In the latter part of the twelfth century, the Church had fallen on evil days and was weak and spiritually impoverished. It was then that Francis of Assisi renounced his wealth and established the mendicant order of friars who would come to be known as the Franciscans. At the first gathering of the order in 1212, Francis preacher a sermon that was to make a radical change in the life of an eighteen-year old woman named Clare.
The daughter of a wealthy family of Assisi, noted for her beauty, Clare was inspired by Francis’ words with the desire to serve God and to give her life to following Christ. She sought out Francis and begged that she might become a member of his order, placing her jewelry and rich outer garments on the altar as an offering. Francis could not refuse her pleas, and he placed her temporarily in the nearby Benedictine convent of Bastia and later at Sant-Angelo di Panzo. It was at these two houses that she was formed in the religious life.
When Clare’s retreat first became known, friends and family members tried to take her home again. But she was adamant. She would be the bride of Christ alone. She prevailed, and soon after was taken by Francis to a poor dwelling beside the Church of St Damian (San Damiano) at Assisi. Several other women joined her, including eventually her mother and two sisters. Clare became the Mother Superior of the order, which was called the Poor Ladies of St Damian.
The order’s practices were austere, believed to be harder than those of any other nuns of the time. They embraced the Franciscan rule of absolute poverty and spent their days begging and performing works of mercy for the poor and the neglected. Clare herself ministered as a servant not only to the poor, but also to her nuns.
Clare never left the convent at Assisi that she ruled for forty years, and she was distinguished as one of the great medieval contemplatives, devoted to serving her community with great joy, ready to do whatever Francis directed. She said to him, “I am yours by having given my will to God.” The author of her Life writes that she “radiated a spirit of fervor so strong that it kindled those who but heard her voice”. For the last twenty-seven years of her life she suffered various illnesses, being sometimes bedridden, but she was always devoted to her nuns and to the town of Assisi. She expressed this by sewing altar cloths and corporals for the town’s churches and by prayer and penance on the town’s behalf in times of crisis. Twice Assisi was in danger of being sacked by the armies of the emperor Frederick the Second, which included a number of Saracen mercenaries. Clare, though ill, was carried to the wall of the town with a pyx containing the Blessed Sacrament, before which, write her biographers, the armies fled. For this reason she is often depicted in art with a pyx or a monstrance.
Her last illness began in 1253. She weakened daily, and she was visited daily by devoted laity, by priests, and even by the Pope. On her last day, as she saw amny weeping by her bedside, she exhorted them to love “holy poverty” and to share their possessions. In those last hours she was heard to say, “Go forth in peace, for you have followed the good road. Go forth without fear, for he that created you has sanctified you, has always protected you, and loves you as a mother. Blessed be God, for having created me.”
Clare was canonized only two years after her death. Her order of Poor Clares, reformed by Colette Boellet in the fifteenth century, continues today as a contemplative order, relatively few in number but still distinguished by those same ideals that had inspired Francis and Clare.
prepared from Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980) and
The Oxford Dictionary of Saints
O God, whose blessed Son became poor that we through his poverty might be rich: Deliver us from an inordinate love of this world, that we, inspired by the devotion of your servant Clare, may 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.
The image of Saint Clare of Assisi is from a late thirteenth century altarpiece in the Monastery of Santa Chiara in Assisi, Italy, and depicts scenes from her life.