Saint Clare of Assisi (Companion of St. Francis)
The story of Clare of Assisi begins with her elopement from her parents’ home on Palm Sunday evening 19th March, 1212…
St Clare of Assisi: Companion of St Francis
The story of Clare of Assisi begins with her elopement from her parents’ home on Palm Sunday evening March 19, 1212. Clare, a young woman of eighteen years, eloped not to join a forbidden human lover, but to offer her complete love by vow to Our Lord, Jesus Christ.
At the moment, she fled her household, she was not betrothed to may man. Her parents were of Assisi’s nobility and cherished good hopes for their daughter’s future, it is true, but no arrangement for marriage had yet been made. Clare at eighteen was well matured, she was also well educated, known for her charitable work and quite handsome – a very good “catch” as we would say.
How was it, then, that she chose to flee her own house by stealth? Her parents, Count Favarone Corano (not Scefi as usually given) and his lady Ortolana were of the highest integrity. Clare knew they both loved and admired her, yet she chose to circumvent their wishes by flight.
The answer, which is not a simple one, is given in contemporary records of the event. Assisi, her home place, a hundred and fifty kilometers north of Rome, was then quite typical of the Italy of the year 1200. A townland of possibly 3500 people, it was divided between the nobles, the knights, merchants and peasants. The Church was there too, in the midst of the town, and it was deferred to. But religious enthusiasm was not there: the clergy and religious were respected but left in their place. And anybody, especially a young and handsome woman, was thought to be able to find a much more interesting avocation in life than the somber lifestyle of the priest or the nun.
So thought Count Favorone, so possibly his lady Ortolana; and so quite certainly though the bulk of their fellow townspeople. But not Clare, and not Francis Bernadone – the inspiration of Clare, the son of a merchant called Pietro. And there were a few more Assisians of like mentality who were following Francis. Now here was a subject for local gossip! This fellow Francis, only yesterday the leader of youthful revels! “Have you not heard that he has made himself into a beggarman? That he has resisted his father? And is parading as some sort of a monk, with a coterie of followers? And
wasn’t it strange that the dependable Bernard of Quintaville pelted all his money away in the central piazza just the other day, and is now in the beggarman’s company?”
It is easy to imagine the sober citizens of Assisi around 1210 crossing themselves quickly and murmuring – “From such religious craziness, good Lord deliver us!”
In the week following Palm Sunday 1212, the solid and very respected Corano family sharply alerted to the spread of young Bernardone’s contagion. Two well-recorded events are connected with Clare’s elopement. First: she had gone to Francis his brothers to in her lot with them. Second: her father and her uncle, a knight, went after her with considerable fury to bring her home.
These two events propel Clare, daughter of the noble family of Corano, into the pages of Church History. Let us take them one by one.
Clare joins Francis
The night Clare eloped, she had dressed herself in finery. Outside her paternal “castle” some female friends awaited her. Quickly they stole along Assisi’s darkened streets, out by the town’s gate, and down the tree-studded slopes that led to the chapel of St Mary of the Angels, five kilometers away on the plain. As they reached a half-way point, they were met by some of Francis Bernadone’s “brothers,” then a little further on some more appeared with lighted torches. In the doorway of the tiny weather-beaten chapel, emerging out of the darkness, stood the radiant beggarman himself – Francis of Assisi. And quickly greetings were exchanged. The exciting event – as you will gather – was not unplanned. Clare had been secretly in touch with Francis for some time. She had thrilled in her heart to the wonderful religious happenings that were reported to him, and a driving impulse had taken possession of her to go to him, to cast all her fervent love at the feet of the crucified Jesus as he had done, and to throw earthly treasures to the wind! So here she was.
Chroniclers of her “betrothal to Christ our Lord” give a simple, delightful account of the ceremony of that Palm Sunday evening 1212. And here, in outline, is what they say.
“The brothers, torches in hand, led the heroic young girl into the sanctuary of Mary to the singing of canticles. Then, by the light of tapers burning at the altar, took place the scene of hers spiritual espousals. It was midnight. ‘My daughter, what is your wish?’ asked Brother Francis. ‘God – the God of the Crib and of Calvary’, she answered with great eagerness. ‘I want no other treasure with on other inheritance.’
Then kneeling barefooted, she laid aside everything precious she had, her silken garments and her trinkets, which the brothers took to give to the poor. With his own hands Francis passed the scissors through her luxuriant tresses to signify her renunciation of earthly vanities. He gave her an ashen-grey habit, a cincture of coarse cord and covered her head with a thick veil.
Then Clare, her eyes fixed on the image of the Queen of Heaven, made her vows in a clear voice charged with emotion and sincerity. She chose Christ, poor and suffering, as her Spouse, swore fidelity to him, and promised for all her days to follow Him along the rugged paths of Calvary – not with foolish enthusiasm, but with the full freedom of a will, a mistress of itself.
And so (says Thomas of Celano) she bonded herself to holy poverty.”
The ceremony over, and rejoicing completed, Francis and some of his brethren escorted Clare, to a convent of the Benedictine nuns close by.
The Fury of her Family
“The onslaught from her family was terrible”, wrote Thomas of Celano, a contemporary. Within the chapel of the Benedictines stood Count Favarone in demented fury, demanding his right as her father. The lady Ortolana pleaded from the heart: “Why daughter did you flee? Have we ever molested you in your religious duties? Shall you add the tears of your younger sisters, Agnes and Beatrix, to ours?” And although moved to great distress, Clare stood firmly. At the climax of demand and the height of emotion, she threw back the veil to show her shorn head, and holding to the altar she braved herself to exclaim: “I belong to God, my vows are made forever. I cannot draw back from his service”.
And the angry parents, frustrated and downcast, had eventually to leave. Then final disaster, as they thought, came tumbling upon them. For only sixteen days after Clare was gone, Agnes, the next sister – “pure as a lily, gentle as a lamb, loving, and greatly attached to her elder sister” (Celano: Life of St. Clare) – was also gone from her home! And where else but to join Clare.
Count Favarone, says a chronicler, “resembled a lioness robbed of her young.” He swore to witnesses that he would have his second daughter home, whether dead or alive, for she was already promised in marriage. And taking Monaldo his brother, a knight, and twelve armed men, he went forth to assault the convent of St Angelo of Panzo (now called Bastia).
What happened is clearly recorded by the contemporary historian Thomas of Celano, who knew both Clare and Agnes. It deserves a full telling.
“The assailants at first dissembled under a pacific exterior their dark design; then, without regard for the sanctity of the place, they invaded the cloister. One of them seized Agnes by the hair, and brutally dragged her across the rocks to throw her outside the convent precincts. The poor victim was all bleeding and her garments in tatters. ‘Sister’, she cried, help me. Don’t let them wrench me away from the service of God’. Clare, seeing that the struggle was too unequal, had recourse to the arms of prayer, and with eyes bathed in tears, she conjured the Lord to have compassion on her sister who was suffering for Him, to clothe her with His power, and to make her as strong as a martyr. Immediately the young girl’s body became so heavy that the abductors, succumbing under the burden, left her at the bottom of a hollow. Peasants who came running to her assistance could not lift her, and joking at the wonder of it, said: ‘She must have been eating lead the whole night!’ Ashamed of his defeat Monaldo fumed with rage, and worse than that he raised his arm over his niece with a bared sword to pierce her. But he could do no more, for his arm was held motionless and withered. Meanwhile Clare came on the scene, she begged her relatives to leave the injured girl to her, and troubled in mind and remorseful, they left the battlefield. In an instant Agnes was on her feet, joyful at the victory won for Christ, and more dedicated than ever to consecrate to Him her heart and her life. St Francis, overcome at hearing of such courage in this young girl, and moved by the ardour of her aspirations, judged her worthy to be admitted to the virgin’s banquet and that it would be cruel to delay her happiness. He prepared her to break with the world, instructed her in the say of religious perfection, and clothed her with the insignia of penance that the virgin Clare had already adopted.”
Entirely “mediaeval” as the stories given above may be, may be, they have the attestation of both Thomas of Celano, Life of St. Clare, and the Bull of Canonisation of Pope Alexander IV, 255.
A New Way of Life
To Clare and Agnes, housed with Benedictine nuns, two other women quickly attached themselves. Most likely these were Bona Guelfuccio, her aunt, and Christina Suppi, a close friend. Anyhow there was now a small group and a home was needed.
Did Francis, their inspirer and spiritual father, foresee a good growth of vocations, the making of an Order for women? Possibly he did.Only three years before, in 1209 – he had found himself – like Clare, with unexpected followers: Pietro Cattani, a Church official, and Bernard Quintavalle, a merchant man. They had said to him, “Let us form a brotherhood?” So going together to a morning Mass on February 24th 1209, for the feast of Matthew the Apostle, the three men went forward to the priest, took from his hand the Missal and opened it at random three times. The texts of Holy Scripture that came up were: “Sell what you have and give it to the poor, and come follow Me.”;”Provide yourselves with neither gold nor silver, not traveling bag, no change of shirt, no sandals, no walking staff . . .” – The call of the Twelve Apostles! And Francis had turned to his friends and exclaimed: “This is our Rule of Life.” And marvelous to say, the small brotherhood, so spontaneously formed, was growing day by day.
So with Clare and her companions, so courageously brought under his guidance, the religious enthusiasm of Francis was greatly stirred. Here was a “Sisterhood” to march side by side with his “Brotherhood”! So Francis went – as he had done before in 1209 – to the abbot of the Benedictines, Assisi’s only leader of a religious Order. And he said:
“My Lord Abbott, will it please you to give to these Poor Ladies (their first name) the use of the small chapel and convent of San Damiano?”
And so it was done.
The records tell us that Sister Clare and Sister Agnes and the two others came to reside at San Damiano, within bowshot of Assisi’s walls, before the year 1212 was over.
A new Religious Order for women in the Catholic Church was begun, and all so humbly. True, there was a sweet little chapel wherein hung the fabulous Byzantine cross from which Christ had addressed Francis! True, there were a few tiny rooms and a small garden and a terrace of four paces…but that was all.
Clare, heiress to fame or fortune, was delighted. “A breath of grace, warm, vivifying, entered the little cloister of San Damiano, Clare and her Sister Agnes exercised a kind of fascination over the minds of their townswomen – as a writer says. Their holy mortified lives appeared to all like a living translation of the ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’, and faith was reawakened in many hearts.”
Hardly were they established in the poorest of homes, when a truly divine thing happened and townspeople were deeply touched. Count Favarone Corano and Lady Ortolana about faced – surely blessed by the Provident God. And the Count declared: “My daughters shall be left in peace. I shall be their protector.” Within months he was dead, and Beatrix, a third sister, was later to come to San Damiano, and finally the Mother Ortolana. Part of the family heritage was sold and the money given to the poor of the town. Outside in the world lived tow married members of the family – a son called Boso (yes it’s true), and a daughter Penenda whose whole progeny of three daughters was afterwards to join Clare.
A happy ending, a new beginning.
Life at San Damiano
Now what, in detail, was the new life of the “Poor Ladies”? Its inspiration, of course, was found in the splendid gesture of throwing worldly goods, and worldly ambitions, to the winds – or, to put it better, “to cast all care upon the Lord”. Francis had done so in front of Bishop Guido and his father Pietro, even to stripping off his clothing and giving it back to his father. Now Clare and the sisters imitated the noblest gesture. It was for the same reason, namely, to have no other master than Christ, the poor and naked and suffering Lord, the God of all majesty who had emptied Himself to save his brethren.
Down on the plain, three miles distant, stood the wattle and daub huts of the poor brothers; here on the hillside, close to the town, stood San Damiano, the refuge of the Poor Ladies.
In those days, of course, for all the defects of the Christians, they had one notable advantage over our times. They sensed the true values of life, for they had basic faith. “If you cannot believe in a God who punishes, you cannot believe in the importance of a human action”, remarks the famous Catholic writer Graham Greene. But to one of faith, there are no trivialities in human behaviour.
The people of Assisi, let it be said, soon thrilled to the knowledge that Clare and her sisters, in all their poverty, were absorbing themselves in prayer. “Even at midnight”, they said with a certain awe, “chanting may be heard at the new convent. They are praying while we are sleeping!” Dawn found the sisters again in the choir; Mass was celebrated daily for them. And the townspeople were content.
A prayer-filled life was, at least in principle, the most worthy way to live. The mad craze to produce and more of this world’s goods, and toconsider the person not caught up in this rat race as an idler, the modern dogma, would never so much as enter the head of the Assisian. To worship God in one’s prayer and one’s actions was known to be the value supreme.
A life of poverty and prayer! It was already very much, but of course the new Sisters studied holy books, they transcribed the same – a laborious task, they sought to be useful by the making of church vestments for the Franciscan brothers, and they loved to attend the people that came to visit them. In fact their healing powers over the sick saw their little refuge turned into a semi-dispensary.
And so a new way of life for “Poor Ladies” arose in our Church in the simplest possible manner.
Companions to the Franciscan Friars
The fame of Clare of Assisi spread about quickly. “There seems to have been among women in that time a desire, lying torpid, for a lifeabove the plane of the senses”, remarks Johannes Jorgensen. San Damiano convent needed to be extended for forty inhabitants, then for fifty. And then the sisters had to divide up. In fact a few whole convents voted to come over to them as, for example, San Severino and Spello, both of Benedictine attachment. When a third request came from Monticelli convent at Florence, Sister Agnes Corano was sent as Abbess, 1219.
The growth of the Sisters, although for a start in lesser numbers, was following in the wake of the Friars Minor, as they were now called, and indeed in the same places. How older well-established nuns came “to convert themselves again” and to come over to the new Sisterhood, is only explained by the considerable religious excitement caused in central Italy both by Francis and now by Clare. We have to link the two together.
The picture of Francis crying from his heart, “Lord what would you have me do?”, before the crucified Christ at San Damiano (1205) – and of the Lord stirring on the Cross and answering: “Go out and re-build my Church, for as you see it is falling into ruins!” is the encouragement for this message to go abroad. So too did this strange encounter with a leper give further encouragement and everybody saw that his brothers had become servants of these noisome creatures. Then there was the touching scene of his denuding himself in public.
Now came men to join him – important men, peasant men. To each of them he had said like Christ: “Sell what you have and give it to the poor”. And each one had done exactly that. The man meant it.
Here was a new thing. Men determined to follow Christ in his poverty, rich men, and to put everything aside, everything: money, a vocation, security, fame. And to go, and be seen to go, to the poor, the sick and the peasants. Why, they were even seen holding out their hands to beg! And not to afraid to offer discreet words of admonition to people in high places!
These new brothers, were not monks, but they resembled them. Only some of them were priests, yet all have gospel lessons. Rather they were mobile friendly helpers, found in church and in the street, speaking directly – “Convert yourself. Follow Jesus our Lord and his Gospel”.
And now in but ten years, 3000 of them met at Assisi…it was a great stirring. In this “Franciscan” movement, Clare and Agnes and their sisters have their part. For when the exciting stories of Francis and his friars were told, so too were told the stories of Clare’s escape, of the miracle of Agnes, the conversion of the whole family, and the extraordinary poverty of San Damiano. So did the message spread. A new spring-time was in the air. And as priests, knights, scholars and merchants came quickly to the friars, so did convents of nuns “convert” themselves to the Poor Ladies. Nor were the convents to be disappointed in Clare. With a woman’s intuition she had grasped, better than most of his brethren, what really made Francis tick. She was, as time unrolled, to become his outstanding follower and heartiest defender.
A Consideration of Poverty
It seems beyond dispute that the Novelty of Francis and Clare to the religious world of the time is found in their exceptional attitude towards Poverty. “My Lady holy Poverty” as Francis would say, “The world’s most desperate lover of poverty”, G.K. Chesterton called him. And Clare, in her turn, is named “Princess of Poverty”.
When one says that their attitude was novel, it is to explain that religious men and women in the Church had at all times and in al places vowed themselves to personal poverty. In community, however, the religious held possessions corporately. And many of the monasteries, whether of men or women, had become well endowed. So the appearance, and often even the reality of poorness, was to be found in the personal attitude than in the communal performance. “Blessed are the poor in the spirit”, with the stress on the “in spirit”, was their way. And it was a good way.
Franciscans and “Clares” were thoroughly aware of Christ’s blessing of the poor in spirit, but they would go further and dispossess themselves and their followers of all possessions. Even the poor places in which they dwelt were not to be theirs, but on loan for a time from the owners.
“Let the Sisters (legislated Francis) appropriate to themselves nothing – neither house, nor whatever it may be; but, strangers here below, on pilgrimage to the heavenly fatherland, serving the Lord in poverty and humility, let them send with confidence to beg alms. And let them be very careful not to be ashamed of it, but let them rather remember that the Lord became poor for our sakes in this poverty. Therein is the excellence of the most high poverty, which strips you of perishable goods but elevates you in virtue, make you heiresses and queens of the kingdom of heaven, and leads you to the land of the living. Let it be your portion: attach yourselves to it with all the powers of your being, and desire nothing else under the sun.” (Rule of the Poor Clares.)
It is no wonder that Pope Innocent III jibbed at approving words like these when Francis proposed to him in 1210 for his brothers, and that a grudging approval was allowed only when Cardinal John of St Paul remarked: “If we declare that such a life is impossible, are we not in danger of declaring that Christ’s gospel cannot be followed?” In truth, Christ had said: “The foxes have holes, the bird’s nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
One may of course add to Our Lord’s words, “But didn’t he stay in Peter’s house and perhaps in those of his disciples?” Their homes are available to him. True as it is, it is also clear that what Francis and Clare had in mind was to copy the personal living of Jesus, and to be dependent on others as He was. They wished to taste and feel the dispossession that He accepted, and of course to feel as free as the birds of the air – as He did.
Their actions were certainly directed against luxurious living and the quest for money, and meant as a support for the poor and the peasants – that these latter might be patient in poverty and trial. But their understanding of poverty was much more than this. Complete detachment brings freedom of spirit, it throws off all concern for mundane things. It should – in a faithful heart – lead to simplicity of outlook, and to humility (how could you avoid humiliation in going out to beg?), and it should put down a solid basis of penance.
“Such poverty is the philosophy of the Gospel, the only one that never fails” remarks Father De Cherance. (St Clare of Assisi, p.113).
“The Lord is my portion; the Lord is my wealth. I want no other” were Clare’s words as she took the habit of penance from the hands of Francis. And to her sisters at San Damiano she would say: “Go to the school of the Crib, the Saviour is our model; His Crib is our sweet nest of repose, His poverty our adornment.”
Nor did she ever forget Francis’s exhortation to his brothers: “We must work with our hands…we must learn how to work, not for payment, but to give good example and not be lazy. And if people will not give us pay for our work, then we have recourse to the Lord’s table by begging from door to door.”
So the Abbess Clare took her turn at the spinning wheel; excelled in needlework, prepared albs and altar linens – examples of her work may still be seen – and waited at all time on her sisters’ needs.
Clare The Leader
For three years after coming to San Damiano, Clare the young lady, refused to style herself “Abbess”. Francis had to direct the lives of the sisters and she submitted everything to him. In 1215 a first simple Rule of Life construed from gospel texts, and stressing prayer-poverty-penance was approved verbally by Pope Innocent III and then she must needs take charge.
To guide her in this task, she asked Francis to describe the role of a Franciscan leader, and he did so in these words:
“She shall exercise authority with the firmness which the importance of her office requires, and the
account she shall have to render at the tribunal of the Supreme Judge. She shall strive to be first in
virtue and sanctity, still more than in dignity, in order that her example may stimulate others to obey,
less through fear than love. She shall console the Sisters in their sadness, and shall be their last refuge in their anguish and
tribulations, being careful not to discourage them, for fear that, seeing no remedy for their malady, they should give way to despair.”
It is, you will agree, a clear Christian programme of leadership. What we know of Clare’s performance, and indeed in outline only, reveals that she possess the qualities needed. Daughter of a warrior people, she could be roused to indignation and let fly. So it is recorded that Pope Gregory IX, who often lived nearby at Perugia, once sent an order that the Friars Minor should no longer visit the convent to give talks to the sisters: a matter of discretion, as the Pope judged. But not Clare: she fumed at petty discretions, and said to the friar who conveyed the message: “If we have to do without spiritual food, we cannot go without bodily bread also. So please go no longer in search of food for us.” And when the Pope heard these determined words, he removed his prohibition.
On several noteworthy occasions she entertained the Popes coming from Perugia, and lovingly abused herself before them as before Christ himself; no one could possibly have shown Gregory IX or Innocent IV more honour than she did. But when Gregory, on July 15, 1228, tried gently but firmly to compel her accept mitigations in her stand on poverty by accepting endowments for the convent, she prostrated herself before him and begged him not to insist. “If it your vow that stops you (said the Pope), I will release you from it.” “Absolve me from my sins, Holy Father (replied Clare), but I have no desire to be released from following in the footsteps of my Lord Jesus Christ.” The Pope desisted.
We gather from such clearly recorded incidents that the sisters at San Damiano had a clear-minded leader, and a strong one.
In physique Clare was robust until about forty years of age. After that, and for the latter twenty years of her life, she was prone to fevers but was never completely invalided. She was of average woman’s height, and fair in complexion. Should you go to Assisi, as thousands of pilgrims do year by year, you can look upon her mummified corpse in a beautiful crypt chapel at Santa Chiara Church – the sisters came here inside Assisi’s walls after her death in 1253. “Black but beautiful” would be your first impression of the corpse: it is quite moving to look upon it. A little woman, you might think, but the chroniclers of her life story – those who knew her in person – present a picture of a robust character, maternal in every respect, but tough as steel in her makeup, somewhat like you’d imagine Esther or Judith of the Bible or Joan of Arc in another setting. The Middle Ages, however, would have simply said of any distinguished woman, “she was something like Clare!” For Clare acquired a prodigious reputation – companion of St Francis, leader of the Poor Ladies (later called Clares), teacher of holiness, defender of Assisi, ecstatic saint.
Within the confines of San Damiano convent, the Poor Ladies vied with one another in living, above all, a life of daily prayer and charity. They ardently waited upon the Lord thinking of themselves as “The Ladies of His Court”. It was the age of chivalry, when even Pope Gregory could write of these sisters as “My Ladies of Christ”.
These days as eschew sweet words as somewhat overdone; in the Middle Ages they did not. These days we also think of holiness as being strictly connected with sanity – the saint will need to be the sanest possible man or woman. The Middle Ages people took our opinion in their stride, but having fulsome faith they were never surprised at miracles. In fact they expected them, and wrote delightfully – if at times too credulously – about them.
So when you read what they said about Clare, and ask yourself: What signs did she give of true goodness, even of exceptional goodness? – you will be faced rather with references to her god-given power of working miracles. The more prosaic matters, and indeed the more important, such as humility, prudence, a spirit of forgiveness and constant charity, these are largely taken for granted. But not, of course, entirely.
There are moderns who will be more impressed with an incident like this. One of the sisters, acting as an “extern”, had returned from her journey to the town. Clare brought a bowl of water to wash her feet, as was done for a traveller in those days. After the ablution, the Abbess stopped to kiss the foot. But sister “thinking it too much drew her foot quickly away but so awkwardly as to strike the Abbess full in the face” – as the story says. Clare merely grasped the foot more firmly and tendered her mark of respect. (Obviously the story came from Sister!)
Thomas of Celano, OFM, who is regarded as a sober sides historian and who knew Clare personally, gives a Middle Ages opinion of her holiness.
He writes of the day she multiplied bread in her hands when the convent was in need; of her blessing bread, in the presence of the Pope and at his behest, and how the sign of the cross appeared on the leaves; of the time Francis sent to her a friar who had lost his reason, and how she touched the sick man’s forehead and he was well. And may more incidents of a similar kind.
He records that the Sisters were often in awe and reverence as they noticed “her face become radiant as did the face of Moses, when she prayed.” And one ecstatic experience, apparently a very famous one – may sum up all the rest. Here is how Celano relates it.
“It was on the morning of Holy Thursday (year not given). Clare, after assisting at the Offices of
the day, retired to her room to meditate more at her ease on the bitterness of the Passion. Passing
over in her mind the mournful scenes of that day – the sweat of blood in the garden of Gethsemane,
the betrayal by Judas, then the scourging, the crowning with thorns, and the crucifixion – she felt a
faintness analogous to that of St. Francis on Mount Alverna. She had to seek support, and rested on
her pallet. At that moment the Spirit of God came upon her, and suddenly she entered into a rapture
that suspended the action of the senses. Motionless, half raised upon her bed, she had her eyes fixed
upon an Invisible Being whose beauty captivated her heart and absorbed all the powers of her soul.
At nightfall one of her sisters, surprising her in that state, did not dare to approach, for fear of
Disturbing the work of the Creator. The next morning, finding the Abbess in the same position, she
again withdrew, for the same reason as on the night before. At last, at night, she was seized with
fear, and thinking of the recommendation of St. Francis, she went up, lamp in hand, to the
Foundress’s room. ‘Mother’, she said to her, ‘have you forgotten that St. Francis enjoined upon you
not to pass any day without partaking of at least some light refreshment?’ At the name of St. Francis
the ecstatic at once referred to herself, but not suspecting the duration of the ecstacy, ‘Wherefore this
lamp?’ she asked the sister. ‘Is it not yet day?’ ‘Mother’, replied the sister, ‘do you not realize that a
day and a night have elapsed, and that is now Good Friday night?’ Then the Abbess understood all;
but fearing to divulge, without a motive, the secrets of the great King, and thinking of how carefully
St. Francis had concealed the stigmata in his hands, she contented herself with saying to her
companion: ‘O sleep a thousand times blessed, O favour long desired! . . . But thou, my daughter,
keep this mystery to thyself, and speak of it to no one so long as I live.'”
(Celano, Life of St. Clare, Ch. 4)
As Thomas of Celano suggested, it makes you think of Francis on Mount Alverna when the holy stigmata was imprinted on his body. In the spiritual textbooks, they speak of “Mystical Marriage”.
How Clare Encouraged Francis
St. Francis of Assisi died in 1226. Although only forty-four years at death, he was prematurely old through great penances. Clare was then only thirty-four, at the zenith of her powers.
It is told that in his later years, Francis did not go to visit at San Damiano for a considerable period – he wanted the sisters to find their own strength; he also wanted to give a discreet example to the friars. But Clare was perplexed by his long absence, and spoke of her desire to hear him again and even dine with him. And when Francis was made aware of her wish, and prevailed on by the brethren, he set a day for the meeting at St Mary’s on the plain. What transpired is told in fairy-like way in The Little Flowers of St. Francis – a Mystical
Banquet of the two saints!
Reverting to sure historical ground, it is known that Clare had special care of Francis in a long illness that followed his wounding on Mount Alverna with the sacred Stigmata, September 1224. With a companion he made his painful way back to Assisi – a distance of some one hundred and thirty kilometres and gladly lay down to rest in a hut of branches a Francis set a day (says the story) when Clare would go out of her monastery with one sister companion, escorted also by his companions. And she came to St. Mary of the Angels. And first she reverently and humbly greeted the Blessed Virgin Mary before her altar, where she had been shorn and received the veil. And when they devoutly showed her around the Place until it was mealtime. Meanwhile St. Francis had the table prepared on the bare ground, as was his custom. And when it was time to eat, St. Francis and St. Clare sat down together, and one of his companions with St. Clare’s companion, and all his other companions were grouped around the humble table. But at the first course St. Francis began to speak about God in such a sweet and holy and profound and divine and marvelous way that he himself and St. Clare and her companion and all the others who were at the poor little table were rapt in God by the over-abundance of divine grace that descended upon them. And while they were sitting there, in a rapture, with their eyes and hands raised to heaven, it seemed to the men of Assisi and Bettona and the entire district that the Church of St Mary of the Angels and the whole Place and the forest, which was at that time around the Place, were all aflame and that an immense fire was burning over all of them. Consequently the men of Assisi ran down there in great haste to save the Place and put out the fire, as they firmly believed that everything was burning up. And when they reached the Place, they saw that nothing was on fire. Entering the Place, they found St. Francis with St. Clare and all the companions sitting around that very humble table, rapt in God by contemplation and invested with power from on high. Then they knew for sure it had been a heavenly and not a material fire that God had miraculously shown them to symbolize the fire of divine love which was burning in the souls of those holy friars and nuns. So they withdrew, with great consolation in their hearts and with holy edification.
Later, after a long while, when St. Francis and St. Clare and the others came back to themselves, they felt so refreshed by spiritual food that they paid little or not attention to the material food. And when that blessed meal was over, St. Clare, well accompanied, returned to San Damiano.” (Little Flowers of St. Francis, Part 1, no 15)
Reverting to surer historical ground, it is known that Clare had special care of Francis in a long illness that followed his wounding on Mount Alverna with the sacred Stigmata, September 1224. With a companion he had made his way back to Assisi – a distance of some one hundred and thirty kilometres and gladly lay down to rest in a hut of branches and reeds that the Sisters had built close to their convent. Clare came out to meet them, compassionate for his sufferings and to gaze in awe on the holy wounds. Francis allowed her, as he allowed only one or two others, to see and dress the wounds in his hands and feet. She prepared linens to staunch the blood that came from the wound in his side, and made him shoes or sandals of white skin so that he could stand a little on his wounded feet. So for forty days she became a sharer in the joy and the suffering, and the conversation, of her stigmatized brother.
After his death on October 3, 1226, his body was brought to Assisi for its first burial in St. George’s Church: It was diverted to San Damiano on the way. Two magistrates brought it into the Sisters’ chapel, uncovered the face, and allowed Sister Clare and the others to kiss the sacred wounds in his hands. It was a tearful scene. Her biographer, Thomas of Celano, puts these words into her mouth: “O blessed Father, the Founder of our Order, the light of our eyes, the support of our weakness. What will become of us without you?”
The Order Progresses
After St. Francis’s death, Clare was to live for more than twenty-five years and to see her Order prosper. The sisters had many convents inItaly and a number in France before Francis died. In 1233 they came to Spain, a niece of Sister Clare in the vanguard. In 1234 Bohemia(Czechoslovakia), in the person of Princess Agnes, daughter of a King, welcomed them. Princess Agnes entered their poor cloister herself and became the Abbess. Correspondence between Clare and Agnes of Bohemia is extant.
“Illustrious and venerable Agnes, daughter of the mighty and ever-victorious King of Bohemia (writes Clare), the renown of the holy andblameless, already known everywhere, has reached us…The world knows that thou has renounced the highest honours, a distinction the most enviable of all, the very throne of the most august Caesar…to embrace with all thy soul’s affection poverty, mortification of the flesh, and the humiliation of our divine Saviour.”
At Pentecost 1236, in the presence of the Apostolic Nuncio, seven bishops, the royal family and a retinue of the nobility, Agnes was clothed in the rough habit of the Poor Ladies and the convent of Prague set up. The proceedings obviously gave dramatic publicity to the new Order, and brought a number of the daughters of nobility to the convent.
The same thing happened in Germany, Belgium and France. Remarkable it is, how the “Clares” drew a ready response from the high born. Thus the Longchamps convent, Paris, was brought into being by King St Louis in order that his sister Isabelle might join their ranks. The convent was inaugurated on June 23, 1259 in the enthusiasm that followed the canonization of St Clare: in the presence of the King, Princess Isabelle and the whole royal court, twenty young ladies took the veil. Isabelle herself joined two years later, and an extraordinary era of development followed in France. Radiating from Longchamps, within fifty years, every large city in France regarded it as a high honour to have a “spiritual fortress” of the Clares within its walls.
Defender of Assisi
For many centuries, and into our own times, the people of Assisi performed annually a religious festival at San Damiano to recall how their town was saved from pillage by the intercession of St. Clare. The date of the festival was June 24th. The whole town – clergy, religious, magistrates, people – came professionally to the ancient convent. A speaker would remind the younger ones of the historical event attributed to St Clare; then all, kneeling, would pray her from heaven to watch over the town she loved so well.
What is the story behind the festival? For the detail, and the protestation of authenticity, we go to Thomas of Celano, The Life of St. Clare, Chap. 3.
It was the time of the Emperor Frederick II, ungrateful protégé of Pope Innocent III, who laid siege to the papal states around the year 1230. The Emperor’s men and seized and held a number of fortified places within papal territory, and to swell his battalions Frederick brought from Sicily twenty thousand Saracens. These were fierce Moslem tribesmen known to sack towns, fire the countryside and massacre without distinction.
A small band of Saracens came against Assisi, and by night came to plunder the convent of San Damiano. Clare was ill in bed when she was urgently aroused. Helped by two sisters – Francesca and Illuminata (their names are recorded in this connection) – she went quickly to an interior private oratory, and prostrating herself on the floor she prayed: “Lord do not abandon us into the hands of these wild men. Till now you have always nourished us with your love. Guard us, save us, I can do nothing.” And then – wonderfully – the voice, as it were of a child – was heard: “I will always protect you”. Clare prayed again: “Merciful Lord (she said), save my country. For your love it is generously feeding us and helping us.” And the voice came back: “Thy country will suffer much, but my arm will defend it”.
So Clare, half-rising, faced her sisters with great emotion and said: “Let us not be afraid, we’ll not be attacked. I promise it in the name of the merciful Christ.” Then she took the silver pyx containing the reserved Holy Sacrament, struggling to an upstairs open window of the convent and help up the pyx. A blinding flash threw panic into the band of Saracens and they were gone on horseback as fast as they could go! The convent and the town were spared pillage.
Just four years later, Frederick’s men came again, this time led by Vitale d’Aversa. Clare and her sisters prayed with all their might in the convent chapel. On the morning of June 22, 1234, the marauders were surprised by a sortie of the men of Assisi, panic developed and they fled quickly. For a second time Assisi was saved and the people had no doubt whence their deliverance came. Because of these well documented events, St Clare’s statue often shows her holding a monstrance in her hands. She is one of the patronesses of Eucharistic devotion.
Clare’s Last Years, Death
“Unlike Francis, Clare lived to an old age: she died in her sixtieth year”, says J. Jorgensen – some people will smile at his comment. Within weeks of her death, she could be found working in the convent, for even when sickness became a problem she would have a support fixed for her back and carry on.
To the Friars Minor, as to the Poor Ladies, she for long occupied the role of prophetess – a special bearer of the spirit of St Francis. And it is related that his earliest companions, Brothers Leo, Angelo and Juniper, often called to see her and to share memories of “the good old days”.
On an occasion, in the chapel at San Damiano, a learned English Franciscan spoke in words that hardly reflected Francis. Brother Giles called out: “Be still, Master, and I will preach!” The speaker desisted. Giles stood forth and spoke “in the heat of the Spirit of God”.
Clare was delighted saying “it was what Francis would want, that a Doctor of Theology be willing to give place to a brother to speak in his stead”.
The worry of her last years concerned the matter of holy Poverty – the foundation stone of the Order – and the reluctance of the Popes to give a final sanction to its severest form for the Sisters. Only on her deathbed did Pope Innocent IV come from Perugia to see her, and to confirm for her the privilege of the “highest poverty”. She is said to have died with the papal letter in her hand.
Close detail is extant about her death. Agnes, her dearest on earth, was present from the convent in Florence. For some days Clare took no food except the Holy Sacrament. Important church prelates came to her room to bless her, and to hear her say: “Love God, serve Him, that is everything”. And when her confessor, Father Rinaldo, asked her: “Are you suffering much?” she answered: “Ever since our Father Francis brought me to the infinite love of Christ, I have felt no sickness to be grievous, no pain to be too severe, and no penance no hard”.
(Celano, Life of St. Clare, Chap. 6)
At the end, Brothers Leo, Angelo and Juniper were near her bed and she asked them to read for her the story of Our Lord’s Passion. Then she said to Juniper: “Speak about God”, and he spoke from his heart some burning words that comforted her. She blessed the Sisters of her convent, and in all the other convents, and she blessed all who would come after her in the future. Then she blessed God that he had created her.
“Do you not see, my daughter”, she said to one of the nuns, “the King of glory whom I am contemplating?” And this Sister was privileged to see a troop of holy women advancing into the room with the Queen of Angels in their lead. Her spirit went with them. It was the morning of August 11th, 1253.
The funeral was a triumph for all the people of Assisi; Pope Innocent IV presided at the ceremonies.
Miracles happened in such an abundance at her tomb in the Church of St. George, that her canonization was decreed just two years after her death, August 12th, 1255. “Her light (said the decree) has already spread itself throughout the world.”
SAINT CLARE OF ASSISI
Companion of St. Francis
FR AMBROSE RYAN, O.F.M.
Society of St Peter Canisius Inc.
St Clare of Assisi – 1749
This article was originally published as a pamphlet by the Australian Catholic Truth Society and has
now been reprinted with permission by the
Society of Saint Peter Canisius Inc.
875 Riversdale Rd Camberwell 3124
Nihil Obstat: Peter J. Kenny S.T.D
Imprimatur: Peter J. Connors, D.C.L.
Vicar General, Melbourne
12th May 1981.
© Society of St Peter Canisius Inc. 1999