This post originally appeared on Blessed Are The Feet.
I need a qualifying clause before I begin this post: This is a post about sacrificial love in marriage. It’s a post I want to write because I think it is worthwhile. However, I am terrified to write it because I know my husband will likely read it and laugh his head off at what I am about to tell you that I am learning about marriage. Because my skills at actually putting this into practice are less than stellar. Thus the need to learn.
So listen, I’m going to say things about marriage. Good, solid, helpful things. And then I am going to try to do them better than I do them now. And you are going to read them and not think I know all about what I am doing in this whole marriage thing and that I have it all together. Okay? Good.
Now that that’s settled, let’s continue.
When we went to Assisi for the weekend during our time in Rome in December, I was excited about many things. I mean, did you even just hear what I sad? I was IN ROME. And spending the weekend IN ASSISI. With the man that I love. ALONE. In a place where there’s CAPPUCINO and GELATO. And St. Francis too! So much good stuff.
The one thing that I was not really looking forward to (not that I had negative emotions about it, just that I wasn’t particularly longing for it) was the fact that Assisi is not only the birth and resting place of St. Francis, but also of St. Clare.
I have never had much of a relationship with St. Clare the way I do with many other saints.
I’ve sort of always felt that Clare was the introvert to Catherine of Siena’s extrovert and I was squarely on the Catherine side of the spectrum. Of course, I respect her holiness and her role as a saint. Clare was just never my saint, you know?
And then we went to Assisi. And St. Clare determined that she most decidedly WAS my saint and got all bossy and up in the business of my marriage. I tried to be all, “What can you possibly know about this, you are a clositered nun?” But then she was, “Beatific vision, babe.” And I liked her sass. No, really, it was much quieter and gentle than that, because St. Clare, but there was something about that time away with my husband and the example of the way Clare loved Francis that bound itself to my heart and has yet to let me go.
It was one of the reasons behind my Franciscan reading plan for the year. And one of the reasons I am choosing the word “present” for this year.
And it’s a constant mental dialogue in my head these days as I consider the way I relate to my husband. Clare, the cloistered nun, is schooling me on the heart of marital love, which is a sacrificial self-gift that wills the good of the other (my dear husband) and desires us to be united in that love.
Clare’s love for Francis was not some celibate romantic love. It was an altogether different kind of love than the one I share with my husband. But if it was anything, it was true and it was truly sacrficial. And in that, there are many lessons for me to learn.
The first lesson St. Clare is teaching me is to relish the chance to give and receive physical affection to my husband.
Don’t freak out. I am not about to turn Clare and Francis’ relationship into some hippie love fest. But let’s talk about this.
One of the first sites relating to Clare’s life I laid eyes on was the small window in San Damiano where she greeted visitors. It was also, a sign informed us, the window through which she was able to pay her final respects to Francis after his death. She leaned through to kiss his hands and feet it said.
I was captivated by what that moment must have meant for Clare. She loved Francis in a way I will never fully understand. In life, their vows, and their own commitment to practice those vows in their most extreme form, likely mean that there was very little physical contact between Clare and Francis, even what there would have been between normal friends who happened to be religious.
But in death, Clare was finally able to touch Francis’ body and give physical witness to her love for him by venerating his hands and feet which bore the wounds of Christ. In that contact with Francis, she touched both him and her Lord. And I am quite sure she felt immense, intense gratitude for the opportunity, albeit stung with sorrow and grief.
I, on the other hand, can share a physical embrace that can take multiple forms as I please with my husband. And often, I do not appreciate the beauty of that aspect of married life–being able to drape my arm over his side at night because I simply want to know someone is there. Being able to lay my head on his shoulder when I am tired or sad or vulnerable. Being able to walk down the street holding his hand. And, yes, being able to share the intimate embrace of marital love.
Too often, I take our physical relationship for granted, or even resent feeling obliged to make time and space for that affection when I am busy or tired or simply wanting time alone. These days, however, I think of the gift Clare made of herself to Francis when she cloistered herself away so that she could belong to all Franciscans as mother and sister, and to the Franciscan movement as foundress.
In doing so, she also left a wall of distance between her and Francis that was a great sacrifice. And when in death, she could once again embrace him, however briefly, I can only imagine the bittersweetness of that poignant moment and how she must have held it close to her heart until they were reunited again in heaven.
If only I could take a bit of that spirit and infuse it into my daily physical interactions with my husband, how much sweetness might I find in the privilege of the touches of married love? I don’t know quite yet, but I am learning. Clare is a willing teacher.
The second lesson St. Clare is teaching me is to appreciate where this man has led me.
When we had made our way through the spaces of San Damiano, seeing where Clare slept and died, where she sat to eat and performed a few miracles too, we stopped for a moment to rest in the courtyard. Just over the top of the wall of the cloister peaked the tops of the mountains of Umbria. The blue skies clear and crisp and the rolling beauty of the place just tickling the tips of the horizon above the wall.
I realized that every day as she walked the grounds of her cloister, Clare had the opportunity to look back at what she had left behind there in the rolling hills of Umbria. The family, the freedom, the comfort of the life she had once known, all peered at her over the wall and invited her back, or at least invited her to brood sadness, loneliness and resentment for what she no longer had.
And all that she no longer had, she had left behind because she had chosen to follow Francis on this grand faith adventure he was leading.
The comparison is not lost on me. Here, I am far away from so many places and people I love, following the man I love most of all on this grand missionary adventure.
From what we know about the level of holiness that Clare reached there in the little cloister of San Damiano, I’m guessing she didn’t let the beckoning hills draw her along the winding spiral from the slight sadness that is the cost of sacrifice to deep sadness, bitterness and resentment. I think Clare cultivated an appreciation for the life she got to lead because Francis had run out to live the gospel as an adventure.
So these days, I’m finding more contentment in being where I am. When sadness rears its head for the missing of all I’ve left behind to follow the man I love on this grand adventure in faith, I let it come and then blow away on the breezes of a tropical sky. When he gets a little more adventure than me because my life is now tied to the women we serve out of our home, it is a little like a “cloister moment”, and dear St. Clare, she keeps sidling up beside me graciously and showing me how to walk it well.
I am learning to love the life this man’s spiritual adventure has purchased for me in the hard sacrifice of leadership, in familiar ways and in new ways and even in its hard moments. And in doing so, I am learning to love this man the same, in both the familiar and the ever new of our sacramental love, in the together adventure and the alone lonely.
I am not over my tendency to let my sadness explode as blame on his shoulders when it collides with the stress of this life, but I am learning not to. And St. Clare is a gracious and patient teacher.
The third lesson St. Clare is teaching me is that smallest opportunity to serve this man is a worthwhile endeavor to show my love.
At the top of the Basilica of St. Clare, there is a room full of glass cases that hold artifacts from the lives of Francis and Clare and the first Franciscans. A beautiful set of intricately embriodered vestments that Clare made in her quiet moments of free time. And the small shoe she sewed together from rough leather and thick thread to cover Francis’ foot when the wounds of the stigmata made it impossible for him to continue to walk barefoot as his rule prescribed. And a small silver box containing the locks of her shorn hair, the ultimate sign of her commitment to Francis and the life she dedicated to full service of him and his brothers.
I think about what it must have been like for Clare every time news reached her that Francis had a need that she could use her skills to fill. The love with which she must have sewn that shoe knowing that she could aid Francis in bearing the cross Jesus had offered him. The self-sacrificial love of her hair, cut off as an offering of her life to his vision. The motherly tenderness with which she made garments and clothes for him and the brothers.
I bet Clare’s heart leapt every time word reached San Damiano that Francis had a specific task he needed her to perform–a tangible way she could show her love for him.
I have those same chances every single day. So many small requests from my husband to serve him in some small way. I can choose to fulfill those requests in joy, grateful for the opportunity to help the man I love in a tangible way, or I can fulfill them begrudgingly, annoyed at the disruption of my own activity or being asked to do something he could do for himself.
I am learning to stop and offer a little prayer of gratitude before every small act of service I am asked to offer my husband. When I close my eyes to offer that prayer, I always see that sewn shoe and the locks of Clare’s hair. And I feel her invitation to learn to find joy in the daily sacrifices of love, in the tenderness of the ways I get to serve this man I love, and the unity of spirit and purpose we can achieve when I see his needs as my own and meeting them as a good I do for both of us.
I still huff a good bit. But I am learning not to. Because Clare is teaching me.
And she is a pretty good marriage mentor, this saint who lived the life of a cloistered nun.
I am glad she picked me when I thought she was not for me.
And I am grateful she’s all up in my business these days.
St. Clare, pray for me.
Colleen Mitchell is wife to Greg and mother to five amazing sons here on earth and five precious little ones in heaven. In 2011, She and her husband serve in Costa Rica where they run the St. Francis Emmaus Center, a ministry that welcomes indigenous mothers into their home. She works out what it means to love Jesus and live the Gospel as an adventure at her blogBlessed Are the Feet.