By Bret Thoman, OFS
It was one morning, early in 1192, when a young noblewoman of Assisi was experiencing a difficult childbirth. And the Holy Spirit spoke to her saying: “Do not be afraid, for you will give birth in safety to a light that will give light more clearly than light itself and shine brilliantly in the world.” Her name, in fact, Clare, means “light.”
Clare was born into a family of status and means. Her father’s family name was Offreduccio and he, her uncles and cousins were all knights. Clare’s mother, Ortulana, descended from the family of Fiumi. Both Clare’s mother and father belonged to the Assisian aristocratic class known as the Majors and traced their ancestry back four centuries to Charlemagne and King Pepin, the first Holy Roman Emperors.
While the men of Clare’s family spent much of their time in business affairs and training for combat, the women devoted their time and resources to prayer, works of mercy, and service to the poor. Her mother was particularly pious and virtuous, and had made pilgrimages to Rome, Monte Sant’Angelo in southern Italy, Campostela in Spain, and the Holy Land.
As a child, Clare was formed by these experiences and from an early age she took on the life of a penitent: she embraced asceticism, prayed frequently, performed acts of charity, especially giving to the poor. During her canonization process, one of the witnesses said: “Although their household was one of the largest in the city and great sums were spent there, she nevertheless saved the food they were given to eat, put it aside, and gave it to the poor. While she was still in her father’s house, she wore a rough garment under her other clothes. He also said she fasted, prayed, and did other pious deeds, as he had seen, and that it was believed she had been inspired by the Holy Spirit from the beginning.”
Despite the religious zeal of the women, the men were seeking to direct Clare in another direction: they needed her to enhance the family’s position through an arranged marriage. In fact, it was in such an environment -- surrounded by holy women devoted to religion on the one hand and on the other men absorbed in worldly concerns -- in which Clare grew up. And it would be this dichotomy that would sign her leading to her “conversion” -- when she “left the world” and took the veil.
It is unclear when Francis heard of Clare, however, he knew very early that she would come: one day, soon after his own conversion, while rebuilding the little country church of San Damiano, he felt the movement of the Holy Spirit. He announced to all who were near: “Come and help me build the monastery of San Damiano, because holy virgins of Christ will dwell here who will glorify our heavenly Father throughout his holy church by their celebrated and holy manner of life.”
Clare was acquainted with Francis either by hearing him speak in the cathedral of San Rufino, next to her house, or through her first cousin, Rufino, who had joined Francis’ movement. During her meetings with him, something powerful took place within as she discerned her life’s calling: following Francis in poverty as the first Franciscan woman. The day would be Palm Sunday, 1212.
During the Mass, the bishop of Assisi distributed branches to the faithful. When he looked out, he saw Clare and went down from the altar and placed the branch personally in her hand. In this, it is believed that he acknowledged her decision: the 18-year-old woman would leave her home with its privileges of wealth and power to become the first woman to follow Francis with only one privilege -- Poverty.
That night, she secretly exited her home and, with a companion, left the walled city of Assisi walking to the little church of St. Mary of the Angels in the valley. There she met Francis who gave her the tonsure and covered her head with a veil both signifying consecration to God; in place of her fine clothes, she donned the penitential habit.
The brothers then accompanied Clare to a Benedictine monastery for women known as San Paolo delle Abbadesse. With a papal interdict in force prohibiting outsiders from entering the cloister, San Paolo would grant Clare sanctuary and keep her safe from any attempts by her father or the knights of her family to draw her away: to remove a consecrated nun by force would incur excommunication. And when they came, indeed, Clare had to simply lift the veil from her head and reveal the tonsure. The men had no choice but to leave her.
San Paolo was one of the most prominent women’s monasteries in the diocese of Assisi. It was made up of both noble women who entered the convent with dowries (known as choristae) who spent their time primarily in prayer, as well as the “serving sisters” or “lay sisters” (known as conversae), who looked after the practical needs of the monastery such as cleaning and cooking. True to Franciscan poverty, Clare radically departed from this tradition by giving away her possessions before entering. Thus, she renounced her birthright, arriving not as a noblewoman but as a servant!
After a brief time, Clare left San Paolo for another women’s community known as Sant’Angelo in Panzo. Though traditionally believed to be a simpler Benedictine community, some believe it was more akin to a Beguinage -- a community in which women, not vowed to a traditional rule, lived together and engaged in charitable works of mercy, perhaps in an adjoining hospital.
Here Clare was joined by her sister, Caterina, who changed her name to Agnes. Their relatives came for her, too, but due to Clare’s intercessory prayers, Agnes became so heavy that a dozen knights were unable to lift her. This was Clare’s first miracle. After Francis tonsured Agnes at Panzo, the two left for their final home: San Damiano.
As Francis rebuilt San Damiano with rocks and mortar, Clare and the sisters would become living stones who would spiritually edify not only that particular church, but the universal Church. Her community would eventually consist of forty women including her own mother and her other birth sister, Beatrice. From the cloister, the women would live a Franciscan life centered on fraternity, mutuality, work, prayer, and evangelization. And underlying it all was a life dedicated to radical poverty. From within the enclosure of San Damiano, Clare was a light for all to see.
Clare died on August 11, 1253 just two days after her rule was approved by Pope Innocent IV. This was the first time in the history of the Church that a rule written by a woman was accepted. Her body was moved to the little church of Giorgio. Shortly thereafter, construction was begun on her basilica and on August 15, 1255, she was declared a saint. Her body remains there to this day and her “light” is available for all to see.