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Letter to Lady Clare from an imperfect Franciscan Sister

Basilica di Santa Chiara, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

August 11, 2022

Dear Lady Clare,

As an imperfect Franciscan Sister, I extend my gratitude for the inspiration and care you provide to me and my Franciscan family on this, your feast day — 769 years since you died in that humble abode at San Damiano, outside the walls of beautiful Assisi, Italy.

I am tired today: physically and emotionally drained — feeling a foggy brain, droopy eyes. I am aware of my imperfection. I am distracted by the messy state of my beautiful and comfortable bedroom after travels: my suitcase unpacked, my desk a mess. Compared to the austerity of your sleeping mat in that dorm with your Poor Ladies long ago, my bedroom reminds me that I am not living as simply as I could be; I have not embraced the privilege of poverty that you insisted upon in your rule. (Any guest to The Fireplace or St. Rose Convent — my two homes — is likely to agree: Even though I technically own nothing as a modern vowed woman religious, I know that I do not live in material poverty. I feel my shortcomings.)

I planned to care for my bedroom and space and spirit last evening, to tidy my things and rest. I have been feeling the need to do some re-ordering, praying, journaling: to tend to my soul and steward my stuff. But as you likely know (I sense you in this house, tending to us as a humble mother), I got a phone call and found myself in the business of tending to a guest in need, assuring to their comfort, health, and safety.

Myself, my comforts and my needs: not as important as The Other. This feels like messy Gospel living to me: the provocative power of the cross becoming a mirror, as you wrote and modeled. When I gaze upon Christ upon the cross, I see how I am called to give of myself, my time and my comforts beyond what may be sensible. I see a challenge to stay rooted in a faith; a trust that God’s redemptive love will remain glorious. I see myself and every other human I know, broken and longing for evidence that the paschal mystery is as ordinary, amazing and sacred as the sunrise; we expect to rise up from the dying (or what feels like death) restored, renewed and ready to give and die some more. (Life after death: isn’t that we are celebrating — partly — on this day, your feast, Sister Clare?)

Yet, when I think of how my plans often pivot, I’m tempted to hold your lifestyle up to my own and examine the gaps. I imagine that your days, time and space were always ordered and your prayer life steady and strong. Yet I know that you, too, were a radical host, responsive and bold. The stories of you feeding the hungry and confronting soldiers (halting an attack by the power of the Blessed Sacrament) demonstrate this to me.

And I know you as unconventional, like me: willing to push against the systems, structures and ugly “shoulds” pressing women into places confining their God-given dignity and power and might. Thank you for modeling for me, for teaching me through your witness and your letters to St. Agnes of Prague: by the grace of God and my vocation, I can remain steadfast and offer scrutiny where scrutiny is due. Your determination and conviction were gifts to the Church and I hope that, as I reach outward and inward — serving God’s people and tending to my relationship with Christ though I remain broken, weak and imperfect — I am offering such gifts, too.

Maybe your plans pivoted too. Maybe you dealt with messes mixed with ideals too. Maybe I am doing OK, although my life feels far from the package I dreamed for when I said “yes” to becoming a Franciscan sister “for the rest of my life and into the next” at my final vows. I wish I could know what you’d really think of this form of Franciscan Sisterhood, modern and mixed.

I so wish I could sit with you and talk over all these trials, pick your brain for practical tips as I aim to blend ideals with the reality of daily life. But alas, we are separated by time and space, it seems. And although you are in heaven, you are dead. And I am here, not intimidated of but inspired by you; forever grateful for the lessons you have taught me about courage, Christ and servant leadership. You are gentle and holy, a teacher to me and many. Thank you, Lady Clare, thank you.

And I am always yours, so imperfectly,

Sister Julia

More Resources about St. Clare (for the modern reader of this letter between two Franciscan women writing across time.)

“Loving St. Clare of Assisi” by Clare André Gagliard OSC, Franciscan Media

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