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. Took me four years to catch Covid and today I can’t vote. Thought I had escaped this particular virus.

  2. Like a lot of others I had a hard time with the big focus on all the hardship, self-inflicted and otherwise which the writings discussed for both saints, and almost had made an immediate decision to vote for Rafqa until the writing about her talked about the surgery with no anesthesia.

    Rafqa taught, founded schools and spent much time studying Arabic, Caligraphy, and Mathematics though and was very much an intellectual however which helped me decide in the end to vote for her. Claire, however, still wanting the women to only eat what they begged for and to live in abject poverty dispite the Pope suggesting that particular rule of life could injure their health, and maybe even cause death was just to much. Plus, I too liked that Rafqa was the patron Saint of knitters, although like someone else who posted a comment, I wondered about Claire and the needlepoint. The picture of her also looked so gentle, and her eyes looked very comforting and sympathetic while Claire looked like her chosen life of Franciscan poverty had completely taken its toll- very harsh, rough, and like someone very strict, slightly authoritarian, and who believed in complete minimalism and austerity.

  3. Before I read their bios, I planned to vote for Clare, and she is quite worthy. However, Rafqa's story is fascinating and she seemed to play the hand that she was dealt as well as anyone could. And she believed in educating women! We need her today in the Middle East!

  4. Love the fact that even tho blind, she contributed much to her community.

  5. Rafqa is my pick for the Golden Halo. I love how she accepted change, and kept answering God's call even when things were not as she expected, and her path was not always the one she would have chosen.

  6. I vote for Clare. She was such a great support to Francis, as well as being a ground-breaking and determined leader of the faith in her own right. Between the two of them they have impacted the whole of western Christianity in such important ways. But I will admit that in a work of fiction I did once invent an order of nuns called The Pilgrim Sisters of St. Clare, supposedly founded by Poor Clares rebelling against the severe cloistering of their order. That said, I do recognize that we cannot judge the people and institutions of the past by today's standards, and by yardsticks competely alien to them. I hope all Lent Madness participants will remember this while reading the stories of the saints from the historical past. Go, Clare!

  7. Sometimes I vote before reading comments and sometimes I read comments first. Today was a read comments first day. And then I voted for Rafqa.

  8. Dang! Everyone I vote for loses. Perhaps I ought to stop voting & just read. *sigh*

  9. Much as I admire St. Clare, I'm voting for Rafqa today, partly for learning about someone new to me, and partly out of recognition that Christianity isn't just for people who look like me.

  10. As a young girl I spent a few hours weekly visiting our local "old folks home" run by the "Little Sisters of the Poor". In their honor I must vote Clare.