An Undaunted Heart
by Mother M. Angela, P.C.C.
Our Holy Mother Clare writes in the Holy Rule that we should “desire above all the Spirit of the Lord and his holy way of working.” Surely she did this herself, and surely she allowed the Holy Spirit a free hand in her own heart and mind and soul. So I thought we would look at how the Holy Spirit worked in our Mother St. Clare, and especially at his gift of fortitude, as it shone forth in her.
In a phrase taken from a study on her personality by an Italian friar, our Holy Mother Clare is described as “tenacious and combative.” The word “combative” surprised me — tenacious, yes; but combative? I looked it up to find out what was causing me pause, and the word is defined as “eager to fight or argue.” I don't think Holy Mother Clare was ever eager to fight; she was surely ready to fight, to defend what was precious to her; but not eager. She was full of the spirit of peace, as well as of fortitude. She was by no means a quarrelsome person, but she was always ready to defend what was good. She was called upon to defend what was good many times in her life, and this required great fortitude.
How do we define fortitude? We know fortitude is a cardinal virtue, one of the four great virtues; and also a gift of the Holy Spirit. This gift makes man inclined to face those evils which he most dreads, and at the same time to resist the motions of mere recklessness. It involves the control, not the absence of fear. I found that very striking. It is not that we don't fear; it is that we control the fear. Allied to this virtue are four beautiful virtues: magnificence, magnanimity, patience, and perseverance — all of which we see in Holy Mother Clare.
The Holy Spirit moves us by this gift of fortitude so that we are able to overcome difficulties, avoid dangers, and have confidence. I think that third ability is extremely important — not just to overcome difficulties, not just to avoid dangers, but to have confidence. This confidence produces peace in our souls in the midst of dangers, struggles, and troubles. Every Christian needs this gift to persevere in virtue; without it, we lack peace and confidence.
How did the Holy Spirit’s gift of fortitude shine out in Holy Mother Clare’s life? She was by nature, we know, a person of great courage; and this was perfected by the Holy Spirit's gift of fortitude.
First of all, Celano tells us that “she faced the assault of her relatives with firm perseverance at San Paolo.” That was March 19, 1212 — Monday of Holy Week. She faced that assault with firm perseverance. They employed force, and what did she do? Celano tells us “she clung to the altar, she bared her head, and she endured,” because we are told this went on for many days. It was not just one single attack. He tells us, “Her spirit did not crumble, her fervor did not diminish,” but that “amid words and deeds of hatred, she molded her spirit anew in hope.” What a beautiful phrase: “She molded her spirit anew in hope.” There we see the gift of fortitude at work. She kept up with this until they gave up! Mahatma Gandhi could have sat at her feet. She knew about nonviolence and passive resistance in the most beautiful, spiritual way. She was molding her spirit in hope until her relatives gave up.
It is beautiful to consider what it means when we are told that she simply remained. She did outwardly what she was doing in spirit — clinging to the altar of God. That's how Holy Mother Clare did combat. She was simply faithful to the charism that the Holy Spirit had given her. Her fight, her whole resistance, consisted in doing what she was doing. She remained.
The second moment or picture in Holy Mother Clare's life (there were probably many, many more that we don't know of) is when Agnes was being stolen, so to speak. Celano tells us that “Clare prostrated herself in prayer with tears, begging that Agnes would be given constancy of mind and that divine power would overcome human strength.” Here is another real crisis in her life! And her fortitude was expressed, not in something foreign to her enclosed life of prayer, but in something completely in consonance with it. She remained. She cried to God. She prostrated herself in prayer. She prayed with her whole heart, totally reliant on God, with no other resources of her own. She didn't have the police on call, a security guard, or anybody else to help. She simply relied on God and did what she was called to do in the Church — she prayed.
Then the third picture in her life: the attack of the Saracens. Brother Bill Short brought out that beautiful phrase — that she “with undaunted heart," ordered that, as sick as she was, she be brought to the door and placed there before the enemy, while the Blessed Sacrament preceded her in the pyx. Then Celano says, “She thoroughly prostrated herself before the Lord in prayer.” Again, she did what she had been doing all along. She remained in the monastery; she prostrated herself before the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament; she prayed; she trusted; she put all in God's hands, just like she always did. In this miracle especially, her confidence shines forth. She expected with full confidence that God would act to save her. If it hadn't been the Holy Spirit working in her, you might have said, “Was this recklessness?” — “Put me at the window! I will be the ransom. I will be the defense.” But she truly believed in the spousal love of her Bridegroom. What bridegroom would not act to save his bride — his brides — from peril? She acted in faith.
Later on came Vitale d’Aversa, when he was attacking the city. What did she do? Did she call the city council together, or sue for peace, or rouse the Assisians to action? None of these things would have been consonant with her life of enclosed prayer. She took penitential action. She scattered ashes on the sisters’ heads and begged the Lord to liberate the city. She didn't do anything foreign to her own vocation. She put her whole confidence in penance and prayer, remaining enclosed, trusting and confident, just remaining in the vocation to which the Spirit of God had led her. We know that the people of Assisi credit her with the liberation of the city, by her remaining, praying, and doing penance.
Then the long, long episode of her sickness. A tremendous fortitude was required for what must have been a slow martyrdom for someone who was so full of life — to be confined to bed for years and years. But she surrendered; she endured with patience; she made the best of it by doing what she could, by making altar linens. I'm sure she was still very active in many ways. But she remained through that suffering.
During the long struggle for the approval of our Holy Rule, she humbly and persistently sought what she knew God wanted for her Order. Brother Bill said, “She never departed from a submissive, respectful obedience, but also never gave in on the issue.” We think what tremendous trust it must have taken to persevere in that struggle while she lay on her deathbed, simply trusting that God would take care of it — and he made her trust to the end.
Then also, as Brother Bill mentioned, in death itself she did not give in to the fear of judgment, which was so common at her time. She spoke to her soul and instructed it to go forth without fear. Again, she did what she had always done — she thanked God and she trusted him.
I'm sure Celano could have said what we read in St. John's Gospel — that all the books in the world couldn't contain all the things that could be written of Holy Mother Clare and of her fortitude. But we see in these specific episodes, these wonderful episodes, the wonderful confluence of her natural gifts and the supernatural gifts of God. She was truly noble by birth and noble by grace. She was firm and wise and completely responsive to the working of the Holy Spirit. She knew how to face violence without ever becoming violent herself.
Because Jesus was the daily solution to daily difficulties in her life, he was also the dramatic solution to her epic difficulties. She solved her big problems, she met her grave challenges, by doing what she always did. What was that? What did she always do? She remained with Jesus in prayer. She remained with the community. She clung to the altar. It is good to pray over what that gesture means, and how we can cling to the altar. She prostrates herself before the Blessed Sacrament. She always expected help from him. She was always totally dependent and trusting and abandoned, with no alternate plan. “If the Lord doesn't come through, I’ve got Plan X in my pocket.” No — it was always that he was it. He was the solution, and she depended entirely on him. She always had recourse to prayer. Holy Mother Clare could be fearless and confident because she did not look to herself for solutions. She didn't attempt to solve these problems herself on the natural plane. She looked to God, to the Spirit of the Lord, for help — with confidence and trust and total dependence.
Then we apply these truths to our own lives. We know our need of fortitude in daily life. We live in most difficult times. We suffer from the fear that we most dread — the disintegration of western Christian culture and civilization. This is a very real fear which we do well to dread. We think of the many ways that evil appears to be getting the upper hand in our modern culture — in the media, in education, in so many ways. Do we do as Holy Mother Clare did and have recourse to the Blessed Sacrament? Do we cast all our cares on him, as she did? Do we simply remain in our vocation, trusting and faithful to God? The Holy Spirit, working his gifts in us, never violates the charism of our vocation. You see that in Holy Mother Clare. She just was “more so” in these times of crisis.
There are times when we suffer from weariness and dryness in our life of prayer; and when that happens, we can simply remain. We can cling to the altar of God as she did. Or when life seems to have no meaning, as it has to be sometimes for us, we simply cling to the altar of God. We need fortitude to sustain our life of prayer. We need fortitude to sustain charity in community. We need fortitude to be faithful in daily life. We need fortitude as the virtue that will see us through the long haul, which is what the contemplative life is about. Those auxiliary virtues of peace, patience, perseverance, and magnanimity are all needed on the long haul.
So we look to the example of Holy Mother Clare and her correspondence with the grace of God, and we ask her to obtain the grace of an undaunted heart for each one of us, because our heart will be undaunted if the fortitude of the Holy Spirit, the strength of God, is allowed to work in it. Let us ask Holy Mother Clare to help us to be wide open to the gifts and graces that the Holy Spirit wants to give us.