A Seat at the Table

Conversations on Clare of Assisi

by Jean Molesky-Poz |

In 1777 the Franciscan Missionaries named the new mission Santa Clara de Asís, the first California mission to be dedicated in honor of a woman, as the Southern Companion for San Francisco de ASíS (Mission Dolores) at the mouth of the San Francisco Bay.

In 1851, Italian Jesuits Michael Accolti, S.J., and John Nobili, S.J., established the original Santa Clara College around the Mission Santa Clara de Asís, which in 1912 became the University of Santa Clara. Thus Santa Clara University finds itself endowed with two extraordinary legacies: Clare of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan community of women, and Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus.

The Greek term charism designates spiritual gifts that are received by an individual or group for the service and building up of
the community. These gifts are “unusual, spontaneous and creative.” A charism, then, is a living gift, a breath of the creator spirit in
a dynamic history to be adapted to the times and places, to the sociocultural contexts and needs of people. If we look at our roots, the SCU community is blessed with two distinct yet incredibly complimentary charismata.

The Ignatian charism and vision deeply shapes our Jesuit, Catholic identity at SCU. Students engage in an education that addresses the whole person. Physical spaces, such as
the St. Ignatius lawn and residential learning communities, are named after Jesuits. The Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education, the Arrupe Center, the Bannan Institute, the Kolvenbach Solidarity Program, and the DISCOVER project reflect Jesuit influences, as do the Campus Ministry program, the Ignatian retreats, and resources for serving in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Many students and alumni understand themselves as “leaders of competence, conscience, and compassion who will help fashion a more just, humane, and sustainable world.”

Santa Clara University faculty, staff, and student participants in the House of Clare Retreat, January 2010. Courtesy of Jean Molesky-Poz

Santa Clara University bears the name of
St. Clare of Assisi (1193–1253). Two colonial Spanish statues of St. Clare grace the Mission chapel, and one stands in the St. Clare Room.
In recent years, a medieval garden (2003), a new sculpture (2009), and the St. Clare Room in
the new Harrington Learning Commons and Orradre Library have been dedicated and named after her. But many on campus do not know that Clare of Assisi was a medieval contemplative woman, healer, leader, and partner in developing the Franciscan community; she was the first woman to write a Form of Life for a woman’s community. This dialogue and design grant from the Bannan Institute to the Department of Religious Studies for A Seat at the Table provided us resources to consider in intentional, reflective, and communal venues the charism of Clare.
We asked, “How can Clare of Assisi be a light
to us here at her namesake, SCU?” That is, how can SCU draw on the life, writings, and living embodiment of Clare to clarify and develop
our unique vocations, our contemplative lives, our mutual relations with one another, and our activity in the world?

To this end, A Seat at the Table has sought to initiate projects to examine the charism of Clare of Assisi. The activities of 2009–2010 have included the St. Clare Reflection Group; Conversations with Clare of Assisi: Woman of the Gospel, January 28, 2010; and the House of Clare Retreat, January 29–31, 2010.

ST. CLARE REFLECTION GROUP

The St. Clare Reflection Group is a small gathering of 15 faculty, administrators, and staff who have met once each quarter (2009–2010) to consider Clare of Assisi through prayer, reflection, and study of early documents. In October, after
a meal together, we met in the St. Francis Chapel and investigated her life through medieval texts. What emerged, as we discussed the Papal Decree of Canonization (1255), was not only a chron- ology of her life, but papal images of Clare as light, a clear mirror, as vessel, as cornerstone, and as fountain. Investigating her Letters to Agnes of Prague, we uncovered in Clare’s own words her clarity of vocation, courage to act, her marvelous joy in contemplation, and how she cultivated a spirituality of mutual relationality.

CONVERSATIONS WITH CLARE OF ASSISI: WOMAN OF THE GOSPEL
Two Poor Clare sisters, Beth Lynn from the Minneapolis Monastery, and Dianne Short of the Cincinnati Monastery, joined us for Conversations with Clare of Assisi, on January 28, 2010, in the St. Clare Room. It was the first time in Santa Clara University’s 155 years that the SCU com- munity engaged in dialogue with women from Poor Clare communities, who embody Clare’s charism of poverty, contemplation, and relational love. These women, who live contemplative and generally cloistered lives, do not often leave their monasteries, except “for reasonable cause.”

This medieval woman who “had cast the anchor of her soul in God” offers us living gifts to cherish our vocations, claim our contemplative dimension, and be mirrors to one another in shared love and spontaneous joy.

After an invitation these women and their sisters discerned that the students, staff, and faculty of Santa Clara University, which bears Clare’s name, were a “reasonable cause.” This spontaneous, fluid, and joyful conversation, facilitated by Andrea Carrera, Diana Bustos, and Lauren Glen, students from the upper-division religious studies course Clare of Assisi/Ignatius of Loyola, illuminated the importance of relational living. “Our mutual relations of love can give us the courage to act
on our vocations,” said Sr. Beth. Approximately 80 faculty, staff, and students participated in this conversation, entertaining questions such as, “Who or what is God?” “Can we have miracles of healing today?” and “Why is contemplative life important to us?” (The audio clip of this 70-minute conversation is available online at The House of Clare website http://webpages.scu.edu/ ftp/houseofclare/.)

THE HOUSE OF CLARE RETREAT
To more carefully reflect and perceive how Clare’s charism might be integrated into Santa Clara University, the St. Clare Reflection Group and 14 SCU students, facilitated by Keith Warner, OFM of the Religious Studies Department, and myself, traveled to the St. Francis Retreat Center in San Juan Bautista, January 29–31. Sisters Dianne Short and Beth Lynn, and Franciscan scholar Bill Short, OFM, led us into the House of Clare, using themes from Letters to Agnes to understand how following the footprints at San Damiano in community was a movement of circling Christ at the center. As lay women and men, we understood that this medieval woman who “had cast the anchor of her soul in God” offers us living gifts to cherish our vocations, claim our contemplative dimension, and be mirrors to one another in shared love and spontaneous joy.

At SCU the two charismata of Clare of Assisi and of Ignatius of Loyola intersect theologically and energetically. Put in dialogue they could further clarify, render, and nurture qualities of our Santa Clara University community. Sister Dianne Short suggests that there is not a gap between the two of them, as some might think. “Both Clare and Ignatius share a very human and incarnational spirituality,” she wrote. “They are both contemplatives, though they may have different nuances in how they live out their relationship to Jesus.”

Beth Lynn further clarifies: “Clare is the woman of the hearth, the tender of the fire who is God in our midst. Ignatius is the lone Christ warrior who goes forth to spread mercy and goodness to God’s people. These are not gender specific roles. Most of us will engage in both during our lifetimes.”

In 2012, the Franciscan family throughout the world celebrates the beginning of the community of “poor sisters which the blessed Francis founded” at the church of San Damiano. How might Santa Clara University consider and claim Clare’s charism and light?

Endnotes


  1. Beth Lynn, O.S.C., “The Body and the Text: The Charis- matic Community at San Damiano that Produced the Charismatic Text Known as The Form of Life of the Poor Sisters” (2009, n.p.). Cited from Richard P. McBrien, ed., Catholicism, revised and enlarged ed. (SF: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), 366.
  2. Sarah Esparza, “St. Clare’s Little Plant: A Jesuit Institution, Santa Clara University” (student paper written for TESP 118, Clare of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola, winter 2010, n.p.).
  3. Regis J. Armstrong, O.F.M. Cap., ed. and tran., Clare of As- sisi: Early Documents, rev. ed., edited and translated by Regis J. Armstrong, O.F.M. Cap., ed. (New York: New City Press, 2006).
  4. Dianne Short, O.S.C., to Irene Kearney, 23 February 23, 2010, e-mail.
  5. Beth Lynn, O.S.C., to Irene Kearney, 19 February 19, 2010, e-mail.
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