FIOR (Franciscan Institute Outreach - Malta)

3. Writings of St. Clare of Assisi (2)

Letters

i. To Agnes of Prague

3.17. Who was Agnes of Prague and how did she come 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.

3.18. 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.

The cloister of San Damiano

3.19. 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.

Another view of the cloister of San Damiano

3.20. 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 Church of San Damiano

3.21. 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.

3.22. Let it suffice to give a few quotations from the Letters. The Letters to Agnes of Boehmia will be referred to as 1,2,3 or 4LAg.

3.23. "When You have loved [Him = Christ], You are chaste;
when you have touched [Him], You become more pure;
when you have accepted [Him], You are a virgin" (1LAg 8).

3.24. "O blessed poverty, who bestows eternal riches on those who love and embrace her!
O holy poverty, God promises the kingdom of heaven and, in fact, offers eternal glory and a blessed life to those who possess and desire you!
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" (1LAg 15-17).

3.25. "But as a poor virgin, embrace the poor Christ" (2LAg 18).

3.26. "O most noble Queen, gaze upon [Him], consider [Him], contemplate [Him], as you desire to imitate [Him]" (2LAg 20).

3.27. "Place your mind before the mirror of eternity!
Place your soul in the brilliance of glory!
Place your heart in the figure of the divine substance!
And transform your entire being into the image
of the Godhead Itself through contemplation.
So that you too may feel what His friends feel
as they taste the hidden sweetness
that God Himself has reserved from the beginning
for those who love Him" (3LAg 12-14).

3.28. "May you cling to His most sweet Mother who gave birth to a Son whom the heavens could not contain. And yet she carried Him in the little enclosure of her holy womb and held Him on her virginal lap" (3LAg 18-19).

3.29. "I beg you, therefore, dearly beloved, to refrain wisely and prudently from an indiscreet and impossible austerity in the fasting that you have undertaken" (3LAg 40).

3.30. "Gaze upon that mirror each day, O Queen and Spouse of Jesus Christ, and continually study your face within it ... Look at the border of this mirror, that is, the poverty of Him Who was placed in a manger and wrapped in swaddling clothes. O marvelous humility! O astonishing poverty! The King of angels, the Lord of heaven and earth, is laid in a manger! Then, at the surface of the mirror, consider the holy humility, the blessed poverty, the untold labors and burdens that He endured for the redemption of the whole human race. Then, at the depth of this same mirror, contemplate the ineffable charity that led Him to suffer on the wood of the Cross and to die there the most shameful kind of death" (4LAg 15.19-23).

ii. Letter to Ermentrude of Bruges

3.31. The Irish Franciscan scholar, Luke Wadding, in his "Annales Minorum", ad. ann. 1257, supplement 20, states that Clare wrote two letters to Ermentrude of Bruges. Ermentrude was the daughter of the bailiff of Köln. In 1240 she left on a pilgrimage. She arrived in Bruges, Belgium, where she lived for twelve years in a hermitage. Upon hearing about Clare and the Poor Ladies she left for a pilgrimage to Assisi and Rome, but found that Clare was already dead. When she returned to Bruges she transformed her small hermitage into a monastery of Poor Ladies and then instituted other monasteries in Flanders. The text given in "Annales Minorum" is a fusion of the two letters, and its authenticity has been questioned by various scholars. However, its contents are widely accepted as echoing Clare's thoughts as written down to Ermentrude.

© copyright FIOR-Malta
Text by Fr. Noel Muscat ofm


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