Bible and Rule in the Clarissan Tradition

Article excerpt

Was there, is there, a specifically Franciscan use of the Bible? This is a very broad question, of course, and could be approached from many points of view. Here it will be viewed from the perspective of the tradition of Franciscan women's writings, focusing on the works of Clare of Assisi in the thirteenth century, Colette of Corbie in the fifteenth century, and Maria Domitilla Galluzzi in the seventeenth century.

Both Colette and Maria Domitilia were Franciscan women who are known for having advocated strict observance of Clare's rule. They certainly saw themselves as strictly in the tradition of Clare, and Franciscan in observance. They were steeped in Clare's writings, particularly her rule. Did they take from Clare's writings a sense of biblical usage, a properly Franciscan way of biblical language?

One must begin with Clare's most famous text, her rule. As is well known, the Rule of Clare of Assisi has an interesting history. The earliest extant copy is actually also the vehicle of its formal approval, the Bull Solet annuere, proclaimed by Pope Innocent IV on August 9, 1253, just in time for Clare to see the official document on her deathbed two days later.(1) This papal bull is the prima exemplar of Clare's rule. There is no extant copy of the document she sent to Rome for approval, nor any surviving draft from Clare's own hand or community. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that this adaptation was the lifelong goal of the female founder of the congregation of Poor Ladies, Clare herself.(2) In this sense, the Rule of St. Clare is, then, the first example in all of Christian history of a canonical life for women written by a woman. In this sense, also, it is the voice of Clare.

The Bull of Innocent IV is not divided into chapters, but very early the manuscript history the Rule of Clare took the form of twelve chapters, in congruence with the Second Rule of St. Francis, and because of the strong biblical allusions of the number twelve.(3) The influence of Francis's vision on the rule for Franciscan women is obvious, but there are significant differences in tone. Whereas Franciscan friars became famous for preaching and traveling the world, the Franciscan women had to find some other model for a life of evangelical poverty. Because of this, the Rule of Clare is largely concerned with the internal functioning of the monastery.

The interiorized, isolated nature of the Franciscan life for women is emphasized by Chapter 5, which prescribes long hours of silence and the limited contact nuns could have with the outside world through a grille in formal visiting parlors. There is, obviously, nothing quite like this in the rule of Francis. In the men's rule, Chapter 8, on the election of officials, is dedicated to the order as a whole and the need to elect a Minister General in the place of Francis himself. Franciscan women's houses were, in contrast, self-contained entities.

It should hardly be surprising, then, that the biblical citations in Clare's rule lean heavily towards the apostolic exhortations of the Gospels. Matthew in particular surfaces as a key text. It is quoted sixteen times in Clare's Rule, including the admonition of Jesus to "go and sell everything you have and follow me" (Matt. 19:21 - 2.7) and eight references to Matthew 5-6, the Sermon on the Mount, in chapters 3, 8, and 10 of the Rule. In general, the emphasis here is on poverty, suffering, and throwing oneself on God's mercy.

In contrast, Clare's four letters to Agnes of Prague show a very different sort of biblical citation. There is a flowering of nuptial imagery in these letters which is not found elsewhere in the writings of Clare nor, indeed, anywhere in the works of Francis.(4) The references are from the Song of Songs and the epithalamial Psalm 44. The emphasis here is on the intense, eroticized, union with God. Clare quotes words, images and verse from the Song of Songs in the tropological mode adapted to the Christian mystical life that had become by her time a trope of Christian spirituality. …