When she was 18, she heard Francis of Assisi preach and was deeply moved by his words. He had come back to Assisi, his hometown, to preach Lenten sermons at the church of San Giorgio. Twelve years her senior, Francis hailed from a well-to-do cloth merchant family, but a stint in the army and a year as a prisoner of war in Perugia caused a religious awakening, and he became an ascetic.
By the time Clare heard his sermons, Francis was called "Poverello" and was known throughout much of Christian Europe. His Franciscan order, founded in , was the first mendicant, or beggar, order in Europe, created in what was then a radical attempt to follow Christ's teachings.
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It followed a verse from the Gospel of Matthew, which counseled, according to Butler's Lives of the Saints, "Freely have you received, freely give…. Do not possess gold … nor two coats nor shoes not a staff…. Behold I send you as sheep in the midst of wolves. Desiring to join such a community herself, Clare sought out Francis, and according to her official church biography, went to Mass at the Assisi cathedral on Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter.
Instead of joining the queue to receive the palm leaf—an act that recalled a biblical incident in which Christ entered Jerusalem and to welcome him, believers cut boughs from trees and tossed them in his path— Clare remained in prayer, and the bishop then reportedly went to her and placed a palm in her hand.
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She was said to have fled her father's home that night, on March 20, , with the help of her aunt Bianca and another woman. They met Francis, as arranged, at a small chapel called Porziuncula that served as the spiritual home of his order, and Clare made her vows before him and accepted a rough brown tunic as her habit and a thick veil. Francis first sent Clare to live with a community of Benedictine nuns in San Paolo, near Bastia, and at one point her relatives—it is thought that her father may have died by this time—learned of her whereabouts and attempted to bring her home by force.
She resisted, however, reportedly clinging to the altar and declaring she would be the bride of no other except for Christ. While staying at another Benedictine monastery in Panzo, she was joined by her younger sister Agnes. Soon Francis found them a substandard dwelling next to the chapel of San Damiano, and with this Clare established with him a women's religious community that she called "Order of Poor Ladies;" it later became known as the Poor Clares. The order was unusual in that its first members were women from well-to-do families, inspired by Clare's devotion.
Daughters of the famed Ubaldini family of Florence were among some of the first postulates. Against her objections, Francis made Clare abbess of her order in , and she is believed never to have left the San Damiano abbey for the 40 years between then and her death. Another sister, Beatrix, also followed her there, as did her widowed mother and aunt Bianca.
Like Francis's Friars Minors order, her idea swiftly spread throughout Italy and beyond, and several other communities of Poor Clares were founded. As abbess, she was known for the rigors of her penance and often fasted so drastically that she became sick; during the forty days of Lent, for example, she took only bread and water. The Poor Clares did not sleep on mattresses, rather on homely beds fashioned from twig and hemp and went barefoot at all times.
They begged for food, never ate meat, and refrained from all unnecessary speech. Clare was determined that her order should live as Francis's community of friars, without assets or land, subsisting only on daily charity.
This was a radical proposition for religious communities in the early Middle Ages, for many possessed large estates that they farmed to survive; others took in students or made crafts that they then sold for subsistence; the Franciscan tenet believed that such work distracted them from fulfilling their religious vocation, to serve God.
Clare's order had no formal written rule, or constitution, in its early years, save for a brief one written by Francis. It did not, however, contain the injunction for absolute poverty—instead allowing for the possession of common property—and Clare objected to this; the Clares were a cloistered order, and Ugolino believed it impractical that the women should go begging. Nevertheless, it was approved by Pope Honorius III that year; after several years of her entreaties, Clare won her case.
Since, therefore, you have asked for it, we confirm by Apostolic favour 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. In his later years, when Francis was blind and ill, Clare was said to have constructed a small hut for him at San Damiano, where he wrote his "Canticle of the Sun.
In writing to Agnes, daughter of the Bohemian king and founder of a Poor Clares community in Prague, she cautioned the abbess to be less drastic in her own mortifications, "so that living and hoping in the Lord you may offer Him a reasonable service and a sacrifice seasoned with the salt of prudence," Butler's Lives of the Saints quoted her as writing to Agnes.
Clare lived during a tumultuous period in Italian history, and in San Damiano's walls were transgressed by soldiers in the army of the Holy Roman emperor, Frederick II. Clare was ill in bed but reportedly rose and went to the window with a ciborium, a chalice-like vessel that was used at the time to house the Eucharist.
She was said to have raised the ciborium at the soldiers—some of them Saracen, or Muslim—who had mounted a ladder, and they fell over backwards and fled. Because of this story, Clare is sometimes depicted holding this object in artistic representations. She also repelled another attack, it was said, a few weeks later by prayer, reminding the sisters that the city of Assisi had nourished them through charity, and they owed it to render assistance in return in the form of prayer.
Clare of Assisi - Wikipedia
She was a revered figure in Assisi, and reports that she was near death caused Pope Innocent IV to visit her on her deathbed. Instead of just plunging ahead and taking action which is what I was used to doing; I thought perhaps this time I should be prudent and get some sound advice, and not just from anyone, but from the Superior General of my Congregation. She took me seriously and within a week she sat facing me in our living room.
I remember vividly how intently she listened to me as I told her my story, and my reasons for contemplating a life change and my questions about what I was planning to do.
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And so I did — I prayed longer and harder than I ever had before, I went to Mass more frequently, I tried to be kinder to those people I met and with whom I interacted. The most difficult decision I had to make during that period in my life was to forego time with my friend. Several weeks went by and I began to realize that the life I had chosen when I was 19 was still the life I wanted to live. And all the effort I had made deepened my relationship with God and with people in and even out of my life. They have made me a better person and I hope, somehow, through our shared interaction they have become better people.
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