Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Poor Clares

Clare, you bid us follow
This Jesus of yours --
Ageless in the Universe
Yet standing firmly on our shores.

This Jesus you love totally
because He has loved us totally.
This Jesus full of such beauty
and comeliness
That the hosts of heaven adore
and acclaim Him Lord of all!

Yet, this Jesus suffered,
His beauty cruelly stripped from Him.
You tell us: "Look upon Him
made contemptible for you.
Please do not hesitate
to become contemptible, too!"....

You ask us: "Gaze upon,
consider, and contemplate"
each phase of Jesus' life.
It is a wonder that draws us
to new heights....

Sr. Mary Cecilia Keyser, "Jesus, Clare and Us"

Sister Mary Cecilia, of Wappingers Falls, N.Y., is a member of the Poor Clares, a descendant of the Poor Ladies, the first community of Franciscan women religious, founded by Clare of Assisi in the 13th century. Her poem is in a little pamphlet about Clare, given to me and the postulant brothers today in our visit to the sisters of the Monastery of Saint Clare in Chesterfield, N.J.

What lovely ladies, the Poor Clares we met today. There are ten sisters and two novices in the convent we visited. Living a cloistered life has not coddled them one bit. They are not cocooned. They are not wispish women. From all appearances, they are earthy, grounded, and spiritually poised. They are clever, witty, and cheerful. They laugh together. I do not doubt they radiate such good mental and physical health because of their embrace of simplicity, personified by Francis and Clare as Sister Poverty, and their life of deep and continuous prayer. [The eldest of their sisters, who is 94 years old and a religious for 67 of those years, plays the organ in chapel on Sunday and is as sharp as anyone half her age.]

The sisters show a kindly regard for each other. They are genteel in manner, and gentle. As we interacted with them today, I was struck by just how gentle they were with us. I hope this makes sense to you when I say that they are powerfully gentle: their gentleness has a firmness, a solidity whose foundation is their grace-filled love for the poor and crucified Jesus.

Community in solitude has taught the sisters how to listen. They listen to God, with God, for God. They recite their prayers slowly, deliberately, "listening" each other into a unified voice of praise. They pray so well they make others around them pray better. During Mass with the sisters, I could feel myself lifted into step with them. While receiving Eucharist, I thought about all the consecrated women religious worldwide who, like these Poor Clares, were lifting their prayers right now to the beaten but risen Christ. From convent chapels like theirs. Listening, praying, singing, keeping silence. Remembering the whole world into Christ. I imagined them thus, lifting the whole world onto their shoulders and offering it to God. The sisters listen, and they pray the world into God's hands. That's how I want to pray.

The sisters listen. They were more interested in our stories than their own. They asked me and the postulants to tell our vocation stories and applauded when we finished. They were a generous and supportive audience. They had a way of waiting on our words that made me want to share freely with them.

We had no time to hear the sisters' tales one by one. We caught snippets over a lunch of home-cooked Filipino cuisine. But the sisters did not leave us wanting for history about the origin of their mission in the United States. From a prayer card the sisters pressed into our hands this afternoon:

"Countess Annetta Bentivoglio was born of a noble family in Rome, July 29, 1834. In 1864 her sister, Constance, entered the Poor Clares of San Lorenzo in Rome and Annetta followed her and was given the name Mother Mary Magdalen.

"In 1875, in obedience to Pope Pius IX, Mother Mary Magdalen and her sister Constance came to America to establish the Poor Clares of the Primitive Rule of St. Clare.

"Mother Mary Magdalen founded the monasteries of Omaha (Neb.), New Orleans, and Evansville (Ind.).

"Mother died at Evansville Aug. 18, 1905. After her death the Boston monastery was founded in 1906. Our Bordentown monastery was founded from Boston in 1909. Today there are about 26 monasteries in America which follow the Primitive Rule of St. Clare."

For more information about their way of life today, you can visit these Poor Clares on the web. For a virtual window opening onto their cloister, the sisters also have a blog called Monastery Happenings, which is worth a quick click. In fact, they have beat me to the blogosphere: their photo slide show of our visit has already been online for several hours!

When we arrived at the convent in the late morning, it had been raining for a half hour, and I was feeling melancholy since the end of morning prayer. When we left after three-thirty, I was in much higher spirits, gray and foggy mists be damned. Thank you, sisters of Clare.

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