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The Beauty and Hospitality of St. Clare of Assisi

During my eight years presenting RENEW in many dioceses in Nigeria, I have enjoyed the gracious hospitality of the Poor Clares in Ijebu-Ode in the southwest part of the country. I remember clearly my first visit—the anxiety I felt as I had never visited, much less stayed overnight, in a cloistered monastery. After many hours of car travel on a hot, hot day we arrived at the closed gate that was part of a wall that surrounded the property. The driver began to honk the horn—a practice in Nigeria that always puts my nerves on edge—but one that every single driver I ever had the pleasure to meet engaged in. After a while, the guard appeared and opened the gate. As we drove into the compound, I was astonished to see lovely trees, well-tended flower beds, and many walking paths.

Before I even had the chance to get out of the car, the front door opened and out came Sr. Bonaventure (“Bona” for short) with a huge smile ready to greet me in a warm embrace. My biggest shock was that she was dressed in what I would call a tan, “modern” habit, and she was Irish! Sr. Bona is the vicaress, meaning second in authority. My nerves melted away as fast as most things do in the Nigerian sun. Both she and the abbess, Sr. Francesca (from Italy), had been working to firmly establish this young Nigerian community. Sr. Bona took me to my room, where I dropped off my bags, and then to the dining room for a cold drink and some supper. One of the traditions in a Poor Clare Monastery is that visitors and the sisters eat in a separate dining room. I spent several days there and was able to join in the prayer life of the sisters in the chapel. My meals, although taken in the visitor’s dining room, were always in the company of one of the sisters.

On my second visit, the sisters invited me into the cloistered area to share with them the work that RENEW was engaged in within the diocese. One of my surprises was to listen to these women who never went beyond “the wall” speak so knowledgeably about the realities affecting the people in the diocese—their struggles, their problems, and their great faith. It was truly inspiring! Another wonderful example of how I went to share and how I came away filled and humbled.

Since those visits to the monastery in Ijebu-Ode, I have had the honor of visiting several Poor Clare monasteries—in England, Italy, Ireland, and here in the United States. The gift for me has been that each one has its own unique flavor, always capturing the beauty and hospitality of Clare.
Clare speaks to us today as we remember her as a strong woman of the Church who founded her own community of “poor ladies” in the church of San Damiano. Clare was the first woman to write her own rule of life for religious women. This rule guaranteed her and her sisters the “privilege of poverty,” which is the right never to own anything of their own. She steadfastly clung to this principle and won papal approval for the rule, despite many misgivings from church authorities.
Clare’s life served as a model of feminine leadership. As abbess, she considered herself not above her sisters but an equal among them. She listened to them and included them in decision-making. She always maintained a calm demeanor and was a spiritual teacher, a healer, and a woman who was fearless in the face of external threats to Assisi and to her cloister.

My favorite quote of Clare from her Second Letter (11-14) to her sister Agnes inspires me as a Franciscan woman to continue to be steadfast in my call.

“What you hold, may you always hold,
What you do, may you always do and never abandon.
But with swift pace, light step,
unswerving feet,
so that even your steps stir up no dust,
may you go forward
securely, joyfully, and swiftly,
on the path of prudent happiness,
not believing anything
that would dissuade you from this resolution
or that would place a stumbling block for you on the way,
so that you may offer your vows to the Most High
in the pursuit of that perfection
to which the Spirit of the Lord has called you.”

Happy Feast Day to all the Poor Clares around the world!

Sr. Maureen P. Colleary, FSP is on the Pastoral Services team at RENEW International and a Franciscan Sister of Peace.

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