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We have new challenges ahead of us as we turn our gaze from the beguines in the Low Countries toward the advocates of apostolic poverty in Italy and, especially, toward Francis and Clare. While the beguines caught our attention with their creation of a distinctive new form of spiritual expression, crafted in part out of Latin and vernacular literary traditions, we see in Francis and Clare an earlier and significantly different approach to spirituality, self consciously unlearned and experiential. The piety of Francis and Clare emerges out of the generally heightened lay spirituality of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries; they and the larger movement they represent help set the stage for the beguines who will flourish after. Neither Francis nor Clare wrote the kind of sustained mystical treatise that the beguine Mechthild of Magdeburg composed, nor did they leave accounts of their visions as did Hadewijch. For a glimpse into their spirituality and respective visions of God, we must rely on a handful of letters and canticles in their own words, their Rules, and, more frequently, the testimony of others.

One thing we want to be aware of as we look at Francis and Clare is the way in which a common desire, the desire to embrace "lady poverty" as a particularly efficacious form of imitatio christi, is fulfilled differently because of gendered expectations. How is the spiritual path of apostolic poverty different for Clare, how is the Franciscan Rule and way of life changed because of limitations on female movement and behavior, and how, if at all, does that impact upon her use of poverty as a mystical tool?

It is important to remember the significance of both words in the phrase "apostolic poverty." In order to make sense of Francis and Clare, you must be familiar with the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and the Acts of the Apostles. (If you don't know the gospel texts very well, read through either Matthew or Luke before taking on Acts.)

There are a number of websites devoted to Franciscan history and/or Franciscan spirituality. The Franciscan Web Page includes a good tour of Assisi while The Franciscan Experience has a considerable amount of background information on Francis, Clare, the Franciscan movement and Franciscan texts and spirituality (sometimes even accurate!). For a useful point of comparison as you read the Rules of Francis and Clare, you may want to take a quick look at the Rule of St. Benedict.