by Margaret Carney, OSB
Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.
What a delight to review the story of Saint Clare! Her interactions with St. Francis are certainly well documented but this is particularly about Saint Clare. The purpose of this book is simple: to introduce St. Clare of Assisi to those who do not know her and those who wish to know her better. European experts in early Franciscan history have long worked on important projects that preserved and extended our knowledge of St. Clare. Recently there has been a small trickle of studies of her spirituality that has turned into a steady stream of important works. The most important contributions are the volumes that have given us excellent translations of her writings, primitive biographies, and related documents from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. We have a wealth of poetry, music, art and theatrical offerings to enrich her portrait. What has been missing in the midst of this rising tide of materials is a biography that can lead a reader from her birth to her death, simply telling her story while taking into account aspects of modern scholarship.
This book works to weave the threads of Clare’s story with the threads of Francis, but it also gives due importance to the long stretch of years that followed his death—years in which Chare’s position in the Franciscan world was of great significance. The book is her story. It is the task of scholars to critique each other’s work, to forge ahead to solve unanswered questions, and to keep an open mind-always ready to abandon an old and deficient answer for a new and more trustworthy one. A storyteller has to decide which of many possible interpretations can be incorporated into her narrative. Story has one function; can be incorporated into her narrative.
The author learned about Clare while writing a doctoral thesis about her Rule. From that experience thirty years ago, she understands that Clare offers two extraordinarily important lessons. The first is the recognition of how important women-and this woman in particular are to the Franciscan story. The second is more subtle. It is the lesson that Clare’s important stems from the fact that she was the recipient of a powerful charism of her own, a gift bestowed by the Spirit of the Lord and given to her in a fullness and forcefulness that was hers alone. This charism, matched with the equally full and forceful charism of Francis created something akin to nuclear fission. It unleashed a mighty power of example and of hope for people who wanted to live the authentic Christian message. Clare’s story shows us that what matters is not the effort to ‘draw down’ from the spiritual wealth of others we admire What she shows us that what we need is the courage to unlock as though only the sharing of a supplicant’s gift can make us good. What she shows us is that we need only the courage to unlock what is within us, to spend our days powered by the graced anointing that we already possess.
The stories told by Dr. Carney are filled with hope, strength and love. She relates the life of St. Clare in a most relevant manner. It provides us with the understanding of the voices and visions she had for us to imitate and admire. It is a compelling book that should be read and passed on.