In this life I’ve not travelled much outside North America. Go deep, an inner voice instructed, and so I let that happen first on the boundary waters of Minnesota and Ontario, and then in a convent beside the Red River of the North. In the middle of life I uprooted myself and came to be transplanted on the Pacific Coast. Later I would make a few short trips to England and Ireland. I never travelled far from the waters of earth, and water became a mirror from which soul might reflect.
“Our years are seventy, and eighty if we are strong,” the Hebrew Scriptures say. And I was in my seventh decade before I traveled with my new husband, author John R. Sack, to Italy to celebrate our marriage with a pilgrimage to the holy places of St. Francis and St. Clare. He had written an historical novel set in the era just after the death of Francis, a book which had brought the two of us together in what he calls our wisdom years. And in 2011 we wanted to walk the paths that Francis walked and to visit the convent of San Damiano in Assisi where Clare had lived.
Although I had connections with women in Minnesota who followed the Rule of St. Clare and lived lives of enclosure, I hadn’t entered a Franciscan convent myself. I had, however, considered it as early as my twelfth birthday. I received a book from the Franciscans of Little Falls, Minnesota, explaining the Franciscan way of life, but the Sisters in the town where I lived were not Franciscan, and they were the Sisters I knew, loved, and joined. Consequently, I was not prepared for what happened to me in Assisi.
In Assisi I met Chiara—Clare’s name engraved in Italian on the statue honoring her in the cathedral there. I truly have no way to describe how this happened. I can describe the places John and I visited, the stories we were told, the landscapes, caves, and churches—the worn stones on which these people once walked. Something of them, Francis and (in her Italian language) Chiara, remains alive there, and it shook me to my core. It burned in my heart. I entered a cave, touched a stone, knelt in a small chapel, stood on the stone stairs in San Damiano and something so powerful took hold of me, over and over it took hold, making even simple breath a whirlwind. “What am I going to do?” I fell into John’s arms and wept. This thirteenth century woman had grasped my soul with an intensity too great for me, but she wouldn’t let me go.
Back in Oregon we dedicated our home to her.
And now, these poems.
Sometimes I watch her; sometimes she speaks in her own voice to me. The poems came through me in both third and first person, but all of them are reflections of Chiara as I bent back towards her, as I gazed. Her spiritual teacher from childhood was a man from her own town of Assisi, Francis Bernardone whose imprint on his town, his country, his church, and the entire world’s history remains. Francis and Chiara of Assisi have been relevant in every era up to our own. And back in the thirteenth century the young woman named Chiara left her home to join Francis and his dream of living exactly as Jesus of Nazareth had lived—an authentic Christianity. And Chiara loved him, loved both of them—Jesus the Christ and the poor man, Francis of her own home town.
Both Francis and Chiara lived extraordinary lives. Both were mystics burning with divine love. This love united them and it was in this love that they recognized each other. Despite stories and movies to the contrary, I don’t believe they ever had a sexual relationship nor desired one. All love of that sort was burned in a divine and universal fire and transformed into the very love of God, so profoundly that their love for one another became identical with their love in and for God.
In my journal I wrote: Here's what I know about Clare's yearning. In the museum below Santa Chiara Cathedral in Assisi is an alb made of lace which she made for Francis. I can't remember how many years she worked on it. It's like spider webs, fine, almost falling apart now even behind the glass. Something about that lace holds a fierce yearning, one she believed she shared with Francis. Was the union in the simple understanding that someone in this world experienced a yearning as intensely as did she? Such yearning cannot be mingled, I think. It is solitary. But just knowing that someone else experiences such infinity of longing causes love. As though the lace were a language of the soul to say, “I want to veil the profound darkness in you with these webs of white lace, something of light, so that you do not succumb to your desperate aloneness, so that you do not give way to a belief that darkness is all there is, but that having finally touched the deepest fields of night, even there you will realize that there is yet More, there is a fullness opening to you, an endlessness that not only fills you completely, but is what you are. And it is Light. It is Love.”
Maria Popova writes, “Even the farthest seers can’t bend their gaze beyond their era’s horizon of possibility, but the horizon shifts with each incremental revolution as the human mind peers outward to take in nature, then turns inward to question its own givens. We sieve the world through the mesh of these certitudes, tautened by nature and culture, but every once in a while—whether by accident or conscious effort—the wire loosens and the kernel of a revolution slips through.”
From time to time I wonder if these mystics, Chiara and Francis, found their way through the mesh of certitude to glimpse truths beyond their era’s horizon, truths that science only recently would discover, or that a psychology of self-integration would realize. Chiara, herself proclaimed a saint by the church she both loved and challenged during her life, was a woman who claimed her womanhood and the freedom it accorded her. She was the first woman to establish a religious community of women living according to a structure and rule she herself designed. Up to then nuns lived according to rules written by men such as St. Benedict and St. Augustine. The Poor Ladies of San Damiano lived according to the Rule of Chiara. She petitioned Rome again and again to approve her plan. And she didn’t die until the Pope finally agreed. Already, though, groups of “Poor Clares” had come together across Europe. In Bohemia the woman, Agnes of Prague, a royal woman betrothed to the Emperor Frederick II, chose instead to follow Chiara and establish a group of Poor Clares in her own country. The letters between Chiara and Agnes along with the unique Rule and Testament have formed the basis of study, spiritual enlightenment and women’s rights even to this present day.
We humans rarely if ever know what we set in motion simply by living our lives and making what choices we can.
These poems are the product of prayer and contemplation. They are historical only in the broadest sense. I hope, however, they remain true to the spirit of Chiara even while their details are mostly images derived from my own imagination. (from the Introduction)
You can purchase this book by ordering it from your local bookstore or by going directly to Chiara Reflections