Place your mind before the mirror of eternity!
—St. Clare of Assisi
The “mirror of the cross” is an important image in the tradition of Franciscan spirituality. The use of the image of the mirror was already in use among spiritual writers of the Cistercian school, when St. Clare of Assisi first took it up for Franciscan use. St. Bonaventure used the image extensively in his masterwork, The Journey of the Soul to God. The idea presupposes that the way in which we know Jesus is transformative. To see Jesus, that is, to truly know him, is to become His reflection, His image and likeness. This is the opposite of egoism. Mirror gazing can be a very vain thing, but it can also be exactly the opposite.
St. Clare used this metaphor when she wrote to St. Agnes of Prague, exhorting her to look at the glory and splendor of Christ as though He was a “mirror without blemish,” and “study her face in it.” St. Agnes would have understood the significance of this exhortation. She had gone from adorning herself with the outward plaiting of the hair, or the wearing of gold, or the putting on of apparel, to the hiddenness of the heart in the incorruptibility of a quiet and meek spirit which is rich in the sight of God (1 Pt 3.3-4).
The vain questioning of the mirror in the fairy tale is actually a very good question: “Who is the fairest of them all?” St. Clare knew the answer and she wished to teach it to St. Agnes.
St. Agnes of Prague was born in 1203, the daughter of King Ottakar of Bohemia and Queen Constance of Hungary. At the age of three she was betrothed to Boleslaus, son of Henry duke of Silesia. Boleslaus died and later Frederick II sought the hand of Agnes. But she spurned him, choosing rather as her spouse, Jesus Christ in the Franciscan Second Order. Later, when St. Agnes was the abbess of the monastery in Prague and struggled to persevere, the letters of Holy Mother Clare consoled her. St. Agnes had without doubt been familiar with the practice of mirror gazing, something which she left behind for the sake of contemplating more beautiful things, even though such a life was at times very difficult.
St. Clare counseled St. Agnes to remember that what she had given up was nothing compared to what she had gained, and that that which she suffered was not so much an injury but an adornment of grace that made her a beautiful bride for Her Bridegroom and Spouse, Jesus Christ.
St. Clare wrote to Agnes:
Happy, indeed, is she
to whom it is given to share this sacred banquet,
to cling with all her heart to Him
whose beauty all the heavenly hosts admire unceasingly,
whose love inflames our love,
whose contemplation is our refreshment,
whose graciousness is our joy,
whose gentleness fills us to overflowing,
whose remembrance brings a gentle light,
whose fragrance will revive the dead,
whose glorious vision will be the happiness
of all the citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem.
The Looking Glass
So St. Clare was not afraid that her spiritual daughter Agnes would fall into vanity by looking at herself in the mirror, because this was no ordinary mirror, but one in which the beholder was able to see herself transformed in the person of Christ Jesus, the “fairest of them all.” It was not a magic mirror like the one of Malificent or Alice in the fairy tales, but it was more powerful than any magic conceived by storytellers, because it was the transforming power of God’s grace.
So St. Clare writes:
Inasmuch as this vision is the splendor of eternal glory (Heb 1.3), the brilliance of eternal light and the mirror without blemish (Wis 7.26), look upon that mirror each day, O queen and spouse of Jesus Christ, and continually study your face within it, so that you may adorn yourself within and without with beautiful robes and cover yourself with the flowers and garments of all the virtues, as becomes the daughter and most chaste bride of the Most High King. Indeed, blessed poverty, holy humility, and ineffable charity are reflected in that mirror, as, with the grace of God, you can contemplate them throughout the entire mirror.
St. Paul also writes of this mirror in which we can see charity reflected: We see now through a glass darkly; but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then I shall know even as I am known ( 1 Cor 13.12). The glass darkly, was the ancient mirror of St. Paul’s time, not a piece of glass coated with silver, but a sheet of brass that, even when highly polished, reflected the face in a distorted or darkly fashion. Because St. Paul is comparing this world to the next in which only charity will remain, he emphasizes the limitation of what we can see in the mirror. But St. Clare emphasizes that in the mirror we see a vision. We are able to see beyond what our “eyes” can ordinarily perceive, even though we will be able to see even better in heaven:
Look at the parameters of this mirror, that is, the poverty of Him who was placed in a manger and wrapped in swaddling clothes. O marvelous humility, O astonishing poverty! The King of the angels, the Lord of heaven and earth, is laid in a manger! Then, at the surface of the mirror, dwell on the holy humility, the blessed poverty, the untold labors and burdens which He endured for the redemption of all mankind. Then, in the depths of this same mirror, contemplate the ineffable charity which led Him to suffer on the wood of the cross and die thereon the most shameful kind of death.
This mirror, then, reflects the mysteries of Christ and does so in such a way that we see ourselves in Christ through its mediation. Thus, the mirror is a metaphor for mental prayer, for reading, meditation and contemplation.
St. Jerome says that ignorance of the scriptures is ignorance of Christ. But this ignorance is not simply the lack of book learning, but of personal “face time” with Lord. It is not merely a matter of “information” but of “trans-formation.” We are to become the mirror image of Christ. Once St. Thomas Aquinas, impressed by the learning of St. Bonaventure, asked the latter what library he used. St. Bonaventure answered by pointing to the crucifix.
St. Clare realized that this mirror was most fittingly focused on the mystery of Our Lord’s suffering and death:
Therefore, that mirror, suspended on the wood of the cross, urged those who passed by to consider it, saying: “All you who pass by the way, look and see if there is any suffering like My suffering!” (Lam 1.2). Let us answer Him with one voice and spirit, as He said: Remembering this over and over leaves my soul downcast within me (Lam 3.20)! From this moment, then, O queen of our heavenly King, let yourself be inflamed more strongly with the fervor of charity!
The Looking Cross
St. Clare and her sisters were cloistered in the monastery attached to the Church of San Damiano, the place where St. Francis saw the crucifix come alive and heard the Crucified speak the words: “Francis, do you not see that my house is being destroyed? Go therefore and repair it for me.” St. Francis began his vocation doing the labor of a stone mason, placing stone upon stone, or as St. Bonaventure put it, moving from the lower to the higher, from the material to the spiritual. Only after having physically rebuilt three Churches would St. Francis realize that his mission to repair the Church had a much larger significance. St. Bonaventure said that the three churches rebuilt by St. Francis, signify the three orders he founded: the friars, the Poor Clares and the tertiaries.
We might wonder if St. Clare conceived of the metaphor of the mirror because, living in San Damiano, she was able to look everyday at the vision that St. Francis saw come alive in the crucifix. The San Damiano Crucifix is a wondrous sacramental because the vision of St. Francis is displayed for all to see. The iconographer’s composition was miraculously assumed by the dispositions of divine providence and made a living vision for St. Francis. It became a mirror for him, and remains so for us as well.
Thomas of Celano, St. Francis’ contemporary and first biographer, wrote that at the moment of his encounter with the living crucifix of San Damiano St. Francis was transformed: “touched by extraordinary graces, he found himself a person completely changed from the one who entered.” It was as though what he saw reflected in the mirror was indeed really his own image, because the image of Christ had been imprinted upon him and he had been transformed by it.
From vanity to virtue: that is the transformation that takes place in this kind of mirror gazing. Franciscan spirituality tends to simplify in popular terms what can also be expressed in high theological language. St. Bonaventure, for example is sometimes referred to as “St. Francis thinking.” However the truth is expressed, the person of Christ remains the measure of reality. Virtue, in the end, is the reproduction of the acts of Christ. The practice of virtue is the replication of the life of Christ in ourselves in and through His presence and power. He is the Man in the mirror.
The Man of the Mirror
This is the great appeal of Franciscan spirituality. It is immediate and concrete. It is why St. Francis has such universal appeal: because his is like Jesus. In the upper church of the basilica of St. Francis, the life of Our Lord and the Life of St. Francis are shown in a parallel series of frescoes. At the end of his life St. Francis became what he saw in the mirror, literally and physically, through the stigmata. He became a living crucifix. He became the man in the mirror.
In Franciscan spirituality the metaphor of the mirror is sometimes used as the ability to see and reproduce Christ in ourselves as a function of imitation of Christ and contemplative union with Him, as it is by St. Clare. But it is also used as a metaphor for the mind, by which we are able to see the presence of God in the things he has created, as it is by St. Bonaventure. In St. Francis’ Canticle of the Creatures, St. Bonaventure would say the mind of the Saint is acting as a mirror:
Praised be to You, my Lord, with all your creatures,
Especially Brother Sun,
Who is the day and through whom You give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor;
And bears a likeness to You, Most High One.
St. Clare allowed herself to be known as the “little plant” of St. Francis. If it is true that St. Francis replicated in himself the life of Christ, standing as he did on this side of the mirror of the cross, then it is also true that St. Francis and St. Clare stood in relation to each other as Jesus and Mary.
During the congregation of cardinals prior to the conclave that elected Jorge Mario Bergoglio the Successor of Peter, the soon-to-be pope said that the Church needs to be the “mysterium lunae,” that, is the “mystery of the moon,” insofar as its radiance is the reflected light of Christ. This analogy is rooted in the light of Christ reflected off the Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mirror of perfection (a title also attributed to St. Francis). The contemplative life of the great mother of Franciscan observance, St. Clare, understood this and replicated in her life and that of her daughters the Marian reflection of Christ.
When St. Francis responded to the Man on the cross, who had commanded him to rebuild the Church, he said to the people of Assisi in the spirit of prophecy:
Come and help me build the monastery of San Damiano, because ladies will dwell here who will glorify our heavenly Father throughout His Holy Church by their celebrated and holy manner of life.
And so, it came to pass that in the place where St. Francis received his vocation, “holy ladies” did indeed come to gaze upon the mirror of the Crucified. There, according to an ancient chronicle, St. Clare and her daughters proved to be at the heart of the whole Franciscan movement:
The Poor Ladies’ conversion and conduct not only were the heart of the religion of the friars, of whom they were the little planting, exaltation and edification, but also of the universal Church of God.
To “edify,” from the Latin aedis facere, means “to build.” The mirror gazing of the Poor Clares, is not to be criticized by the “Marthas” of the world, as being passive and vain. This gazing is active and exemplary as an effort to conform oneself to the fidelity, honesty, courtesy, courage and generosity of Christ. This gazing is at the heart of the Church, because prayer is at the heart of the Church, and the beginning and end of its transformation. Through the Heart of Mary, may we become more and more like the Man in the mirror, and in that way do our part to rebuild the Church.
Holy Mother Clare, pray for us.