Saint Clare of Assisi, Virgin; feast day - August 11
Clare (Chiara Offreduccio) was born on July 16, 1194 in Assisi (Italy) as the eldest daughter of Favorino Scifi, Count of Sasso-Rosso and his wife Ortolana. Ortolana was a very devout woman who had undertaken pilgrimages to Rome, Santiago de Compostela and the Holy Land. Later on in her life, Ortolana entered Clare’s monastery, together with Agnes, Clare’s sister.
When she was eighteen years old, a charismatic wonderworker by the name of Francis came to preach a series of Lenten sermons at the church of St. Giorgio in the town of Assisi. Clare was cut to the heart by Francis’ words and literally left behind everything to enact in her own life Francis’ call to embrace evangelical poverty. Clare’s commitment to Francis’ spiritual vision would blossom into a community of sisters who would serve as a sisterly counterpart to Francis’ spiritual brotherhood.
Soon on Palm Sunday when people went to grab their palm branches she stayed. On that very night she ran away to go follow Francis. When she got there he cut her hair and dressed her in a black tunic and a thick black veil. Clare was put in the Benedictine nuns near Bastia and was almost pulled by her father for originally he wanted her to marry. Clare and her sister Agnes soon moved to the church of San Damiano, which Francis himself had rebuilt. Other women joined them there, and San Damiano became known for its radically austere lifestyle. The women were at first known as the “Poor Ladies”.
Clare and her sisters would accept nothing that would diminish her commitment to evangelical poverty. She and her sisters would share all things in common. They would sleep on the ground and would not even accept sandals for their feet. If such radicalism shocks and provokes us, it is doing precisely what it is meant to do.
Evangelical poverty is about belonging to Jesus Christ with the whole of one’s being. Such a commitment requires a rigorous detachment from one’s desires. The spiritual commitment of evangelical poverty is directed as a contrary to all that false beliefs that continually assert that we are defined by what we own, by how much money and property that we can accumulate, by our status or class, and by our need for security and control. Our relationship with Christ insists that more important than any of these things, which are by their nature finite and passing away, is our eternal identity as the children of God in Christ.
Such dedication is a mysterious spiritual path that all are called to consider, but few are called to embrace in its totality. It should not be confused with a dualism or hatred of the material, but a prophetic charism that calls humanity to consider the truth that this world is not ultimate and the grace of creation is mitigated by our desire to possess it without acknowledging that what God has created is meant to lead us to share in his divine life. The practical benefit of evangelical poverty is love. In choosing to have less, we offer to someone else more and discipline ourselves to accept that it is of greater value to give than to receive.
The other gift of evangelical poverty is humility. Evangelical poverty necessitates that one eschew honors, rewards, and recognition. It demands that we take our place not with the mighty and the powerful, but as the servant of the poor and afflicted. It radiates the peace of mind of a disciple, the contrary disposition to the worldly who, fearing that loss of their worldly things, are beset with anxiety and fear. The witness of Saint Clare reminds us that it is integral to our mission as disciples of the Lord to accept the full implication of our act of faith in him. God gives to us his Beloved Son, a grace which has value beyond that of anything in the world. The gift of Christ is so tremendous that all our desires and attachments are relativized in his wake. We have in Christ everything, and all things find their proper place in relation to his priority.
San Damiano became the focal point for Clare’s new religious order, which was known in her lifetime as the “Order of San Damiano”. San Damiano was long thought to be the first house of this order, however, recent scholarship strongly suggests that San Damiano actually joined an existing network of women’s religious houses organized by Hugolino (who later became Pope Gregory IX). Hugolino wanted San Damiano as part of the order he founded because of the prestige of Clare’s monastery. San Damiano emerged as the most important house in the order, and Clare became its undisputed leader. By 1263, just ten years after Clare’s death, the order became known as the Order of Saint Clare.
Unlike the Franciscan friars, whose members moved around the country to preach, Saint Clare’s sisters lived in enclosure, since an itinerant life was hardly conceivable at the time for women. Their life consisted of manual labour and prayer.
For a short period of time the order was directed by Francis himself. Then in 1216, Clare accepted the role of abbess of San Damiano. As abbess, Clare had more authority to lead the order than when she was the prioress, who had to follow the orders of a priest heading the community. Clare defended her order from the attempts of prelates to impose a rule on them that more closely resembled the Rule of Saint Benedict than Francis’ stricter vows. Clare sought to imitate Francis’ virtues and way of life so much so that she was sometimes titled alter Franciscus, another Francis. She also played a significant role in encouraging and aiding Francis,whom she saw as a spiritual father figure, and she took care of him during his illnesses at the end of his life, until his death in 1226.
After Francis’ death, Clare continued to promote the growth of her order, writing letters to abbesses in other parts of Europe and thwarting every attempt by each successive pope to impose a Rule on her order which watered down the radical commitment to corporate poverty she had originally embraced. She did this despite the fact that she endured a long period of poor health until her death. Clare’s Franciscan theology of joyous poverty in imitation of Christ is evident in the Rule she wrote for her community and in her four letters to Agnes of Prague.
"O Lord, protect these Sisters whom I cannot protect now," she prayed. A voice seemed to answer: "I will keep them always in My care." At the same time a sudden fright struck the attackers and they fled as fast as they could. St. Clare was sick and suffered great pains for many years, but she said that no pain could trouble her. So great was her joy in serving the Lord that she once exclaimed: "They say that we are too poor, but can a heart which possesses the infinite God be truly called poor?" We should remember this miracle of the Blessed Sacrament when in Church. Then we will pray with great Faith to Jesus in the Holy Eucharist: "Save me, O Lord, from every evil - of soul and body." Clare died on August 11, 1253.
Prayer of Saint Clare:
"In the Lord Jesus Christ, I admonish and exhort all my sisters, both those present and those to come, to strive always to imitate the way of holy simplicity, humility and poverty and to preserve the integrity of our holy way of living, as we were taught from the beginning of our conversion by Christ and our blessed father Francis. May the Father of mercies always spread the fragrance of a good name from them, both among those who are far away as well as those who are near, not by any merits of ours but by the sole mercy and grace of his goodness. And loving one another with the charity of Christ, may the love you have in your hearts be shown outwardly in your deeds so that, compelled by such an example, the sisters may always grow in love of God and in charity for one another."
These words, written by Pope Alexander IV in the Bull of Canonization of St. Clare of August 15, 1255, just two years after her death, are an eloquent and poetic play on the name, Clare, which means light:
"Clare, shines brilliantly: brilliant by her bright merits, by the brightness of her great glory in heaven, by the brilliance of her sublime miracles on earth.
Clare, her strict and lofty way of religious life radiates here on earth, while the magnitude of her eternal rewards glows from above and her virtue begins to dawn upon all mortal beings with magnificent signs.”
May Christ permit us to be poor, like Saint Clare, so that we might share, as she does, in the riches of his own divine life.