Clare of Assisi

The Riches of Poverty


Clare of Assisi (1193-1253), born as the daughter of a noble family in Assisi, was deeply moved by the ideal that Francis candidly proclaimed: to follow the poor Christ in poverty. In 1211, she became the first woman to join the still young movement of the friars minor. Together with other women who soon joined her, she led a life of simplicity, silence, and prayer in the monastery of San Damiano. The path of poverty and universal brother- and sisterhood that Francis championed was further developed and deepened by her in a life of contemplation. Despite the discord that arose among the friars minor, already during Francis’s life and certainly after his death in 1226, she held to his original inspiration. “The Son of God has become for us the Way,” Clare writes (TestCl 5), and she followed this inner way consistently during her life, together with her sisters. She recorded the embodiment of this lived spirituality in her Rule, which was approved by the Pope on her deathbed in 1253: the first Rule in history written by a woman to receive ecclesial approval.

First Encounter

By Divine Inspiration

It is God himself who calls us to a life dedicated to Him. Only by listening to the promptings and inspiration of the Spirit in our own soul, can we discover the path that He wants to travel with us. The wise counsel of other people can be important in this, but force or pressure on anyone’s part can never be reason to let go of one’s own discernment.

The Great Exchange

Life with God calls for making choices. You cannot serve both God and Mammon (Mt 6:24, 1LAg 26). By letting go of the illusion that we can safeguard our life with money, prestige, and power, we become free to truly live out of our deepest being. We exchange the temporal for the eternal, not just ‘later’, in heaven, but here and now, by starting to live in the joy and the freedom of Love.

Following the Poor Christ

In his incarnation, life, and death, Christ gave us an example to follow, in order to become truly human and God intends for us. He who possessed everything as God’s Son chose and embraced poverty as the path to life. After all, it is only with empty, open hands that we can receive the gifts that God wants to give us. When we ourselves own nothing, we can receive everything from God and we discover everything and everyone around us as God’s gifts.

God’s Dwelling

What God ultimately wants to give us is nothing less than God himself. As human beings, we are of our own accord “very poor and needy” (1 LAg 20), but by God’s love we are at the same time “the most worthy of all creatures, greater than heaven itself, since the heavens and the rest of creation cannot contain their Creator; only a faithful soul is His dwelling place and throne, and this only through charity.” (3 LAg 21-22) When we dare to be poor, we discover our true riches.


Spiritual Friendship by Letter

Clare’s life of poverty and sisterhood in the silent enclosure of the monastery met with response, even far beyond Umbria. In 1234, Agnes of Prague (1211-1282), daughter of the king of Bohemia, decided to lead a religious life according to the example of Clare and her sisters in San Damiano. The two women never met, but through letters they developed a close friendship. Of this correspondence, unfortunately only four letters from Clare to Agnes have been preserved, and none from Agnes to Clare.

Medieval Art of Writing

As a daughter of the nobility, Clare was well-versed in Latin and the medieval art of writing. She adheres to the forms of composition of letters that were prevalent at that time, making use of a lively and flowery language, with many quotes from Bible and liturgy. The letters, though addressed to Agnes personally, will certainly have been of a semi-public nature, being read aloud in the Prague monastery. For us too, they offer a valuable witness to Clare’s experiences on the spiritual path and they give evidence of her proficiency as a spiritual directress and mystagogue.

Clare’s Letters

Bibliographical data

Title:Clare of Assisi: Early Documents
Translation &
Regis Armstrong, OFM Cap.
Place:New York / London / Manila
Publisher:New City Press


Clare’s First Letter to Agnes of Prague

This first letter, written in 1234, was written by Clare to congratulate Agnes with her entrance into religious life and to encourage her on her chosen path. An important metaphor in this letter is the exchange: leaving the earthly and transitory in order to win what is heavenly. Besides joy and confidence, a warning is also in order: the path and the gate are narrow. The path of poverty is joyful and rich, but it also demands continuous prayer and the willingness to grow and develop spiritually, with all the challenges that brings with it.

Clare’s Second Letter to Agnes of Prague

This letter can be dated between 1234 and 1237. The central theme is poverty, in imitation of the poor Christ. This imitation is a path, which calls for both perseverance in holding to the one thing necessary, and dynamic progress. It is a process contemplating Christ ever more intensely. In this, clear discernment of what the Spirit of the Lord is calling one to is of the greatest importance.

Clare’s Third Letter to Agnes of Prague

In this letter, dated in 1237 or early 1238, Clare offers Agnes encouragement when faced with a setback and exhorts her to have a positive attitude. Central in this letter is the theme of God who dwells is the loving human person. The final part of the letter deals with a question that Agnes apparently posed, regarding the fasting practices of the sisters in San Damiano. These words speak to the wisdom and humanity of CLare, who always keeps the true aim of fasting in view: making room for the indwelling of God in the human person who lives to the full.

Clare’s Fourth Letter to Agnes of Prague

This letter can be dated in the final months of Clare’s life, in the summer of 1253. It is a farewell letter, written with the reality of heaven in sight. Using the image of the mirror, Clare gives Agnes pointers for her prayer and meditation. Gazing daily in the mirror that Christ is, will lead her to true contemplation.

First Letter

1To the esteemed and most holy virgin, Lady Agnes,
daughter othe most excellent and illustrious King of Bohemia,1This translation—and those of the remaining writings of Clare herself—is based on Claire D’Assise Écrits, Introduction, Teste Latin, Traduction, Notes et Index par Marie-France Becker, Jean-François Godet, Thaddée Matura (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 1985); hereafter, Écrits. Insights into many nuances of the Latin text can be found in Edith A. Van den Goorbergh and Theodore H. Zweerman, Light Shining through a Veil: On Saint Clare’s Letters to Saint Agnes of Prague. The Fiery Arrow Collection. Translation by Aline Looman-Graaskamp and Frances Teresa Downing (Leuven: Peeters, 2000).
2Clare, an unworthy servant of Jesus Christ
and useless2Lk 17:10 handmaid of the enclosed Ladies
of the Monastery of San Damiano,
her subject and handmaid in all things,
commends herself totally with special reverence
that she may attain the glory3Sir 50:5 of everlasting happiness.4An immediate similarity can be seen here between Saints Francis and Clare in her choice of images to describe herself as an “unworthy” and “useless” servant, cf. Regis J. Armstrong, “The Prophetic Implications of the Admonitions,” Laurentianum 26 (1985): 396-464. In this sentence St. Clare uses two different Latin words: famula, a woman who was part of the family or a personal domestic servant of a lord or master, and ancilla, someone who was “at the service” of others as a maid or servant. Cf. infra RegCl X 5, note 51. Cf. Michael Goodish, “The Ancilla Dei: The Servant as Saint in the Late Middle Ages,” Women of the Medieval World, eds. Julius Kirschner and Suzanne F. Wemple (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 119-136.
3I greatly rejoice5Hb 3:18; 1 Thes 1:8 and exult in the Lord on hearing the fame
of Your holy conduct and irreproachable life,
[a fame] that has wonderfully reached not only me but almost the whole world,6Throughout this first letter, St. Clare uses the polite or formal manner of address: Vos [You], Vester [Your], etc., that is, the second person plural form. In the other three letters she adopts a more familiar style. To indicate this formal manner of address, the first letter of these pronouns is printed in the upper case.
4and so not only I,
but all who serve and desire to serve Jesus Christ are able to rejoice.
5For, though You, more than others,
could have enjoyed the magnificence, honor, and dignity of the world
and could have been married to the illustrious Emperor
with splendor befitting You and His Excellency,
6You have rejected all these things
and have chosen with Your whole heart and soul
a life of holy poverty and bodily want.7Historians do not agree on the identity of the emperor (Caesar, the Latin word employed by St. Clare). Most probably he was Emperor Frederick II, widower from 1228, since a contemporary historian, Albert of Stade, states plainly in his Chronicle: “The same year, on the feast of Pentecost, the sister of the King of Bohemia, Lady Agnes, at the prompting of the Lesser Brothers, entered the Order of the Poor Ladies of the Rule of the Blessed Francis at Prague, rejecting for Christ’s sake the Emperor Frederick who had earlier asked for her in marriage.” Cf. Albertus Stadensis, Chronicon Alberti Abbatis Stadensis (Helmaestadii, n.p., 1587).
7Thus You took a spouse of a more noble stock,8Cf. Office of the Feast of St. Agnes, Virgin and Martyr, January 21, Matins, I Nocturn, Lesson II.
Who will keep Your virginity ever unspotted and unsullied,
the Lord Jesus Christ,
8Whom in loving, You are chaste;
in touching, You become more pure;
in embracing, You are a virgin;9For the most part these lines (8-11) are taken from the ancient legend of St. Agnes, the Roman Martyr, which was incorporated not only into the antiphon and responsories of the liturgy of her feast but also into those of the liturgical consecration of a virgin. By characterizing the state of virginity with phrases from the life of St. Agnes with its emphasis of glory, rapture, and inviolable innocence, the consecration liturgy and, in this instance, Clare, presented her as an appropriate model to imitate. Cf. M. Teresa Tavorina, “Of Maidenhood and Maternity: Liturgical Hagiography and the Medieval Ideal of Virginity,” American Benedictine Review 31(December 1980): 384-399. In this instance, see Office of the Feast of St. Agnes, Virgin and Martyr, January 21, Matins, I Nocturn, III Reponsory and II Lesson.
9Whose strength is more robust,
generosity more lofty,
Whose appearance is more handsome,
love more courteous,
and every kindness more refined,
10Whose embrace already holds you;
Who has adorned Your breast with precious stones,
placed priceless pearls on Your ears,10Cf. Office of the Feast of St. Agnes, Matins, I Nocturn, II Antiphon.
11surrounded You completely with blossoms of springtime and sparkling gems
and placed on Your head a golden crown as a sign of Your holiness.11Sir 45:14; Cf. Office of the Feast of St. Agnes, Matins, I Nocturn, II Antiphon and II Lesson, II Responsory; II Nocturn, I Responsory; II Antiphon; III Nocturn I Responsory. Also Office for Feast of a Martyr, Matins, III Nocturn, I Responsory which contains this reference to Sirach 45:14.
12Therefore, most beloved sister, or should I say, Lady worthy of great respect,
because You are the spouse and the mother and the sister122 Cor 11:2; Mt 12:50 of my Lord Jesus Christ13While this phrase may be influenced by the Letter of Pope Gregory IX to Clare, cf. infra 131-132, it also contains a biblical image that is frequently used by St. Francis to describe the relationships flowing from the presence of the Holy Spirit in the soul, cf. 1LtF I 7; 2LtF 50. Clare uses the formula twice more in her third and fourth letters (3 LAg 1; 4 LAg 4). For an excellent treatment of this theme, see Optatus Van Asseldonk, “The Holy Spirit in the Writings and Life of Saint Clare,” GR 1 (1987): 93-105.
13and are beautifully adorned
with the banners of an undefiled virginity and a most holy poverty,
be strengthened in the holy service of the Poor Crucified
undertaken with a passionate desire,
14Who endured14Heb 12:02 the suffering of the cross for us all,
delivering us from the power of the prince of darkness15 Col 1:13
to which we had been enslaved
by the disobedience of our first parent,
thus reconciling us162 Cor 5:18 to God the Father.
15O blessed poverty,
who bestows eternal riches
on those who love and embrace her!
16O holy poverty,
God promises the kingdom of heaven
and, beyond any doubt, reveals eternal glory
and blessed life to those who have and desire her!
17O God-centered poverty,17Cf. The Latin word pia is translated here as “God-centered” since the English equivalent, “pious” or “compassionate,” does not contain the richness of the thought of this highly esteemed medieval virtue. For an interpretation, cf. Francis and Clare: The Complete Works, translated and edited by Regis J. Armstrong and Ignatius C. Brady (Paulist Press: New York, 1982), 192, n. 8. Hereafter, Francis and Clare.
whom the Lord Jesus Christ
Who ruled and still rules heaven and earth,18Cf. Mass of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Introit, Salve Sancta parens, and Votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary Outside Times of Advent and Nativity.
Who spoke and things were made,19Ps 32:9 [Vulgate, Ps 31:9]; Ps 148:5
came down to embrace before all else!
18He says: For the foxes have dens,
and the birds of the air have nests,20Mt 8:20
but the Son of Man, Christ,
has nowhere to lay His head,
but bowing His head He gave up His spirit.21Jn 19:30
19If so great and good a Lord, then, on coming into the Virgin’s womb,
wanted to appear despised, needy,222 Cor 8:9 and poor in this world,
20so that people who were very poor and needy,
suffering excessive hunger of heavenly nourishment,
may become rich in Him
by possessing the kingdom of heaven,
21be very joyful and glad,23Hb 3:18
filled with a remarkable happiness and a spiritual joy!
22Because, since contempt of the world
has pleased You more than its honors,
poverty more than earthly riches,
You have sought to store up greater treasures not on earth but in heaven,24Mt 6:20
23where rust does not consume nor moth destroy
nor thieves break in and steal,
our reward is very rich in heaven!25Mt 5:12
24And You are virtually26The Latin adverb, fere [virtually], has the sense of “almost, pretty well, or nearly” when used in the context of identity. It is difficult to determine Clare’s nuance in this passage beyond echoing her earlier reference to the Gospel and Pauline teaching employed by Francis. worthy
to be called a sister, spouse and mother272 Cor 11:2; Mt 12:50
of the Son of the Most High Father and of the glorious Virgin.
25For I firmly believe that you know
the kingdom of heaven is promised and given by the Lord
only to the poor28Mt 5:3
because she who loves what is temporal
loses the fruit of love;
26that it is not possible to serve God and money,29Literally, “Mammon” according to the Biblical text.
for either the one is loved and the other hated,
or the one is served and the other despised;30Mt 6:24
27that one clothed cannot fight another naked,
because she who has something to be caught hold of
is more quickly thrown to the ground;31Cf. Gregory the Great, Homilia in Evangelia II, 32, 2 (PL 76, 1233b). This image is used in the Office, the Common of a Martyr outside of Paschal Time, Matins, III Nocturn. It can also be found in Thomas of Celano, Life of Saint Francis 15: “Look! Now he wrestles naked with the naked. After putting aside all that is of the world he is mindful only of divine justice.” The Saint. Francis of Assisi: Early Documents. Edited by Regis J. Armstrong, J.A. Wayne Hellmann, and William J. Short (New York, London, Manila: New City Press, 1999), 194. Hereafter, The Saint.
28that one who lives in the glory of earth
cannot rule with Christ;
and that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle
than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.32Mt 19:24
29Therefore, You have cast aside Your garments, that is, earthly riches,
so that instead of being overcome by the one fighting against You,
You will be able to enter the kingdom of heaven
through the straight path and the narrow gate.33Mt 7:13-14
30What a great and praiseworthy exchange:
to receive the hundred-fold in place of one,
and to possess a blessed eternal life.34Mt 19:29
31Because of this I have led Your excellency and holiness,
as best I can, to beg with humble prayers in the heart of Christ,35Phil 1:18
that You be strengthened in His holy service,
32progressing from good to better, from virtue to virtue,36Ps 84:8
so that He Whom You serve with the total desire of Your soul
may bestow on You the reward for which You so long.
33Therefore, as much as I can, I also implore You in the Lord,
to include me in Your most holy prayers,37Rom 15:30
Your servant, though useless,38Lk 17:10 and the other sisters with me in the monastery,
who are all devoted to You.
34With the help [of Your prayers] we are able to merit the mercy of Jesus Christ,
so that, equally together with You, we may merit to enjoy the everlasting vision.
35Farewell in the Lord and pray for me.391 Th 5:25

Second Letter

1To the daughter of the King of kings,
the servant of the Lord of lords,1Rv 19:16; 1 Tm 6:15
the most worthy spouse of Jesus Christ,
and, therefore, the most noble Queen, Lady Agnes,
2Clare, the useless2Lk 17:10 and unworthy handmaid of the Poor Ladies,
greetings and may you always live in the highest poverty.3This opening greeting is in marked contrast from that of the first letter and suggests the underlying theme of this letter. While Francis only uses the word paupertas [poverty] sixteen times in his writings, Clare does so forty-one times throughout hers and most frequently with the adjectives: sancta or sanctissima (16 times), summa or altissima (5), beata (3), pia (1), and stupenda (1).
3I give thanks to the Giver of grace
from Whom, we believe, every good and perfect gift proceeds,4Jas 1:17
because He has adorned you with such great titles of virtue
and decorated you with signs of such perfection,
4that, since you have become such a loving imitator of the Father of all perfection,5Mt 5:48
you might be made perfect
and that there might be no imperfection in you for His eyes to see.6This is the only instance in which the image of “the Father of all perfection” is used in the writings of either Francis or Clare.
5This is that perfection
with which that King will join you to Himself
in the heavenly bridal chamber
where He is seated in glory on a starry throne,7A reference to the Office for the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, August 14, I and II Vespers, II Antiphon, and Lauds, II Antiphon; Matins, III Nocturn, Verse; None, Short Responsory. Also Office for the Common of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Lauds, II Antiphon, and Terce, Antiphon.
6because you have despised the splendor of an earthly kingdom
and considered of little value the offers of an imperial marriage.
7Instead, as someone zealous for the holiest poverty,
in a spirit of great humility and the most ardent love,
you have held fast to the footprints81 Pt 2:21 of Him
to Whom you merited to be joined in marriage.
8But since I know that you are filled with virtues,
I will spare my words and not burden you with needless speech,
9even though nothing seems superfluous to you
if you can draw from it some consolation.
10But because one thing is necessary,9Lk 10:42
I bear witness to that one thing and encourage you,
for love of Him to Whom you have offered yourself as a holy and pleasing sacrifice,10Rom 12:1
11that you always be mindful of your commitment11The Latin word propositum [commitment] had a well-defined meaning in medieval religious literature: a firm decision to adopt a precise way of life and to persevere in it. It appeared for the first time in Athanasius’s Life of Anthony, was later used by Jerome, Augustine, Cassian, and in the papal literature of the early thirteenth century. Cf. J. Gribomont and G. Rocca, “Propositum,” Dizionario degli Istituti di Perfezione 7, ed. Guerrino Pelliccia and Giancarlo Rocca (Rome: Edizioni Paoline, 19); Herbert Grundmann, Religious Movements in the Middle Ages, tr. Steven Rowan with introduction by Robert E. Lerner (Notre Dame, London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995), 75-153.
like another Rachel always seeing your beginning.12The figure of Rachel should be examined in the context of the medieval tradition that considered her as representing the withdrawn life of prayer, asceticism and contemplation. St. Jerome (+419) saw Rachel coming from the two Hebrew words ra’ah [to see] and halel [to begin] and interpreted it as “seeing the beginning.” Cf. Regis J. Armstrong, “Starting Points”; Paul-Marie Guillaume, “Rachel et Lia,” Dictionnaire de Spiritualité Ascetique et Mystique 15 (Paris: Beauchesne, 1987), 25-30.

What you hold, may you hold,
What you do, may you do and not stop.
12But with swift pace, light step, unswerving feet,
zonder je voeten te stoten,
so that even your steps stir up no dust,13Cf. Gregory the Great, Dialogues, Prologue (PL 77:152A). This exhortation is also used by Thomas of Celano, Life of St. Francis 71: “[Francis’s] chief concern was to live free from all things that are in the world so that his inner serenity would not be disturbed even for a moment by contact with any of its dust.” Thomas of Celano, “Life of Saint Francis” 71, The Saint, 242.
13may you go forward
securely, joyfully, and swiftly,
on the path of prudent happiness,
14believing nothing, agreeing with nothing
that would dissuade you from this commitment
or would place a stumbling block14Ps 50:14 for you on the way,
so that nothing prevents you from offering your vows to the Most High15Rom 14:13
in the perfection to which the Spirit of the Lord has called you.16Clare articulates the dynamic principle of the spiritual life, the Spirit of the Lord, and echoes the teaching of Francis, cf. Francis and Clare 26, n.1; 44, n. 1; 63, n.3; Van Asseldonk, “The Holy Spirit,” GR 1(1987): 93-105.
15In all of this, follow the counsel of our venerable father, our Brother Elias, the Minister General,
that you may walk more securely in the way of the commands of the Lord.17Ps 50:14; Cf. Michael Cusato, “Elias and Clare: An Enigmatic Relationship,” Clare Centenary Series, Vol. VII (St. Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute Publications, 1993), 95-115.
16Prize it beyond the advice of the others
and cherish it as dearer to you than any gift.
17If anyone has said anything else to you
or suggested any other thing to you
that might hinder your perfection
or that would seem contrary to your divine vocation,
even though you must respect him,
do not follow his counsel.18This may be a veiled reference to the letter of May 18, 1235, Cum relicta saeculi, in which Pope Gregory IX permitted Agnes to accept the possessions and revenues for the support of her monastery, cf. BF I, 156. Whatever the case, it echoes a final counsel of St. Francis for the Poor Ladies: “. . . keep most careful watch that you never depart from this [most holy life and poverty] by reason of the teaching or advice of anyone” (cf. RCI 6:7-9).
18But as a poor virgin
embrace the poor Christ.
19Look upon Him Who became contemptible for you,
and follow Him,
making yourself contemptible in this world for Him.
20Most noble Queen, gaze, consider, contemplate
desiring to imitate Your Spouse,
[Who] though more beautiful than the children of men19Ps 119:32; Ps 45:3
became, for your salvation, the lowest of men,
was despised, struck, scourged untold times throughout His entire body,
and then died amid the suffering of the Cross.20These may be considered steps of prayer: intuere [gazing upon] the poor crucified Christ, considera [considering], and contemplare [contemplating] Him. Throughout all these expressions of prayer, the desire to imitate the poverty of Christ is present. The same formula also appears in a more complete way in Clare’s Fourth Letter to Agnes of Prague 54-58.
21If you suffer with Him, you will reign with Him.21Rom 8:17; 2 Tm 2:12; 1 Cor 12:26
weeping with Him, you will rejoice with Him;
dying on the cross of tribulation with Him,
you will possess heavenly mansions with Him
among the splendor of the saints22Ps 110:3
22and in the Book of Life your name will be called glorious23Phil 4:3; Rv 3:5
among the peoples.
23Because of this you shall share always and forever
the glory of the kingdom of heaven
in place of what is earthly and passing,
and everlasting treasures instead of those that perish,
and you shall live forever and ever.
24Farewell, most dear Sister and Lady,
because of the Lord, your Spouse;
25commend me and my sisters to the Lord24Acts 14:22
in your fervent prayers,
for we rejoice in the good things
the Lord works in you through His grace.
26Remember us warmly to your sisters as well.

Third Letter

1To the lady most respected in Christ
and the sister to be loved before all mortals,
Agnes, sister of the illustrious King of Bohemia,
but now the sister and spouse1Mt 12:50; 2 Cor 11:2 of the Most High King of heaven,2In the First Letter, Agnes is greeted as the daughter of the King of Bohemia, Ottokar I, also known as Premislaus II, who had died some years earlier on December 15, 1230. The reference to her illustrious brother, Wenceslaus III, king from December 1230 to September 1253, accentuates the greater dignity Agnes possesses as “sister and spouse” of the Most High Lord.
2Clare, the most lowly and unworthy handmaid of Christ
and servant of the Poor Ladies
[wishes] the joys of redemption in the Author of salvation3Heb 2:10; Phil 4:8-9
and whatever better thing can be desired.
3I am filled with such joy at your well-being,
happiness, and marvelous progress
through which, I understand, you have advanced
in the path you have undertaken to win a heavenly prize. 4Phil 3:14
4And I sigh with so much more exultation in the Lord
as I have known and believe that you supply most wonderfully
what is lacking both in me and in the other sisters
in following the footprints of the poor and humble Jesus Christ.
5Truly I can rejoice,
and no one can rob me of such joy,5Sg 3:4; Gn 3:1
6since, having at last what under heaven I have desired,6Cf. Office of St. Agnes, Matins, III Nocturn, IX Lesson; Lauds, Antiphon for Benedictus.
I see that, helped by a special gift of wisdom
from the mouth of God Himself
and in an awe-inspiring and unexpected way,
you have brought to ruin the subtleties of our crafty enemy,
the pride that destroys human nature,
and the vanity that infatuates human hearts;
7that by humility, the virtue of faith, and the arms of poverty,
you have taken hold of that incomparable treasure
hidden in the field7Mt 13:44 of the world and of the human heart,
with which you have purchased that by Whom all things have been made from nothing.8 The phrase quo illud emitur a quo cuncta de nihilo facta sunt is a difficult text to translate since Clare uses the neuter pronoun, illud [that], and then the relative pronoun, quo [by whom].
8And, to use the words of the Apostle himself in their proper sense,
I judge you to be a co-worker of God Himself91 Cor 3:9; Rom 16:3
and a support for the weak members of His ineffable Body.
9Who is there, then, who would not encourage me
to rejoice over such marvelous joys?
10Therefore, dearly beloved, may you too always rejoice in the Lord10Phil 4:4
11And may neither bitterness nor a cloud overwhelm you,
O dearly beloved Lady in Christ,
joy of the angels and crown of your sisters!
12Place your mind before the mirror of eternity!11Here Clare introduces a theme, the mirror of contemplation, which becomes more prominent in her Fourth Letter to Agnes of Prague. For a fuller understanding of this important aspect of twelfth and thirteenth century spiritual literature cf. Regis J. Armstrong, “Clare of Assisi: The Mirror Mystic,” The Cord (1985): 195-202.,
Place your soul in the brilliance of glory!12Heb 1:3
13Place your heart in the figure of the divine substance132 Cor 3:18
and, through contemplation,
transform your entire being into the image
of the Godhead Itself,
14so that you too may feel what friends feel
in tasting the hidden sweetness14Ps 31:20; 1 Cor 2:9
that, from the beginning,
God Himself has reserved for His lovers.
15And, after all who ensnare their blind lovers
in a deceitful and turbulent world
have been completely passed over,
may you totally love Him
Who gave Himself totally for your love,15This passage is reminiscent of Francis’s Letter to the Entire Order 29: “… hold back nothing of yourselves for yourselves so that He Who gives Himself totally to you may receive you totally.” Cf. Francis and Clare, 58.
16At Whose beauty the sun and the moon marvel,
Whose rewards and their uniqueness and grandeur have no limits;16Office for Feast of St. Agnes, Matins, III Nocturn, II Antiphon, I Responsory.
17I am speaking of Him,
the Son of the Most High,
Whom the Virgin brought to birth
and remained a virgin after His birth.
18May you cling to His most sweet mother
who gave birth to a Son Whom the heavens could not contain,17 Office of Feast of Annunciation, Matins, III Nocturn, III Responsory.
19and yet she carried Him
in the little cloister of her holy womb
and held Him on her virginal lap.
20Who would not dread the treacheries of the enemy of humanity
who, through the arrogance of momentary and deceptive glories,
attempts to reduce to nothing
that which is greater than heaven itself?
21Indeed, it is now clear that the soul of a faithful person,
the most worthy of all creatures because of the grace of God,
is greater than heaven itself,
22since the heavens and the rest of creation
cannot contain their Creator;
only a faithful soul is His dwelling place and throne,
and this only through the charity that the wicked lack.
23The Truth says:
‘Whoever loves me will be loved by My Father,
and I too shall love him,
and We shall come to him
and make Our dwelling place with him.’18Jn 14:21,23
24As the glorious virgin of virgins
carried [Him] materially,
25so you, too, by following in her footprints,19Sequens eius vestigia [following his/her footprints] is clearly a reference to 1 Pt 2:21; what is not clear is to whom eius refers. The subject of the sentence is “the virgin of virgins”; its object, illum, does not appear until much later. In this sense, it could easily refer either to Christ, as in 1 Pt 2:21, or to Mary, in which case Clare may well be following the inspiration of Francis who frequently writes of the poverty of both in the same passage.
especially [those] of humility and poverty,
can, without any doubt, always carry Him spiritually
in your chaste and virginal body,
26holding Him by Whom you and all things are held together20Wis 1:7
possessing that which,
in comparison with the other transitory possessions of this world
you will possess more securely.
27In this, certain worldly kings and queens are deceived,
28for, even though their pride may reach the skies
and their heads touch the clouds,21Is 14:11-15
in the end they are as forgotten as a dung-heap!
29Now concerning those matters
that you have commissioned me to clarify for you,
30namely, what were the feasts that
our most glorious father, Saint Francis,
has enjoined us to celebrate particularly,
when possible with some variation of foods,
I believe I must answer you, dear sister,
but I think you already have a fairly good judgment of this.22The section of this verse in italics is lacking in Armstrong’s translation and has been supplemented by Ad Montem.
31Your prudence should know, then,
that except for the weak and the sick,
for whom he advised and directed us to show every possible discretion in matters of food,23Clare frequently employs the notion of discernment or discretion in her writings, e.g., III Letter to Agnes of Prague 40; Rule II 10, 16, 19; IV 23-24; V 3; VII 5, 8, 11, 20; IX 18; XI 1; XII 5; Testament 63. Cf. Jesus Maria Bezunartea, “Discernment in the Spirit of St. Clare,” GRSupplement 8 (1994).
32none of us who are healthy and strong
should eat anything other than Lenten fare,
either on ferial days or on feast days.
33Thus, we must fast every day
except Sundays and the Nativity of the Lord,
on which days we may have two meals.
34And on ordinary Thursdays
everyone may do as she wishes,
so that she who does not wish to fast is not obliged.
35However, we who are well should fast every day
except on Sundays and on Christmas.
36During the whole of Easter, as the writing of Saint Francis tells us,
and on the feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of the holy Apostles,
we are not obliged to fast,
unless these feasts occur on a Friday.
37And, as I have already said,
we who are well and strong
always eat Lenten fare.24It is interesting to note that Pope Gregory IX rescinded his prescription in his directive, Pia meditatione pensantes, May 5, 1238 (cf. BF I, 240-241). Clare made the practice of fast and abstinence described here part of her Rule, cf. Rule III 8-11. For further information on fasting in general, cf. Placide Deseille, “Jeûne,” Dictionnaire de Spiritualité Ascetique et Mystique 8 (Paris: Beauchesne, 1974), 1164-1175; Carolyn Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley: University of California, 1987); Rudolph Bell, Holy Anorexia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985).
38But our flesh is not bronze,
nor is our strength that of stone,25Jb 6:12
39rather, we are frail
nd inclined to every bodily weakness!
40I beg you, therefore, dearly beloved,
to refrain wisely and prudently
from an indiscreet and impossible austerity
in the fasting that you have undertaken.
41And I beg you in the Lord
to praise the Lord by your very life,
to offer the Lord your reasonable service26Rom 12:1
and your sacrifice always seasoned with salt.27Lv 2,1
42May you do well in the Lord,
as I hope I do myself,
and, in your holy prayers,
remember me along with my sisters.

Fourth Letter

1To her who is half of her soul
and the special shrine of her heart’s deepest love,
to the illustrious Queen
and Bride of the Lamb, the eternal King,
to the Lady Agnes her most dear mother,
and, of all the others, her favorite daughter,
2Clare, an unworthy servant of Christ
and a useless handmaid of His handmaids1Lk 17:10
in the monastery of San Damiano of Assisi:
3health and may she sing the new song2Rev 14:3
with the other most holy virgins before the throne of God and the Lamb
and follow the Lamb wherever He will go.3Rev 14:4; The Latin text makes a play on the Latin word agnus [lamb] and the name of Agnes suggesting the close relationship that united the Lamb of God, Christ, and Agnes herself.
4O mother and daughter, spouse of the King of all ages,
if I have not written to you as often as both your soul and mine
desire and long for, do not wonder at all
5or think that the fire of love for you glows with less delight
in your mother’s heart.
6No, this is the difficulty:
the lack of messengers and the obvious dangers of the roads.
7Now, however, as I write to your love,
I rejoice and exult with you in the joy of the Spirit,41 Thes 1:6
O spouse of Christ,
8because, since you have totally abandoned the vanities of this world,
like the other most holy virgin, Saint Agnes,
you have been marvelously espoused to the spotless Lamb,
Who takes away the sins of the world.51 Pt 1:19; Jn 1:29
9Happy, indeed, is she
to whom it is given to drink at this sacred banquet
so that she might cling with her whole heart to Him
10Whose beauty all the blessed hosts of heaven unceasingly admire,
11Whose tenderness touches,
Whose contemplation refreshes,
Whose kindness overflows,
12Whose delight overwhelms,
Whose remembrance delightfully dawns,
13Whose fragrance brings the dead to life again,
Whose glorious vision will bring happiness
o all the citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem,
14which [vision],6The phrase quae cum sit splendor aeternae gloriae…[which since it is the radiance of eternal glory] is difficult to translate since the relative pronoun refers either to the glorious vision of Christ or to the heavenly Jeerusalem, the noun that immediately precedes it. The reference to Heb 1:3, “since He is the radiance of eternal glory,” suggests that it is the vision of Christ to which Clare refers. since He is the radiance of eternal glory
is the brightness of eternal light
and the mirror without blemish.7Wis 7:26
15Gaze upon that mirror each day,
O Queen and Spouse of Jesus Christ,
and continually study your face in it,
16that you may adorn yourself completely, within and without,
covered and arrayed in needlework8Ps 45:10
17and similarly adorned with the flowers and garments of all the virtues,
as is becoming, the daughter and dearest bride of the Most High King.9This passage is composed of images inspired by the Psalm 45: 10-15. The last phrase of the tenth verse of the edition Latin Vulgate used at the time of Clare presents a particularly difficult passage: circumdata varietate. Translations based on this edition vary. That of the King James Version seems to capture best the sense Clare intends.
18Indeed, in that mirror, blessed poverty,
holy humility, and inexpressible charity shine forth
as, with the grace of God,
you will be able to contemplate them throughout the entire mirror.10Cf. supra 3 LAg 12, note
19Look, I say, at the border of this mirror, that is, the poverty of Him
Who was placed in a manger and wrapped in swaddling clothes.11The three dimensions of the medieval mirror that Clare mentions in this passage are difficult to translate. This is particularly so since Clare mixes these images with three periods in the life of Christ. The medieval mirror was a thin disk of bronze that was slightly convex on one side. Its border, therefore, reflected an image in an obscure way. Parts of the surface would do the same. Only certain in-depth parts of the mirror reflected an image clearly. Cf. Regis J. Armstrong, “Clare of Assisi: The Mirror Mystic,” The Cord (1985): 195-202.
20O marvelous humility! O astonishing poverty!
21The King of angels, the Lord of heaven and earth,
is laid in a manger!12Lk 2:7
22Then reflect upon, at the surface of the mirror,
the holy humility, at least the blessed poverty,13In contrast with these other virtues, Clare adds saltem [at least] to her encouragement to reflect upon poverty. This indicates that which is still preserved, that which remains or holds good, in spite of something opposed to it and so is consistent with her continual emphasis on poverty as the primary virtue of Christ.
the untold labors and punishments
that He endured for the redemption of the whole human race.
23Finally contemplate, in the depth of this same mirror,
the ineffable charity that He chose
to suffer on the tree of the Cross
and to die there the most shameful kind of death.
24Therefore, that Mirror, suspended on the wood of the Cross,
warned those passing by that here are things to be considered, saying:
25‘All you who pass by the way,
look and see if there is any suffering like my suffering!’14In much the same way, we find Francis continually inviting his brothers to respond to this invitation of Christ Crucified, cf. Office of the Passion VI 1.
26Let us respond to Him, It says,
crying out and lamenting, in one voice, in one spirit:
‘Remembering this over and over leaves my soul sinking within me!’15Lam 3:20
27O Queen of our heavenly King, may you, therefore,
be inflamed ever more strongly with the fire of love!
28As you further contemplate His ineffable delights,
riches and perpetual honors,
29and, sighing, may you cry out from the great desire and love of your heart:
30‘Draw me after you,
let us run in the fragrance of your perfumes,16Ct 1:3; Insights into these passages should be sought in the rich spirituality of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries which delighted in commenting on the Canticle of Canticles, e.g., Bernard of Clairvaux, William of Saint Thierry. For an excellent discussion of this aspect, see Jean Leclercq, Monks and Love in Twelfth-Century France: Psycho-Historical Essays (Oxford: Oxford at Clarendon Press, 1979).
O heavenly Spouse!
31I will run and not tire,
until You bring me into the wine-cellar,17Ct 2:4
32until Your left hand is under my head
and Your right hand will embrace me happily,18Ct 2:6; It is helpful to remember that this passage also appears in the Privilege of Poverty given to Clare by Pope Gregory IX, cf. infra 86-88.
You will kiss me with the happiest kiss of Your mouth.’19Ct 1:1
33Resting in this contemplation,
may you remember your poor little mother,
34knowing that I have inscribed
the happy memory of you indelibly
on the tablets of my heart,20Prov 3:3
holding you dearer than all others.
35What more?
In your love may the tongue of the flesh be silent;
may the tongue of the Spirit speak and say this:
36‘O blessed daughter, because the love that I have for you
can never be fully expressed by the tongue of the flesh,’
37it says, ‘what I have written is inadequate.
I beg you to receive my words with kindness and devotion,
seeing in them at least the motherly affection
that in the fire of charity I daily feel
toward you and your daughters
to whom I warmly commend myself and my daughters in Christ.’
38On their part, these daughters of mine,
especially the most prudent virgin Agnes, our sister,
recommend themselves in the Lord to you and your daughters
as much as they can.
39Farewell, my dearest daughter, with your daughters
until we meet at the throne of the glory of the great God,21Tit 2:13
and desire [this] for us.
40As much as I can,
I recommend to your charity the bearers of this letter,
our dearly beloved Brother Amatus, beloved of God and men,22Sir 45:1
and Brother Bonaugura.


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The Fruitfulness of Virginity

Bibliographical data

Title:The Fruitfulness of Virginity : Spiritual Motherhood in Clare of Assisi’s Third Letter to Agnes of Prague
Author:Rebecca Braun
Published in:
Franciscan Connections: The Cord 65 (2015) 1, 27-30 The article is there published under the title: Clare as Mother : Spiritual Motherhood in Clare of Assisi’s Third Letter to Agnes of Prague


What does it mean to love? Using a central fragment from Clare’s Third Letter to Agnes of Prague as its starting point, this article explores the way in which a life of love can blossom in the context of a celibate, monastic life – a love that in its selfless boundlessness can lead to an encompassing spiritual motherhood.


To take a vow of chastity seems to mean to renounce motherhood. It may even seem, to some, to mean a limitation in one’s possibilities of forming loving and intimate relationships. In the life of Clare of Assisi, however, we see something very different. This is a woman who lived her life in vows of obedience, poverty, and chastity, and yet was called a mother of many and also understood herself as such.1See e.g. 4LAg, TestCl 79, BlCl 6, LCl 15.

In Clare’s third letter to Agnes of Prague, she gives us a glimpse of how this motherhood can take shape in a human soul. Using Mary as an example, she shows Agnes (and consequently us) what it means to love without limitation and in this way to become a dwelling place for God. This is a love that involves our whole being, body, heart, and soul. Nothing is excluded, nothing can be kept behind for ourselves. In our humility and poverty, God’s boundless love can take possession of us.

After first discussing the verses 12-28 of Clare’s third letter to Agnes in the light of this theme, this article then sketches what this can mean for the fruitfulness of a life lived in chaste or virginal love.

The Text

Place your mind in the mirror of eternity, place your soul in the brilliance of glory, place your heart in the figure of the divine substance and transform your whole self through contemplation into the image of the Godhead Itself, so that you too may feel what friends feel in tasting the hidden sweetness that God Himself has reserved from the beginning for His lovers.23LAg 12-14. Translation of this and following texts of Clare of Assisi by the author. Cf. The Lady. Clare of Assisi: Early Documents. Revised Edition and Translation by Regis J. Armstrong, O.F.M. Cap. (New York: New City Press, 2006), 51-52.

In spite of the dualist tendency that has always been present in the history of Christianity, in this text Clare does something quite different. Her roadmap of contemplation is described in a sequence of three steps: place your mind, your soul, your heart in… In the mirror of eternity, in the brilliance of glory – indeed in God Himself. This triad of mind, soul, and heart excludes nothing. It is your whole self that is by this means transformed into the image of the Godhead Itself. That this ‘whole self’ is not to be interpreted as being merely spiritual becomes apparent in what follows, where Clare tells us what this contemplation will lead to. Feeling, indeed tasting the hidden sweetness that God has reserved for His lovers. Body and soul are united in the contemplation of God.

In this and also the following passages, Clare is playing with the image of containing and being contained, encompassing and being encompassed. In inviting us to place our mind, soul and heart in God, she is in fact inviting us to do what is already a reality: to allow ourselves to be encompassed by God, Him by whom you and all things are encompassed.3See 3LAg 26. What she is thus inviting us to do, is to become aware of this reality. Aware of the love that brought us into being and from the beginning is awaiting our loving response.

And having completely passed over everything which in a deceitful and confusing world entangles its blind lovers, love Him totally who gave His whole self for your love, at Whose beauty sun and moon wonder, Whose rewards and their value and magnitude have no end.43LAg 15-16.

And yet to become truly aware, indeed imbued with the knowledge of this divine love is not so easy as all that. Clare here sketches a contrast between the lovers of God, and the blind lovers of the world. Those who are entangled by the deceit of the world have become blind to the reality of God. Rather than being encompassed, they are entangled, and however free they may think they are, in fact they are trapped in a world of their own making. The choice for God is one that a person must make in her totality, with her whole self, for it is not possible to serve both God and Mammon.5Cf. Mt. 6: 24. See also 1LAg 26. In making such a complete and undivided choice, all compromise is impossible. Everything that might divide the heart must be completely passed over.

The reason Clare gives for this is simple: Christ gave His whole self for your love, therefore you are called to give no less. Here Clare pauses a moment to marvel with us at how incredible this is: that He at Whose beauty sun and moon wonder should give Himself so completely for the sake of no other reward than our love. Our love, which seems so scanty and is so often misdirected, but which in this light must be something great, indeed. This, the return of a love which gave itself so completely for us, seems to be the very least we can do, and yet at the same time demands everything of us.

I am speaking of Him, the Son of the Most High, whom the Virgin brought to birth and after His birth remained a virgin. Cleave to His most sweet mother, who brought forth such a Son, Whom the heavens could not contain, and yet she carried Him in the small confines of her holy womb and held Him on her girl’s lap.63LAg 17-19.

Clare immediately proceeds to offer us Mary as an example of this love of an undivided heart. Mary, both virgin and mother, is the ultimate image of the greatness that the grace of God, in love, can bring about in a human being. The Son of God, whom even the heavens could not contain, allowed himself to be encompassed by her body and held on her lap. This is the paradoxical language of faith, and ultimately of love: that He who is greater than the heavens and in Himself encompasses all that is, should Himself be encompassed in the confines of a human body.

Who would not abhor the ambush of humanity’s enemy, who through the pride of momentary and deceptive glories forces to reduce to nothing that which is greater than heaven? See, it is already clear that through the grace of God the most worthy of the creatures, the soul of the faithful person, is greater than heaven, for the heavens with all the other creatures could not contain the Creator, and only the faithful soul is His dwelling place and seat, and this only through the love that the ungodly lack, as the Truth says: Whoever loves me shall be loved by my Father, and I too shall love him, and We shall come to him and make Our dwelling place with him.73LAg 20-23.

What Clare has said of Mary, she then immediately also applies to every person of faith. The soul of the faithful person must be, and indeed clearly is greater than heaven, for it is the dwelling place of Him Whom the heavens with all the other creatures could not contain. And the only thing that makes this possible is love. It is thus in love that true human greatness is to be found – and not in the momentary and deceptive glories of the world through which this soul is reduced to nothing, its very existence denied.

Thus as the glorious Virgin of virgins did materially, so you too, by following her footsteps, especially those of humility and poverty, in a chaste and virginal body can without any doubt always carry him spiritually, encompassing Him by whom you and all things are encompassed, possessing that which, in comparison with the other transitory possessions of this world, you will possess more securely. In this certain worldly kings and queens are deceived, whose pride may have been allowed to climb to heaven and whose heads may touch the clouds, in the end they are carried off like dung.83LAg 24-28.

The love that allows our heart to become a dwelling place for God can take root and grow in us when we direct our feet on the path of humility and poverty, just as the Virgin Mary did. In these short sentences Clare draws a balanced picture, in which neither material nor spiritual aspects are overemphasized. We are given the assurance of carrying him spiritually, as distinct from Mary’s material motherhood. And yet it is in a chaste and virginal body that we will do this – this love is more than a state of mind or heart, it is a state of being, in which all that we are is taken up and turned into this dwelling place for God. On the path of humility and poverty we discover the emptiness in ourselves that can only be filled by the One who created us. We learn to pause in our attempts to fill our emptiness ourselves, learn to endure and await, and so become chaste and virginal in our love.

This manner of encompassing and possessing is very real and concrete, and yet totally different from possession in a material sense. Those transitory possessions of this world, however securely we may think we possess them, are indeed transitory and can be taken from us at any time. When we encompass God by becoming a dwelling place for Him in our love, our only possession will be God’s own humility, poverty, and love – or perhaps we could say that we ourselves are possessed by God in this. And this possession is eternal. This is the great and praiseworthy exchange that Clare is inviting us to: rather than to possess earthly riches and pride that climbs to heaven, to possess blessed eternal life through our humility, poverty and love.9See 1LAg 30.

Virginal Love

In emphasizing the totality and the unity of the person in her love of God, Clare makes it clear that the choice is absolute and all compromise is impossible. Either we love completely, without reservations and unconditionally, or we opt for the deceptive security of transitory possessions – whether these are objects or people, or indeed God Himself. For a love that is not chaste (or virginal) is a love that attempts to possess the other and so reduces the other to an image, something we can grasp and understand. This love is barren, because in it we never truly encounter the other as he or she is, but only see the image of our desires that we are projecting on the other.

Yet with her recurrent reminders of the blind love of the world, Clare shows us that it is by no means self-evident that we love in this complete and undivided way. It is easy enough to be deceived by the entanglements of the world, the images that are presented to us daily of what love is, and indeed our own hopes and dreams. In our desire to ‘be someone’ we allow momentary and deceptive glories to take the place of the reality of the human soul. In our minds we reduce to nothing that which is in fact greatest of all, simply because it is intangible, while the images that are presented to us seem so real and attainable. But in this dependence on our own strength and ability to ‘make ourselves’ we are each in fact building a lonely tower of Babel that may touch the clouds, but will never reach as far as heaven. We will never attain true encounter, either with God or with the people around us.

The alternative is this: that we follow in the footsteps of Mary and love without self-interest, without any attempt to possess the other. This is a virginal love – a poor love also, in the sense that it expresses the very essence of poverty: to have nothing of one’s own. Even this love itself does not belong to the person in whom it comes to life, rather the person who lives it no longer belongs to herself, but in this love to God.

To love so completely goes against every natural tendency of self-preservation. The safer path seems to be to build in some security for ourselves. To say: I will love to a certain extent, but also build in an escape route in case it becomes too dangerous or painful to continue to love. To give a part of oneself to the other, but keep some other part securely to oneself, in case the other cannot be trusted after all. Every instinct tells us that this is the way it must be, because if we let ourselves be swept away completely in this love, will we not be left with nothing?

But precisely this is where transformation can take place: where we realize we are left with nothing of our own. That we do not belong to ourselves, but this very moment receive our life’s breath from the One Whose love is our life. In the annihilation of all that we thought we were and all the images of ourselves that offered us our supposed security, we become the space in which Love itself can come to life. When, with Mary, we realize and accept our smallness and poverty, the door is opened for this virginal love to be a love without bounds, precisely because we let our own self-imposed boundaries be swept away.

Virginal love is boundless love, precisely because it is not concerned with itself and its own smallness. It is not concerned with itself at all, but only with the other. It is concerned only with who this unique other is in truth – in God. Virginal love sees God everywhere and in everyone, because it sees with the eyes of God’s love. Virginal love is in an important sense also helpless. Transfixed by the beauty of the One it loves, it at the same time knows that this beauty is untouchable, that any attempt to lay claim to it would immediately destroy it. Humble and poor, it offers itself as a vessel for a love too great to contain.

Spiritual Motherhood

In joining Mary in her fiat, her ‘let it be’ to her own smallness and God’s greatness, we can carry and encompass Him by whom we and all things are encompassed. Our soul becomes His dwelling place and seat in this world. In this sense, we follow in the footsteps of Mary in becoming mother of the Son of the Most High, letting Him be born in our heart.

But there is another important consequence of this boundless, virginal love. For not only does it bear fruit in ourselves, but this manner of living and loving inevitably also has an effect on the people we meet. The more we allow love to take up its abode in us and the more we become empty of ourselves and full of this love which in no way belongs to us, the more we will see others with the eyes of this love. We will see others who are perhaps entangled by a deceitful world, and though powerless to help them ourselves, we yet will see them with the eyes of love. And in this gaze, reflection of God’s gaze on each of His creatures, in which the other is seen and accepted as the unique and beloved person he or she is, the other may perhaps discern a never before suspected space, breathing room to simply be oneself.

Our gaze of love can open the door for others to also begin to discover their Creator as the love of their lives. In loving another with the boundless love which sees God in the other and entrusting ourselves to this love, the other can also begin to trust this truth deep within him- or herself. In this way we become participants in the birth of God in the other, or in other words: the birth of the other in God.

This is another dimension of spiritual motherhood which, although not explicitly mentioned in the text discussed, forms the broader context in which it was written. Clare writes to Agnes – it is especially later in their relationship that she does this explicitly – as a mother to a beloved daughter.10See 4LAg By also reversing the image, Clare moreover indicates that the relationship is reciprocal: one can simultaneously be both mother and daughter. As Clare’s love for Agnes opens up the space in which Agnes can discover her true being and ground in God’s love, so Agnes’s love for Clare makes it possible for her to likewise discover and live her divine vocation on an ever deepening level.

That this love of Clare’s is boundless is clear in the wording of her fourth letter to Agnes. She writes to her who is half of her soul and the special shrine of her heart’s deepest love.114LAg 1. There is no limit to this love, nor indeed any reason to limit it, for this love is God Himself who has made His dwelling place in these two women. In her poverty, in the realization that she is nothing in herself and receives all from God, Clare has become a space in which love can live and flow out unhindered. Others recognized this in her and discovered this as a space in which they, too, could come to life and truly be themselves as they were in God’s eyes. In this way Clare became the mother of many, not only of the community of San Damiano but also of the people from Assisi and beyond who came to her for aid. Virginal love bore fruit in her, as it can in all those who dare to travel a similar path.


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De Naakte strijd

Bibliographical data

Title:De naakte strijd
Author:Rebecca Braun
Published in:
Franciscaans Leven 95 (2012) 2, 65-73


In her First Letter to Agnes of Prague, Clare uses the image of a fight with a naked opponent: if you yourself are wearing something that gives the other hold on you, you will lose the fight. This article explores the meaning of clothing and nakedness in Clare and her contemporaries, delves into the sources of this image, and, with reference to more recent authors such as Dag Hammarskjöld and Søren Kierkegaard, seeks to discover the fundamental significance that the image of the naked struggle has for us today as well.

Naaktheid en armoede

De kleren maken de man, of de vrouw – zo wil het bekende gezegde althans. Met onze kleding kunnen wij tot uitdrukking brengen wie wij zijn, of willen zijn. We presenteren onszelf aan de wereld. Maar dit is in feite al vanuit een luxepositie gedacht, want kleding is ook een eerste levensbehoefte: een bescherming van het kwetsbare lichaam tegen de elementen. Zonder kleding ben je onbeschermd, ook ten opzichte van de blikken van je medemensen. Je kunt niets verbergen, bent in al je kwetsbaarheid blootgesteld aan de wereld. Je kunt je niet anders voordoen dan je bent.

Zo bezien is het niet verwonderlijk dat Clara van Assisi en haar tijdgenoten naaktheid als beeld aanwenden voor de evangelische armoede waar zij voor willen kiezen. ‘Naakt de naakte Christus volgen’ was het ideaal dat hun voor ogen stond. Een armoede die weerloos maakt en geen enkele schijn hoeft op te houden.

Het verband tussen naaktheid en armoede bij Clara wordt nog wel het meest duidelijk in haar eerste brief aan Agnes van Praag, waarin zij het beeld aanhaalt van het gevecht met een naakte tegenstander: als je zelf iets aanhebt waaraan je kan worden vastgepakt, verlies je de strijd. Je kleding is in deze context ‘de vergankelijke rijkdom’. Heb je die afgelegd, dan kun je de strijd aanbinden en wie weet overwinnen. Maar hoe leg je deze kleding, deze rijkdom af die je toch zo hard nodig hebt om je vege lijf te beschutten? En om welke strijd gaat het eigenlijk? Met wie vechten wij?

Kleding en naaktheid

Het belang dat kleding voor Clara heeft in de navolging van Christus is in haar geschriften duidelijk terug te vinden. In haar Levensvorm volgt zij wat betreft de voorschriften voor de kleding van de zusters in grote lijnen de al bestaande Regels, m.n. die van Franciscus. Maar hier is één belangrijke uitzondering op, waar Clara’s eigen stem krachtig doorklinkt:

En om de liefde van het allerheiligste en zeer beminnelijk kind, dat, in armelijke doeken gewikkeld, in een kribbe was neergelegd, en van zijn allerheiligste moeder, vermaan ik mijn zusters, smeek ik hen en spoor hen aan dat zij altijd goedkope kleren dragen. 1RegCl2,25; vertalingen genomen uit: A. Holleboom, P. van Leeuwen, S. Verheij, Clara van Assisi. Geschriften Leven Documenten, Haarlem 1996.

Clara herinnert vaker aan de armoede van het kind in de kribbe, zoals hier in haar Testament:

[…] omwille van de liefde van God, die arm in een kribbe is gelegd, die arm in deze wereld heeft geleefd en die naakt op het kruis is achtergebleven. 2TestCl45.

En ook in haar vierde brief aan Agnes, waar zij een duidelijk contrast schetst tussen de rijke kleding en gewaden van de deugden waar zij Agnes toe aanspoort zich in te hullen, en de armzalige doeken waarin het Christuskind gewikkeld werd:

Kijk iedere dag in deze spiegel, o koningin, bruid van Christus, en spiegel daarin voortdurend je gelaat om zo jezelf geheel, innerlijk en uiterlijk, mooi te maken, gekleed in kleurig geborduurde kleding. Zo maak jij je mooi met de bloemen en gewaden van alle deugden, zoals het je past, dochter en zeer geliefde bruid van de hoogste Koning. In deze spiegel weerspiegelen zich de zalige armoede, de heilige nederigheid en de onuitsprekelijke liefde, zoals je met Gods genade in heel deze spiegel kunt aanschouwen. Daarom zeg ik je: Reik met aandacht naar het begin van deze spiegel, de armoede van Hem die in een kribbe is gelegd en in armzalige doeken gewikkeld.34BrAgn15-19.

Kleding was Clara niet om het even, zoals het misschien wel niemand om het even kan zijn. In haar tijd was kleding een duidelijk kenteken van maatschappelijke status. De rijken konden zich fijne, dure stoffen veroorloven, terwijl de armsten misschien maar een enkel stel kleding hadden van ruwe stof. Clara spoort haar zusters duidelijk aan om hierin het lot van de armen te delen. Clara was als dochter van een adellijke familie goed bekend met rijke kleding, en dat geldt ook voor de koningsdochter Agnes aan wie zij haar brieven schrijft. En zij besefte ook heel goed, dat de werkelijke schoonheid van de mens niet door zulke uiterlijkheden bepaald wordt, maar dat wij ons mooi maken door de gewaden van de deugden aan te trekken, ons steeds te spiegelen in Christus en Hem na te volgen in zijn armoede.

Geboorte, leven en sterven van Christus zijn getekend door die armoede.4 Zie TestCl45. Waar Hij aan het begin van zijn leven nog in armelijke doeken werd gewikkeld, bleef Hij op het eind van zijn leven naakt op het kruis achter. Deze naaktheid is de ultieme armoede; naaktheid en armoede worden in deze context synoniem. Het is deze armoede waar Clara met hart en ziel voor kiest. Het is een innerlijke realiteit die zij ook uiterlijk wil uitdrukken, door eenvoudige, goedkope kleding te dragen.

Het is binnen deze context dat Clara tegenover Agnes het beeld gebruikt van de naakte strijd, om de evangelische weg die deze is opgegaan te beschrijven.

Ik geloof vast dat u tot dit inzicht bent gekomen, namelijk: het rijk der hemelen wordt door de Heer alleen aan de armen beloofd en geschonken, want als men iets vergankelijks bemint, laat men de vrucht van de liefde verloren gaan.
Men kan niet God en de mammon dienen, want men zal of de een liefhebben en de ander haten, of de een dienen en de ander verachten.
Iemand die kleren aan heeft, kan niet vechten met iemand die naakt is, want degene die iets aanheeft waaraan hij kan worden vastgehouden wordt eerder op de grond geworpen.
Men kan niet luisterrijk leven in de wereld en in het rijk der hemelen met Christus heersen. Een kameel kan immers eerder door het oog van een naald gaan dan dat een rijke binnendringt in het rijk der hemelen.
Daarom hebt u uw kleren, namelijk de vergankelijke rijkdom, afgelegd om goed in staat te zijn niet te bezwijken voor degene die met u vecht. Zo kunt u langs de smalle weg en door de nauwe poort het rijk der hemelen binnengaan.51BrAgn25-29.

Clara is heel stellig in haar bewoordingen. Men kan niet God en de mammon dienen. Iemand die kleren aan heeft kan niet vechten met iemand die naakt is. Heb je je kleren niet afgelegd, dan hoef je het strijdperk niet eens te betreden – je hebt al verloren. Als je overwint, dan is de beloning het rijk der hemelen, dat aan de armen beloofd is. Maar de weg is smal en de poort is nauw. Met deze woorden, waarmee Clara de Bergrede (Mt. 5-7) doorkruist, laat zij duidelijk zien: het is geen vanzelfsprekendheid dat je er komt, dat je overwint – het vraagt integendeel een opperste inspanning.

In bredere franciscaanse kring

In de geschriften van Franciscus komt dit beeld van het naakte gevecht niet voor. Wel enkele malen bij Thomas van Celano, wanneer hij over Franciscus schrijft. Zowel in de context van het verhaal van Franciscus die ten overstaan van zijn vader en de bisschop zijn kleren uittrekt, als wanneer het gaat over de dood van Franciscus, waarbij hij zich naakt op de grond liet leggen, zegt Celano uitdrukkelijk dat Franciscus ‘naakt met de naakte(n) (vijand) strijdt’.6Vgl. 1Cel15 en 2Cel214. Zie ook 2Cel12 en 194, waar het meer algemeen gaat over naaktheid als een symbool en houding van overgave aan Christus, en 2Cel83, waar het ook gaat over het naakte gevecht, hoewel minder direct.

Begin en einde van Franciscus’ verhaal worden zo gemarkeerd door het afleggen van zijn kleding. Aan het begin van zijn bekering een ingrijpend en dramatisch gebeuren, niet minder doordat Franciscus als zoon van een lakenkoopman altijd goed gekleed was geweest en veel aandacht had voor zulke uiterlijkheden. In het afleggen van zijn kleding ten overstaan van zijn vader en de bisschop nam hij definitief afstand van zijn vader, en daarmee van zijn sociale positie en erfenis, en nam zijn toevlucht tot de kerk, als boeteling.7Raoul Manselli, Franciscus van Assisi, Helmond 1992, p. 58. Onder de ogen van de toegelopen menigte ontdeed Franciscus zich van zijn kleren, waarna de bisschop zijn mantel om hem heen sloeg. Wellicht ook onder de ogen van Clara? De scene speelde zich af op wat nu het San Rufino-plein heet, en waar het huis van Clara’s familie aan grensde. En al zou ze het niet met eigen ogen gezien hebben, de toen ca. 12-jarige Clara zal de verhalen zeker gehoord hebben.

De beginnende franciscaanse broeder- en zusterschap neemt, met hun tijdgenoten, het beeld op dat het evangelisch leven omschrijft als het in naaktheid navolgen van de naakte Christus. Ook Bonaventura haalt het aan in zijn uiteenzetting over de Regel van de Minderbroeders, waarbij hij nadrukkelijk het verband legt tussen armoede en naaktheid.8Bonaventura, Expositio super Regulam FF. Min. Cap. I,2 en IV, 14.

Het habijt van Franciscus is in de vorm van een kruis. Voor Franciscus en zijn volgelingen betekent het leven als minderbroeder of arme zuster het aantrekken van het kruis van Christus – Christus, die naakt op het kruis is achtergebleven.9Zie TestCl45. Zouden we dan niet kunnen zeggen dat het de naaktheid van Christus is die zij aantrekken? De weerloosheid en volledige overgave aan de wil van de Vader. De armoede ook: niets om jezelf mee te beschermen. En onder dit teken van het kruis trekt Franciscus dan ten strijde voor de Heer.10Vgl. 3Cel2.

Bronnen voor het beeld van de naakte strijd

Met hun gebruik van de beeldspraak rond naaktheid en het strijden met de naakte maken Clara en Thomas van Celano gebruik van beelden van bekende auteurs uit de kerkelijke traditie. ‘Naakt de naakte Christus volgen’ is een beeld van de kerkvaders, m.n. Hiëronymus. De beeldspraak van de naakte strijd is afkomstig van Gregorius de Grote.

Het thema van de naaktheid komt bij Hiëronymus sterk naar voren in zijn Leven van Paulus, de eerste kluizenaar. Het grootste deel van dit Leven is gewijd aan de vertelling van zijn sterven en de ontmoeting met Antonius die daaraan voorafging. Paulus, die zijn hele leven in palmbladeren gekleed ging, vraagt aan Antonius, die hij vlak daarvoor als zielsverwant heeft begroet, om de mantel te halen die Antonius van bisschop Athanasius gekregen had, om straks zijn dode lichaam in te wikkelen. Hiëronymus haast zich om erbij te vermelden dat Paulus dit verzoek natuurlijk niet deed uit zorg voor hoe zijn lijk gekleed zou zijn, maar om het verdriet van zijn vriend te verzachten. Aan het slot van het verhaal, na de begrafenis waarbij twee leeuwen hem te hulp zijn gekomen, neemt Antonius de van palmbladeren geweven tuniek van Paulus mee als herinnering, en draagt het op de feestdagen van Pasen en Pinksteren. Dan benadrukt Hiëronymus voor de lezer nog kort de moraal van het verhaal: ‘Waaraan heeft het deze naakte oude man ooit ontbroken? […] Hij heeft het kleed van Christus behouden, al was hij naakt, maar jullie zijn door je zijden kleding Christus’ gewaad kwijtgeraakt.’11Hiëronymus, Vita Pauli, Het leven van Paulus van Thebe, Bezorgd, vertaald en ingeleid door Vincent Hunink, Leuven 2002, p. 25-27.

Voor wie het verhaal van Franciscus kent, zijn de parallellen duidelijk. Wellicht een vroeg voorbeeld waaraan Franciscus zich heeft kunnen spiegelen, in de manier waarop hij zowel leven als dood naakt tegemoet trad. En ook hier de beschutting van een bisschoppelijke mantel!

Het gewaad van Christus, zoals Hiëronymus het noemt, hebben wij pas aangetrokken, of kunnen wij pas aantrekken, wanneer wij ieder ander gewaad, ofwel ieder bezit waar wij ons aan hechten, hebben afgelegd. Franciscus was van dit besef zo doordrongen dat hij het niet alleen in zijn consequente keuze voor de armoede uitdrukte, maar zelfs herhaaldelijk heel letterlijk in het wegschenken van de kleding die hij aanhad, wanneer hij ook maar iemand tegenkwam die minder had dan hij.12Zie bijv. 2Cel5, 86, 89 en 92. Zie voor het thema van Franciscus die zijn mantel wegschenkt ook W.M. Speelman, ‘Het kleed van de arme’ in Franciscaans Leven 90 (2007), p. 99-105. Met deze houding bekleedde hij zich met de naaktheid van Christus.

Ook elders houdt Hiëronymus het ideaal van de naaktheid voor. In een brief aan Exuperantius spoort hij deze aan alles achter te laten en ‘naakt zijn Heer en Redder te volgen’.13Hiëronymus, Ep. 145.

Gregorius de Grote neemt dit beeld, dat navolging als naaktheid ziet, op en voegt er nog het element van de strijd aan toe. Clara ontleent het beeld van de naakte worsteling dat zij in haar eerste brief aan Agnes gebruikt aan een preek van Gregorius die in de liturgie werd voorgelezen.14Gregorius de Grote, Hom. in Ev. II, PL 76, 1233, Hom. 32,2. In deze preek gaat hij in op de bekering die het christelijk geloof vraagt: waar men voorheen het goed van een ander najaagde en wilde toe-eigenen, vraagt Christus van zijn volgelingen niet alleen dat zij niet wat van een ander is begeren, maar ook dat zij dat wat van hen zelf is weggeven,15 Vgl. Lc.14,33 en zelfs dat zij zichzelf verloochenen.16 Vgl. Lc.9,23 De weg van bekering, de weg van het geloof, omschrijft hij als een wedstrijd waarin wij tegen kwade geesten moeten worstelen. Deze kwade geesten bezitten niets in deze wereld, zijn dus naakt, en willen wij overwinnen dan zullen wij even naakt moeten zijn. Alle aardse bezittingen noemt Gregorius omhullingen van het lichaam. In het volgen van onze oppervlakkige verlangens bedekken wij ons ermee, wij zoeken bescherming en een gevoel van geluk of plezier, maar juist door deze dingen komen wij ten val.

Gregorius breidt in zijn preek het beeld van de navolging van de naakte Christus uit met het element van de strijd: de vijand waar mee geworsteld wordt is naakt, dus dient men ook zelf naakt te zijn, om de strijd niet te verliezen. Hij heeft hierbij duidelijk het beeld van de naaktworstelaars van de Griekse gymnasia voor ogen, en dit beeld past hij toe op de strijd van de christen met de duivel. De duivel die dus naakt is in deze wereld, arm, zonder bezit.

Het begin van de strijd: Genesis

In 1BrAgn 27.29 citeert Clara woordelijk uit deze preek, waarbij zij slechts de zinsbouw enigszins aanpast. Zij omkadert het met evangeliewoorden, waarin vooral het belang van armoede en dienstbaarheid of nederigheid wordt benadrukt als noodzakelijk om het rijk der hemelen binnen te gaan. Deze armoede, deze nederigheid en naaktheid is voor Clara, zoals voor Gregorius, alomvattend: het gaat niet alleen om uiterlijke bezittingen, maar zelfs zichzelf moet men verloochenen, of zoals Franciscus het zegt, ook de eigen wil mag men zich niet toe-eigenen.

De Heer heeft tot Adam gezegd:
‘Eet van iedere boom,
maar van de boom van de kennis van goed en kwaad
mag je niet eten.’
Van iedere boom in het paradijs kon hij eten,
omdat hij niet zondigde,
zolang hij niet tegen de gehoorzaamheid inging.
Maar diegene eet van de boom van de kennis van het goede,
die zijn wil als zijn eigendom beschouwt
en prat gaat op het goede dat de Heer in hem zegt of bewerkt.
En de vrucht hiervan is door de ingeving van de duivel
en de overtreding van het gebod
de kennis van het kwaad geworden.
Daarom moet hij straf ondergaan.17Wijs2; Vertaling genomen uit: Franciscus van Assisi, De geschriften, vertaald, ingeleid en toegelicht door G.P. Freeman, H. Bisschops, B. Corveleyn, J. Hoeberichts en A. Jansen, Haarlem 2004.

Behalve je bezittingen, is ook al het goede wat je zegt en doet een gave van de Heer, en niet je eigendom. God is het die al het goede geeft en bewerkt. Franciscus beschouwt in deze Wijsheidsspreuk het zich toe-eigenen van het goede als de oerzonde van de mens, waarmee hij tegelijkertijd ook de kennis van het kwade heeft opgedaan. Hiermee is de stap al gezet naar wat de oorsprong schijnt te zijn van deze strijd waarin wij als mens verwikkeld zijn: het verhaal over de eerste mensen in het paradijs.18Gen. 3.

Daar lezen we: de slang is sluw, in het Hebreeuws: ‘aroem – maar het woord voor naakt bestaat in het Hebreeuws uit precies dezelfde letters. Zo is het dus de sluwe, naakte slang, die de mens ertoe overhaalt om te eten van de boom van kennis van goed en kwaad, waardoor zij tot de ontdekking komen dat zij naakt zijn. Dan verbergen zij zich voor God, want zij zien nu in dat zij geen verweer hebben, niets waar zij zich op kunnen beroemen. Omdat zij dit niet kunnen verdragen, beginnen zij vijgenbladeren aaneen te hechten om toch maar enige bescherming te hebben tegen de blik van God, en van elkaar. En zo is dus het begin geschetst van de menselijke strijd tegen de duivel, de sluwe slang, die wij in zijn naaktheid zullen moeten evenaren (weest sluw als slangen, Mt. 10,16!) om hem te kunnen overwinnen.

Het is het verhaal over wat gewoonlijk de zondeval wordt genoemd – maar wat is daarmee bedoeld? Wordt er hier een historische gebeurtenis geschetst, een misstap van onze gezamenlijke voorouder waarvan wij nu allen de gevolgen moeten dragen? Of gaat het veeleer over een menselijke werkelijkheid die verder gaat dat het louter historische? Over de werkelijkheid van mensen nu; over een oer-menselijke ervaring van het kwade in de wereld – in onszelf. Een ervaring van geen verweer te hebben tegenover God, aan wie wij alles verschuldigd zijn, zelfs het leven zelf.

Deze ervaring van het kwaad in onszelf werd door de 20e-eeuwse auteur Dag Hammarskjöld heel tekenend beschreven, en hij biedt meteen ook een doorkijkje naar hoe de overwinning te behalen is in deze strijd.

Wij komen op een punt dat we de erfzonde erkennen – en aanvoelen – dat duistere contrapunt van het kwaad dat in ons wezen, ja van ons wezen, maar niet ons wezen is. Dit wil zeggen dat iets (in ons) instemt met de catastrofe van dat wat wij zelf trachten te dienen, de tegenslag van hen van wie we houden.
Het leven in God is geen vlucht hieruit vandaan, maar de weg tot volledig inzicht hierin: het is niet onze verdorvenheid die ons dwingt tot een religieuze schijnoplossing, maar de ervaring van een religieuze werkelijkheid die de nachtzijde in het licht voert.
Wanneer wij in de alziende blik van de rechtvaardige liefde verblijven, die wij vermogen te zien, durven te erkennen en bewust lijdzaam te ondergaan, verwelkomt iets in ons de catastrofe, wenst de mislukking, laat zich stimuleren door de nederlaag, wanneer het buiten de sfeer van ons meest directe eigenbelang plaatsvindt. Zo is de levende godsverhouding een voorwaarde voor die zelfkennis welke ons in staat stelt zuivere lijnen te volgen en, in die zin, te zegevieren en vergeven te worden – over onszelf, door onszelf.19Vertaling genomen uit: J. Huls, ‘Mens, waar ben je zelf?’ in Speling, 2007 nr. 4, p. 80-81. Vgl. Dag Hammarskjöld, Merkstenen, Kampen 2007, p. 102.

Leven in God, een levende godsverhouding, doet de zelfkennis in ons oplichten – hoe pijnlijk het misschien ook kan zijn om deze donkere werkelijkheid van onszelf te aanvaarden. Maar het is alleen die zelfkennis, die voorkomt uit een verduren van de alziende blik van de rechtvaardige liefde, die het ons mogelijk maakt de smalle weg en de nauwe poort te vinden en zo tot de overwinning te komen. Het ten volle erkennen en aanvaarden van de eigen armoede tegenover God, in die zin naakt te staan tegenover zijn alziende blik, is de enige weg die naar de overwinning voert.

Met wie strijden wij?

De overwinning op wie? Dag Hammarskjöld zegt het al: op onszelf. Clara echter laat het in het midden, terwijl Gregorius het heeft over de strijd tegen de kwade geesten… Maar wat moeten wij ons bij die kwade geesten voorstellen? Het is een manier van spreken die ook regelmatig in de evangeliën voorkomt: Jezus drijft kwade geesten uit. Toch zijn het vaak juist die kwade geesten die weten wie Jezus is en die dat luidkeels uitroepen, totdat Jezus hun het zwijgen oplegt.20Zie bijv. Mc.1,23-26. Misschien ligt dit dan toch dichter bij onze eigen ervaring dan wij geneigd zijn te denken. Wij komen stukje bij beetje in Gods licht te staan, maar beginnen dan pas te ontdekken wat onze eigen duistere kanten zijn. Voorheen vielen ze niet op, maar juist door dit tegenlicht verscherpt ons zicht op dat in onszelf wat met dit licht niet in overeenstemming is. Het is de ervaring van een religieuze werkelijkheid, die de nachtzijde in het licht voert.

En toch is het vaak ook juist deze nachtzijde die Gods werkelijkheid als eerste herkent (Mc.1,24: ‘Ik weet wel wie je bent, de heilige van God!’), omdat het zich erdoor bedreigd voelt, omdat het weet dat er geen veilig heenkomen bestaat. De overwinning bestaat er dan in, dit spoor te blijven volgen, hoe angstig ook, en zo steeds meer onze eigenlijke naaktheid tegenover God te erkennen. Weet hebbend van de krachten in ons die louter op zelfbehoud gericht zijn en die de touwtjes in eigen hand willen houden, maar ook, en meer nog, weet hebbend van de liefdevolle blik van God die ons in het leven roept en alles schenkt, die ons leven redt precies daar waar wij het durven te verliezen.

Toch kan het er alle schijn van hebben, dat het God zelf is met wie wij de strijd aanbinden. De drang tot zelfbehoud die zo sterk in ons leeft dat wij ons er maar al te vaak mee identificeren, staat haaks op de goddelijke werkelijkheid die ons hieruit los wil weken, die ons met een blik van onze beschermende kleding, onze vijgenbladeren, ontdoet. Zoals ooit Jakob,21Gen. 32,23-33. worstelen ook wij met God. Want sinds wij de kennis van het goede hebben opgedaan, sinds wij de blik van Gods liefde hebben leren kennen, moeten wij, zoals Franciscus schrijft, ook straf ondergaan – de ‘straf’ namelijk, van het besef van eigen tekortschieten; van een verlangen dat voortdurend uitgaat naar een hemel die wij uit eigen kracht niet kunnen bereiken.

En zo is onze strijd dan toch ook met God, zoals Søren Kierkegaard onder de pseudoniem Johannes de silentio schrijft in zijn Lofrede op Abraham:

Ieder wordt slechts groot naarmate de grootheid waarmee hij gestreden heeft. Hij die met de wereld gestreden heeft, werd groot door de wereld te overwinnen; hij die streed met zichzelf werd groot door zichzelf te overwinnen. Maar hij die met God gestreden heeft werd groter dan alle anderen. In de wereld kan men vechten van man tot man, of als één tegen duizenden, maar hij die met God gestreden heeft was groter dan allen. Zo wordt er gestreden op aarde: zo zijn er mensen die alles uit eigen kracht overwinnen, maar ook is er iemand geweest die God overwonnen heeft met zijn onmacht.22Søren Kierkegaard, Vrees en beven, vertaald, ingeleid en van verklaringen voorzien door W.R. Scholtens, Baarn 1983, p. 24.

Precies daar ligt onze overwinning: in onze onmacht. Niet in alles wat wij kunnen en uit eigen kracht tot stand brengen, maar in onze naaktheid tegenover God. In een aanvaarding van hoe wij ons leven in niets aan onszelf te danken hebben, maar ieder ogenblik ontvangen van God; van hoe niet wij de koers bepalen in ons leven, maar dat God zelf het is die ons de weg toont en doet gaan – een aanvaarding die zo diep gaat, dat God er niet tegenop kan.

Dit heeft Clara heel goed begrepen. En dit is wat haar Agnes, en ons, doet aansporen: leg je kleding af, sta naakt tegenover God en in die armoede zal je alles geschonken worden. Christus is hierin ons voorbeeld: Hij heeft de gestalte van God afgelegd,23Vgl. Fil.2, 6. is mens geworden en heeft zich zelfs laten uitkleden door de soldaten die hem aan het kruis zouden slaan. In zijn naakte overgave aan de wil van de Vader heeft hij zo de macht van de duisternis overwonnen. Aan ons de uitdaging om naakt in zijn voetsporen te treden.


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