Clare of Assisi (c. 1194–1253)
Clare of Assisi (c. 1194–1253)
Founder of the Franciscan nuns, a community that formed a refuge for women desiring to pursue the religious life by renouncing the world. Name variations: St. Clare; St. Clara; Santa Clara d'Assisi; Claire d'Assise; Clare dei Sciffi; Chiara di Favorone. Born in 1193 or 1194 in Assisi, Umbria, in Central Italy; died after a long illness, on August 11, 1253, in Assisi; daughter of Ortolana and Favorone (or Favarone) Offreduccio (a noble and crusader); privately educated.
Met Francis (later St. Francis of Assisi) and entered religious life (1212); became abbess of the Poor Ladies (1215); canonized as St. Clare (1255).
On the night of Palm Sunday, in the year 1212, a 17-year-old girl was removing, with her bare hands, the heavy beams that covered the "door of the dead" in her family's luxurious home in Assisi, Italy. This door, intended for use only when transporting a corpse from the house to the cemetery, was customarily kept barred; in this Christian country, some superstitions still lingered, including the fear that the dead would try to find the way back to their homes through
the door by which they had left. With a strength that she later recalled as astonishing, the runaway Clare removed the heavy masonry blocking the exit and pulled off the beams that had been hammered in with a force intended to keep out even the most persistent ghost. Once outdoors, Clare met with a female companion, and they made their way to a spot where a young man was waiting.
Despite appearances, this was not a lovers' meeting. The site of the rendezvous was the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, and the young man expecting the girls was Francis, later to be known as St. Francis of Assisi, whose religious fervor was attracting followers from all over Italy. He welcomed Clare and, in hasty silence, cut off her long blonde hair and gave her, in place of the fine robes she was wearing, a coarse nun's habit and veil. Then they fled through the night to a nearby Benedictine convent, where he left her in charge of the nuns.
These Benedictines were among the few in the religious life whom Francis and Clare could trust. At the time, the Church of Rome was in turmoil. While people with genuine religious fervor strove to live decent lives, the Crusades were in full swing, drawing the devout (as well as profiteers) to leave their homes and attempt to "redeem" Jerusalem from the non-Christian "infidels" who held it. In fact, Clare's father, Favorone Offreduccio, had gone on Crusade, and it is likely that Clare's mother, Ortolana , had accompanied him. The devout who could afford it (including Ortolana) made pilgrimages to holy sites to see the relics of the martyrs and pray for the redemption of their souls.
Though some religious orders genuinely tried to emulate the life of Christ and provide a sanctuary for those seeking refuge from the outside world, many were hotbeds of corruption, with members taking orders, not out of conviction, but out of a lack of ability to make any other way in life. Some monks and nuns genuinely felt a calling to the religious life; others were sent there by parents who were unable to care for them. Many of the latter were girls whose prospects for marriage were small, either for lack of a dowry or because they were handicapped or mentally ill. Not surprisingly, people warehoused in monasteries out of necessity, rather than callings, were not likely to live exceptionally holy lives.
In addition, the church was busy attempting to stamp out various heresies, splinter-groups whose views differed from those of the orthodox church. While not as intolerant as it would later become during the age of the inquisitions, the church was zealous in its efforts to ensure that all Christians follow a certain course of belief and conduct. Assisi, located in Central Italy less than 100 miles northeast of Rome, managed to stay out of most of these controversies. Though not particularly noted for its holiness, Assisi had the requisite share of churches and monasteries in its vicinity. But at this time, when the merchant-class was beginning to emerge as a powerful force, most of the citizens of Assisi were more interested in commerce than religion.
In the midst of this confusion, Francis, a young man of Assisi's newly important merchant class, underwent a religious conversion while recovering from a serious illness. He renounced his worldly life and embraced the principles of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience. The pope approved his new monastic order in 1209. In a short time, men of the area (and later, from all over Europe) were giving away their possessions and joining him.
Although, by necessity, all his followers were men, Francis was also mindful of the spiritual needs of women. It was said that in the early days of his religious life, while he was rebuilding the church of San Damiano (St. Damian), Francis "used to call with a loud voice in the joy of the Spirit to those living near or passing by the church and would say to them in French: 'Come and help me in [this] project for the church of San Damiano which will be in the future a monastery of women by whose fame and life our heavenly Father will be glorified throughout the entire Church.'"
While this inspiring religious activity was going on, Clare was growing up in Assisi as an unusually pious child. It was said that, shortly before her birth, her mother prayed to the Mary the Virgin for a safe delivery and received a vision in which she was told, "Fear not, for thou wilt safely give birth to a light which will shine on all the earth." When her baby girl was born, Ortolana named the child "Chiara," or "Bright."
Clare is said to have secretly worn an instrument of torture, a hair shirt, under her clothes. Made of knotted horsehairs, or a boarskin, with the coarse fur turned to the inside, a hair shirt caused enough pain to make the wearer mindful of the weakness of the flesh. Clare enjoyed repeating prayers from a very young age and was certainly aware of the travels made by her parents in service of their religion.
In an age when few people, especially women, could read and write, Clare was literate in both Italian and Latin. Usually only girls destined for the convent were taught to read, but her parents' later resistance to her taking the veil indicates that they intended a good marriage for her, as well as, most likely, for their three other daughters and their son. Clare was quite artistic; an unusually beautiful embroidered religious vestment, known to date from the 13th century, is said to be the work of her hands. She had a lifelong interest in music, was attentive to the beauties of nature, and the religious life attracted her from an early age.
Even if her parents had been in favor of it, a girl of Clare's social class, with a desire to take the veil as a nun, would have had a difficult adjustment. She made a start by selling her possessions and distributing the proceeds among the poor. Evidently, this was not enough to satisfy her. Clare's situation was complicated by the powerful attraction exerted by Francis. While men of all ages were coming to join him, he held a particular fascination for the young that must have been felt by Clare as well as other girls. Consequently, when she felt the desire to leave her family, renounce all thought of married life, and devote herself to God, it was natural for her to turn to Francis for advice. He told her to go to church that Palm Sunday as usual, and she would learn what she had to do.
On that Sunday, when the faithful approached the altar to receive their palm-fronds from the hands of the bishop, Clare was struck by a sudden attack of shyness or indecision and held back. Seeing her, the bishop took the unusual step of descending from the altar, making his way through the crowds. He handed her the palm and, leaning over, said a few words in her ear. What he said has not been recorded, but that night she took the desperate measure of leaving her home through the "door of the dead" (perhaps symbolizing her recognition that she would henceforth be dead to her family and to the world) and meeting Francis to begin her spiritual life.
Though his monastic order had been recognized by the pope several years earlier, Francis had no authority to make someone a nun. Indeed, Clare's family did not recognize his legitimacy in this area. Accordingly, the men of her family stormed the convent to force her return home. Clare knelt at the altar and held onto it, aware that anyone attempting to tear her away would be guilty of sacrilege. They left without her, but when her sister Agnes of Assisi ran off to join her a few days later, they used such force that Agnes was left unconscious before her relatives decided to give in and leave her.
When Francis began his reforms, the young women of Assisi had been swept up by the same fervor as the men, but until now they had lacked a leader and a place to go. Clare's courageous flight and devotion to her principles inspired them, and many (eventually including two more of her sisters) soon joined her. The bishop allowed them to live in the vacant monastery of San Damiano; and, while they were waiting to petition the pope for recognition as a new order, they took their rule from that of Francis. Their major emphasis was on poverty, which would prove a major hurdle in the pope's approval of their order. By embracing this principle, the nuns would not be allowed to earn money and would thus be dependent upon the charity of their neighbors for survival. The pope was reluctant to allow an unproven group of women, many of whom were accustomed to what went for a luxurious life in the Middle Ages, to risk privation. But both Francis and Clare insisted that "embracing Lady Poverty" was essential to their conception of a devout life.
Agnes of Assisi (1207–1232)
Italian abbess. Name variations: (Italian) Agnese. Pronunciation: ah-NYAY-zay. Born in Assisi, Umbria, in Central Italy, in 1207; died in 1232; daughter of Favorone (or Favarone) Offreduccio (a noble and Crusader) and Ortolana ; sister of Clare of Assisi.
Born into a wealthy Italian family, Agnes of Assisi was about 13 years younger than her holy sister, Clare of Assisi , yet the sisters seem to have been made closer by their common commitment to serve God and their admiration for the reformer Francis of Assisi. When Clare founded the Poor Clares (the Franciscan order for women) and established a convent at San Damiano, Agnes proved an important assistant. She joined the convent as a nun and helped her sister in the role of spiritual advisor. Although sometimes overshadowed by Clare, Agnes drew admiration from the people of Italy for her own selfless devotion to serving the poor and the sick. She founded a convent in the town of Monticelli (near Florence) and became its abbess in 1219. Agnes died quite young from an undiagnosed illness, about age 25.
Laura York , Riverside, California
While waiting for papal approval, the Sisters acquired the name of the Poor Ladies of San Damiano (later known as the Poor Clares or the Clarisses). As their leader, Clare set up a temporary rule taken from that of Francis, with whom she was in frequent communication. Though mindful of the possible problems if the two groups had too much contact with each other, she urged Francis to allow his Brothers and her Sisters to meet for a meal. He agreed on condition that they meet at the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, where he had first welcomed her into the religious life.
The powerful impact of these two on the city of Assisi is illustrated by the tale told of this dinner. One of the stories of the life of St. Francis relates that after the meal had been underway for a short time, the church appeared to be on fire to the people of Assisi. Rushing to put out the flames, they found nothing burning; the Brothers and Sisters were still seated, unmoving, at the table, apparently rapt in contemplation. The people withdrew, having witnessed a spiritual—not an actual—fire.
In recognition of Francis' importance in her religious life, Clare referred to herself as his pianticella (little plant). Nonetheless, they treated each other as equals; he referred to her as "mother and sister," just as she referred to him as "father and brother." In addition to infrequent meetings for meals, Clare also advised Francis on his spiritual life. At one point, he contemplated withdrawing from the world to live as a hermit. Clare and Francis' trusted Brother Sylvester convinced him that he was needed to continue preaching and leading new initiates to the religious life.
That Clare loved the world she had left is obvious; she urged her Sisters, when out in the forest, to note and thank God for every tree. But she led a life of extreme self-denial and humility in her convent, from which she never stirred until her death. When Sisters returned to the convent from necessary errands, she washed their feet with her own hands. She continued to wear hair shirts (one of the new Sisters attempted to put one on and was so uncomfortable that she immediately removed it) and slept on a pile of twigs with a rock or log for a pillow. Though she slept without a blanket, on cold nights she rose from her bed and made certain that the other women had coverings. While all the Sisters ate frugally (only one meal a day except on rare occasions, such as Christmas, when they might have two), she fasted continuously. In fact, she became so weakened from lack of food that the bishop and Francis made her promise to eat at least one and a half ounces of bread daily.
But despite their devotion to frugality, when the Poor Ladies were granted their charter as a religious Franciscan community in 1215, the pope did not permit them to adopt poverty as one of their guiding principles. Clare gave much of her energy to changing this policy, and, in 1228, he finally acceded. In 1218, their official Rule had finally been approved, with the permission to become cloistered, meaning that the nuns were to have extremely limited contact with the outside world. Theirs was not a service order, a teaching order, or a missionary order; their purpose was to contemplate God and provide an example for others by leading holy lives.
With the official sanction on their rule, followers began to flock in from all over Italy. Clare's sister Agnes founded a convent in the town of Monticelli (near Florence) and became its abbess in 1219. As time went on, more convents of the Poor Ladies were formed through Italy and later the rest of Europe and the world.
In 1226, Clare's mother Ortolana joined the convent, calling her own daughter "Mother" (Clare's father had evidently died several years earlier). That same year, Francis died. Without his support, Clare's influence with the pope declined; in 1230, the pope restricted the rights of the Franciscan Brothers to visit with Clare's Poor Ladies. The loss of Francis' support became evident in the functioning of the convent as well; in 1235, the pope had to make a public appeal for provisions for the Sisters.
Clare was in poor health for the last 28 or 29 years of her life. It is not clear what specific ailment she suffered from, although it is likely that the hard life she forced on herself, especially her refusal to eat sufficiently, contributed to her invalidism. Although she had told the nuns not to disturb her if she was absent from functions of the convent, a young sister became concerned when she did not appear for several meals. Going to her room, the sister reminded her that she had promised Francis to eat at least a little bread every day. Clare, rapt in divine visions, had lost track of time and was unaware that two days had passed since she had left her cell.
In 1252, the pope visited Clare at San Damiano. She died in 1253 and was almost immediately canonized. The Church of St. Clare was built in Assisi in the year 1260. In 1850, her body was found and moved to her church where it continues to dwell, an object of extreme veneration.
Armstrong, Regis J., O.F.M., Cap. and Ignatius C. Brady, O.F.M. Francis and Clare: The Complete Works. NY: Paulist Press, 1982.
Clare of Assisi, Saint. Claire d'Assise: Écrits. Introduction, Texte Latin, Traduction, Notes et Index. Edited and translated by Marie-France Becker, Jean-François Godet, Thaddée Matura. Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 1985.
——. Early Documents. Edited and translated by Regis J. Armstrong, O.F.M., Cap. NY: Paulist Press, 1988.
de Robeck, Nesta. St. Clare of Assisi. Milwaukee, WI: Bruce, 1951.
Nichols, John A., and Lillian Thomas Shank, eds. Distant Echos: Medieval Religious Women. Vol. 1. Cistercian Studies Series, 71. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984.
Roggen, Heribert. The Spirit of Saint Clare. Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1971.
Tracy Barrett , Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee