Eight centuries ago this year, St. Clare of Assisi consecrated herself to God before her holy mentor, St. Francis. The diocese that includes the city of Assisi is currently observing a special “Claretian Year” to mark the anniversary. Pope Benedict XVI called attention to the occasion recently in a special letter to the bishop of the diocese.
In the letter, Pope Benedict insisted on the continuing relevance of Clare and Francis to Christians today, especially to young people. He called for “an ever new rediscovery of these two luminous figures in the firmament of the Church.”
Such rediscovery has been aided by a surge in recent years in scholarly research into Clare and medieval religious life, Sister Frances Teresa Downing told Our Sunday Visitor. Sister Downing, a Poor Clare in England, has contributed to this surge by translating the works of a major Italian Clare scholar into English.
Following Christ radically
Clare Offreduccio grew up in Assisi, a small agricultural town in central Italy, at the beginning of the 13th century. Hers was a family of noble landowners. They had a home in town where servants would have worked and farms and probably castles in the region surrounding the town.
She was about 12 when the young man Francis Bernardone publicly renounced his father and his family wealth in the Assisi town square, choosing instead to follow Christ radically. The happening was probably a topic of conversation in Clare’s home.
Some time after that, Francis and Clare began to be in at least occasional contact. We know she heard him preach and that the two had conversations about Christian living, but sources disagree about who first initiated the contact.
The decisive moment of her life came on Palm Sunday in 1212, when Clare was 18. After observing the holy day with her family, she sneaked out of her house at night and hurried to the little church of St. Mary of the Portiuncula. Several friars waited with torches and led her into the church. Inside, she presented herself formally to Francis, who cut her hair in a rite of tonsure, symbolizing her renunciation of the world and consecration to God. It was an extraordinary moment, because tonsure was normally performed by bishops. Francis was not even a priest, and yet he took it upon himself to do it.
After the ceremony, Francis and the friars brought Clare to the nearby monastery of San Paolo delle Abbadesse to stay. Clare’s family came after her and angrily insisted she return home, even trying to force her physically. But she refused.
Clare sold her goods and gave the money to local poor people. Clare scholar Marco Bartoli has written, in a book translated by Sister Downing, that since these goods would ordinarily have either gone back to her family or to the monastic community as a sort of dowry, Clare’s approach was a bold act of independence and defiance of both her family and the community that took her in.
After a brief stay at San Paolo, and another at a nearby church (where her sister Caterina joined her, again against their family’s opposition), Clare and her sister moved into a tiny building outside the small church of San Damiano. This was the church where Francis had had his life-changing experience of hearing the voice of Christ from the crucifix, telling him, “Rebuild my church.” It was here she would stay, with the women who would come to join her, for the rest of her life.
Trust through poverty
Clare’s daily life over the next four decades were filled with prayer, hard work and life in community. She and her sisters prayed the Divine Office seven times a day and spent much time in private prayer. Their work included spinning and sewing, tending the garden that provided much of their food, and building and maintaining whatever buildings they needed on the site.
Initially she had placed herself and her sisters under obedience to Francis, just as his friars were. But after three years, Francis named Clare abbess of the women’s community. Even as abbess, Clare insisted on serving at table, caring for sick sisters, and washing clothes and mattresses, just as the other sisters did.
What sort of contact she had with Francis on a day-to-day basis is unclear, says Sister Downing. “We know that Francis did visit the sisters, and we know that the brothers told him he should go more often. We also know that those early brothers were very close to her, and they supported each other through many hard times.”
On the other hand, Sister Downing said, Francis never mentions Clare in his writings, though he has a prominent place in hers. “The impression cannot be avoided that Francis was more important to Clare than she was to him,” she told OSV.
New research helps us understand better the striking “originality” about the monastic life that Clare and Francis developed in Assisi, Sister Downing said. She explained that the basic text of monastic life up to their time was Acts 2, which speaks about the community holding all things in common. While monks and nuns were poor individually, their communities often held much property in common, which gave them real security.
“Francis and Clare set out to follow Christ who emptied himself, as Philippians 2 says,” Sister Downing said. They dedicated themselves in a radical way to poverty and non-ownership. “It demanded that they live in total trust, as they saw Jesus doing.”
One artifact that sheds light on this commitment is the letter of Pope Innocent III formally approving Clare’s new order in 1215. It is the oldest papal document in existence that refers to the Franciscan way of life. The letter makes clear that poverty is the distinctive aspect of the way of life that Clare and her sisters will live. In fact, the pope had previously asked the sisters to live with some possessions in common, as other religious orders did. She made clear that such a lifestyle would be a denial of her following of Christ. The pope relented.
Later, as Clare neared the end of her life, she composed a rule of life for her sisters. Approved by Pope Innocent IV two days before she died, it is the first rule for religious life written by a woman for other women. Again, poverty is presented as the central aspect of the sisters’ vocation. It is also notable for refusing to make the practice of enclosure permanent, allowing sisters to leave the monastery when it is “useful” and “reasonable,” and for mandating the practice of silence only at night, rather than at all times.
After 42 years at San Damiano (and nearly 30 in poor health), Clare died Aug. 11, 1253. The degree of her fame at the time is suggested by the fact that Pope Innocent IV visited Clare at San Damiano as her death approached and later attended her funeral.
At the ceremony for the moving of Clare’s body prior to the funeral, as the nuns began to pray the office for the dead, the pope interrupted and suggested they pray the office for holy virgins (ordinarily prayed on feasts of saints who were consecrated women). A cardinal tried to intervene, suggesting quietly to the pope that that might not be prudent, but to no avail.
One month later, the pope personally initiated Clare’s canonization process, which even at that time involved considerable investigation into the life of the subject. Despite the fact that Pope Innocent died soon after, and his successor, Pope Alexander IV, had been the cardinal who had tried to dissuade Innocent from praying the office of holy virgins at the funeral, Clare was canonized in 1255, a mere two years after her death.
Barry Hudock is the author of The Eucharistic Prayer: A User's Guide" target="_blank">“The Eucharistic Prayer” (Liturgical Press, $16.95).