Dearest sisters Clares,
Dearest brothers and sisters,
may the Lord give you peace!
Today's liturgy of the word gives us a better understanding of today's celebration and of the figure of St. Clare of Assisi. Chapter 15 of John's Gospel accompanies us in this reflection.
In the Gospel passage, Jesus uses the image of the vine and the branches. It is a powerful image: we are grafted into the life of the Trinity as a branch is grafted into the vine. As one sap, one life flows between the vine and the branch, one life circulates between God and us. Jesus desires that we abide in this deep union.
"Abide" is the key word of the Gospel we have heard, but it is also the key to the life and vocation of each of us, and I would like to dwell on this word.
First of all, of course, in Christ. Jesus, the Lord, is the first Place in which the heart must stop, abide, rest.
If we think about it, religious life is nothing but this: to turn the relationship with Jesus into the center of one's life, into an exclusive relationship, and to remain in it. In the society and Church of the time of Francis and Clare of Assisi, as well as in the society and Church of our time, religious life has this one mission to witness: that one can live only by the Gospel, that one can decide to remain in the exclusive relationship with Christ and be happy. Exclusive relationship, that is, one that excludes any other life option, any other relationship or project that is not in tune with the Gospel of Christ. It was not easy for Francis, and especially for Clare of Assisi. Her struggle for the privilege of poverty was based precisely on this: to make the society and the Church of her time, concerned - as we would say today - about the sustainability of their life project, to make them understand that even for them, for women and consecrated women, it was possible to live relying only on the Gospel, without anything else. The privilege of poverty, then, was nothing but the concrete expression of their exclusive relationship with Christ, a relationship that excluded any other attention or concern. The writings and especially the letters of St. Clare continually highlight this aspect and this central link in Clare of Assisi's religious experience. Poverty is necessary, so that the relationship with the Bridegroom is free, absolute, complete.
How many times does Clare of Assisi speak of seeing, of setting one's gaze in the Mystery of Christ and remaining there, with the gaze of the heart fixed on Him. This is the secret of perseverance, of which Clare often speaks: to keep one's gaze fixed on the subject of one's love, even when it disappears for a moment, so that life does not become an effort, or voluntarism (to which we are often tempted to reduce the Christian faith), but is abiding in love.
Let us ask ourselves, then, what we set our gaze on today. To what or to whom we look.
In these turbulent times filled with so much social, political and even religious confusion, we are perhaps called to stop and ask ourselves where in this time our gaze rests, where our heart rests, what life we have decided to remain in, what gives meaning and color to our living.
The other "abiding" is related to the first: sisters.
There is always the risk of turning the relationship with Jesus into something emotional, or abstract, or merely intimate and personal - in any case, divorced from real life. There is often a risk of keeping the spiritual life, and the relationship with Jesus, separate from real daily life. Abiding in Jesus is one thing. Remaining in real life is another.
Clare is fully aware of this risk, which is familiar to everyone, at all times, and which is also real in the Church today; the risk of failing to make unity between faith and life, between the relationship with Christ and the life of the world.
For Clare of Assisi, abiding in Christ, love for Christ, must have a visible and concrete expression: love for sisters. "Instead, let them be solicitous always to preserve the unity of mutual charity, which is the bond of perfection" (Rule X, FF2810). Love for Christ is nourished and enlivened in concrete fraternal life, in a continuous exchange of life among the sisters. Along with "to abide", another central verb in Franciscan spirituality is "to give back": to give back in life and with life what we have received from Christ. For Clare of Assisi, therefore, loving sisters, making unity, and living fraternity, is the first way to give back to Christ what has been given by Him. It is the first way - to stay within our theme - to remain in Christ's love. A free gaze toward the Lord also allows a free gaze toward the sisters. The "abiding" we are talking about, moreover, is not an effort, a mere act of will, but a deep desire that is nurtured in prayer, which is the heart of the daughters of St. Clare of Assisi. This is not an attitude that is always natural to the heart of man, to the sick heart of man, whose gaze is drawn by appearance, by the vanity of life. And this is where then the penitential journey of Clare and her sisters, of her life of conversion and asceticism, fits in. A penitential life, like Francis', made up of paschal passages, of welcoming weakness and reality, of becoming aware of sin, a letting oneself be guided by the Lord, to arrive simply at having a poor heart, a heart capable of seeing Him, Christ, and being attentive to the Spirit.
Finally, there is another "abiding": abiding in the Church.
As with Francis of Assisi, for Clare, the relationship, obedience and full communion with the Church is central. A relationship of obedience and full communion, but also free and sometimes even dialectical. Her struggle for the privilege of poverty is testimony to this. She struggled against the common belief that it was not possible for the Poor Ladies of San Damiano to be able to live without financial income, b by relying only on divine Providence. Despite everything, it was still necessary to obtain the "yes" of that Church, initially so recalcitrant to the idea. It was not enough to have the inner certainty that this was possible; it was not enough to brandish the Gospel to affirm one's conviction. It was necessary to go through Peter. Only then could the seed of that form of life be confirmed to be truly the fruit of God's will and not merely a human desire or intuition. Only in the Church could that seed be transformed into a flourishing tree, growing and bearing fruit over time.
The communal form of Clares' life could not and cannot be sustained without the relationship with the larger Church community. But at the same time, the Church saw and sees in the form of life of the Poor Sisters of San Damiano a warning and a call to make their own the freedom that the Gospel, when lived integrally, can give. Freedom from all forms of conditioning and fear.
In a troubled and increasingly fragmented and lonely society, in a Church undergoing profound change, perhaps even a bit frightened by an uncertain future, and feeling threatened at times, the testimony of Clare of Assisi is a testimony of freedom and trust in God, even in the most problematic circumstances, even in the face of the most concrete and real threats. I am thinking, for example, of the threat of destruction of the monastery and the city of Assisi by Saracen mercenaries: "And she comforted them that they should not fear [...] but armed with faith they should have recourse to Jesus Christ. And as St. Clare lay on straw, infirm, she had a little ivory box brought to her where was the consecrated Holy Body of Christ (FF 3201)." To those who came to threaten and destroy, she responded with the Blessed Sacrament, with no other defense, in short, than to trust solely and exclusively in Christ.
Even today the Church waits for you, dear sisters, to receive this call, waits to see in you the freedom of those who live only by the Gospel, of those who have no other interests but to remain in the love of Christ; who trust only in Providence, more than in their own strength; who do not fear threats, or momentous changes or persecutions; but remain anchored in love for Christ, who gives meaning to everything, and makes us free and happy and gives us peace.
Let us ask through Clare's intercession for the grace to remain within a life of conversion that keeps our gaze fixed on the gift that we have received, and on the One who gave it to us, Christ.
May we too be given to taste the secret sweetness within the things of life, even the most bitter ones. May every place in our lives be like that field that hides the secret sweetness that the Lord reserves for those who love Him.
In praise of Christ and Mother St. Clare. Amen.