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Poor Clares pray in long shadows of history.

Some Poor Clare monasteries, such as the one in Santa Barbara, Calif., have grilles that separate the sisters from visitors. Others, among them St. Clare's Monastery in the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington, open their chapels, hospitality rooms and other areas to visitors, and designate with small signs the cloistered areas reserved for sisters. Some of the world's 18,000 Poor Clares wear head-to-toe habits, some street-length habits with modified veils or none. Some communities wear sweaters and skirts or simple dresses most days and reserve their common habit for special observances of their family life.

Some sisters support themselves by manual labor. The Poor Clares of Brenham, Texas, for instance, make pottery and raise miniature horses. But ample voluntary donations free the Poor Clares in Bloomington to offer spiritual direction without charge to visitors, to host retreats and other small spiritual gatherings, and to assist their sisters in other monasteries as officers of a federation of Poor Clares and of the national association of contemplatives. "Everything we do, though, is on a domestic scale," said Sr. Beth Lynn of the Bloommington monastery

Familylike communities are characteristic of Poor Clares, which explains why Lynn uses her nickname. Named after St. Elizabeth of Hungary when she received the Poor Clare habit in Santa Barbara, she initially was called Lizzie of Love. Disliking that, she chose Beth when she went with other, California sisters to found a monastery in Zambia.

"I was working on being gentle, and Beth sounds so nice," she said. Most of the world's Poor Clares live in monasteries of about 15 sisters, she said. Although united by a universal rule and constitution, the monasteries are autonomous, which accounts for their individuality.

Their gift to the world is prayer, and pursue prayer, they choose to be reclusive - quiet and withdrawn to sense God's call to them. "Reclusive doesn't mean cloistered," Lynn said. "Cloister is imposed from outside," and a universal cloister law for religious was imposed in 1298 by Pope Boniface VIII.

The Poor Clares started earlier that century, choosing to be reclusive. "Reclusivity comes from inside. People choose to have time and space for prayer. That's how we make the difference," Lynn said.

When St. Clare, the friend and collaborator of St. Francis of Assisi, founded her religious congregation, there were no apostolic women's communities, those defined by what they do, such as teaching or nursing or caring for the poor. "Third-order secular" groups of laity associated with the Franciscans and Poor Clares arose soon after the two orders were founded, and from them "third-order regular" congregations of cloistered Franciscan sisters developed, followed in the 15th century by noncloistered, apostolic communities.

Francis and Clare "wanted to live what we call the evangelical life," with prayer as the cornerstone, Lynn said. They were willing to do any work, whether in the fields with the poor, "hanging out with the lepers at San Lazarus," or praying in hermitage.

"The one thing that defines us is gospel living with Jesus," she said. "Prayer is relationship with God," and it "requires relationship with brothers and sisters," a family relationship always in flux.

Any religious community's charism is its "particular spotlight or focus on the gospels," Lynn said, explaining further her belief that "a charism is always engaged with, in dialogue with and called forth by the particular cultural moment. It's sort of our God, working with us, coming out of our roots, who we are as people."

Francis and Clare lived in a time of change, when the mercantile movement and the city-state, commune and burg were evolving out of the feudal system. That context colors their charism's key concept of family, a contrast with structural, hierarchical society, Lynn said. The family motif also reflects Jesus saying "the one who hears the word of God and keeps it" is his mother, brother or sister.

A particular concern for early Franciscans and Clares were family or community members who were young, elderly or sick, including the lepers who lived more or less halfway between the men's and women's monasteries, Lynn said. Clare was known for healing people in her monastery and in the wider community, even during the 29 years - until her death at 60 - when she was confined to a sickbed.

She was also known for tenacity. Born into nobility, she defied her family and ran off to found the group then known as Poor Ladies, a contradiction in terms, for ladies were defined by their moneyed, noble families.

Clare never shed her tenacity, becoming the first woman in the church to write a rule for women. It required absolute poverty, with no ownership of lands or property. She waited 42 years for the papal approval that was finally granted as she lay dying.

Franciscans call their poverty "disappropriation." "Appropriation is claiming," Lynn said. "Appropriation is the sin for Franciscans." It is like the sin of Adam and Eve, which "has nothing to do with obedience or sex, as it sometimes has been interpreted," but with trying to be like God. "That was a lie. They already were like God. They didn't have to do anything but receive (that likeness) and say yeah." Similarly, Poor Clares recognize they have everything - "the sun in the morning and the moon at night," in the words of an old song - and they don't have to go out grasping and corralling it," she said.

Over the centuries, Poor Clares have evolved, as have the many other varieties of Franciscans. In the 20th century, Francis himself has been co-opted by the environmental movement, the ecumenical movement and cities known as San Francisco.

Since Vatican II, change has resulted in the burgeoning of Franciscan scholarship around the world, with centers devoted to it in the Philippines, in Rome and at St. Bonaventure University in New York state.

Poor Clares have helped develop that scholarship, frequently going to colleges and universities for study. Many of them also have left their monasteries to establish new foundations elsewhere in their country or the world.

Lynn, for instance, left Santa Barbara for Zambia, then later joined the Bloomington Poor Clares as her permanent community. Young women from Korea also joined the Poor Clares in Bloomington, and eventually, the monastery branched out to found a daughter monastery on Chedju-do Island in South Korea. Worldwide, the Poor Clares are flourishing, especially in the Philippines, Africa and Eastern Europe.

New vocations are far fewer in the United States, but that does not concern Lynn. In her estimation, "whatever happens on the very small level," as in one Poor Clare monastery, "has repercussions throughout the universe," the way she has heard that "the fluttering of a butterfly in Japan affects the weather system throughout the world."

She dislikes the term "empowerment of the laity" because it connotes that clergy or others who possess control empower them. Otherwise, the idea is "what we're so excited about," she said. "Everybody has the call, the mission to prayer." For Poor Clares, that mission is central. It is why they remain rooted m their monastery even though they may go out occasionally to study or obtain health care.

Once, Poor Clare monastery schedules were rigid, Lynn said, but today great flexibility marks monasteries like hers. Lynn, a morning person, begins her day at 4 a.m. with coffee, newspaper reading and "a nice chunk of quiet prayer." Some of her sisters pray extensively at night instead.

The Poor Clares say their first office, Lauds, together at 6:45, then participate in a 7:30 a.m. Eucharist, which a variety of priests take turns celebrating. "The sisters are very much involved. We feel it's our liturgy, and the way we celebrate is very inclusive," Lynn said. Many laypeople join them for their Sunday liturgy.

After daily Mass, sisters "pick up breakfast," a little coffee and cereal or toast, "some people early, some late," Lynn said. Then they work until 11:45. "I have so many works," she explained. "I do spiritual direction. I do writing and preparing talks. I'm vicaress for our community. I'm also the chief sanitary department. I take care of the garbage and recycling, and I'm the food manager and in charge of the library. We change jobs about every year and a half."

After the midday office, the sisters eat their big community meal at noon. "We sit down and talk and enjoy the meal and one another," Lynn said. After doing dishes, they have quiet time from 1 to 2 p.m. for spiritual reading, then work again until 4:45 brings "the office of readings - the scripture, patristics, the psalms."

At 5:15 comes adoration, when "some people are at prayer, others are grabbing a little light meal or watching the national news." At 6:45, the sisters gather again for vespers, followed by free time until compline at 8:30. "Sunday nights we have recreation at that time," Lynn said. It could be circle dancing, watching a video, telling stories around a fire, hosting visitors, "whatever we want to do together." The sisters also take turns preparing special meals on Sunday: the team that prepares the liturgy also serves the meal.

After compline, morning people like Lynn are ready "to crash," perhaps reading a little before sleeping, she said. Night people "might do their reading, their studying, their computer stuff. For some, that's kind of like the beginning of their day."

Thursdays differ. "We call Thursday leisure day," Lynn said. The schedule includes morning praise and Eucharist, then free time until vespers. Other variations accommodate meetings, celebrate feast days and allow sisters to visit their families. Lynn, for instance, spends two weeks each year with her parents in California. "We come from our parents and we owe them everything," she said. "Not to be able to give back care for them in their old age is not gospel living."

Asked if the sisters ever squabble, as do other families, Lynn replied, "Oh, we do! And we learn how to fight fair and fight good and make up quicker and maybe anticipate not having to fight. How could we practice the gospel if we couldn't forgive?" It is possible to kind of zone out," to be immune to hurt, she said, "but if you're really living, really engaged, you're going to be hurt and you're going to hurt other people."

In pleasant times and difficult ones, the sisters try "to live in touch with our own persons, our own bodies, our own spirits, our own sensitivities and emotions, naming them and engaging in interaction," Lynn said.

They see themselves living with and for others, she said. "What we do is a facet of the whole human project," with emphasis on the prayer dimension. "Other individuals and groups emphasize other dimensions. All are equally important for the human endeavor; all are interconnected and interdependent."

Lynn reemphasized that thought, more strongly. "I think what I would die for is that everything is a part of the whole. Everything has its place, or nothing has its place. There's nothing outside of God. And what we're doing is growing into that reality."
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Title Annotation:Franciscan sisterhood; Religious Life
Author:Gibeau, Dawn
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Feb 17, 1995
Words:1853
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