Friday, August 10, 2012

Winter always leads to Spring


The Solemnity of Our Holy Mother Clare is always such a special moment in the life of all of us who follow these two great Saints of Assisi.  It has been my honor on many occasions to be right here with you good sisters to celebrate and tonight is no exception.   However, as we know, this celebration of Our Mother Clare is an especially wonderful one.  We bring to a close tomorrow this Claritian Year – this year to commemorate the beginning on the consecrated life of St. Clare and the founding of the Order of Poor Clares.

It is good, I think, that we are gathering at dusk on this night for this commemoration, as we are recalling another evening – that of Palm Sunday in the year 1212.  If you will picture in your heart and mind for a moment, the young Clare, just 18 years old.  We believe that earlier that day at Palm Sunday Mass she received the permission of Bishop Guido of Assisi for what she would do that night through the symbolic gesture of the palm branch.  As darkness enclosed our holy city of Assisi, Clare slipped out of her family’s home in the Piazza San Rufino.  We can imagine her rushedly making her way through Assisi’s serpentine streets eventually sweeping through the city walls making her way, perhaps guided by a few friars who met her at the edge of the city, to the small Chapel of the Portiuncula in the valley below where the lesser brothers, St. Francis chief among them, were waiting to receive her into poverty, chastity and obedience.  In this incredible act of holiness, of submission, of humility, St. Francis cuts her hair, the religiously symbolic action of giving up everything for Christ, and then leaving behind the finer garments of Assisi’s nobility, she is wrapped in the habit of penance and thus a heart is set ablaze for Christ and an Order of holy women is born.  You can even see that hair today, kept in a reliquary in Assisi; her golden locks appearing as though they just landed there freshly shorn.

I give you this image tonight because I want to invite us all, perhaps ironically, not think about the life of Our Holy Mother St. Clare.  I invite us today, perhaps ironically, to not recall the great and wonderful stories of her time at San Damiano as the sisters came; as they spread throughout the region, throughout the world eventually even to this house of holy women here in Andover.  I invite you not to think about the miraculous bread, the miraculous oil, the defense of Assisi, the vision of the Holy Mass, the stories of the great life of this holy woman.

I invite us instead to remain in that small Chapel of the Portiuncula on that dark Palm Sunday night 800 years ago.  I invite us to remain with that 18 year-old girl – fleeing home, family, wealth, security, position, prestige, nobility – remain with  her surely nervous, hands trembling as they clutched her cloak around her; perhaps questioning as her hair fell to the floor; perhaps frightened as she was shuffled off to a Benedictine convent. 

What do you think was in her heart that day?  Of course, anxiety and nervousness.  Perhaps even fear and trembling at the radical step she was taking?   But also, I’m certain, excitement and joy.  She had been dedicated to a holy life for a long time – by 18 she was already well known for her prayerfulness and her solicitude for the poor.   I think on that night, the overwhelming feeling in her heart was the bright light of hope.  At last, her unfathomable love for Christ, her spouse, would find its fulfillment.  The brilliant light that was Clare, a light fueled by the light of Christ within her, lit up the darkness of that Palm Sunday night – it lit the darkness with a fervent desire to live for Christ and for Him alone; to be gathered in community with sisters to gaze, consider, contemplate and imitate Christ.  It was a light that would light up the whole world.

I invite us to remain with the young Clare in that Chapel because I think here in our own world and in our own times, it is that Clare that we need more than ever.  We can be tempted to think of ourselves in decline in this day and age.  Our numbers decrease; our age increases and we wonder what the future holds for us and for this way of life. We hear of a vocation crisis; of fewer people in the pews and it can make our hearts heavy.  In his letter to commemorate the Feast of St. Clare this year, our General Minister Br. José speaks of us finding ourselves living through a season of Winter in our religious life.

He writes, “Winter, at first glance, is a time of death: the green of vegetation disappears, the leaves fall, there are no flowers, and the season of fruit has passed. Winter puts hope to the test, hope which is nourished by patient waiting for the return of Spring and the fields clothed with flowers that will give way to fruit.”

My sisters, my friends, it is easy to let Winter get the better of us sometimes.  We can let darkness and silence of that season lead us to believe that it will never end.  Certainly the times that Clare and Francis found themselves living through were also a season of Winter.  There was widespread corruption in the Church and in the world and people’s hearts had grown cold. But, they knew, as we also know that Winter always leads to Springtime.

Again from the General Minister, “The death that seems to mark Winter is not really such. Beneath the apparent sterility there is a process of revitalization developing. This is the season in which the roots are busily working, storing up all the sap and life-force necessary to transmit new life in Spring, so that in Summer the fruits can be harvested. With their silent and hidden work the roots make possible the rebirth of life.  Beyond the appearances, Winter is called to be a kairos, a great opportunity to grow in depth, and to be purified, to return to what really counts.  Through the Winter that we are experiencing, I am convinced that the Lord calls us to radicality. Such radicality does not consist in spectacular gestures, but in a patient and hidden tending of roots that, in the last analysis, can be reduced to a radical faith in the One for whom nothing is impossible.”

Winter always leads to Springtime.  We are called to tend and nurture those roots.  We are called to prayer and faithfulness and above all to hope.  So, let us remember that 18 year old girl with all the world ahead of her.  On that night, she was one woman, alone with her brothers, desirous of a life dedicated to God in cloister, but also in poverty – something unheard of for women of her time.  She was one woman alone in Winter.  Yet, from her would Spring countless holy women across the world and across time because Winter always leads to Springtime.

So, what can we take away from this Year of St. Clare; this remembrance of her entrance into religious life and the birth of this beautiful Order?  We can take away the same excitement, joy, nervousness and most profoundly hope that Spring is just around the corner.  We can recall that all Spring needs is one person – one man or one woman – with the fire of Christ’s love burning in their heart to hasten away the Winter.  We can continue to let the light of Christ grow in our hearts and shine for our world like it shone so brightly in St. Clare.  We can be firmly convinced that this is not the end of the last 800 years but just the beginning of the next 800 years.  As Pope Benedict wrote in his commemoration of this event, “Just as it had happened for Francis, Clare’s decision also contained the hidden shoot of a new community, the Order of Poor Clares, which, having grown into a sturdy tree, in the cloister’s fertile silence continues to scatter the good seed of the Gospel and to serve the cause of God’s Kingdom.”   Let us plant again. Let us tend the “little plant” because in our hearts, in our prayers, in our convents and friaries are also contained the hidden shoots of the next Springtime.  Let us tend them so that this Spirit of Clare and Francis may continue to grow and produce fruit in the days, years and centuries ahead.

We read in her Bull of Canonization that Clare “gleamed in the world, in Religion she outshone; in her house she enlightened as a ray, in the cloister she flashed as lightning. She gleamed in life, after death she radiates; she was clear on Earth, in the sky she shines back! O how great the strength of the light of this one and how strong the illumination of this clarity of hers! This light, indeed, remained enclosed in secret cloisters, and outside it emitted sparkling rays; it was gathered in a convent, yet it was sprinkled upon the entire age; it was guarded within, and it flowed forth outside. For indeed, Clare lay hidden, but her life lay open; Clare was silent, but her fame shouted out; she was concealed in her cell and she was known among cities. Nor is it surprising; because a light so enkindled, so full of light, could not be hidden away so as to not shine and give a clear light in the house of the Lord.”

Let us radiate the light of Christ just as St. Clare did. Let us fill the darkness of this night with a brightness that cannot be contained.  Let us pray the Winter’s end and the beginning of a new Springtime for the years ahead.

May Our Holy Mother Saint Clare intercede for us; may she bless us with newness of life; and may the Lord give us His peace.

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