Writings of St. Clare - Her Letters
Reading the letters of St. Clare to Agnes of Prague, one wonders who she was and how she came to know Clare from distant Assisi? Agnes was a princess, born in Prague in 1205. Her parents were King Premsyl Ottokar I of Bohemia (1197-1230) and Constance of the Arpad dynasty of Hungary. Agnes' cousin was St. Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-1231), Patron of the Franciscan Secular Order.
When she was only three years old, according to royal custom, Agnes was enagaged to Boleslaus, the son of the duke of Silesia, who soon died. The young princess was educated in a Premonstratensian monastery. In the meantime she was engaged to the son of Emperor Frederick II, the future Henry VII, who at that time lived in the court of Duke Luke Leopold of Austria. Agnes was sent there, but her engagement was soon turned down by her father, when Henry married Leopold's daughter. Agnes returned to Prague, and received offers of engagement once more by King Henry III of England, and by the Emperor himself. The young princess, however, had made a vow of virginity, and refused all offers of marriage.
In 1225 the first Friars Minor had arrived in Prague. Through them Agnes came to know all about Clare and the Poor Ladies of San Damiano in Assisi. In the meantime, in 1227, Elizabeth, her cousin, had joined the Order of Penitents instituted by St. Francis, and built a hospital in Marburg, where she personally took care of the sick. After the death of her father Premsyl Ottokar I in 1230, Agnes decided to embrace voluntary poverty according to the way of life of Clare of Assisi. Her brother, Wenseslaus I, gave her property in 1232, on which she built a hospital dedicated to St. Francis, which she left under the care of the Crosiers of the Red Star (a confraternity which later embraced the Rule of St. Augustine). She also built a church and friary for the Friars Minor, and a monastery for the Poor Ladies who joined her from Trent, after her explicit request to Pope Gregory IX in 1233. There she consacrated her life to God on Pentecost Sunday of 1234. Agnes wanted to live according to the style of evangelical life which the Poor Ladies at San Damiano had embraced. She died in Prague in 1282, and was declared Blessed by Pius IX in 1874. On 12 November 1989 Pope John Paul II canonised her.
Clare wrote various Letters to Agnes. Four of them have been preserved. The first Letter was written before 11 June 1234, that is, before Agnes' profession. Clare still calls her "daughter of the most excellent and illustrious King of Bohemia". The second Letter was written in the period between 1234-1239, during the time when Friar Elias was Minister General of the Order of Friars Minor. He is mentioned in the Letter. The third Letter is dated 1238, because it answers to a difficulty concerning abstinence from meat, as a result of Pope Gregory's wish in 1237 that the Poor Ladies abstain from meat like the Cistercians. The same letter could also refer to Agnes' personal wish that the hospice of St. Francis founded by her be left to the care of another religious Order, so that she and the Sisters could be free of temporal concerns. Pope Gregory IX was initially against the idea, but later on accepted to hand over the hospice to the Confratrernity of the Crosiers of the Red Star. The last Letter was written much later, in 1253, just before Clare's death, because in it Clare mentions Agnes, her sister, who returned from the monastery of Monticelli some months before Clare died at San Damiano.
The Letters are profoundly mystical. They develop various themes of feminine spirituality, particularly the mystical espousals with Christ; consecrated virginity; praise of the virtue of poverty; the contemplation of Christ, poor and crucified; the blessed Virgin in the mystery of the Incarnation; practical norms for fasting and abstinence; the humility of Christ contemplated in the various mysteries of His life.
The First Letter to Blessed Agnes of PragueTo the esteemed and most holy virgin, the Lady Agnes, daughter of the most excellent and illustrious King of Bohemia: Clare, an unworthy servant of Jesus Christ and useless handmaid of the Cloistered Ladies of the Monastery of San Damiano, her subject and servant in all things, presents herself totally with a special reverent [prayer] that she attain the glory of everlasting happiness.
As I hear of the fame of Your holy conduct and irreproachable life, which is known not only to me but to the entire world as well, I greatly rejoice and exult in the Lord. I am not alone in rejoicing at such great news, but [I am joined by] all who serve and seek to serve Jesus Christ. For, though You, more than others, could have enjoyed the magnificence and honour and dignity of the world, and could have been married to the illustrious Caesar with splendour befitting You and His Excellency, You have rejected all these things and have chosen with Your whole heart and soul a life of holy poverty and destitution. Thus You took a spouse of a more noble lineage, Who will keep Your virginity ever unspotted and unsullied, the Lord Jesus Christ:
When You have loved [Him], You shall be chaste; when You have touched [Him], You shall become pure; when You have accepted [Him], You shall be a virgin.
Whose power is stronger,
Whose generosity is more abundant,
Whose appearance more beautiful,
Whose love more tender,
Whose courtesy more gracious.
In Whose embrace You are already caught up;
Who has adorned Your breast with precious stones
And has placed priceless pearls in Your ears
and has surrounded You with sparkling gems
as though blossoms of springtime
and placed on Your head a golden crown
as a sign [to all] of Your holiness.
Therefore, most beloved sister, or should I say, Lady worthy of great respect: because You are the spouse and the mother and the sister of my Lord Jesus Christ, and have been adorned resplendently with the sign of inviolable virginity and most holy poverty: Be strengthened in the holy service which You have undertaken out of an ardent desire for the Poor Crucified, Who for the sake of all of us took upon Himself the Passion of the Cross and delivered us from the power of the Prince of Darkness to whom we were enslaved because of the disobedience of our first parents, and so reconciled us to God the Father.
O blessed poverty,
who bestows eternal riches on those who love and
O holy poverty,
to those who possess and desire you
God promises the kingdom of heaven
and offers, indeed, eternal glory and blessed life!
O God-centered poverty,
whom the Lord Jesus Christ
Who ruled and now rules heaven and earth,
Who spoke and things were made,
condescended to embrace before all else!
The foxes have dens, He says, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man, Christ, has nowhere to lay His head, but bowing His head gave up His spirit.
If so great and good a Lord, then, on coming into the Virgin's womb, chose to appear despised, needy, and poor in this world, so that people who were in utter poverty and want and in absolute need of heavenly nourishment might become rich in Him by possessing the kingdom of heaven, then rejoice and be glad! Be filled with a remarkable happiness and a spiritual joy! Contempt of the world has pleased You more than [its] honors, poverty more than earthly riches, and You have sought to store up greater treasures in heaven rather than on earth, where rust does not consume nor moth destroy nor thieves break in and steal. Your reward, then, is very great in heaven! And You have truly merited to be called a sister, spouse, and mother of the Son of the Father of the Most High and of the glorious Virgin.
You know, I am sure, that the kingdom of heaven is promised and given by the Lord only to the poor: for he who loves temporal things loses the fruit of love. Such a person cannot serve God and Mammon, for either the one is loved and the other is hated, or the one is served and the other despised.
You also know that one who is clothed cannot fight with another who is naked, because he is more quickly thrown who gives his adversary a chance to get hold of him; and that one who lives in the glory of earth cannot rule with Christ in heaven.
Again, [you know] that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, you have cast aside Your garments, that is, earthly riches, so that You might not be overcome by the one fighting against You, [and] that You might enter the kingdom of heaven through the straight path and narrow gate.
What a great laudable exchange: to leave the things of time for those of eternity,
to choose the things of heaven for the goods of earth,
to receive the hundred-fold in place of one,
and to possess a blessed and eternal life.
Because of this I have resolved, as best I can, to beg Your Excellency and Your holiness by my humble prayers in the mercy of Christ, to be strengthened in His holy service, and to progress from good to better, from virtue to virtue, so that He Whom You serve with the total desire of Your soul may bestow on You the reward for which You long.
I also beg You in the Lord, as much as I can, to include in Your holy prayers me, Your servant, though unworthy, and the other sisters with me in the monastery, who are all devoted to You, so that by their help we may merit the mercy of Jesus Christ, and together with You may merit to enjoy the everlasting vision.
Farewell in the Lord. And pray for me.
Clare of Assisi