Within each of us is the potential to be a light focusing attention on God's presence
in our world. Clare of Assisi's life reveals just how much light she shed.
As a friend and as cofounder of the Franciscan movement, she supported Francis as he
discerned God's message for himself and his followers. Together with her sisters, she wrote
the first Rule written for religious women by a woman. She modeled the ability
for the authority or power of a group to be held by the entire group (collegiality).
This year, the Franciscan family throughout the world celebrates the 750th anniversary
of Clare's death in August 1253. Her life continues to speak to all of us. She challenges
us to incorporate simplicity, singleness of purpose and unity within families and communities
into the complexity of our 21st-century lives.
Woman, Good Leader
Clare was born in 1193 in Assisi, a small town in the scenic Umbrian Valley of Italy.
She was born of nobility, the oldest child of Ortulana and Favarone di Offreduccio.
At the end of the 12th and the beginning of the 13th century, Italy was a cauldron of
political and military strife. Society was divided into two groups: the maiores and minores.
The maiores were the nobility. The minores were former serfs, who had become
merchants, craftsmen and field workers. These two groups were continually fighting for
power among themselves.
In her early youth, Clare was exiled to Perugia. While the men in the family were off
fighting their wars, the women chose to live as penitents. Ortulana, along with her daughters,
as well as other women among Clare's family and friends, were fasting, praying, bringing
food to the poor and visiting prisoners.
This time of suffering and exile became a time of spiritual formation. Many of the women
living with Clare in Perugia, including her mother and sisters, later became some of Clare's
first followers in San Damiano.
In 1205, Clare's family returned to Assisi. Francis had already begun his conversion.
He had publicly renounced his father and started rebuilding San Damiano. In 1208, he began
preaching. Clare's cousin Rufino became one of his early followers.
Clare's household had to have experienced the stir that Francis was causing. An eyewitness,
cited in the Acts of the Process of Canonization [of Clare], said that, during this
time, Clare went to hear Francis preach, gave him some money to rebuild churches and to
feed the poor, and arranged to talk to him in private.
Clare and Francis were both experiencing God breaking into their lives, changing them
and calling them to give themselves over to God. Both were facing unknowns and both were
probably frightened and unsure of themselves. It must have been a comforting grace to meet
a kindred spirit and to encounter another human being who was experiencing the same call
and facing the same doubts.
Clare's sister Beatrice tells us (in the document of the canonization process) that Francis
first initiated the visit with Clare. Some speculation suggests that women were asking
to join his movement and Francis needed a strong woman to lead the others.
Clare's reputation for holiness was well known in Assisi. She would be the perfect leader.
Who went to whom first is unimportant. The important reality was that God had a plan and
that Francis and Clare were open to being led.
Francis and the brothers received Clare on Palm Sunday night at the chapel of St. Mary
of the Angels (the Portiuncula) in the year 1212. Shortly after this, she was taken
to San Paolo, a Benedictine monastery in Bastia.
The men in Clare's family were not happy with her following Francis. Their power and
wealth were diminishing with the changes in society. Clare was beautiful and they had hoped
that her marriage would bring prestige and continued wealth into the family. They followed
her to San Paolo with every intention of bringing her home.
Clare instead held on to the altar and claimed sanctuary. She had made her choice. She
would never turn back.
Clare's sister Catherine, soon to be called Agnes, joined Clare. The two lived for a
while with a group of Beguines (13th-century women under vows) in Sant'Angelo in Panzo
until Francis brought them to the church of San Damiano. There, the Lord gave them sisters
and their community grew quickly.
a Future With Confidence
Clare's community was to be vastly different from the monastic communities of her time.
The sisters were to live poorly without large land holdings. Like Francis, their Rule would
be to embrace the gospel form of life. They would all be of equal rank, and all decisions
affecting their life would be made by all of them.
They would have an abbess, but she would consider herself "the servant of the sisters" and
she would lead more by her example of virtue than by instruction or admonition.
Clare was the perfect follower of Francis. She understood his message and would spend
her entire life making it a lived reality. Her life and the lives of the early sisters,
however, were not easy ones.
Francis died young. Clare outlived him by 27 years. She remained firm and kept the ideal
alive, despite Francis' absence and the dissension among his brothers. The Church would
see the poverty of her life as too difficult. She negotiated with popes and worked to get
her Rule approved until the day before she died—August 10, 1253.
Most of her life, Clare lived with sickness. While she complained little of her own illness,
she is known for frequently healing others. She lived an enclosed life within the narrow
confines of a small monastery in Assisi. Yet her story is known around the entire world
Character Challenges Us
Clare was a woman of prayer, and her entire life was lived in trust of the God whom she
knew loved her. She needed little material wealth because she trusted that God would care
for all her physical needs. God never let her down. It takes deep faith to live so, but
anyone who has tried to live dependent on God learns quickly the joy of simplicity.
Clutter blocks freedom and blurs perception. Living simply helps one develop an attitude
or willingness to be emptied. One quickly learns what is important. Those who live simply
learn to live with open hands: to appreciate what is given but to be equally willing to
let go, when letting go is what is needed.
Contemplative living was Clare's reason for living simply. One needs to be poor to have
the space to meet God. Clare, by her way of life, witnessed to others the one thing necessary
and found herself united with all people in sharing her need for and reliance on God.
The most genuine poverty seems to come from within. Individuals in poverty make families
and communities poor. Life's biggest challenge seems to be embracing inner poverty. It
takes real honesty to face oneself, to acknowledge clinging to possessions and to admit
attraction to power and privilege, tendencies we all share.
Courage is needed to be poor, to recognize the need for conversion and not to be overwhelmed
by it. Embracing inner poverty can turn lives upside down. In facing the struggle, though,
we—like Clare—can recognize that areas of weakness are also areas of grace.
Our own struggle with sinfulness teaches patience and forgiveness as we encounter the
mistakes and failures of others. Conversion is the only route to transformation. Poverty
frees and enables Christians to face the cross. In experiencing the cross, we—like Clare—are
Clare, in a letter to Ermentrude of Bruges (a Flemish founder trying to live in the spirit
of Clare and her followers), tells us: "Love God and Jesus, who was crucified for us, from
the depth of your heart, and never let the thought of Him leave your mind. Meditate constantly
on the mysteries of the cross. Do not be afraid, my daughters. God, who is faithful in
all His works and holy in all His deeds, will pour out His blessings upon you. God will
be your helper and best consoler. God is our redeemer and our eternal reward."
Suffering is a part of life. No one can escape suffering, but how it's understood informs
and influences how one handles it. Clare focused her daughters on Christ crucified. She
prayed before the crucified Jesus and contemplated the Gospel accounts of the Passion.
At first glance, this can seem like an unhealthy stress on pain or a glorification of
suffering. That was not Clare's intention. Clare knew that staying with Jesus in the Passion
accounts would move her beyond suffering to a deep realization of Jesus' love. Recognizing
such love creates a burning desire to be one with the crucified. In short, there is no
embracing the cross that does not lead to at least hints of resurrection!
St. Clare was no victim-martyr. She did not go out searching for suffering. She was,
however, open to facing the suffering that came her way. She knew grace would be present
and that this grace would give her the strength and courage she needed. It would also give
her the vision to see beyond herself and grasp the insights that only God could teach.
Clare learned that embracing the cross opens one totally to God, who keeps teaching the
depths of love. This union with God unites neighbors. Our suffering becomes one with that
of others. Together, we learn the compassion and love mirrored by Jesus.
Clare wrote four letters to Agnes of Prague, the queen of Bohemia, who became a Poor
Clare. (Clare's sister Agnes is known as Agnes of Assisi.) In her third letter to
Agnes, she writes, "The soul of a faithful person is greater than heaven itself, since
the heavens and the rest of creation can not contain the creator and only the faithful
soul is God's dwelling place and throne. As the glorious Virgin of Virgins carried Jesus
materially, so we too, by following in her footprints, especially those of poverty and
humility, can without a doubt, always carry Him spiritually in our chaste and virginal
bodies, holding the one by whom all things are held together, possessing that which in
comparison with the other transitory possessions of the world, we will possess more securely."
Taking these words to Agnes seriously would change the way people look at themselves
and others. The answer lies within. The realization of this "indwelling of God" calls for
a respect and an appreciation for who we are. Clare taught her sisters to see themselves
as temples of God, mirrors of Christ and revelations of the Holy Spirit. Such servanthood
holds none of the unhealthy implications of being either slaves or doormats.
It calls us to mirror the self-emptying compassion we have seen mirrored in Jesus. It
is the same Jesus, as we clearly know, who dwells in our neighbor. Our neighbors are also
temples of God, mirrors of Christ and revelations of the Spirit. Our God dwells in each
of us and each of us uniquely manifests our God.
Like Mary, we are called to birth our God for one another, to bring to life the reality
of God's presence.
Service goes beyond merely doing for one another. Service, in Clare's view, is a calling
to be reflections of God for one another. Within each of us, Clare saw clearly, is a seed
that awaits birth. We are encouraged to endure life's labor pangs and bring forth life.
Not to do so would be to have the manifestation of God be stillborn.
This is the vision that Clare held with Francis, one that they both gleaned from the
gospel. It is a vision of light embraced by Poor Clares, but one that can illuminate the
Church at large in this new century.