When she was 18 years old, Clare left behind the wealth and ease of her noble family and embraced the radical poverty of Jesus, which she had heard St. Francis praise in the streets of Assisi. For her remaining 41 years, she struggled against incredible odds to be true to her ideals. When church authorities ordered her to relax the austerity of her way of life, she patiently insisted that women could follow the Gospel ideals as well as men. Two days before her death, she finally received papal approval for the rule that she had written for her followers.
Like other women religious of her day, Clare and her companions lived within a strict monastic enclosure. What made them different was their rigorous vow of poverty, which forbade even communal possessions. They supported themselves by the work of their hands and depended on alms for the rest. They wore the simplest clothing and fasted every day except for Christmas and Sundays. In all things they strove to maintain among themselves "the unity of mutual love and peace."
For 28 years Clare was continually ill, and often confined to her bed. Even in bed she insisted on doing her share of work. One legend tells of how she dropped a roll of linen cloth she was sewing, and how it rolled too far from her bed for her to reach. The monastery cat, with which she is pictured in this icon, retrieved the cloth for her so that she could finish the work. This story reflects the profound closeness to creation and all other creatures which lies at the core of Franciscan spirituality.
For 41 years Clare led her austere life with the same small group of women, only leaving her tiny monastery once. In spite of her illness and other problems, in spite of the sorrow she must have felt as she watched many of Francis’ male followers abandon his ideals after his death, her writings were filled with peace and joy. She challenges us to re-examine our own goals, which often bring us stress and misery, as she speaks of moving us through life "with swift pace, light step, and unswerving feet, so that even your steps stir up no dust…"
Her feast day is August 11.
One of the more sugary movies made about Francis of Assisi (October 4) pictures Clare as a golden-haired beauty floating through sun-drenched fields, a sort of one-woman counterpart to the new Franciscan Order.
The beginning of her religious life was indeed movie material. Having refused to marry at 15, she was moved by the dynamic preaching of Francis. He became her lifelong friend and spiritual guide.
At 18, she escaped one night from her father’s home, was met on the road by friars carrying torches, and in the poor little chapel called the Portiuncula received a rough woolen habit, exchanged her jeweled belt for a common rope with knots in it, and sacrificed the long tresses to Francis’ scissors. He placed her in a Benedictine convent, which her father and uncles immediately stormed in rage. She clung to the altar of the church, threw aside her veil to show her cropped hair and remained adamant.
Sixteen days later her sister Agnes joined her. Others came. They lived a simple life of great poverty, austerity and complete seclusion from the world, according to a Rule which Francis gave them as a Second Order (Poor Clares). Francis obliged her under obedience at age 21 to accept the office of abbess, one she exercised until her death.
The nuns went barefoot, slept on the ground, ate no meat and observed almost complete silence. (Later Clare, like Francis, persuaded her sisters to moderate this rigor: “Our bodies are not made of brass.”) The greatest emphasis, of course, was on gospel poverty. They possessed no property, even in common, subsisting on daily contributions. When even the pope tried to persuade her to mitigate this practice, she showed her characteristic firmness: “I need to be absolved from my sins, but I do not wish to be absolved from the obligation of following Jesus Christ.”
Contemporary accounts glow with admiration of her life in the convent of San Damiano in Assisi. She served the sick, waited on table, washed the feet of the begging nuns. She came from prayer, it was said, with her face so shining it dazzled those about her. She suffered serious illness for the last 27 years of her life. Her influence was such that popes, cardinals and bishops often came to consult her—she never left the walls of San Damiano.
Francis always remained her great friend and inspiration. She was always obedient to his will and to the great ideal of gospel life which he was making real.
A well-known story concerns her prayer and trust. She had the Blessed Sacrament placed on the walls of the convent when it faced attack by invading Saracens. “Does it please you, O God, to deliver into the hands of these beasts the defenseless children I have nourished with your love? I beseech you, dear Lord, protect these whom I am now unable to protect.” To her sisters she said, “Don’t be afraid. Trust in Jesus.” The Saracens fled.
Born: July 16, 1194 at Assisi, Italy
Died: August 11, 1253 of natural causes
Canonized: September 26, 1255 by Pope Alexander IV
Name Meaning: Bright; brilliant
Go forth in peace, for you have followed the good road. Go forth without fear, for he who created you has made you holy, has always protected you, and loves you as a mother. Blessed be you, my God, for having created me.
—Saint Clare of Assisi
O wondrous blessed clarity of Clare!
In life she shone to a few;
after death she shines on the whole world!
On earth she was a clear light;
Now in heaven she is a brilliant sun.
O how great the vehemence of the
brilliance of this clarity!
On earth this light was indeed kept
within cloistered walls,
yet shed abroad its shining rays;
It was confined within a convent cell,
yet spread itself through the wide world.
—Pope Innocent IV
He Christ is the splendor of eternal glory, "the brightness of eternal light, and the mirror without cloud."
Behold, I say, the birth of this mirror. Behold Christ's poverty even as he was laid in the manger and wrapped in swaddling clothes. What wondrous humility, what marvelous poverty! The King of angels, the Lord of heaven and earth resting in a manger! Look more deeply into the mirror and meditate on his humility, or simply on his poverty. Behold the many labors and sufferings he endured to redeem the human race. Then, in the depths of this very mirror, ponder his unspeakable love which caused him to suffer on the wood of the cross and to endure the most shameful kind of death. The mirror himself, from his position on the cross, warned passers-by to weigh carefully this act, as he said:
"All of you who pass by this way, behold and see if there is any sorrow like mine." Let us answer his cries and lamentations with one voice and one spirit: "I will be mindful and remember, and my soul will be consumed within me."
—Excerpts from a letter to Blessed Agnes of Prague by Saint Clare of Assisi