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The language of the spirit

· ​Clare of Assisi and Agnes of Prague ·

Clare and Agnes had never met. They lived in distant countries and belonged to different social classes, but their friendship can never be doubted. Four surviving letters from a correspondence spanning a long period testify to it. It was certainly a spiritual friendship, of the kind that can sprout and take root only between those who have common aspirations, ideals and models of life, between those who love God profoundly and see him in another with whom to share the striving to be united with and conformed to him. An inner disposition and a movement of the emotions then come into being which induce a reciprocal exchange of confirmation in faith and of support in doubt, a sharing of affections and of mutual help in possible difficulties. All this and far more emerges from the words of Clare, who greets with enthusiasm her distant friend who has embarked on a life similar in all things to hers in order to be able to actuate in the most consonant manner the resolution to follow Christ: to follow Jesus in poverty and in the renouncement of marriage with a view to a loftier and deeper union.

Clare, born in 1193, belonged to a noble family from a small Italian town, endowed with notable riches. The destiny marked out for her by her father Favarone provided for her marriage to a highly placed young man who could permit her the standard of living she had so far enjoyed or an even better one. This was of course nothing in comparison with her friend Agnes, who was born in Prague in 1211 and was a princess of royal blood, the daughter of the King of Bohemia, who was betrothed to the son of the Duke Frederick ii of Swabia. Yet the disparity of rank and the geographical distance between these two young women did not prevent them from sharing a common feeling. They were both brought up in the Christian religion and to be merciful to the poor and the sick, they practised almsgiving and providing the needy with assistance as an innate duty of the wealthiest, but this concept of charity, assimilated in the family, no longer corresponded with the feelings of the generation of their time which saw in the poor an alter Christus. Thus following Christ meant making oneself voluntarily poor. Both Clare and Agnes understood the Lord’s new call and saw and recognized Francis’ example. So it was that their lives were illuminated and marked out. First Clare fled from home, then she renounced her dowry in order to distribute it to those in need and emphasized her conversion with a radical gesture, having Francis cut her hair. Her father’s efforts to bring her home were in vain. Indeed, soon afterwards Clare’s sister joined her in her new dwelling place at San Damiano: it was still a temporary refuge with a view to preparing the form of life to share with other women friends and sisters.

Agnes instead attained complete dedication to Christ more gradually. She heard from the first Friars Minor who arrived in Prague the message of Francis, who had recently died and was immediately canonized (1226-1228); she used part of her riches to found a hospital for the sick and a convent for the sisters who served in it dedicated to St Francis; her resolution subsequently matured to live in complete poverty, after the model of all that Clara had already accomplished. Agnes was to succeed in her intention not by fleeing from home but by difficult negotiations with her family, in which the intermediary was the Pope himself, Gregory ix. With the pontifical approval, Agnes summoned five sisters from Trent who followed the form of life of San Damiano (1233-1234) to direct the convent. Other Bohemian young women joined them and a few months later the noble princess too. Agnes then saw to ridding herself of all her riches, transferring the possession of them to the Holy See and receiving in exchange the privilegium paupertatis which Clare had already achieved, namely, papal consent not to be forced to accept wealth and to live only on the proceeds of the sisters’ work and on alms. After these events Clare of Assisi recognized Agnes of Prague as a sister and daughter and addressed to her those letters that constitute a monument of spirituality and friendship and that have few to equal them in her century and beyond it.

Ugolino Verino, “Life of St Clare, Virgin” (miniature, 1496)

Clare’s letters are also a model of lofty female writing. They follow the rules of the art in the initial greeting and in style, yet go beyond the formal layout in their content and expressions dictated by sincerity and affection. The first letter, whose dating is attributed to between 1234 and 1238, the year of the concession of the privilegium paupertatis in Prague, takes the form of a greeting to the noble lady who with her renunciation of earthly goods and choice of virginity had become a daughter and sister of the poor nun of San Damiano. The incipit recalls the high rank of the recipient and her own present condition as “sister and spouse of the supreme King of heaven”: it was she whom the humble and unworthy “handmaid of Christ and servant of poor women” addressed.

In this first epistolary encounter with Agnes, Clare highlights the disparity between the origins of the two correspondents. This is followed by the admiration she expresses for Agnes’ radical choice of poverty and her pleasure in their common form of life which enables distances and formalities to be overcome. Agnes and Clare were now sisters and the first follower of Francis took on a role of spiritual guidance of the woman who wanted to follow in her footsteps:

“Therefore, most beloved sister, or should I say Lady worthy of great respect: because you are the spouse and the mother and the sister of my Lord Jesus Christ, and have been adorned resplendently with the sign of inviolable virginity and most holy poverty: be strengthened in the holy service which you have undertaken out of an ardent desire for the Poor Crucified”.

Clare indicates to Agnes the first and only model to follow: the poor and crucified Christ. Francis of Assisi is never mentioned, neither in this letter nor in the others, even though the praise of poverty which the Abbess of San Damiano includes in her first letter to Agnes certainly also recalls, in a poetic afflatus, the love of the Friar Minor for his spouse poverty:

“O blessed poverty, who bestows eternal riches on those who love and embrace her!

Maestro di Santa Chiara (13th century)

O holy poverty, to those who possess and desire you God promises the kingdom of heaven and offers, indeed, eternal glory and blessed life!.

O God-centred poverty, whom the Lord Jesus Christ Who ruled and now rules heaven and earth, Who spoke and things were made, condescended to embrace before all else!”.

The second letter that Clare sent to Agnes was written only a little later than the first one in specific circumstances determined by the interventions implemented by those in authority to induce her to mitigate the absolute poverty she had embraced. Clare then urges her sister not to desist from her first resolution, “that, like another Rachel, you always remember your resolution and be conscious of how you began”. In suffering with Christ the noble Agnes would reign with him and would acquire for eternity the glory of the heavenly kingdom instead of earthly and transitory things.

Clare’s third letter too was in answer to a specific question about fasting, which originated in papal prescriptions that made harsher the customs in use among the Damianites. Agnes thus wondered what Francis’ orders would have been. The letter can be dated to around 1237 and the frequency of the contacts between the two Damianites in this period is understandable in the light of Agnes’ desire to make uniform and direct the steps of the foundation in Prague in the footsteps of the foundation in Assisi. Clare responds to the question but very soon her words turn to the thematic fulcrum of her friendly exhortation. Like a mother she rejoices in the wisdom and virtue of Agnes, “a co-worker of God Himself and a support of the weak members of His ineffable Body”, and she urges Agnes to place her heart in the figure of the divine substance to contemplate it and to transform her whole being “into the image of the Godhead itself”, which welcomes her into his friendship “so that you too may feel what His friends feel as they taste the hidden sweetness which God Himself has reserved from the beginning for those who love Him”. Deification is the purpose of the sisters’ lives, the choice of poverty is the first step in order to draw close to Christ.

The fourth and last letter sent to Agnes dates to very much later. It is a farewell letter and has, as it were, the value of a will. Clare was very ill and was to die shortly afterwards, assisted by her sister. Hence it was written in 1253. The mother begins by apologizing for her long silence, caused partly by being far away and partly by the lack of messengers, but she then goes straight to the essential core of her thoughts and exhortations which revolve around two subjects: the double significance of the name Agnese-Agnello, [Agnes-Lamb], and the image of the mirror without blemish.

Bohemian Maestro of Prague, “St Agnes Visits the Sick” (1482)

The first theme harks back to the nuptials with Christ which Agnes of Prague, “like another most holy virgin, St Agnes”, has contracted, despising the vanities of the world and espousing the Lamb. The second subject is that of the mirror in which Agnes must look in order to adorn herself and make herself beautiful with “the flowers and garments of all the virtues, as becomes the daughter and most chaste bride of the Most High King”. In this mirror are reflected “Blessed poverty, holy humility, and ineffable charity”. These are the virtues which reflect the life of the Spouse Jesus Christ: at the beginning poverty distinguishes his birth, then his humility is manifested in the labours and burdens he endured for our redemption, and lastly, charity is the force that spurs him to suffer on the Cross and to face the most shameful kind of death. Agnes, look in that mirror, be set on fire with love and implore to be introduced into “the wine-cellar”. A series of quotations then follows from the Song of Songs, which evoke the mystical nuptials, a metaphor of the mystical union with God.

The letter then ends with a few, vivid words which sum up the meaning, never previously explained, of the long epistolary relationship of these sisters and friends: “Let the tongue of the flesh be silent […] and let the tongue of the Spirit speak”.

Affection and the sharing of life and aspirations mark the essence of this timeless spiritual friendship.

[The citations from the letters (in Italian) are from the edition edited by Giovanni Pozzi and Beatrice Rima: Chiara d’Assisi, Lettere ad Agnese. La vision dello specchio, Milan, Adelphi Edizioni, 1999].

Gabriella Zarri

PRINTED EDITION

 

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