Story of Saint Clare of Assisi
Writings of Saint Clare of Assisi
August 11 – Feast of Saint Clare of Assisi
Co-foundress of the Order of Poor Ladies, or Clares, and first Abbess of San Damiano; born at Assisi, 16 July 1194; died there 11 August 1253.
She was the eldest daughter of Favorino Scifi, Count of Sasso-Rosso, the wealthy representative of an ancient Roman family, who owned a large palace in Assisi and a castle on the slope of Mount Subasio. Such at least is the traditional account. Her mother, Bl. Ortolana, belonged to the noble family of Fiumi and was conspicuous for her zeal and piety.
From her earliest years, Clare seems to have been endowed with the rarest virtues. As a child, she was most devoted to prayer and to practices of mortification, and as she passed into girlhood her distaste for the world and her yearning for a more spiritual life increased. She was eighteen years of age when St. Francis came to preach the Lenten course in the church of San Giorgio at Assisi. The inspired words of the Poverello kindled a flame in the heart of Clare; she sought him out secretly and begged him to help her that she too might live “after the manner of the holy Gospel”. St. Francis, who at once recognized in Clare one of those chosen souls destined by God for great things and who also, doubtless, foresaw that many would follow her example, promised to assist her. On Palm Sunday Clare, arrayed in all her finery, attended high Mass at the cathedral, but when the others pressed forward to the altar rail to receive a branch of palm, she remained in her place as if rapt in a dream. All eyes were upon the young girl as the bishop descended from the sanctuary and placed the palm in her hand. That was the last time the world beheld Clare. On the night of the same day she secretly left her father’s house, by St. Francis’ advice and, accompanied by her aunt Bianca and another companion, proceeded to the humble chapel of the Portiuncula, where St. Francis and his disciples met her with lights in their hands. Clare then laid aside her rich dress, and St. Francis, having cut off her hair, clothed her in a rough tunic and a thick veil, and in this way the young heroine vowed herself to the service of Jesus Christ. This was 20 March 1212.
Clare was placed by St. Francis provisionally with the Benedictine nuns of San Paolo, near Bastia, but her father, who had expected her to make a splendid marriage, and who was furious at her secret flight, on discovering her retreat, did his utmost to dissuade Clare from her heroic proposals, and even tried to drag her home by force. But Clare held her own with a firmness above her years, and Count Favorino was finally obliged to leave her in peace. A few days later St. Francis, in order to secure Clare the greater solitude she desired, transferred her to Sant’ Angelo in Panzo, another monastery of the Benedictine nuns on one of the flanks of Subasio. Here some sixteen days after her own flight, Clare was joined by her younger sister Agnes, whom she was instrumental in delivering from the persecution of their infuriated relatives. Clare and her sister remained with the nuns at Sant’ Angelo until they and the other fugitives from the world who had followed them were established by St. Francis in a rude dwelling adjoining the poor chapel of San Damiano, situated outside the town which he had to a great extent rebuilt with his own hands, and which he now obtained from the Benedictines as a permanent abode for his spiritual daughters. Thus was founded the first community of the Order of Poor Ladies, or of Poor Clares, as this second order of St. Francis came to be called.
In the beginning St. Clare and her companions had no written rule to follow beyond a very short formula vitae given them by St. Francis, and which may be found among his works. Some years later, apparently in 1219, during St. Francis’s absence in the East, Cardinal Ugolino, then protector of the order, afterward Gregory IX, drew up a written rule for the Clares at Monticelli, taking as a basis the Rule of St. Benedict, retaining the fundamental points of the latter and adding some special constitutions. This new rule, which, in effect if not in intention, took away from the Clares the Franciscan character of absolute poverty so dear to the heart of St. Francis and made them for all practical purposes a congregation of Benedictines, was approved by Honorius III (Bull, “Sacrosancta”, 9 Dec. 1219). When Clare found that the new rule, though strict enough in other respects, allowed the holding of property in common, she courageously and successfully resisted the innovations of Ugolino as being entirely opposed to the intentions of St. Francis. The latter had forbidden the Poor Ladies, just as he had forbidden his friars to possess any worldly goods even in common. Owning nothing, they were to depend entirely upon what the Friars Minor could beg for them. This complete renunciation of all property was however regarded by Ugolino as unpractical for cloistered women. When, therefore, in 1228, he came to Assisi for the canonization of St. Francis (having meanwhile ascended the pontifical throne as Gregory IX), he visited St. Clare at San Damiano and pressed her to so far deviate from the practice of poverty which had up to this time obtained at San Damiano, as to accept some provision for the unforeseen wants of the community. But Clare firmly refused. Gregory, thinking that her refusal might be due to fear of violating the vow of strict poverty she had taken, offered to absolve her from it. “Holy Father, I crave for absolution from my sins”, replied Clare, “but I desire not to be absolved from the obligation of following Jesus Christ”.
The heroic unworldliness of Clare filled the pope with admiration, as his letters to her, still extant, bear eloquent witness, and he so far gave way to her views as to grant her on 17 September 1228, the celebrated Privilegium Paupertatis which some regard in the light of a corrective of the Rule of 1219. The original autograph copy of this unique “privilege”–the first one of its kind ever sought for, or ever issued by the Holy See–is preserved in the archive at Santa Chiara in Assisi. The text is as follows:
Gregory Bishop Servant of the Servants of God. To our beloved daughters in Christ Clare and the other handmaids of Christ dwelling together at the Church of San Damiano in the Diocese of Assisi. Health and Apostolic benediction. It is evident that the desire of consecrating yourselves to God alone has led you to abandon every wish for temporal things. Wherefore, after having sold all your goods and having distributed them among the poor, you propose to have absolutely no possessions, in order to follow in all things the example of Him Who became poor and Who is the way, the truth, and the life. Neither does the want of necessary things deter you from such a proposal, for the left arm of your Celestial Spouse is beneath your head to sustain the infirmity of your body, which, according to the order of charity, you have subjected to the law of the spirit. Finally, He who feeds the birds of the air and who gives the lilies of the field their raiment and their nourishment, will not leave you in want of clothing or of food until He shall come Himself to minister to you in eternity when, namely, the right hand of His consolations shall embrace you in the plenitude of the Beatific Vision. Since, therefore, you have asked for it, we confirm by Apostolic favor your resolution of the loftiest poverty and by the authority of these present letters grant that you may not be constrained by anyone to receive possessions. To no one, therefore, be it allowed to infringe upon this page of our concession or to oppose it with rash temerity. But if any one shall presume to attempt this, be it known to him that he shall incur the wrath of Almighty God and his Blessed Apostles, Peter and Paul. Given at Perugia on the fifteenth of the Kalends of October in the second year of our Pontificate.”
That St. Clare may have solicited a “privilege” similar to the foregoing at an earlier date and obtained it vivâ voce, is not improbable. Certain it is that after the death of Gregory IX Clare had once more to contend for the principle of absolute poverty prescribed by St. Francis, for Innocent IV, would fain have given the Clares a new and mitigated rule, and the firmness with which she held to her way won over the pope. Finally, two days before her death, Innocent, no doubt at the reiterated request of the dying abbess, solemnly confirmed the definitive Rule of the Clares (Bull, “Solet Annuere”, 9 August 1253), and thus secured to them the precious treasure of poverty which Clare, in imitation of St. Francis, had taken for her portion from the beginning of her conversion. The author of this latter rule, which is largely an adaptation mutatis mutandis, of the rule which St. Francis composed for the Friars Minor in 1223, seems to have been Cardinal Rainaldo, Bishop of Ostia, and protector of the order, afterward Alexander IV, though it is most likely that St. Clare herself had a hand in its compilation. Be this as it may, it can no longer be maintained that St. Francis was in any sense the author of this formal Rule of the Clares; he only gave to St. Clare and her companions at the outset of their religious life the brief formula vivendi already mentioned.
St. Clare, who in 1215 had, much against her will been made superior at San Damiano by St. Francis, continued to rule there as abbess until her death, in 1253, nearly forty years later. There is no good reason to believe that she ever once went beyond the boundaries of San Damiano during all that time. It need not, therefore, be wondered at if so comparatively few details of St. Clare’s life in the cloister “hidden with Christ in God”, have come down to us. We know that she became a living copy of the poverty, the humility, and the mortification of St. Francis; that she had a special devotion to the Holy Eucharist, and that in order to increase her love for Christ crucified she learned by heart the Office of the Passion composed by St. Francis, and that during the time that remained to her after her devotional exercises she engaged in manual labor. Needless to add, under St. Clare’s guidance the community of San Damiano became the sanctuary of every virtue, a very nursery of saints. Clare had the consolation not only of seeing her younger sister Beatrix, her mother Ortolana, and her faithful aunt Bianca follow Agnes into the order, but also of witnessing the foundation of monasteries of Clares far and wide throughout Europe. It would be difficult, moreover, to estimate how much the silent influence of the gentle abbess did towards guiding the women of medieval Italy to higher aims. In particular, Clare threw around poverty that irresistible charm which only women can communicate to religious or civic heroism, and she became a most efficacious coadjutrix of St. Francis in promoting that spirit of unworldliness which in the counsels of God, “was to bring about a restoration of discipline in the Church and of morals and civilization in the peoples of Western Europe”. Not the least important part of Clare’s work was the aid and encouragement she gave St. Francis. It was to her he turned when in doubt, and it was she who urged him to continue his mission to the people at a time when he thought his vocation lay rather in a life of contemplation. When in an attack of blindness and illness, St. Francis came for the last time to visit San Damiano, Clare erected a little wattle hut for him in an olive grove close to the monastery, and it was here that he composed his glorious “Canticle of the Sun”. After St. Francis’s death the procession which accompanied his remains from the Portiuncula to the town stopped on the way at San Damiano in order that Clare and her daughters might venerate the pierced hands and feet of him who had formed them to the love of Christ crucified–a pathetic scene which Giotto has commemorated in one of his loveliest frescoes. So far, however, as Clare was concerned, St. Francis was always living, and nothing is, perhaps, more striking in her after-life than her unswerving loyalty to the ideals of the Poverello, and the jealous care with which she clung to his rule and teaching.
When, in 1234, the army of Frederick II was devastating the valley of Spoleto, the soldiers, preparatory to an assault upon Assisi, scaled the walls of San Damiano by night, spreading terror among the community. Clare, calmly rising from her sickbed, and taking the ciborium from the little chapel adjoining her cell, proceeded to face the invaders at an open window against which they had already placed a ladder. It is related that, as she raised the Blessed Sacrament on high, the soldiers who were about to enter the monastery fell backward as if dazzled, and the others who were ready to follow them took flight. It is with reference to this incident that St. Clare is generally represented in art bearing a ciborium.
When, sometime later, a larger force returned to storm Assisi, headed by the General Vitale di Aversa who had not been present at the first attack, Clare, gathering her daughters about her, knelt with them in earnest prayer that the town might be spared. Presently a furious storm arose, scattering the tents of the soldiers in every direction, and causing such a panic that they again took refuge in flight. The gratitude of the Assisians, who with one accord attributed their deliverance to Clare’s intercession, increased their love for the “Seraphic Mother”. Clare had long been enshrined in the hearts of the people, and their veneration became more apparent as, wasted by illness and austerities, she drew towards her end. Brave and cheerful to the last, in spite of her long and painful infirmities, Clare caused herself to be raised in bed and, thus reclining, says her contemporary biographer “she spun the finest thread for the purpose of having it woven into the most delicate material from which she afterward made more than one hundred corporals, and, enclosing them in a silken burse, ordered them to be given to the churches in the plain and on the mountains of Assisi”. When at length she felt the day of her death approaching, Clare, calling her sorrowing religious around her, reminded them of the many benefits they had received from God and exhorted them to persevere faithfully in the observance of evangelical poverty. Pope Innocent IV came from Perugia to visit the dying saint, who had already received the last sacraments from the hands of Cardinal Rainaldo. Her own sister, St. Agnes, had returned from Florence to console Clare in her last illness; Leo, Angelo, and Juniper, three of the early companions of St. Francis, were also present at the saint’s death-bed, and at St. Clare’s request read aloud the Passion of Our Lord according to St. John, even as they had done twenty-seven years before, when Francis lay dying at the Portiuncula. At length before dawn on 11 August 1253, the holy foundress of the Poor Ladies passed peacefully away amid scenes that her contemporary biographer has recorded with touching simplicity. The pope, with his court, came to San Damiano for the saint’s funeral, which partook rather of the nature of a triumphal procession.
The Clares desired to retain the body of their foundress among them at San Damiano, but the magistrates of Assisi interfered and took measures to secure for the town the venerated remains of her whose prayers, as they all believed, had on two occasions saved it from destruction. Clare’s miracles too were talked of far and wide. It was not safe, the Assisians urged, to leave Clare’s body in a lonely spot without the walls; it was only right, too, that Clare, “the chief rival of the Blessed Francis in the observance of Gospel perfection”, should also have a church in Assisi built in her honor. Meanwhile, Clare’s remains were placed in the chapel of San Giorgio, where St. Francis’s preaching had first touched her young heart, and where his own body had likewise been interred pending the erection of the Basilica of San Francesco. Two years later, 26 September 1255, Clare was solemnly canonized by Alexander IV, and not long afterward the building of the church of Santa Chiara, in honor of Assisi’s second great saint, was begun under the direction of Filippo Campello, one of the foremost architects of the time. On 3 October 1260, Clare’s remains were transferred from the chapel of San Giorgio and buried deep down in the earth, under the high altar in the new church, far out of sight and reach. After having remained hidden for six centuries–like the remains of St. Francis–and after much search had been made, Clare’s tomb was found in 1850, to the great joy of the Assisians. On 23 September in that year, the coffin was unearthed and opened, the flesh and clothing of the saint had been reduced to dust, but the skeleton was in a perfect state of preservation. Finally, on the 29th of September, 1872, the saint’s bones were transferred, with much pomp, by Archbishop Pecci, afterward Leo XIII, to the shrine, in the crypt at Santa Chiara, erected to receive them, and where they may now be seen. The feast of St. Clare is celebrated throughout the Church on 12 August later changed to 11 August — Ed.; the feast of her first translation is kept in the order on 3 October, and that of the finding of her body on 23 September.
Quotes from Saint Clare
The Letters to Ermentrude of Bruges
– Let us pray to God together for each other for, by sharing each other’s burden of charity in this way; we shall easily fulfill the law of love taught by Christ.
– Be faithful, dearly beloved, till death to Him to Whom you have promised yourself, for you shall be crowned by Him with the garland of life. Our labor here is brief, the reward eternal. Offer faithfully what you have vowed to God and God shall reward you. Look to heaven that invites us, O dearly beloved, and take up the cross and follow Christ Who goes before us, for through Him we shall enter into His glory after many different trials. (LEr 4-5, 8-10)
– Love God and Jesus, Who was crucified for us sinners, from the depths of your heart, and never let the thought of Him leave your mind. Meditate constantly on the mysteries of the cross and the agonies of His mother standing at the foot of the cross. Pray and always be vigilant. The work you have begun well, complete immediately and the ministry you have assumed, fulfill in holy poverty and sincere humility. (LEr 11-14)
– Our labor here is brief, the reward eternal; may the excitements of the world, fleeing like a shadow, not disturb you. May the false delights of the deceptive world did not deceive you. Gladly endure whatever goes against you and do not let your good fortunes lift you up. Offer faithfully what you have vowed to God and God shall reward you. Look to heaven to invite us, O Dearly beloved, and take up the cross and follow Christ, Who goes before us, for through Him we shall enter into His glory after many different trials.
Clare, The Testament
– At the surface of the mirror, consider the holy humility, the blessed poverty, the untold labors and burdens that He endured for the redemption of the whole human race. Then, in the depth of this same mirror, contemplate the ineffable charity that led Him to suffer on the wood of the Cross and to die there the most shameful kind of death.
– For the Lord, Himself has placed us not only as a form for others in being an example and mirror but even for our sisters and brothers whom the Lord has called to our way of life as well, that they, in turn, might be a mirror and example to those living in the world. Since the Lord has called us to such great things reflected in us, we are greatly bound to bless and praise God and be all the more strengthened to do good in the Lord. (TestCl 19-22)
– After the most high heavenly Father saw fit in His mercy and grace to enlighten my heart, that I should do penance according to the example and teaching of our most blessed father Francis, a short while after his conversion, I, together with a few sisters whom the Lord had given me after my conversion, willingly promised him, Francis, Obedience, as the Lord gave us the light of His grace through his wonderful life and teaching.
Clare, The First Letter to Agnes of Prague
– You know that the kingdom of heaven is promised and given by the Lord only to the poor (cf. Mt. 5:3) for she who loves temporal things loses the fruit of love. Such a person cannot serve God and money, for either the one is loved and the other hated, or the one is served and the other despised (cf. Mt 6:24). Therefore, cast aside your garments, that is, earthly riches, that you might not be overcome by the one fighting against you and you might enter the kingdom of heaven through the straight path and the narrow gate (cf. Mt 7:13-14).
Clare, The Second Letter to Agnes of Prague
– Because one thing is necessary (Lk 10:42), I bear witness to that one thing and encourage you, for love of Him to Whom you have offered yourself as a holy and pleasing sacrifice (rm 12;1), that you always be mindful of your resolution like another Rachel always seeing your beginning cf. Gen 29:16). What you hold, may you always hold, what you do, may you always do and never abandon. (2Lag 10-11)
Clare, The Third Letter to Agnes of Prague
– Place your mind before the mirror of eternity! Place your soul in the brilliance of glory! Place your heart in the figure of the divine substance! And transform your whole being into the image of the Godhead Itself through contemplation. So that you too may feel what His friends feel as they taste the hidden sweetness that God Himself has reserved from the beginning for those who love Him. (3Ag 12-14)
Clare, The Fourth Letter to Agnes of Prague
– Happy, indeed, is she to whom it is given to share in this sacred banquet so that she might cling with all her heart to Him whose beauty all the blessed host of heaven unceasingly admire, whose affection excites, whose contemplation refreshes, whose kindness fulfills, whose delight replenishes, whose remembrance delightfully shines, by whose fragrance the dead are revived, whose glorious vision will bless all the citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem: which, since it is the splendor of eternal glory, is the brilliance of eternal light and the mirror without blemish. (4Lag 9 – 14)
Clare, To Possess a Blessed Eternal Life
– What a great and praiseworthy exchange: to leave the things of time for those of eternity, to choose the things of heaven for the goods of earth, to receive the hundred-fold in place of one, and to possess a blessed eternal life!
Clare, The Form of Life of Clare of Assisi
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, I, together with my sisters, willingly promised him obedience shortly after his own conversion. When the Blessed Father saw we had no fear of poverty, hard work, trial, shame, or contempt of the world, but, instead, regarded such things as great delights, moved by compassion he wrote a form of life for us as follows: “Because by divine inspiration you have made yourselves daughters and servants of the Most High King, the heavenly Father, and have espoused yourselves to the Holy Spirit, choosing to live according to the perfection of the holy Gospel, I resolve and promise for myself and for my brothers to always have that same loving care and solicitude for you as I have for them.” (RCI 6: 1-4)
The Legend of Saint Clare
Once when the fury of the enemy pressed upon Assisi, the hearts of the ladies of San Damiano melted with fear. Clare ordered that she be brought to the door and placed there before the enemy, while the silver pyx in which the Body of the Holy of Holies was most devotedly reserved, preceded her. When she had thoroughly prostrated herself to the Lord in prayer she said, “look, my Lord, do you wish to deliver into the hands of pagans your defenseless servants whom You have nourished with Your own love?” The enemies were driven away departing in haste over those walls which they had scaled. (LdgC1 21-22)