Wednesday, December 4

Who was Clare of Assisi?

Clare was one of the founders of the Franciscans. She was born into a wealthy and high-class family – the Offreduccios. As a young child, 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 – all of which led to catching 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. According to St. Clare later on in her life, Francis had made a prophecy concerning her. This prophecy claimed that the women who would come to claim Sam 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. Clare arranged a meeting with St. Francis, and continued to meet with him without her parent’s knowledge (Note: this article is based in part upon Maurice Carmody's "Clare of Assisi and the Order of Poor Ladies").

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 and nobility/money behind) and take on a life of poverty, modeling her life after Jesus’ disciples. 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, she gained secret sanction from the local bishop – Bishop Guido. This sanction came through a normal Palm Sunday mass, where she was given secret approval by the Bishop. According to legend, Clare escaped that evening by opening up the door that had been barricaded by iron and heavy wood – which of course implied aid from Jesus Himself.  Clare met the Franciscans nearby, cut her hair and was given a habit. To avoid suspicion, Francis sent Clare to a Benedictine monastery close by – St. Paul of the Abbesses. Her male relatives were rather upset, so they came to the monastery to try and drag her home. She clung to the altar, and they gave up after a few days.

While San Damiano was being prepared for her and other women, Clare stayed at Sant’Angelo di Panzo on Mount Subasio. Unlike Benedictines or Dominicans, the kind of community that started with Clare was not necessarily following a Rule, but various principles decided on by the community. Two weeks after Clare had left home; her sister Catherine joined her at Sant’Angelo di Panzo.  Following this, tradition holds that twelve knights (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 leave they did.

Within a few days, Clare and Catherine (Agnes) along with 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, Spello, Rome and other places – made the journey in order to join Clare and Agnes. As the sisterhood grew, so too did their principles. This sisterhood began to engage in manual labor, were known for their prayer and contemplation, and also tried to live in poverty. Various religious orders of the time sought to distance themselves from women, but St. Francis made St. 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 females. The brothers and sisters lived similarly, without possessions, helping others in the name of Christ.

However, in 1215 at the Fourth Lateran Council, it was declared that no new rules could be formed. This forced the early Franciscans (including Clare) 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 recruits or give them their vows, St. Clare took on the responsibility. She wrote to Pope Innocent III on behalf of the movement, and he granted the request of the sisterhood to live without possessions and without any legal property. 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 “Ladies.”

Clare became well-known for her actions – she would kiss the feet of those whose feet 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. Truly, this woman tried to live a life of poverty and without true material possessions, along with her tender care for the poor and sick. Her reputation as a healer grew, yet her lack of food got to a point where Francis 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.

St. Clare was a marvelous woman. I am not myself Franciscan, but the ideas of helping the sick, the poor, and the underprivileged is certainly something I hold to be admirable, honorable, true and just. My first exposure to Clare was in a campus chapel earlier this summer when I was doing paint work. I had taken a break from painting outside of the chapel and wandered into the sanctuary, where I quietly explored the various niches and places within the chapel. I came upon an image behind a large piece of artwork - an image of a woman seemingly made of tiles. This woman, to my recollection, was Clare of Assisi. I had not before heard of this woman, so my curiosity was peaked about who she was and why she, among women, came to be canonized as a saint. Research yielded results, as it tends to do.

Regarding the fantastical or miraculous events in Clare's life, I fully recognized the occurrences of miracles in human history as a Christian. As such, some of the more seemingly fantastical or supernatural aspects of Clare’s life – the prophecy made by St. Francis, for example, or her sister Catherine becoming so heavy that she could not be carried or moved by anyone – are certainly within the realm of supernatural possibility. It is difficult (if not nearly impossible) to test these events by any historical or scientific means, but I should like to think that this is what the writer of Hebrews was referring to when he (or she) noted that “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6). I feel it worth noting that although I find St. Clare’s life admirable, I do think that purposefully starving ourselves does a disservice to our created bodies as the temple of the Holy Spirit – something that from another reading, St. Francis seems to have later noted. If God has given us dominion over His creation, and we are to take care of one another as brothers and sisters, should we not also take care of ourselves? If every individual starved themselves or lived in poverty purposefully to help out the next person, yet the next person does this and the cycle continues, who ultimately would benefit if we all ate little and did not utilize funds at all? Modern Franciscans have changed some of the views on poverty and the body, and reforms were occuring even during the lifetime of St. Francis, hence why he gave up head of the order to someone else and began a more secluded life in his last years. 

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