a
symbol. The Sacrament of Matrimony symbolizes the union
of Christ with Holy Church. Consecrated virginity
symbolizes the union of Christ with the souls of the
blessed. Each is a positive thing, and virginity is no
more a mere negation of motherhood than human maternity
is a mere negation of virginity.
Clare understands that her solemn vow of chastity is not
just a pledge to abstain from the pleasures of carnal
love, nor a promise to refrain from normal affective
fulfillment, but a positive flaming, soaring commitment
of her womanhood to a Divine Lover.
her consecrated virginity lifts her to a plane above
carnal love, her affective responses are only the more
tender for being the more purified. Womanhood is
fulfilled quite as perfectly in a life of virginal
chastity as in human marriage. And that is why the
Church’s ancient and elaborate ceremonial for the
consecration of virgins has for its climax the placing
of a wedding ring on the finger of the newly professed
nun. “Receive this ring that marks you as a bride of
God.” She is wedded to Christ. And the union is fecund
cloistered Poor Clare is destined for the spiritual
maternity of countless souls. The more perfect her life
of love and reparation, the more fruitful is her
motherhood of souls. Consecrated virginity generates
tenderness and compassion beyond what carnal love can
attain, simply because it is not limited. Virginal love
partakes of the boundlessness of Christ’s love for
souls. A Poor Clare’s Divine Lover has a heart of
infinite Love. It is to be expected that her own
capacity for love will go on increasing as she grows in
union with Him.
nothing stifling to the human personality in consecrated
virginity. The Poor Clare’s vow of chastity is not only
an oblation, but also a sublimation. Her love is
released on a plane above the relations of conjugal love
in spiritual maternity. Her ambition is to mother all
the souls in the world.
Postulants are received between the ages of eighteen and
thirty, with exceptions sometimes made where there is
good reason. Experience has long proved that any normal
woman of average strength and good health, free from
disease or serious physical defect, can observe the Rule
of St. Clare without detriment to her health. Indeed,
the regularity of the life including simple foods and
outdoor work is conducive to good health.
school education is required. A college education or
experience in some specialized work can be an asset. No
financial dowry is required, as this was never the mind
of St. Francis or St. Clare; but a young woman is
expected to bring the clothing and small accessories she
will need as a postulant, if she is able to do so.
is ever refused admittance for lack of means, but
postulants are to bring a willing heart, a teachable
mind, and a pliable character. These are the desirable
dispositions. Progressively to fathom the contemplative
vocation requires the full effort of mind, heart and
will. The ability to be taught is of itself a talent –
meant to be multiplied.
stirs in the heart of a young woman called to the
cloister? Or, how does she know she is called? The
answers are as numerous and varied as those who are
called. Maybe she read about the Poor Clares. Perhaps
she visited at the parlor grille of a monastery, or saw
a Profession ceremony. It may have been that she knelt
in the public chapel and heard the chants of the Liturgy
of the Hours, the Divine Office, flowing on and on in a
river of prayer. Or, it may be that she knows next to
nothing about the Poor Clares. And yet that small
insistence in the soul remains. I? Impossible! Or -- is
vocation is a free gift of God. It is offered, not
forced. God invites, but He does not compel; and
eternity will reveal how many vocations have been lost
or disregarded. The rich young man in the Gospel was
assuredly called, but he did not respond. He had a
vocation, but he chose not to follow it. The Gospel says
that “… he went away sad.” (Mt. 19:22). Doubtless he
remained sad for the rest of his life.
one protect her vocation? Obviously, only with the
strength of Christ who is offered daily on the altar at
Holy Mass, only with the Bread of the strong which is
Holy Communion. God does not choose a young woman
because she is good, but because He is so good. The one
who thinks herself qualified to be a great success in
the cloister is probably the one who will fail, whereas
the one who is confused and humbled at the idea that God
should look towards such poor material as herself for
the fashioning of a contemplative nun is likely to
wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it
makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where
it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the
Spirit.” (Jn. 3:8). God is the master of His works and
His plans. Often we cannot know what He is doing or why
He is doing it. But He knows. It is enough to be
convinced of that, and to listen for His voice.
Listening is a great and delicate art, and scarcely to
be learned in the midst of clangor.
Spirit speaks in a whisper. It is all too easy to drown
out His voice, but in the quiet watches of the soul, His
invitation is heard.
the bud, I give the flower.” St. Clare love to call
herself the “little plant” of St. Francis. Each
postulant is a new little plant of Francis and Clare.
She is part of the perennial springtime of the
Franciscan order, and in her religious life the
Franciscan ideal will have one more flowering. “And not
only about us did our most blessed Father prophesy those
things, but also about the others who were to come
afterwards in the holy vocation in which the Lord has
called us,” declared St. Clare. From heaven, her
watchful love beams down upon her youngest daughters,
her new postulants.
Clare left her castle home in the blackness of night
that Palm Sunday of 1212, she was setting out to become
the first of St. Francis’ “Poor Ladies,” nuns dedicated
to a life of prayer and penance, nuns most intimately
united with the Divine Lover in the silence of the
cloister. She dressed for the occasion. For such a
bridegroom, she wore her finest gown, the rarest of her
many jewels. And then, because they were only symbols of
reality, she cast them all away. Francis cut her lovely
hair, preserved to this day in the precious reliquary in
Assisi. The tangled silken ropes of that long hair give
their mute testimony to holocaust: her crowning glory
laid down at the feet of her Prince.
Postulancy in the Order of St. Clare today is a year of
preparation for that kind of total giving which will be
climaxed in solemn Profession some six years later.
noviceship of one or two years which follows upon
postulancy is a time of refining and deeper evaluation,
of profounder preparation and expectation. Now the life
of prayer and penance is embraced in fuller detail. And
because a life of prayer and penance is a life which
generates joy and peace which the world cannot bestow or
understand or take away, the day that a postulant
assumes a more specifically religious garb similar to
that of the professed nuns and becomes a novice, is a
day of special rejoicing in the monastery. The Order of
St. Clare has one more young penitent eager to give
herself to God and to spend herself for souls.
Christ crucified? For the love of mankind. For the same
reason, the Poor Clare dedicates herself to a life of
prayer and penance. By a strange irony, pleasures
quickly turn to ashes, and leave only sorrow and
frustration in the heart, but sacrifice spreads a
perfume of joy in the soul and over the world.
During the time of noviceship, the young Poor Clare is
preparing for the great day of her vows. She learns the
enduring paradoxes of religious life: how one must lose
one’s life to find it, be humbled in order to be
exalted, become as a little child to reach spiritual
adulthood. The springtime season looks always to the
summering of the fuller commitment which is the making
of temporary vows.
has set a seal upon my face that I should admit no other
lover but Him,” sings the young professed Poor Clare.
First Profession of vows is made for a period of three
years; but in the heart of Christ’s bride, it is already
made forever. No one makes provisional offering of
herself to God. No one promises to be His - for a while.
Holy Church wisely legislates that temporary vows
precede the total commitment of the religious by solemn
vows, but she does not legislate for the heart. The
young professed is free to whisper to Christ in the
inner court of her being, “Forever!” On the day of her
solemn vows, she will make this a public declaration to
be accepted and sealed by the Church. In exchanging the
white veil of the novice for the black veil of the
professed nun, the young Poor Clare assumes her full
responsibilities as a member of her Order: prayer,
penance, the spiritual motherhood of souls.
bring a marvelous enrichment. One is truly bound to
Christ now with a fourfold and very dear covenant. To
the ordinary three vows of religion, the cloistered Poor
Clare adds a fourth, that of enclosure. She promises to
live in obedience, in poverty, in virginal chastity, and
in enclosure. Some monasteries have extern sisters to
whom is entrusted the outside business of the community
and who are permitted to leave the monastery when it is
necessary. These do not make the vow of enclosure
although they are the special guardians of the cloister
by the dedicated and self-sacrificing service they
render, and they share fully in the family life of the
community. In other monasteries, the external business
of the door and telephone is attended by cloistered nuns
appointed for this task, as is provided by the Church.
Separated from the world, the Poor Clare is in a better
position to love it selflessly and to compassionate its
miseries. She has a spiritual perspective on suffering
and on souls. And, as the bride of Christ, she has
direct access to His listening ear. Being entirely His,
she knows He is entirely hers.
prays with the complete confidence of one loved,
cherished, chosen. She has enriched her own womanhood by
the act of oblation, and is secure in the possession of
a Lover more beautiful than all the sons of men.
Christ is a Lover who will never fail her, never desert
her, never grow tired of her. Unlike a woman entering
into human wedlock, the novice making the marriage vows
of religion can perfectly forecast the future as far as
her Bridegroom is concerned. He will be forever
faithful, loving, devoted to her. With His grace, she
will be so to Him. And out of this union of God and
creature will issue blessings for all the world.
persons, the day ends when they retire at midnight. For
Poor Clares, the day begins when they rise at midnight.
first of the canonical hours of the Divine Office is
chanted at midnight while the world around is sleeping
or perhaps sinning. Sin loves the cover of night. Prayer
goes out into the backstreets of the night to seek out
sinners and reclaim them. The night Office is a torch
held in the hands of the Poor Clare as her love goes
looking down the lanes of the world for the lost, the
straying, the despairing, the suffering, the dying.
this Divine Office, of which the midnight prayer is the
first hour? Even among the laity, the breviary is today
regaining its place of honor, the place it held in
medieval times when kings and queens retired to their
private chapels to read it, or generals of armies paced
up and down as they recited it before battle.
is to her priests and contemplative nuns that Holy
Church entrusts the Liturgy of the Hours of the Divine
Office to be recited officially in her name. Thus Pope
Pius XII, in his Apostolic Constitution Sponsa Christi,
said: “The Church deputes nuns alone among the women consecrated to God for the public prayer which is
offered to God in her name … and these she binds under
grave obligation by law according to their Constitutions
to perform this prayer by reciting daily the canonical
Columba Marmion has written powerfully of the grandeur
of this Divine Office, explaining how all things are of
value only in such measure as they procure God’s glory.
And while some works, such as literary work, teaching,
sweeping, cooking, nursing, working in the garden, have
no direct relationship with God’s glory, although they
give Him glory indirectly when transformed by the love
and the intention of the one who performs them, there
are other works which procure God’s glory directly.
“Such,” says Dom Columba, “are Holy Mass and the Divine
Office. From God’s point of view, these works surpass
all other works.” It is to them that Poor Clares are
which re-creates a nun for more prayer is also the
complement of prayer which ennobles and gives
significance to her work. Whether she bakes bread or
writes books, sweeps the cloister or paints in oils,
patches habits or plays the organ, the Poor Clare
strives to remain united to God. All or any of these
works have meaning only insofar as they are the
functions of her obedience, the sacrifice of her hands
or mind, the overflow of her prayer. “The prayer of an
obedient person,” said St. Colette of Corbie, “is worth
more than one hundred thousand prayers of a disobedient
thus that a basketful of weeds pulled up from the
cloister garden may shine as gold and curl as incense in
the sight of the Lord.
Clare works because she is poor, and the poor must
always work hard. She works because she is obedient, and
all her works are given to her in obedience. She works
because she is vowed to chastity, and work is the
safeguard of chastity.
works because she is enclosed to pray for the world and
to do penance for the world. And she knows that work was the
first of the penances imposed by God on fallen man. “By
the sweat of your face shall you get bread to eat.”
Clare is glad to do so; and what her own works
will not supply, she knows that the alms of the
faithful who understand her life will supply.
“Let them confidently send for alms,” wrote St.
Clare in her Rule. “Nor should they feel
hesitant, since the Lord made himself poor in
this world for us.”
of work being “a grace” was a novel one in St. Clare’s
thirteenth century. It is more novel in our century. A
thousand laborsaving devices, bewildering arrays of
switches, push buttons, and foot pedals seem to be
constituted to abolish work. Shorter hours, higher
Clares would like longer hours for accomplishing all the
works of a monastic labor schedule. Wages? St. Francis
was mockingly asked to sell a drop of his sweat. The
Saint smilingly refused the prospective buyer, saying
that his sweat was already sold to God for a very great
price. Compensations? An eternal reward for the small
work done in obedience could not be considered meager.
And work is itself a reward. Work is good. Work is a
grace. To season both prayer and work, there is the
daily hour of recreation.
It is a
hidden life, this life of the cloister. It is a replica
of the life of the God-Man who for thirty years worked
in a carpenter shop and prayed on the mountaintop. And
that is why the contemplative life is at once the most
limpidly simple of all lives, and the most mysterious.
"Amen, Amen, without ever turning back!"