Rafqa of Lebanon vs. Clare of Assisi

Welcome to the FINAL matchup of the round of 32. The 16th battle of Lent Madness XV is underway as we offer up a choice between Rafqa of Lebanon and Claire of Assisi. Yes, it's the patron saint of knitting vs. the patron saint of needlepoint in the Thread Count Throwdown.

In yesterday's action between the only two Silver Halo winners in Lent Madness history, Julian of Norwich eased past Brigid of Kildare 63% to 37%. She'll face Zita in the next round.

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Rafqa of Lebanon

Rafqa of Lebanon was born in 1832, to a Christian family in Himlaya, Matn district, in what is now Lebanon. Her early life was marked by loss – her mother died when she was seven, and at age 12, her father fell on hard times, so he sent her out to be a servant for a number of years. When she returned, he had remarried. Her new stepmother wanted her to marry the stepmother’s brother, her aunt wanted her to marry her cousin; Rafqa wanted to do neither, so she prayed for a solution. The answer came in the form of the monastery, so she fled to the nearby, and aptly named, Our Lady of Liberation at Bikfaya.

After a few years of regaining her bearings, Rafqa decided to join a new religious institution, dedicated to educating women full time in the arts, sciences, and religion. With the Mariamettes, she thrived. Her superiors sent her to help with a Jesuit mission in 1860, in the mountains of Deir el-Qamar. She was there when a brutal civil war broke out, including the massacre of 1,200 Christians in her village. Witnessing this horror had a lasting effect on Rafqa.

The next year, she took her postulancy in the Mariamette order. She came back to be the kitchen manager at Ghazir, and in her free time, studied Arabic, calligraphy, and math. She later went on to teach at Byblos, and then to found a school at Ma’ad. In 1871, the Mariamette order merged with another, and Rafqa was faced with a conundrum: either go back to regular life, join another order, or join the new merged order. She prayed about it, and received a vision of three men, one of which told her to join the Baladite order. Thus she immediately headed off to the monastery of St. Simon in Al-Qam.

The Baladite order was cloistered, so the schedule was much more rigid than Rafqa was used to, centering around prayer and manual labor. The nuns cultivated silkworms, knitted, and grew vegetables. Rafqa fell ill beginning in 1885, with some mysterious ailment around her eye. Doctors couldn’t do anything, apart from painful examinations, but after two years, a visiting American doctor recommended the affected eye be removed, which he proceeded to do without anesthesia (so she could share in the sufferings of Christ). Rafqa then became blind, but continued to spin wool and cotton, and knit socks for the other nuns. Eventually, because of her declining health, Rafqa was brought to a new monastery in Batroun, where the climate was less harsh. It was there that she died in 1914, four minutes after receiving last rites.

Collect for Rafqa of Lebanon

O God, by whose grace your servant Rafqa, kindled with the flame of your love, became a burning and a shining light in your Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and walk before you as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (BCP)

Megan Castellan

Clare of Assisi

Clare of Assisi was a thirteenth-century monastic nun and one of the first followers of Francis of Assisi. Clare Offreduccio was born in 1194 to a wealthy, noble Italian family. Her family planned for Clare to marry young, but she insisted on waiting until she was eighteen. When she was eighteen, she heard Francis preach at a Lenten series, and his words led her to seek out Francis and beg him to allow her to join his order. Francis cut Clare’s hair, symbolizing austerity and rejection of secular society. At the Palm Sunday service the next week, Clare exchanged her ornate dress for a plain robe with a thick veil. Clare was determined to change her life and, like Francis, renounced her wealth and devoted herself to following a rule of prayer, poverty, and service to the poor.

Francis first placed Clare in a convent in San Paulo with Benedictine nuns. Her family and friends tried repeatedly to bring Clare home, but she insisted on staying with the Franciscan order. Once they saw her short hair, they realized she had no intention of returning home and gave up their attempts to remove her. Sixteen days later, Clare’s sister, Catarina, joined Clare at the monastery and changed her name to Agnes. Francis placed Clare in a modest dwelling that he rebuilt next to the Church of St. Damiano at Assisi, and other women began to join them. They became known as the Poor Ladies of St. Damiano.

Francis led the order at first, but in 1216, after resisting, Clare assumed the role of abbess. The women followed a strict rule created by Francis focused on prayer and manual labor. The women lived in an enclosure, separating themselves from the secular world. They did not eat meat, walked barefoot, slept on the floor, and mainly lived in silence. What food they ate, they begged for.

Clare wanted her community to follow Francis’s rule of strict poverty, which meant the women could not own land. When the opportunity arose to create a more lenient rule, other priests and bishops refused to allow the women to adhere to their rule, so she went to the pope. Pope Gregory IX worried that the women’s health would suffer if they did not change their rule and give up such extreme poverty. Clare convinced him to allow the order to continue fully following Christ according to their rule. Gregory IX reapproved their Privilegium Paupertatis, or privilege of poverty.

After this victory, Clare began writing a rule for the order they could follow after her death. Her rule was approved two days before she died in 1253 at age 59. After Clare’s death, the order changed its name to the Poor Clares. The Poor Clares are active today in the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions.

Collect for Clare of Assisi

O God, whose blessed Son became poor that we, through his poverty, might become rich: Deliver us from an inordinate love of this world, that we, inspired by the devotion of your servant Clare, might serve you with singleness of heart and attain to the riches of the age to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (LFF 2022)

Miriam Willard McKenney


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57 comments on “Rafqa of Lebanon vs. Clare of Assisi”

  1. Before today, I never knew about Rafqa of Lebanon. I had thought I'd vote for Clare, but Rafqa's story is so compelling. Rafqa it is

  2. To close out Round One it is easy
    To vote for St. Clare of Assisi.
    Then, our brackets aflame,
    We can try a new game;
    Like Monopoly, chess or Parcheesi.

  3. With a great grandmother, cousins, and a sister named St. Clare, my vote will always be with Clare of Assisi.

  4. Although the flexibility of Rafka adjusting to change of administrative orders and to blindness is admirable, I feel more enlightened by the long-term results of the poor Clares' ministries.

  5. As a public school educator for 36 years, I cast my vote for Rafqa. The study of the arts, science, religion, Arabic, calligraphy, and math was unusual for women. Teaching, more so. The founding of a school was amazing and goes far beyond just living a cloistered life.

  6. With conflict in the Middle East escalating, Rafqa is the saint for today, reminding us that Christian brothers and sisters are also suffering, and that all deserve peace.

    1. thanks for reminding us that the lives of our fellow Christians are tried every moment

  7. I am leaving the Round of 32 exactly half and half of saints I voted for moving up to the Saintly Sixteen. Could be worse.

    1. WOW, I'm impressed. I didn't fare well. It seemed that I was always voting for the "underdog."
      WELL done!

  8. Clare had tenacity, vision, and leadership. Oh, that we had more like her today!

  9. I was glad to learn of Rafqa today, and was intrigued by her willingness to take charge of her own life while offering it to God in prayer. However, having served a parish dedicated to Francis for over 14 years, with portraits of Francis and Clare on either side of the altar, this is an easy choice for me.

  10. I find myself frustrated today. It seems that the writings focus on the hardships inherent in each saint's life, self inflicted or otherwise, but not on the results of their labors or sacrifices in the furthering of the Gospel, healing or relief of the poor they surely would have seen as their mission. Whose choice was it to reject anesthesia? I'm guessing Poor Clares beg for the poor? I know Christ is with us in our suffering, but are we asked to make ourselves suffer? I don't think so...... I am in quandary and I believe I will sit this vote out.

    1. Exactly! Self harm is a medical emergency, not a spiritual practice to celebrate. That goes for both of these women, but I voted for Rafqa.

    2. I am with you, Jane. I know the writers are only given so much room or number of words in which to convey the saint but, c’mon. We are told only of the, sometimes unnecessary in my opinion, suffering and not of the joy in serving in this first round. It leaves a bad taste that is far beyond the bland Lenten food served at this time of the year. I, too, choose not to vote today as I am done with unceasing suffering and little mention of the joy of loving God.

    3. I feel the same, Jane. But I did vote for Rafqa because of her Middle East connection.

  11. As a regular attendee of the monthly St Clare Silent Retreats for women at St Columba Conference Center in Memphis, TN, I have to vote for our patron St Clare. We’ve been meeting for over 20 years in her name for a morning of prayer and contemplation.

  12. Aside from the poverty of Clare of Assisi, she is someone with whom I can relate. I have had the blessing of visiting Assisi and worshipping there. Years ago, I started to do needlepoint, but along the way I quit. Now I am inspired to pick it up again in thanks for my recovery from malaise due to depression. Also, I am inspired to pray for all who suffer from physical and mental issues. And, I know the needlepoint will be excellent therapy.

    1. Needlework got me through cancer treatment. Best wishes for your full recovery

  13. nothing was said about needlepoint... I assume Clare is the patron saint but there was no explanation. Did I miss it?

  14. I don't know that I can vote for either of these stories.

    Both women displayed courage in going against their families to pursue a life with Christ. Yet as much as I have learned about Clare, the enclosure aspect of her order -- were there other options in the early 1200s? -- just makes me sad. There were Francis and his brothers going all over Umbria, the Marche, Tuscany, and to Rome . . . while the sisters had to be enclosed.

    I was taken with Rafqa's story -- her teaching and service and witness to violence and trying to stand up to it -- right up until the eye "surgery" without anesthetic and that this happened in the 20th century. There is so much suffering in the world, the fact that Christians for so long made a fetish of self-inflicted suffering rather than ministering to others and addressing the suffering and injustice in the world around us just pains me.

    1. Yes, but Lent? Speaking of self-inflicted denial. I take your point about the suffering of saints.
      Having had eye surgery three times in the 21st century I can say it’s progressed immensely since my father had cataract surgery in the 1960s. Pain relief was primitive in the 19th.

  15. We have two women today who really really did not want to get married to men other people wanted to force on them. Their worldly options were very limited. I am voting for Rafqa partly because we need to be reminded that there are Christians in the middle east and partly because Clare practiced anorexia, which I reject as a healthy spiritual practice. Gregory IX was right. Mostly I vote for Rafqa because she seemed to try to play the cards she had been dealt as best she could. Clare had an influential and charismatic protector in Francis, but Rafqa had to work within institutional structures in which she was a tiny cog. The massacre she witnessed must have been deeply traumatizing. I wish she had had better healthcare. For the small and overlooked, I vote for Rafqa.

  16. I've served at a parish named St.Francis and known several 3rd order Franciscans, so I can't not vote for Clare. And in honor. I will have my coffee today in my Golden Halo St. Francis mug!

  17. I had not heard of Rafqa before. My vote goes to her, and for the Christians of the Middle East, so often overlooked, who faithfully keep alive the traditions of Christ in the lands he walked.

  18. Argh! I'm a knitter but I go to St. Clare's! However, this was a no-brainer, as Clare had far more influence on the church. I had never heard about Rafqa, so it was good to learn about her though!

  19. I get it, I really do, the repugnance at self-inflicted suffering. I share it.

    I am a modern North American with expectations of certain rights and creature comforts. Living in a world without basic financial security (including a place to live and enough to eat) and readily available pain relief (or no medical care at all) is almost unfathomable to me.

    FWIW, personal insights from reflecting on these stories:

    - People do endure such sufferings, though,still, daily, chosen or (much more likely) not.

    - Anaesthetic is a luxury, a relatively recent one. So are antibiotics, and vaccines. What IS life like without these things?

    - What people can endure and survive is eye-opening and much larger than my small (cloistered?) life.

    - I'd rather turn aside than consider another's suffering, whatever the cause.

    - "THEY" (those suffering) should make better choices (WRT their situations), not me (WRT my resources).

    - it is an interesting exercise to look for gospel/"good news" here. There might be more Jesus work to be done than avoiding and judging.

  20. I'm struck today with the contrast between the chosen artistic portrayals of Rafqa and Clare. Though both gaze off to their right, any similarities end there. Clare's ornate halo does not shout "vow of poverty" to me. Her face is oddly proportioned and has that cold, stern look that I often see in icons. Rafqa's eyes, in contrast, seem to me to pour out grief and compassion for suffering humanity. I would like to think that both Clare and Rafqa looked more like this portrayal of Rafqa (...and I just googled for photographs, and yes, this depiction was based on photographs of Rafqa!).
    .........Also, with others this morning, I found myself wondering about the purpose and impact, positive or negative, of asceticism -- never mind self-mortification or borderline anorexia! -- when it sometimes it seems like performative asceticism, and unaccompanied by acts of love, mercy, and tangible aid to those who are poor, oppressed, or in any need. Did Clare's community give the resources they saved by their vows of poverty to those whose lives depended on it? I've always admired Francis and his and Clare's legacy, but I have some questions. Rafqa's work in education of women and founding schools was needed and important. So, also in compassion for so many people in the middle east -- in Gaza, and in Afghanistan and in Iran, among other places -- suffering from hunger, violence, and oppression today, I voted for Rafqa.

    1. Agreed. And when I read statements like, "What food they ate, they begged for," I always think, if everyone followed their rule there'd be no one to beg from.... I'd be much more impressed if it was, "What food they ate, they grew themselves."

      It's obvious by 1:30 PM Central that Rafqa's not going to make it to the next round, but I'm very glad to have learned about her.

  21. I voted for Rafqa with whom I am not familiar. Very interesting story. Having one's eye removed without anesthesia takes lots of courage (that I wouldn't have). Her tenacity at continuing her work, though blind, is amazing!

  22. The best-known saints always win. Churches have been named after them, which draws votes. Western saints have people named after them, which draws people in. Rafq is unfamiliar, so of course she'll lose. I voted for her, anyway.

  23. Even knowing Clare would win, I chose Rafqa. This was the most difficult pair for me. This is my first introduction to Rafqa. Remarkable woman.

    1. I'm guessing that was not causal, that there was a larger pathology that medicine at the time did not diagnose.

  24. Why is saintliness so connected to bodily mortification and pain, especially in women? These two women experienced intense pain and physical duress. Isn't it taught the body is the "temple of your presence." Hard to vote today. But I picked Rafqa because of her relative obscurity.

  25. Mortification of the flesh in various ways was an accepted Christian practise at the time St. Clare lived, and one of its 22nd-century expressions is fasting from large amounts of food, such as during Lent, or giving up something (not necessarily food) for Lent, or doing something extra for Lent. Of course one can carry fasting to an extreme, but that is not recommended, for health reasons.
    PLS in Bar Harbor

  26. Rafqa is a new saint to me, and I admire her sorry very much.
    except the eye being removed without anesthetic. UGH.
    BUT I do admire her perseverance and her ability to adapt.
    Clare is more famous, so she will probably win, but I am casting my vote for Saint Rafqa!