Not Second Best

Not Second Best

20 November 2015


Clare Favarone of Assisi (1194-1253) confronts us with this truth;
that to "retreat and hide" behind the high walls of an enclosed prayer
house is a positive act.  Far from being a cop-out, it is a creative
response to a time of "refreshing" (Ac 3.19) and spiritual crisis.

Often history veils Clare in a romantic haze; swanning about the
countryside with her best pal Francis of Assisi, gathering cute
bunches of wildflowers and chatting to wild animals.  Or scholars
paint and judge her life of prayer as some kind of unfortunate default
setting, forced upon her due to "an accident of history" that
determined that women were not allowed to live apostolic lives?

The second generation of Franciscans have made it almost impossible
for us to sort out our own thinking about such things.  They were
prepared to burn books (and even men) to make quite sure that their
official version of "Francis and Clare" triumphed.  We should weep
over this, but not be too surprised.  Throughout the final 14 years of
Francis' life, pretty well every alteration or development of his
movement was undertaken by new leaders without him knowing or even
"against his will".

Clare outlived Francis by 27 years.  But she had to fight a rearguard
action against Franciscan "reformers" who seemed oblivious or
unconcerned that their choices and decisions were blurring and even
blotting out Francis' original vision and ideals.

I (respectfully) cannot accept that Clare's hidden life of prayer was
second-best, because neither she nor any of the original Franciscans
ever permitted themselves to be intimidated or stymied by prevailing
religious and social custom and culture.  Even before Clare
controversially "ran away" to join Francis and his fledgling band of
"lesser brothers", she had demonstrated intense determination to live
a life of fervent devotion.  She shocked and perturbed everyone
(family, Church, town) by flat-out refusing to parade herself with the
other marriageable teenagers at the medieval equivalent of a
debutantes' ball.  When Clare did finally join Francis out in "the
wilderness" and had her long hair chopped off as a sign of her
consecration to Jesus Christ, she was "attacking" two pillars of her

1)   That women were first and foremost financially valuable
possessions, belonging to their families.

2)   That marriage was "the foundation of civic order".

So, my question is: "Why stop the revolution there?"  Of course my
answer is that "the revolution" did not halt there.  It blazed on with
the "lesser brothers" giving themselves primarily to apostolic
activism and revival, and the "lesser sisters" or Poor Ladies devoted
to apostolic lives of contemplative prayer.

Together Francis and Clare (and their followers) became Jesus Christ
to their generation.  Like Him, Francis gave himself over to "great
multitudes" who "came together to hear, and to be healed".  And like
Jesus, Clare withdrew herself "into the wilderness, and prayed". (Lk

The traditional and commonplace dichotomy and tension between activism
and contemplation is not only dumb, it is anti-Christian.  It divides
and cripples and disfigures the Church which is His Body.  That is why
it is of paramount importance to see Francis and Clare as the two
imperative halves of the One whole.  And Clare's half is not in any
way, shape or form second class or inferior.  In other words, she
immolated herself in a prayer house, not because she couldn't be out
travelling and preaching to crowds.  She lived to pray and prayed to
live because that was the reason for her existence, her vocation, her

When Francis was close to going to Heaven, he said, "Now I have done
what is mine to do."  Clare (in her dearest friend's footsteps) was
doing exactly what Jesus Christ had taught her, was hers to do.

I give the "last word" in this ongoing debate to one of Francis' more
unusual "lesser brothers"...Brother Wolf.  For reasons best known to
him, this actual wolf had become the scourge of a particular little
town.  Francis converted and recruited him, and this hairy disciple
went from being an unholy terror to a holy blessing.  Sadly, after
Francis' death Brother Wolf was driven out and away by those who
considered themselves his successors.  Whence the wolf?

Well, he went straight "home" to Clare, and spent the rest of his life
amongst the Poor Ladies.  Brother Wolf slipped easily from apostolic
activism to apostolic contemplation.  How so?  Because he "saw" that
the same unction that had clothed Francis also adorned beautiful
Clare.  Christian activism and contemplation were not for him polar
opposites crying out for mutual exclusion.  He intuited (better than
most of the so-called superior species!) that there must always be two
sides, and only ever One coin.

The life of prayer is not for the disqualified, the disadvantaged, the
stay-at-homes.  It is for those who are so called, and their calling
is just as Heaven-sent, authentic and valid as any vocation to local
church ministry or missions.

"God, who has saved us and called us to a holy life - not because of
anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace." (2 Ti

"If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?
You must follow me." (Jn 21.22)

"Light in the Dark Ages", Jon M. Sweeney, Paraclete Press, Massachusetts, 2007
"Writings of Clare of Assisi",