When I was nineteen I stood before what seemed to be the incorrupt body of St. Clare in the crypt of the basilica in Assisi bearing her name. Her body was covered only with a thin gauzy veil, and it looked whole to me. Now, I gather, it is no longer deemed to be incorrupt. But the impression, and the inspiration, have not gone away.
I was on a year off from college, seeing the world on a Eurail pass. (For three months, and $95, you got to sleep upright and vibrating anywhere in Europe.) I was neither a Catholic nor a practicing Christian, having left the Episcopal church-going of my youth in the rearview mirror. My companions and I pulled into Assisi one morning and soon found ourselves—stiff of back, sleepy of eye, and for all that dumbfounded—in front of the body of a woman who had died over 700 years before. It is still one of only two or three indelible impressions from those three months on the railroad.
This morning’s reading from the Office, for the memorial of St. Clare, has a striking image. In a letter from Clare to Blessed Agnes of Prague, the saint writes of Christ as an unclouded mirror: “For he is the splendor of eternal glory, the brightness of eternal light, and the mirror without cloud.”
Queen and bride of Jesus Christ, look into that mirror daily and study well your reflection, that you may adorn yourself, mind and body, with an enveloping garment of every virtue, and thus find yourself attired in flowers and gowns befitting the daughter and most chaste bride of the king on high. In this mirror blessed poverty, holy humility and ineffable love are also reflected. With the grace of God the whole mirror will be your source of contemplation. . . .
It strikes me now that the body of St. Clare was a mirror for me too: a view into what lasts and doesn’t. In the sanctity of Francis’s friend is an image of what I can be, and in her body, not so incorrupt after all, is what my body will be soon enough. Looking at St. Clare lying in her crypt was like being suspended between heaven and earth.