I rush out of the monastery, escaping the echoes of screaming children. My grand visions of a quiet, contemplative space were dashed yesterday when I realized that the monastery I booked into had also booked in a group of elementary school children. The rest of Assisi sleeps as I walk and explore this now quiet town, before the tour buses ascend.
Rick Steves guides me through the cobblestone paths that wrap around this hill-top town, the brick buildings dotted with red geraniums and laundry waving hello in the wind. The tiny road leads me towards Saint Clare’s Cathedral. Her basilica is striped in pink and white stones, raising high to the heavens.
I follow the steps down to the crypts to find her body on display for all to see. It lies next to the clothes Saint Francis wore when he received the stigmata. Tiny red dots bleed through, speaking words my evangelical self struggles to comprehend. A line of people reverently pass her body. I shuffle past, matching the crowds reverence, when suddenly I find myself weeping, incapable of restraint. What is going on? I cannot explain this experience, except I know that something about the presence of her body is holy.
I walk up the stairs, confused. What just happened? I’m not Catholic. I don’t believe in the veneration of saints. I’m uncertain about the stigmata. But I know that I just encountered the Holy Spirit in the basement of a Catholic church while walking past a dead woman’s bones.
Finding a seat near a fountain outside, I absorb this moment with Clare. She’s no longer a mythological or fairy tale character—she’s alive, flesh and blood.
I comb through the little I know about Clare. She was born to a rich family in Assisi, but scandalously left it all to follow Saint Francis after hearing him preach. Her dad attempted to bring her home, but she refused. In a time when women had no agency, Clare grasped onto this decision with every ounce of her body. She gathered a group of women, now known as the Poor Clares, and led them in their vows of poverty. She ministered to and with Saint Francis. When Assisi was under attack, she marched out, grasping communion elements in her hands as she approached the enemy. The attackers were overcome with fear and ran. Her womanly body, dismissed by her culture, was used for the glory of God. She found a way.
I am a woman who is called to minister in the church. I struggle with this call—there are so few examples of what this looks like and there are many who believe I should just be silent. As a woman, my body seems to be a disqualifier. Being in this call means being in battle. People don’t know what to do with me, with my vocation. But I cannot ignore the call of God.
Like Clare, I too have wrestled through a calling that is resisted by the surrounding culture. And her presence stirs in me hope that I too can find a way. I have no answers for my tears, but Clare and I are sisters together, whose bodies can and will be used for the glory of God.
I stand up, stretch, and search for some gelato. This is Italy after all.
Cover photo by Matthew Cramblett.