Celebration of 800 years of Poor Clare life

11 Aug 2012

Celebration of 800 years of Poor Clare life

Earlier this week those of us who entered the seminary in Clonliffe College fifty years ago, in 1962, got together to share memories and friendships.   We very quickly began to think about how things had changed over the past fifty years.  In the first place we saw how we ourselves have changed, but we also noted how the Seminary had changed and how much the Church had changed, especially since in 1962, one week after we had entered the seminary, the Second Vatican Council opened and the face of Irish Catholicism was about to change. 1962 was a different world.

While I was reflecting on the changes in fifty years, my mind was distracted as I prepared for this celebration of 800 years of Poor Clare Life.  I began to think of the world of 800 years ago.  The shape of Europe was changing. Here in Ireland the Norman invasion was beginning to be consolidated.   Dublin Castle was being built and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral was established. It was a time of political and religious ferment.  One Archbishop of Dublin died in 1212 and both he and the one who was chosen to succeed him were non-Irish. Saint Lawrence O’Toole, who died in 1180, had in fact been succeeded by an Englishman John Cumin, who died in 1212, and then by Henry of London.  Both were appointed because of their loyalty to the Norman King and both had supported the King in his conflicts with Saint Thomas à Becket, the martyred Archbishop of Canterbury.  Though good men, they owed their position in many ways to their political allegiance.

Just as here in Dublin, right across Europe and in the greater world there was political ferment in that early thirteenth century.  And the Church was embroiled in that ferment. Popes and Emperors clashed and then made alliances as seemed politically expedient.  Crusades were underway in the midst of the changing political landscape of the Middle East.

As we look back, however, we can see that many of the names of the leading figures prominent at that period are known today only to diligent historians.  Many of the significant events of that time barely merit footnotes in our history books, rather than being remembered as events destined to mark and change history.

Inevitably one asks “how is it that, different to those almost forgotten political personalities and movements, that simple movement of piety and spirituality which Saint Clare of Assisi started in 1212 has quietly yet consistently persisted and developed and found its place not just in history in general but in the concrete changes and challenges and conflicts of history, local and worldwide, over eight centuries?”

What is the mystery of the work of Saint Clare and of those women who have been captured by her message in times so different over the centuries down until ours?  What is it about that message which has faced and challenged and survived and has come out renewed and refreshed in the face of all the different models of “modernity” of successive centuries and still has meaning and appeal in our Society which calls itself post modern?

Why is it that in the midst of our modern Dublin and Ireland, with all its development, that this small monastery, dwarfed now by elegant buildings symbols of contemporary power and wealth, can be a real force of attraction for men and women in their day-to-day lives fully immersed in the mechanics of our modernity?

There is probably no need today for me to attempt to answer that question for those of you gathered here.  You are here not just because you were invited, but because you have personally experienced how this oasis of quiet and peace and prayerfulness can affect one’s life at moments of doubt or anxiety or even in the heights of apparent prosperity and fulfilment.  This small monastery and what goes on within its walls is a striking challenge to all of us to reflect on what life means and what is important in life.

The paradox is that these Sisters, like Saint Clare, have retreated from the world but have never been irrelevant to the world and indeed may be even more relevant to the world today than ever.   This monastery is not a curious remnant of past history.  It is a challenge to contemporary society.  It is a challenge because it is an invitation, an invitation which can be freely accepted, rather than a fashion or curious feel-good niche with which it is nice to be occasionally associated.

When Saint Clare was only 15 year of age, her parents wanted her to marry a young and wealthy man and thus, through a marriage, consolidate their power and influence.  But something else was happening in the mind and heart of Clare.  Clare was always devoted to prayer as a child.  The Lord was speaking to her and she was – like many of us – waiting for that special moment of invitation to something different and unexpected.  At 18 year of age she began to hear of the preaching of Saint Francis and that preaching began to change her life.

There is certainly something fascinating to see the staying power and strength of something which began in the greatest simplicity outstaying the many fashions of power and prosperity.  But the message of Saint Clare is not simply a nice fairy tale with a happy ending.  Saint Clare’s work did not just start in simplicity.  Part of her charism was her determination to see that her message would retain that simplicity.  She resisted any attempts, even by the Pope, to water-down the original call she received to radical poverty and prayerfulness.  Today it may seem hard to combine the terms simplicity and radical.  In a society in which everything seems transitory, radical life-long commitment is counter cultural.  Yet is precisely that concept of radical poverty and simplicity which has marked Saint Clare’s mission and her charism right until today.  It is precisely consistently adhering to that concept of radical poverty and simplicity which has enabled the charism of Saint Clare to survive right until today.

The radical simplicity of Saint Clare was the not just the fruit of stage-managing or spin-doctoring.    It is not just any simplicity.  It is a simplicity which reflects Jesus Christ himself and draws its strength and nourishment from Jesus himself.   Without that nourishment the charism of Saint Clare could not have survived.  Cut off from the life-flow of Jesus – as our Gospel reading reminds us – we wither and become useless.

Francis and Clare were fascinated by the Jesus of the nativity crib.  Jesus, who was Lord of power and might, chose to be born and to live in simplicity away from all the signs of power and influence with which all of us are tempted to use as props in our lives, very often to avoid facing the real image of ourselves.

It was in his humility that Jesus taught us who God is.  The charism of Saint Clare has survived and will continue to survive because of the fidelity of her followers to that Jesus, who is the source of life which brings fruitfulness to the branches.

Clare’s simplicity was founded on love, but not any love, but the love of Jesus Christ himself.  We remain in Christ’s love in the manner in which we love as Jesus loved and as the Father loved Jesus.  The message of Jesus’ love is not just fleeting sentimentality which may or may not endure the realities of life.  It is about allowing the love of Jesus to challenge us radically and change us, day after day.

To be enveloped in that love is the fruit of prayer.  Prayer allows us to enter into the very interior love of God.   It is in recognizing the lordship and total otherness of God that we realize that everything in the world is gift and is not ours to exploit but to ponder and use according to God’s design.  Prayer changes our relationship with all our brothers and sisters and with all of creation.

What does our celebration here today say to us about the future of the Church in our society?  What does the message and the calling and the life of these sisters and of our fascination with their charism tells us about the direction the Church should be taking.

Certainly being a Christian today can never involve a shallow flight from the realities and the complexities of the modern word.  Indeed we need a Church in Ireland which presents the message and the teaching of Jesus Christ in a manner which responds to the challenges adults face regarding their faith in today’s world.  Formation in faith is a life-long challenge. This is a radical challenge for the Church in Ireland at a time of rapid change.  Radical is a difficult world.  You can be radical for the length of the television talk-show and impress.  Radical faith is a much deeper.   Lifelong commitment in the faith will always take place within contemporary culture but will always also be counter cultural.

I said earlier that Saint Clare’s mission began when she realized that Lord was speaking to her and she was – like many of us – waiting for that special moment of invitation to something different and unexpected.  The early thirteenth century was one of those moments in which through the true simplicity of faith the Church began to purified from its complex embroilment with politics.  The preaching and the lifestyle of Francis and Clare called many back to the essential faith in Jesus and to true reform of the Church. The Church is not an ideology of choice, but a gift from Jesus, which we cannot construct according tour categories.

As we celebrate their charism 800 years later we pray that the Church will again find its strength in the simplicity that they lived.  We pray that in the upcoming Year of Faith we may learn to draw from knowing Jesus more closely the ability to witness to the hope that faith in Jesus brings to us as individuals and as a Church in a society which like Clare is waiting for the invitation to something different and unexpected.

May this Monastery continue, as it has for over one hundred years, to be a place which serves as a catalyst for such renewal in prayer and simplicity and may the Sisters witness to the traditions of Saint Clare and Saint Collette for many generations to come.  Dublin would be all the poorer without the witness of radical poverty that this monastery and its traditions represent.  For that witness and tradition we give thanks to God.