Friday, August 11

Who was Clare of Assisi?

Clare of Assisi (1193-1253) was an Italian saint, and the founder of what became the Second Order of the Franciscans - the Poor Clares, a religious order within the Church. Clare (Chiara) was born into a wealthy and high-class family – the Offreduccios. Her mother, Ortolana, was convinced that her daughter would be "enlightened" by God, and hence called her Clare, after being assured of a safe delivery in a vision.1 Clare called herself "the little plant of the most blessed Francis" throughout her writings, as well as calling herself a servant or "handmaid of Christ."There are a number of writings about Clare, including the Legend of St. Clare, the Versified Legend, the Process of Canonization and others. But within the manuscript tradition we currently have, Clare herself  only authored four letters written to St. Agnes of Prague, a letter written to Ermentrude of Bruges, her Testament, her Rule (Form of Life/Forma Vitae) and a Blessing. But who was this marvelous woman? How did she become involved with the friars, and how did her sisterhood develop? This is a brief, cursory look at Clare and by no means an exhaustive look at her life or writings, but on this Feast of St. Clare, may we remember her kindness, her charity and her example.3 
Mary Petruolo as Clare
from Clare and Francis (2009 film)

According to the hagiography, as a young child, much as one would use prayer beads today, Clare counted her “Our Fathers” by using a pile of stones, she expressed a concern for the poor – even going as far to give them her food and money (alms), and fasted. These pious devotions and the way she carried herself caught the fancy of young men, so that there were many men who sought to be with Clare Offreuduccio. No man could win her fancy, but ultimately St. Francis of Assisi caught her attention with his preaching. According to St. Clare later on in her life, Francis had made a prophecy concerning her. This prophecy claimed there would be women who would come to claim San Damiano as their home and would use it to bring glory to God. She tried sending money to help out St. Francis and his earliest Brothers so that they could buy food, which they took as a kind gesture – but they had taken a vow not to touch money.

It was not long after this when Clare decided to follow in the footsteps of Francis. She wanted to leave her home (which of course meant leaving her family, nobility and money behind) and take on a life of poverty, modeling her life after Jesus’ disciples and becoming one of the followers of Francis. This was easier said than done, and Clare had to jump through a lot of hoops before she could carry out this wish. By the time that Clare was eighteen, around during the night of March 18-19, 1211, she gained secret sanction from the local bishop of Assisi – Bishop Guido.4 We believe that this sanction came through a Palm Sunday mass, where she was handed a palm branch personally by Guido, something that would have been very uncommon at the time. 

According to the hagiography, Clare escaped that evening by opening up the door that had been barricaded by iron and heavy wood – which implied aid from God. According to various scholars, there were two doors in homes of that time, one which you would go in and out of, and one that would only be used to pass out of when a death had occurred in the family. This was the door it is believed Clare passed through, to signify a death but also a new birth. Guido had already made arrangements with the watchmen at the city gates to let her through, so Clare left Assisi and walked down the valley to the Porziuncola, where she met the friars. Francis cut her hair, which was an act of commitment to God on her part, and these locks of hair are still found in her Church. To avoid the suspicion of townspeople seeing a woman joining the brothers, Francis sent Clare to a nearby Benedictine monastery - St. Paul of the Abbesses. Her male relatives were rather upset, especially her uncle, so they came to the monastery to try and drag her home. She clung to the altar, and revealed her hair had been cut off. Angrily, they returned to Assisi without her. 

While San Damiano was being prepared for her and other women, Clare stayed at Sant’Angelo di Panzo on Mount Subasio. Unlike Benedictines, the kind of community that started with Clare was not necessarily following a Rule, or even a Forma Vitae at this point, but various principles decided on by the community. The Testament of St. Clare speaks of a Form of Life given to her by Francis, so it is possible they were given this later on. Two weeks after Clare had left home, her sister Catherine joined her at Sant’Angelo di Panzo. Following this, the hagiography says that twelve family members were enraged and tried to come and retrieve Catherine (who was likely named Agnes by Francis after this event). They dragged her by her hair out of the place down the mountain while Clare prayed for divine intervention. At this, the body of Catherine became like lead; so heavy that the men could no longer carry or drag her, and when her Uncle prepared to kill her, his hand became filled with pain. Clare came down and asked her family to leave and she would care for Catherine, and they departed.

Within a few days, Clare and Catherine (Agnes), with the help of Francis, Bernard and Philip made the move to San Damiano. News spread of what was going on at San Damiano and women from all over – Perugia, Spoleto, Rome and elsewhere – made the journey in order to join Clare. As the sisterhood grew, so too did their principles. The early sisters, as described by the bishop Jacques de Vitry, were working with the sick. This sisterhood began to engage in manual labor, prayer and contemplation, and also tried to live in gospel poverty. Various religious orders of the time sought to distance themselves from women - as the some in the First Order did following the death of Francis, but Francis made Clare and her sisterhood a promise that he and his brothers would never turn their backs on them. Francis was going against the social and religious norm of the time by staying close to the female religious. The brothers and sisters lived similarly, without possessions, helping others in the name of Christ. 

Clare did not set out to found the “Second Order,” she had planned on joining Francis’ group. Even living in San Damiano, she saw herself as joining Francis. The best witness for this is the Form of Life by Clare herself, in Chapter Six: Not Having Possessions:
“After the Most High Heavenly Father saw fit by His grace to enlighten my heart to do penance according to the example and teaching of our most blessed father Saint Francis, shortly after his own conversion, I, together with my sisters, willingly promised him obedience. When the Blessed Father saw we had no fear of poverty, hard work, trial, shame, or contempt of the world but, instead, we held them as great delights, moved by piety he wrote a form of life for us.”
San Damiano in Assisi, Italy
Clare wanted to develop her own Forma Vitae for her community, however, in 1215 at the Fourth Lateran Council, it was declared that no new rules could be formed. This forced the early Franciscans to look for a rule that came close to the vision of St. Francis, and the Benedictine Rule was the closest. Since St. Francis could no longer technically induct new candidates or receive their vows, Clare took on the responsibility. She wrote to the Pope on behalf of the movement, and he granted the request of the sisterhood to live without possessions and without any legal property - the Privilege of Poverty. Although still in keeping with the Benedictine rule, this privilege then allowed the sisterhood to stay in line with the brotherhood. The sisterhood also continued to grow and expand, and several of Clare’s relatives joined. Other monasteries were established (or assisted), and they became known in some circles as the “Lesser Sisters,” although Francis preferred they be called “Poor Ladies.” They became widely known as the Order of San Damian, as they began at the church of San Damiano. 

Clare became well-known for her actions – she would kiss the feet of those she was washing, she would personally clean the sheets and beds of the sick, she would not often give out orders but get things done herself, and she also tended to wear shirts made of hair and slept in a bed made of vine branches. Her reputation as a healer grew, yet her lack of food got to a point where Francis and Cardinal Hugolino commanded her to eat and drink a little bread and water a few times a week. Her self-punishment led to Clare becoming an invalid by 1225 and was usually in bed for long periods of time until she died in 1253. Prior to his death, Francis came to San Damiano and composed the Canticle of the Creatures, addressing some lines to the sisterhood, exhorting them to continue the path they are on and use discernment. Clare is well known in iconography as the saint who, when Assisi was being assaulted by Saracen mercenaries in 1240, held up the Eucharist to fend them off. She did this again when the troops of Vitalis d'Aversa in June 1241 came through Assisi.5 

Early on, the sisters lived simply and seemingly followed this basic Forma Vitae given to them by Francis. Whens Francis was alive, the Cardinal Hugolino had not intruded much on Clare’s life. Then, in March of 1227, Hugolino became Pope Gregory IX and canonized Francis. At that point, he still tried to cajole Clare to enter his Order of Sisters. He followed the Cistercian pattern of monastic life, which included religious women being cloistered. Thus, following the death of Francis, Hugolino soon gave the sisters at San Damiano his Forma Vitae, not for a kind of Confederation of Clares, as this was specifically for the Sisters at San Damiano - who became known as the Order of St. Damian at that time.

In 1247 they were given a Forma Vitae by Pope Innocent IV. He said that their canonical base is the Friars Minor, and declared the Order of St. Damian to be truly Franciscan. He wrote, “we… grant to you and those who come after you the observance of the Rule of Saint Francis with respect to the three [counsels], namely obedience, the renunciation of property in particular, and perpetual chastity, as well as the Form of Life written in the present document, according to which you have particularly decided to live.”6 In some ways this helped the Sisters as it established their relationship to the First Order, but in other ways it created more problems. This meant that the autonomy of the Sisters was greatly reduced, and it is clear that the Second Order was under the First. It meant that they were subject to the authority of the friars, and their leadership had to answer to the friars. Now, the Forma Vitae of Ugolino and that of Innocent gave way to confusion over possessions and property, so early in the midst of all of this, Clare finally decided to write her own Forma. After several years of fighting for it, Cardinal Rainald Di approved it in 1252 but the Pope had not. At this time, Clare’s health started to decline, and she desired Papal approval. The Pope was in Assisi, and on August 9, 1253, they brought it to him, he approved it, Clare embraced it, and she died on August 11. These various Forms of Life are crucial to an understanding of how these 13th century female penitents became the Second Order of the Franciscans.

The Basilica of St. Clare in Assisi
After the death of Clare, the Second Order began to take a different shape. In 1260, the Sisters moved from San Damiano to the former St. George's in Assisi, which became the Basilica of St. Clare. During the Chapter of Pisa in 1263, St. Bonaventure wrote to Aragon in Spain, saying that the brothers were not sure what to do with the Sisters, and some even proposed not associating with them - clearly not something one would expect if it had already become a “Second Order.” So Bonaventure wanted friars to take around contracts to the Sisters to sign stating their legal independence from the Friars. But Pope Urban IV, seeing all of this, decided to write a new Forma Vita - a Rule. He wrote that this Rule would replace the Forma Viate of Hugolino and Innocent, so the friars had to go around and get the Sisters to switch their obedience in 1263 to this new Rule. In 1288, Clare’s own community in 1288 gave up following Clare’s Forma and followed Urban’s Rule. What up to now had been the Order of St. Damian now became the Order of St. Clare, the Second Order of the Franciscans.

Clare was canonized by Pope Alexander IV on September 26, 1255, a mere two years after her death. Her body has had an interesting journey as well. Her remains had been placed in the chapel at San Giorgio while her Basilica was being built. Thus, after it was completed, on October 3, 1260 her remains were moved there and placed under the high altar. They were rediscovered in 1850, and in 1872, were moved to the crypt of the Basilica. When I visited Assisi two years ago, her remains were still there.7 The original Rule of St. Clare with the bull of approval "Solet annuere" was found in 1893. In 1958, she was declared the patron saint of television by Pope Pius XII - this is because Clare had once been very sick and could not attend Mass. However, according to the story, she was able to see and hear the Mass on the wall in her room, as if watching a modern-day television!8  

Her writings here are important to note. One of the important theological concepts that Clare often wrote about, particularly in her four letters to St. Agnes of Prague, was that of the "mirror of eternity" or "mirror of contemplation." What we may call "mirror literature" was popular in religious circles of the 12th-13th centuries, but Clare contributes in demonstrating the Christological and feminine qualities of the mirror.9 In her Third Letter to Agnes, for example, she writes "Place your mind before the mirror of eternity! Place your soul Place your soul in the brilliance of glory! Place your heart in the figure of the divine substance and, through contemplation, transform your entire being into the image of the Godhead Itself...".10 In her Fourth Letter to Agnes she writes, "Gaze upon that mirror [Jesus] each day, and continually study your face in it, that you may adorn yourself within and without with beautiful robes ... Look at the border of that mirror . . .At the surface of that mirror, consider ... Then, in the depth of this same mirror, contemplate ... that Mirror, suspended on the wood of the Cross."11  According to Clare of Assisi: The Early Documents, "No one had developed that type of imagery as Clare did; it was largely overlooked until the fourteenth century. But Clare goes beyond suggesting the mirror as an image of Christ; she offers it as a means of growing in a likeness of the Incarnate Word.... Although many male authors before her had taken the mirror as a starting point of their reflections on the spiritual life, no one had developed it as speculatively and practically as Clare."12

Regardless of what ensued the death of St. Clare of Assisi, she will be remembered for being a strong, female role model, the first to develop a religious Rule for a community of sisters as well as the first to open up a different understanding of religious life for women. She was a deeply spiritual and contemplative women who continues to speak to us today through her beautiful and powerful words, through her courage and through her strength. When we think of the Franciscan movement, especially the early movement, we must never forget the importance of Clare. Clare is her own person, not simply a "little plant" of St. Francis, although in her words she is also that - but she is also much more than that. She stands on her own as a pillar holding up our Franciscan tradition, and can serve as an inspiration to Christians from all walks of life and especially women seeking a voice in this world. On this Feast of St. Clare, may we remember her life and example, and may we never forget the Lady Clare of Assisi. 

1. Process of Canonization of St. Clare III.28; Legend of St. Clare = LegCl 2.
2. Rule I.3; Testament 37.49.
3. This article is based in part upon Maurice Carmody's "Clare of Assisi and the Order of Poor Ladies," as well as a "Survey of Franciscan History" with Fr. Dominic Monti, OFM and my own research.
4. Recent scholarship is divided over whether her conversion and departure from Assisi occurred in 1211 or 1212. The other major controversy which divides scholars involves her birth year - either 1193 or 1194.
5. Process of Canonization III.18-19.
6. Forma Vitae of Pope Innocent IV 1.114. 
7. Muscat, Fr. Noel, OFM. "3. Writings of St. Clare of Assisi (1)." The Franciscan Experience: Living the Gospel through the Centuries. December 30, 2001.
8. Pope Pius XII. "Lettre Apostolique Procalamant Ste Claire Patronne Celeste De la Television"August 21, 1958.
9. In Clare of Assisi: The Early Documents. "Introduction to Clare of Assisi: Early Documents." 21-22. Print.
10. CA:ED Third Letter to Agnes of Prague 12-14; emphasis mine.
11. CA:ED The Fourth Letter to Agnes of Prague 15, 19, 22-24.
12. CA:ED "Introduction to Clare of Assisi: Early Documents." 21-22.

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