St. Clare of Assisi
C. 1193 – 1253
St. Clare was born of patrician parents of Assisi in Umbria in 1193/4. After hearing a sermon by St. Francis and taking counsel with him, she and a companion left her father’s house secretly by the door reserved for the passage of a corpse, on the evening of Palm Sunday, March 18, 1212, to meet Francis at the Porziuncula. It is perhaps the most astonishing, as well as the most beautiful, of all the episodes of the early years of the Brotherhood; the courage and faith and simplicity of the principal actors – the 18-year-old girl, leaving all that was familiar and secure for the unknown; the30-year-old and penniless Francis, accepting her as a spiritual and material responsibility; the spring night in the wooded valley; the torches of the Brethren; the girl’s hair hanging loose at the Altar to be cut by Francis. Acting entirely unconventionally and without Canonical authority, Francis accepted Clare’s bill of divorce from the world and lodged her nearby in a Benedictine Nunnery. There she was joined by her sister Agnes and others. The group was settled by Francis at San Damiano, where ultimately Clare’s mother, Ortalana, and her younger sister joined her. For some time, the community was as independent as the early Friars. Francis gave Clare a short rule of life and strict rules of diet and there are indications that Clare, in the matter of physical austerity, went even further than Francis would have wished. In 1215, he appointed her Abbess and probably gave her the rule of St. Benedict, but an eye witness speaks of the informality as well as the fervor of the Sisterhood, which rapidly multiplied.
In Francis’s later years, relations with San Damiano were interrupted and the beautiful story of his midnight supper with Clare is almost certainly inauthentic; but in his last illness, he was sheltered by her in a hut of branches in the garden of San Damiano, and there he composed the Canticle of Brother Sun. He also gave her his final blessing, departing to die at the Porziuncola. Before his death, he commanded the Brethren to carry his dead body to Assisi by way of the convent, where Clare and her sisters received it and gazed on the wounds in his hands and feet.
Clare, truly interpreting the ideals of Francis, obtained from Pope Innocent III a privilege, written in part by the Pope himself, guaranteeing absolute poverty but Gregory IX, who as Cardinal of Ugolino had taken a hand in regulating the Friars, insisted on endowing the Nuns with land and a building. Clare resisted, and in a celebrated interview in 1228, withstood the Pope and obtained the desire privilege. When Gregory offered to absolve her from the vow of absolute poverty, Clare replied, “Holy Father, absolve me from my sin but not from the obligation of following our Lord,” and the Pope yielded.
In the years that followed, Innocent IV in 1247, once more sanctioned the holding of property, but Clare replied by composing a rule based on that of Francis, enjoining absolute poverty, and it was approved in haste by Innocent IV two days before her death. The original papal bull was discovered in the Saint’s Tomb in 1893.
The surviving letters of Clare are not revealing; they are formal in style and abound in flowers of speech, but the recently discovered process of Canonization, conducted fewer than two years after her death, gives many vivid examples of a strong and lofty sanctity, with extreme austerity of life and an illness of 30 years’ duration. On a celebrated occasion in 1241, she repelled the looting soldiers of Frederick II, and protected the Convent of San Damiano and the city of Assisi with her prayers. Other more gentle facets of her character appear: her love of flowers, her custom of passing through the dormitory and pulling the blanket over a sleeping nun, and the well authenticated incident of the bedridden Abbess ordering the cat to bring a towel across the room and “not to drag it on the floor like that.” The witnesses – her own sisters, her nuns and citizens of Assisi – all show us the ardent, determined girl grown into a commanding yet exquisitely gracious figure. She died on August 11, 1253, and on the morrow, Pope Alexander offered the white mass of virgins in her honor. She was canonized in 1255.
St. Clare is justly accounted the foundress of the second order of St. Francis, that of the poor ladies (Minoresses, Poor Clares or Clarisses). Like their Brethren, they have experienced many divisions and reforms, but they have as their Patroness and model, a Saint given by God to share the ideals and sufferings of Francis, one who, by her sanctity and personality, could win and in a sense subdue three of the greatest Popes of the century in her fidelity to the call of poverty.