Essay: Franciscan Wonder Women

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*Note: Originally published on Quail Bell Magazine December 12th, 2015. 
 For centuries, Franciscans have been regarded as some of the most well-known monks of all time. The admiration starts of course with the founder of the Franciscans, Francis of Assisi. Son of a merchant-class man, legend tells of a pious man that ran from his privilege to pursue a life of limited resources and selfless giving. Francis left a legacy of male friars that made their own contributions to the monasteries. Many friars successfully practiced pious and impoverished lifestyles, but for Franciscan women, this right was consistently denied to them. Through vigilant correspondence between nunneries and the Pope, women were able to achieve an astounding feat in women’s rights by winning the right to poverty.
Regardless of these records and efforts in education, it is only in recent times scholarship in Christianity has been devoted to the little known lives of God-fearing women. Women have always served a vital role in the growth of Christianity, though it is only recently begun to resurface in academia. More and more research is being uncovered on notable women Franciscans, especially the already mentioned Clare of Assisi and Agnes of Prague. The efforts of Clare and Agnes helped bring in a more reformed and equal church.

In Joan Mueller’s The privilege of poverty: Clare of Assisi, Agnes of Prague, and the struggle for a Franciscan rule for women, women of God fought for the same rights as other Franciscans, focusing on the efforts of Clare of Assisi and Agnes of Prague. Mueller notes that “In the early decades of the thirteenth century, women who had everything to lose decided to sell everything….women risked both civil and ecclesial contempt for what [Clare of Assisi] called ‘the one thing necessary’—the privilege to be poor” (3). Clare “was convinced that the Lord had guaranteed the right to enter the kingdom of heaven only to the poor” and cites Luke 6:20, which asserts that the lower class are in God’s favor. Eventually Clare won “two Privileges of poverty that [she] obtained from Innocent III and Gregory IX, appears to accept implicitly the premises not only of claustration, but also of communal ownership of property” (Pattenden 222).

Mueller asserts that“experiences of Franciscan women have been basically ignored in the standard histories of the Franciscan Order….If the contribution of the sisters has not been recognized, it is not because of a lack of sources” (3). Indeed, there’s a plethora of papal correspondence addressed to women in the monasteries, notably in Mueller’s book between Clare and Agnes of Prague. Miles Pattenden’s “The Canonisation of Clare of Assisi and Early Franciscan History” agrees that “[a]s one of the few thirteenth-century women to have left detailed writings putting forth her own views, Clare became a spokesperson for the silent mass of her contemporaries” (208).

Clare left behind her superfluous life to follow Francis, sneaking out of her home to join the church of S. Maria degli Angeli (Mueller 7). Her choice was a direct violation of what her parents had planned for her and even unusual for monastic women that happily took the financial benefits of joining a nunnery (Mueller 2). Clare rejected surplus income, and wanted no moment to be comfortable. Agnes of Prague was a Bohemian princess that rejected the hand of Emperor Frederick II of Germany. Instead, she founded a monastery called Poor Sisters in Prague and a hospital in honor of St. Francis (Mueller 55). Agnes was inspired by the actions of her late cousin Elizabeth that founded a hospital with her widow’s pension, also moved by Franciscans that had come to Germany (Mueller 55). The Vita of Saint Agnes of Prague tells of Agnes’s fidelity towards her impoverished lifestyle, and notes that when Agnes received royal gifts, she would separate the gifts by value and divided it by purchasing supplies for the church, support for the sisters, and donated the rest to charity (Mueller 106). Though Clare and Agnes never met (they only spoke via letter correspondence), their efforts were essential to winning the right to practice poverty as any other friar.

Pope Gregory IX was in power when both Clare and Agnes bombarded him with requests for similar monastic rights. Agnes requested a Franciscan Rule for women, which was denied by Gregory, for the Ugolinian Rule already used by the sisters an accepted by both Pope Honorius and Francis and would be confusing to change (Mueller 78-79). Clare and Agnes reacted with displeasure, insulted that Gregory implied they were no longer following what Francis had instructed. They began to pick at fasting regulations as a less ambitious target (Mueller 79). Later, Agnes wrote a second time to Pope Innocent IV, with a similar answer, and to stop questioning what she was told (Mueller 91).  In 1246, Agnes was able to gain access to the Order of Saint Damian to access Franciscan teachings and pastoral aid (Mueller 103). In 1252 Innocent instructed Cardinal Rainaldo to approve the Rule of Clare, the adapted Rule of the Franciscan Brothers for women (Mueller 114). However, the action did not change the way male friars perceived them.

Though hesitant to grant the same privileges as they had, the friars relied on women for the tasks that they were not capable of doing, acknowledging once more the essential role of women in the monasteries. Women were viewed as having a connection with God that the friars were either fascinated or intimidated of often. In Coakley’s “Gender and the Authority of Friars: The Significance of Holy Women for Thirteenth-Century Franciscans and Dominicans,” Coakley’s thesis observes the interactions of the friars and nun, noting “I shall argue that [the letter correspondence] show the friars in question to have intently observed distinctions between the women and themselves, and that those distinctions gave them a means of addressing the matter of their own relationship with the divine, and the extent and limits of the ecclesiastical authority they possessed as friars. Thus gender served as a tool that helped them fashion a medium of encounter with issues at the heart of their calling” (445).

The article features a case between Diana of Andalo and Master General Jordan of Saxony (Coakley 447). According to correspondence between them from 1222 to 1236, Jordan was spiritual director of the convent of Saint Agnes in Bologna, the convent Diana had helped form (Coakley 447). Though Jordan viewed Diana as subordinate to him, Coakley notes “the care with which Jordan thus distinguished his role from [Diana’s] did not hinder him from passionately admiring her, whom he spoke of as his “better part.” That did not mean Jordan viewed Diana as an equal, but did acknowledge difference and talents the male friars and Jordan did not have (452).

However, though fascinated by the women and aware of their “privileged, unique, and remote” relationship with the divine, the friars did not see the women as their equals, but instead as willingly submissive to the orders of male superiors (Coakley 450). Examples of friars’ authority would be a “sacerdotal kind of authority over the women, in mediating divine grace through the sacraments, especially penance and Eucharist” (Coakley 449). Regardless, men like Jordan acknowledged the overwhelming importance of the nuns, referring to Diana as his “better part” when talking of her (Coakley 452).

Still, most friars approached admiring women with caution, because of a “potentially dangerous implication in doing so. For the acknowledgement and use of those contacts also implied the possibility of an outright reversal of roles whereby a woman’s evident superiority would cause a friar to see himself as subordinate to her, and run the risk of compromising the authority he otherwise exercised” (Coakley 456). Coakley also notes that “[Friars’] strong sense of difference from the admired yet submissive women could give them a safe occasion to articulate doubts about themselves and confront the limits of their powers; at the same time, the services which the women provided by virtue of their supernatural contacts could help the friars make up for those limits” (Coakley 450).

Today, many Americans still place a woman’s role in the church lower than a man’s. Studying Franciscan and other faithful women is invaluable to expand the role of women in the Church. Expansion in this knowledge helps combat the persistent sexism that flares up in religious tradition. Recognizing a woman’s potential in fields of faith opens new opportunities for thousands of talented, exceptionally qualified women.

Bibliography

  1. Mueller. Joan. The privilege of poverty: Clare of Assisi, Agnes of Prague, and the struggle for a Franciscan rule for women. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press. 2010.
  2. Pattenden, Miles. “The Canonisation of Clare of Assisi and Early Franciscan History.” The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 59, no. 2 (2008): 208-226.
  3. Coakley, John. “Gender and the Authority of Friars: The Significance of Holy Women for Thirteenth-Century Franciscans and Dominicans.” Church History 60, no. 4 (1991): 445-460.
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