Links to the four letters of Saint Clare to Agnes of Prague can be found in the downloadable Word document linked above, but I have now added the same four links below. This is for my own ease of access, as I return to these four letters regularly as the years go by: for to do so is to place yourself under the clear guidance of a quiet spiritual and intellectual genius whose motherly nature was witnessed by her community of sisters after her death in 1253 and it comes across from these letters as we see her gently nudging her correspondent forward into the personal discovery of the rich spiritual prize she had been gifted herself; paradoxically through steering a steady course that required a challenging Rule of strict poverty.
Saint Clare was one of the most outstanding figures in the flourishing spiritual, pastoral and academic dawn of the Franciscan life in the Church of the 13th century; yet these four letters are nearly all that we have of her surviving writings, and that fact only adds to her enigma. The following is an excerpt from the short
The themes of the four Letters
Here is an excerpt, summarising my 2016 Lent meditations on Clare’s letters to Agnes. It describes the time I sat on the cold floor of the medieval dormitory at San Damiano where she died, and I allowed her to teach me in that silence.
“I spent a while meditating on the first three of Clare’s letters to Agnes. If you have followed my series of introductions, you know the letters are framed by the common central metaphor of the mystical bridal relationship: the soul as Bride of Christ. We have seen how Clare uses supporting metaphors in the First Letter to illustrate her ideas, beginning with the metaphor of ‘commerce’ [commercium] or divine-human exchange of gifts. Then she develops her theme in the Second Letter with the metaphor of ‘the journey’, and another extended metaphor, of God’s indwelling. This leads up to her discussion of vanity in the Third Letter that we examined last week. In that third letter she also introduces a new metaphor which holds a special place in her spirituality, the ‘mirror’ [speculum] which she then develops fully in the Fourth Letter .”
When I read that through now, four years after writing the Lent essays, and twelve years after the experience in San Damiano in 2008, I would completely understand any reader here panicking straight away and thinking “No way am I even going to go there…!”
So let me tell you that I too feel the same way when reading that densely packed paragraph. Not being one who juggles philosophical concepts easily (quite the opposite, and even simple maths problems make me giddy) I would suggest that these articles should be read as a taster, with an intention to see what Clare is about – not so much to “understand” her ideas in one sitting – but to see why more time could usefully be set aside to examine her work more attentively.
The spiritual life is a curious journey but you will notice it is nearly always described, whether by Herman Hesse my first (unorthodox and rather pelagian) guide, or by the Four Quartets of T.S. Eliot, or by the interminable self-examinations of Thomas Merton (!), or by the round flagstone labyrinth of Chartres cathedral – which for me at the age of sixty-nine – now says everything you need to know, in one simple circular map of the spiritual universe; …yes you will notice it is always described as a series of returns to a place you have been before, but each time seeing it differently.
And that should ensure the blog has lost another ten readers; but in the remarkable words a chap called John who used to run the friary laundry at Hilfield in Dorset – and had been a man of the road for many years and then simply stayed at the friary and ended his tramping life – and had just shrunk a friar’s brown woollen winter habit – of a style and quality that was no longer made, and gifted him by a deceased brother now resting in a grassy grave only thirty paces from the laundry, and beyond which cemetery in the distance to the west in the direction of Yeovil could clearly be seen the village of East Coker – when I said brother Nicholas would not be pleased about that, replied – “I’m not here to please people!”
I cannot believe I just wrote that as one sentence but it is all of a piece, and as I write this after the Lent of 2020 that has been a time of disrupted plans, closed churches, rumour and fear of COVID-19 Coronavirus, I shall just leave that sentence unredacted, unpolished, to bear witness to it. On this Wednesday of no Holy Week in Spain, this Wednesday of no sound of traffic, this Wednesday of not a single aircraft flying overhead, this Wednesday of a remarkable dawn chorus of birdsong such as I have not heard here before – as if nature is asking where have all the homo sapiens sapiens gone, while they are locked down indoors in their millions – on this Wednesday what better way to end these past forty-two days since Ash Wednesday than quoting from East Coker:
Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.