Light, Mirror, Poverty – the Contemplative Wisdom of St Clare

Clare - Simone Martini

It is St Clare’s feast day tomorrow and, therefore, another opportunity to remember what an exceptional mystical theologian she was. Too often, she is overshadowed by Francis in the consciousness of most church people, but it would be a mistake to see her only as a follower of her better known contemporary. Although she responded to the same call that drew Francis to a life of radical simplicity, her mystical exploration of Holy Poverty is of a different order from his – more subtle, more contemplative, more carefully developed – though it is no less radical in terms of the life she led. Clare’s letters to Blessed Agnes of Prague are classics of medieval Christian mysticism and explore poverty as a profound expression of self-forgetting, an utter humility in which the true self is realised. Among the many images in these letters, the image of the mirror in the third letter stands out. She is by no means the first to use it and, in the letter, is quoting directly from the book of Wisdom. The image is also known in other faith traditions as a picture of the true mind, clarified of all distortions, simple and pure, seeing all and having no separate identity. In Clare’s writing, the mirror into which we gaze is Christ, poor, humble and loving. In that mirror, we see our own face, and when we see it clearly, we see that it has the same character of the mirror itself – poor, humble, loving. In other words, our own face is seen also as a mirror, also as Christ.

With Clare, though, this is no theory. It is the lived experience of the contemplative who practices a life of spiritual and material poverty. Poverty is not an add-on for her but a lived expression of one’s true nature. Her example brings to mind another exemplar of holy poverty, the Zen monk Ryokan. When a thief came to his simple hut, Ryokan was happy to let him take what meagre possessions he had. As the thief left, Ryokan sighed sadly and said, ‘I wish I could have given him the moon as well.’ The lesson being, of course, that if the thief learns true poverty, he can have the moon as well! Ryokan also wrote on the practice of begging for food, takuhatsu:

The cloud-covered sky
is all open.
The heart of takuhatsu
as it is –
a gift from heaven.

This was Clare’s experience of poverty too, a divine simplicity in which we learn complete openness. This complete openness is shown ultimately in self-giving love. For Clare, this self-giving love is the Mirror that hangs on a wooden gallows. Looking into it with the same openness, our love is inflamed until we cry out:

‘Draw me after you!
I will run and not tire
until your hand will embrace me happily
and you will kiss me with the happiest kiss.’

[Third Letter to Agnes, paragraphs 30ff]

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