The first time I ever entered a Poor Clare church was in 2004. I was with my wife, Katia, in the postcard-perfect medieval hill town of San Severino at the base of the Apennine Mountains in central Italy. We were with a group of Italians on a pilgrimage to the Franciscan places within the bucolic region of the Marches led by the provincial minister, Fr. Ferdinando Campana.
We were there to meet the sisters who would tell us the tale of how St. Francis visited their town long before in 1219. His ship had just landed in the port city of Ancona, after his famed visit to the Holy Land when he encountered the Muslim Sultan, and he was returning to Assisi. He was carrying on his shoulders a sheep he would leave in the custody of a community of holy sisters. Those nuns eventually took the Rule of St. Clare, and the present community traced their lineage directly to them.
As I sat in the church waiting for Evening Prayer to begin, I recall looking beyond the grate into the sacred enclosure behind the altar and tabernacle. As it was a cloistered monastery, there was a sense of mystery; yet, it seemed, nevertheless, somehow inviting and welcoming.
Bells rang and soon there was movement. Sporadically at first, then in greater numbers, nuns in full habit and headdress began quietly filling the choral space. They were all ages, and some of the young ones tenderly accompanied the older ones with canes to their respective places.
Though it was difficult to see clearly through the grate, I could sense that they were joyful and they seemed special. It was as if an entire world was back there, enclosed and self-contained.
Moments later, an organ began playing and the chanting started. Wow. Their melodic voices were warm, gentle, and consoling. Their song was like perfume that permeated the space and exuded vitality and freshness. When Vespers was over, the nuns knelt and quietly said a prayer. Then, through the same door that they had entered, they retreated just as solemnly as they had arrived. I sat there for a moment struck by what I had just experienced. I felt as if I had been transported to a place somewhere else, where all was pure, lovely, and gracious.
Our small group was then summoned to a large room in the guesthouse next to the church where we were served a scrumptious and filling dinner prepared by the nuns. After the homemade tiramisu, I imagined it was time to go. Instead, a large door opened up and the nuns appeared seated on the other side of a wide gate. Bongo drums and acoustic guitars in hand, they were all smiles, and I realized the evening was just getting started. The next few hours, in fact, were a delightful mix of “Franciscan fun” replete with singing, holy joke-telling, vocation testimonies, and, finally, Night Prayer.
That night I had the opportunity to meet some of the sisters. I had the strange sensation that I had known them for a long time . . . or, perhaps, it was as if they had known me. Though they were vowed to a life of poverty and simplicity, I realized immediately that these were amazing and extraordinary women. I also knew instinctively that I would remain close to those sisters for a long time. Indeed, it was so.
A short while later, a small contingent of sisters left San Severino to refound a community in Camerino. The previous community had been forced to leave after the earthquake of 1997 damaged their monastery and church. The Poor Clare monastery of Camerino was also important to the Franciscans of the Marches region because it housed the remains of Camilla Battista Varano, whose canonization was imminent.The sisters—faithful and bold—would return and rebuild. (Little did they know that history would repeat itself, and they would be forced to return after another earthquake in 2016 caused much more damage.)
I soon developed a wonderful relationship with the sisters. It was they who encouraged and supported me to begin bringing pilgrimage groups to the Franciscan places in Italy, which eventually included visits to their monasteries.
So when I initially began accompanying pilgrimage groups to the Franciscan places in Italy, I studied the life of St. Francis thoroughly and earned a certificate in Franciscan studies. I even wrote a book about him, St. Francis of Assisi: Passion, Poverty, and the Man Who Transformed the Catholic Church. And as I grew in my knowledge of Francis, it seemed as if Clare was there hidden in the background—silently, mysteriously.
In fact, though I had become well-versed on the life of St. Francis, I always felt a little embarrassed that I did not know much about St. Clare. I wanted to know more. Therefore, I set out to learn about her: I took a course on her life; I read the medieval sources, including her writings and letters, the Legends, and the Acts of Canonization; and I read some of the contemporary biographies.
Yet, as I learned about the life of St. Clare, I realized something: I already knew her. In fact, I had been watching her for many years. Indeed, I realized that in observing the sisters, I had already come to know St. Clare. While in Assisi, I had seen the body of St. Clare countless times, but it was inside the Poor Clare monastery where I saw her face.
My new book, St. Clare of Assisi: Light from the Cloister, is a biography of the saint from Assisi; yet, it is also about the St. Clare I have met: the one I have prayed with, been consoled by, bantered with, and even cried with.
May this book be for the reader a window into the life and spirit of St. Clare -- just as I once glimpsed into the enclosure of a Poor Clare monastery some fifteen years ago.
This is an excerpt from Bret Thoman’s new book, St. Clare of Assisi: Light from the Cloister, which was published by TAN Books on July 25, 2017.
© 2017 Bret Thoman.