A story of St Clare of Assisi, friend of St Francis and founder of the Poor Clares
I hear them, wave upon wave, mounted upon terrified steeds, poor abused beasts who have no Francis to calm them. I hear the clash of steel, the primal screams and cries, the whinnying, the shuddering clack of wood upon wood and stone. Francis raised these walls with his own bare hands until they were chafed sore and bleeding, so eager was he to protect us from the barbarian at the gate. Outside, the meeker Guelphs, defenders of His Holiness, the Pope, are pitted against the mighty Ghibellines of the Roman Empire who have enlisted hordes of bloodthirsty Saracens to strengthen their arm. How easily the world, in the folly of its pride, rushes lemming-like to perdition!
As I lay on my narrow pallet, in the frigid heat of fever, my mind clamours for peace, but hope begins to seep from my heart. I mutter the Rosary in broken phrases, almost non-believing. Holy Mother of God, pray for us now and at the hour of our death. Is this how it all ends? In defeat? My God, my God, why have you forsaken us?
A vision shimmers on the wall. I see armies swarming into the valley, thousands strong, to let loose their stinging assault upon this fortified city, mindless, and with a single purpose. The axe is laid to the root of the tree. Will the earth beneath us hold out against the apocalypse? Surely the Lord will prove his mettle.
A thin shaft of light is falling obliquely on austere slab. It dilates with promise, bathes the dust motes in praeternatural gold and proposes peace. Lo, I am with you, even unto the end of the world. No sooner is the notion formed than a cloud shrouds it. The sun is a fickle mentor. Yet he who made the sun...
A shifting presence bends my ear. There is an angel in the wings of these crowding shadows, two, several. Fear not, I bring you... What? What do you bring? Oh, speak! Francis, is it you? Your spirit is never far from us. Plead with the Saviour, I beg you! Intercede for us in our frailty!
I remember my first sight of him that day we strolled in the market place, my cousin, Pacifica, and I. It was the Friday before Palm Sunday, a day of Sorrowful Mysteries, but a day of joy and liberation for me. We wandered among the vendors and purchasers of oil, lemons, basil and oregano, the smell of tanned leather wafting us, dogs and chasing children winding about our path. In Assisi, animals exude a special vitality and have the eyes of creatures whose inner souls contemplate paradise.
"Chiara, who is that man so oddly attired in crude sackcloth that he compels an audience?" she demanded.
"It is certainly not on account of his clothes or his stature!"
"I want to know what he's saying."
We latched on to the gathering of rapt citizens around him, cut short in their busyness by his resonant tones, the way his blue eyes mirrored the sky as he sought inspiration there. He spoke at once with the tongue of men and angels, telling how he'd abandoned wealth to follow in the footsteps of Christ. 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. He had chosen poverty, he said, to be at one with the Lord, the mendicant, the leper, the outcast, the dregs of the Commune. Now he applied himself to cultivating his vegetable plot, caring for animals and tending the sick and maimed. An ascetic life, but no mere subsistence. A banquet for allcomers. He had learned to lean on an unfailing Providence. If the Second Coming should take him unawares, the Lord would find him digging his garden, filling a manger with hay, or binding up the wounds of the afflicted.
His message was so cogent, it struck through my heart like a rapier. I became conscious of our fine merino and silks, how expensively we were shod. The raiment which had covered me in vainglory and was designed to attract the rich suitor my parents craved, suddenly became rags and tatters in my sight. How could I bear the destiny they had mapped out for me? How could I marry a man I did not care for, when the countenance of this poor anchorite was emblazoned with a love whose dimensions I should never comprehend?
In the dead of night, I put on my cloak, gathered up my skirts and, seizing a torch, made good my escape from the parental roof, never to return. Francis and his friars welcomed me at the Portiuncola. There, in the chapel of Santa Maria degli Angeli, I removed the fillet from my flowing locks which he cut off as though harvesting corn with a sickle. He then furnished me with a rough tunic, like his own, and a veil of the same fabric instead of a hood.
Divested of opulence, I vowed that henceforward Jesus should be my only Spouse.
All that was long ago, when Francis was in his prime. In the intervening years, with hard work, courage and his dedicated aid, we have established an Order of Poor Clares here at the Convent of San Damiano. It is radical and seeks to unfold the privilege of poverty under the noses of those noble Umbrians who take wealth for granted and seek to perpetuate its tyranny.
I think it took its toll on our dear Brother. He seemed frequently to ail, but never complained. The radiance of purpose never quite forsook him. I knew he was a saint and needed not the unction of Rome when the Five Wounds appeared on his hands. They bled and would not heal, but neither did they fester. Mortality had its way, but not corruption.
Hark! What is that? Dear God! The felling of Jericho! Our walls are breached! Our cloisters are ransacked by jackbooted infidels who will revel in their pleasure with innocent virgins. They are crying out in terror, these children, cowering in corners, behind doors. I am weak, my breath forsakes me. I raise myself, panting wildly, and instruct the older women to take up the silver and ivory Monstrance which bears the blessed wafer, the beloved Body of Christ, and raise it high before the enemy. Beseeching the Almighty from the depths of distress, I fall prostrate on cold stone.
"Behold, my Lord, is it possible You want to deliver into the hands of pagans Your defenceless handmaids, whom I have taught out of love for You? I pray You, Lord, protect these Your handmaids whom I cannot now save by myself."
By a miracle, I hear with such clarity the precious voice of a child. "I will always protect you."
"My Lord," I venture, "if it is Your wish, protect also this city which is sustained by Your love."
"There will be many trials, but I will always defend it."
I rub my eyes. It is hard to believe the scene before us. These marauding troops are falling under a spell. They throw down their bludgeons and bows, their swords and sabres, and turning tail, seethe back over the hill like a colony of ants possessed. Hell is defeated. They are gone!
The echoes die away. The birds erupt into sweeter song, the flowers lift up their heads with sentient colour, and I am restored once more. What was it all about, the Shadow of Death?
Listen! ...The hills are awash with the sound of silence, older than time. I finger the Pax Cross on my breast, symbol of beloved Assisi.
This is the Peace of Heaven, do not doubt it.