Bret Thoman has written a mix of history and spiritually creative narrative to give us a "spiritual experience" with this saint.
In St. Clare of Assisi: Light from the Cloister, Bret Thoman explores “what was at the heart of this still little known medieval saint,” perhaps best known as follower and friend to St. Francis of Assisi.
“I sought to delve into her desires and inspirations, her emotions and her loves, and in that way, to discover what fired her indomitable desire and lifelong quest for Gospel poverty. Thus, this is a portrait of a woman that is highly subjective and deeply personal,” he writes in his introduction.
Thoman is an American-born secular Franciscan living in Loretto, running a pilgrimage company with his wife. His book is a mix of history and spiritually creative narrative (careful to note what is and isn’t known), both educating and bringing people deeper into the life Clare lived with Christ.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: You presume to know much more about Clare despite living centuries from her life. How did you get to know her?
Bret Thoman: Several ways. The first is by studying the medieval sources including Clare’s own writings, the “Legend,” and the process of Clare’s canonization. The Process — sworn testimonies of witnesses who knew Clare during childhood or lived with her in San Damiano — is an invaluable tool in that it confirms by and large the tales in the hagiographical Legend.
Yet, my understanding of St. Clare is also based on my relationships with Poor Clare sisters in central Italy whom my wife and I have known since 2004 and who have become like sisters and mothers to us.
Thus, my book is not a typical biography; instead, it is a mix between the known facts of Clare’s life (with over 200 references) and some imagination. The St. Clare who appears in my book is fully informed by the historical figure who lived eight centuries ago as well as the women of today who live vowed to the rule she wrote.
Lopez: Why did you take the literary approach you did? Presumably you could have written a travel diary, a history … many choices!
Thoman:I tried to follow the admonition of St. Francis who wrote in his Rule, on preaching, that “words should be well chosen, pure, and brief, because it was in few words that the Lord preached while on earth.” Following his advice, the style of my books (on Francis as well as Clare) is colloquial and simple.
I do have a few degrees as well as a certificate in Franciscan studies, and have written articles and academic papers. But, quite frankly, the audience for that kind of writing is limited. Instead, I wanted to write popular biographies so they would be accessible to many.
It is my hope that the reader goes away with the same admiration and esteem I have for these great saints. I would not say that my books are modern hagiography. But they are for those seeking a spiritual experience.
Lopez: I gather you spent some significant time with the Franciscans who live in St. Clare’s former cloister in San Damiano. What were the most significant things you learned from them about her?
Thoman: Yes … though I wish I could have spent more. The current guardian of the community of San Damiano is a scholarly, yet warm, friar named Fr. Giampaolo Massotto, OFM. He is also the director of Edizioni Porziuncola, who purchased the rights to translate and publish my book on St. Francis. He granted me “behind-the-scenes” access not just to San Damiano but also to the friars who showed me the nooks and crannies that tour groups don’t have access to.
Yet a very special moment was sitting with the nonagenarian and former provincial minister of Umbria, Fr. Giulio Mancini, OFM. Despite recovering from a cold, he shared with me his erudition, wisdom, knowledge, and kindliness. I had the impression that this was how he learned about San Damiano and the lives of Clare and Francis when he was younger — by listening to elders tell stories. In fact, he lamented (more than once) that the young friars of today learn too much in classrooms and from text books and they have lost the story-telling tradition of old.
Much of what I learned from the friars of San Damiano is in my book.
Lopez: Do you feel her present there, at her former home?
Thoman: I once heard of some Poor Clare nuns from the U.S. who were on pilgrimage in Assisi. When they arrived to the upper refectory in San Damiano, standing on the original 12th-century stone pavement floor before the cordoned-off corner where Clare died on August 11, 1253, no one spoke a word. Instead, the women began weeping profusely.
Whenever one walks through San Damiano, memories of her life flood forth: There she lived out her vocation of poverty followed by 40 women (including her two blood sisters and her own mother); she prayed and fasted incessantly and served the sick sisters; she performed numerous miracles and dialogued with cardinals and popes; she warded off an attack by Saracen mercenaries armed only with the Eucharist; and she wrote her own Rule.
Lopez: Can Americans be at home in Italy? (Is your family? How?)
Thoman: I should say, first, that my wife and I are both dual citizens of the U.S. and Italy (as are our children), and all of us speak both languages fluently.
I have always felt unusually at home in Assisi and in the ancient Franciscan places throughout central Italy. It was this “spirituality of place” that drew me away from my homeland.
Sometimes I reflect on the story of Abram to whom God said: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Gen 12:1). Sometimes I feel like I’ve arrived in the Promised Land. To borrow from Fellini, the “dolce vita” (the “sweet life”) is still alive here. Meals are long and delicious, midday is slow and lazy, family bonds are strong and the landscapes are a painter’s paradise.
Other days, however, I have to remind myself of the admonition of both Francis and Clare who, in their writings, frequently exhorted their followers to live as “pilgrims and strangers.” There is another side of Italy certainly challenging for the American expat: taxes are breathtakingly high and salaries unbelievably low, the government is a quagmire, bureaucracy is stifling, Italians are peculiarly fatalistic, and I won’t go on. On some days, I have to remind myself that our ultimate goal is not this world; instead, we are just passing through.