St. Clare of Assisi

When Clare was born in 1194 she was named in Italian “Chiara,” meaning “light,” a name symbolic of her life. Unlike Francis, who was the son of a merchant, she was born into nobility and her upbringing was in the home surrounded by women of the extended Offreducio family. Clare was educated to meet the requirements of a well-bred lady. She dressed in the rich and colorful fashions of the day. Her father planned that she would marry, according with her rank, a great and powerful lord. Yet Clare had another idea for her future. Clare developed a strong spirituality and lived, as nearly as possible, a life of poverty, secretly giving away her dowry, as she had no intention of marrying. At every opportunity, she listened to Francis speak to the townspeople. Finally, Clare persuaded her cousin, Rufino, a friend to Francis, to arrange a meeting with him. As Francis shared his vision, Clare recognized that this too would be the direction of her life.

On Palm Sunday, at age 18, Clare attended Mass dressed in her finest clothes for the last time. When others went to receive palms, Clare remained in her place. The bishop came to her to give her a palm, an omen of what was to come. That evening, she and a companion slipped out the back door of the house, heavily barred and opened only for escape from attack. They walked to St. Mary of the Angels. She received the tonsure, a rough garment and black veil. Clare followed Francis and his companion, Philip, out of the chapel for an hour’s walk to the Benedictine monastery of San Paolo. This was a wealthy monastery with the privilege of sanctuary, where she would be safe.

When news of Clare’s departure reached her father, Favarone, he gathered her brothers and uncles to burst through the doors of the monastery choir where Clare had fled for refuge. Clinging to the altar, Clare swept off her veil, revealing her short hair. Favarone left angry, but defeated. Two weeks later, Clare’s younger sister, Agnes, joined her after she too fled secretly from home. Her father and brothers stormed into the monastery, dragging Agnes from the church. But the men found they were unable to lift her body from the ground where she had fallen. Favarone knew then that his daughter had won.

Francis and the friars completed a small stone convent adjoining the chapel of San Damiano. Clare, Agnes and Pacifica (now a member) prayed before the same crucifix that spoke to Francis the words: “Repair my house.  It was falling into ruins.” Clare knew that the “house” was the people of God, and that her service would be lighting the way through prayer, penance and simple living. More women, including Clare’s own mother, Lady Ortolona, joined the “Poor Ladies.” Their life consisted of prayer, fasting, gardening and penance. Townspeople came to them for guidance and spiritual comfort. Clare had the gift of healing body and soul of  visitors and her own sisters. She relied on the instructions of Francis, and missed him deeply when he was traveling for long periods of time. She had to instill the spirit of Francis in the hearts of the women joining the Poor Ladies.

Thirty convents had been established by the time she reached age 33.  Now the daughter of the King of Bohemia, the Princess Agnes, wanted to open a convent in Prague. Praying for wisdom in leading her community, Clare spent much time before the Eucharist. Clare wanted to show by example that the highest call in community is to love and serve one another. She retained the daily tasks of washing the feet of the sisters who went out begging for food and emptying the bed pans of the sick sisters.

Her deepest sorrow was the death of Francis on October 3, 1226. The friars brought the dying body of Francis to the cloistered convent for the sisters to see him once more. Clare had always feared “Sister Death” not so much for herself, but for her loss of Francis. Now he was gone, but his words and deeds lived in her heart. She knew Francis’ last words to her, “I have done what was mine to do. Christ teach you what is yours.”

For 27 more years, Clare continued to lead her community and provide inspiration and support to the friars. Often during the years of turmoil that followed the death of Francis, they came to her for advice and prayers. Cardinal Hugolino, a longtime friend of Clare, was elected Pope Gregory IX in 1227. He often came to San Damiano to rest and to seek Clare’s advice. He urged her to write her way of life, using the teachings of Francis in the form of a Rule, so that after her death the sisters would still retain the spirit of humility and simplicity.

The years of penance, fasting and long hours of prayer took their toll on Clare. During the last years of her life, she was confined to bed. She continued to write instructional letters to the sisters in many far away convents. Worn out by her long illness, Clare had but one wish before she died, that the new pope would give final approval to their way of life. To her great joy, Pope Innocent IV came to visit her. Later he sent his approval of her Rule, the first in the Church written by a woman. Clare knew that through Christ and Francis, she had done what was hers to do.

On August 11, 1253, at the age of 60, Clare died. Though her life was hidden from the age of 18 at  San Damiano, her light spread. At the time of her death there were at least 40 convents of Poor Ladies in Italy and 60 elsewhere in Europe. Today Poor Clares throughout the world live Clare’s spirit of love for Jesus Christ and keep bright in their hearts the ideals of Francis.