St. Clare, Virgin, Foundress of the Poor Clares ~ The Rev. Dcn Dollie Wilkinson, OPI

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The Lady Clare, “shining in name, more shining in life,” was born in the town of Assisi about the year 1193. Her mother was to become Blessed Ortolana di Fiumi. Her father is said to have been Favorino Scifi, Count of Sasso-Rosso, though whether he came of that noble branch of the Scifi family is not certain. Concerning Clare’s childhood we have no reliable information. She was eighteen years old when St. Francis, preaching the Lenten sermons at the church of St. George in Assisi, influenced her to change the whole course of her life. It is likely that a marriage not to her liking had been proposed; at any rate, she went secretly to see Friar Francis and asked him to help her to live “after the manner of the Holy Gospel.” Talking with him strengthened her desire to leave all worldly things behind and live for Christ. On Palm Sunday of that year, 1212, she came to the cathedral of Assisi for the blessing of palms, but when the others went up to the altar-rails to receive their branch of green, a sudden shyness kept Clare back. The bishop saw it and came down from the altar and gave her a branch.

The following evening she slipped away from her home and hurried through the woods to the chapel of the Portiuncula, where Francis was then living with his small community. He and his brethren had been at prayers before the altar and met her at the door with lighted tapers in their hands. Before the Blessed Virgin’s altar Clare laid off her fine cloak, Francis sheared her hair, and gave her his own penitential habit, a tunic of coarse cloth tied with a cord. Then, since as yet he had no nunnery, he took her at once for safety to the Benedictine convent of St. Paul, where she was affectionately welcomed.

When it was known at home what Clare had done, relatives and friends came to rescue her. She resisted valiantly when they tried to drag her away, clinging to the convent altar so firmly as to pull the cloths half off. Baring her shorn head, she declared that Christ had called her to His service, she would have no other spouse, and the more they continued their persecutions the more steadfast she would become. Francis had her removed to the nunnery of Sant’ Angelo di Panzo, where her sister Agnes, a child of fourteen, joined her. This meant more difficulty for them both, but Agnes’ constancy too was victorious, and in spite of her youth Francis gave her the habit. Later he placed them in a small and humble house, adjacent to his beloved church of St. Damian, on the outskirts of Assisi, and in 1215, when Clare was about twenty-two, he appointed her superior and gave her his rule to live by. She was soon joined by her mother and several other women, to the number of sixteen. They had all felt the strong appeal of poverty and sackcloth, and without regret gave up their titles and estates to become Clare’s humble disciples. Within a few years similar convents were founded in the Italian cities of Perugia, Padua, Rome, Venice, Mantua, Bologna, Milan, Siena, and Pisa, and also in various parts of France and Germany. Agnes, daughter of the King of Bohemia, established a nunnery of this order in Prague, and took the habit herself.

The “Poor Clares,” as they came to be known, practiced austerities which until then were unusual among women. They went barefoot, slept on the ground, observed a perpetual abstinence from meat, and spoke only when obliged to do so by necessity or charity. Clare herself considered this silence desirable as a means of avoiding the innumerable sins of the tongue, and for keeping the mind steadily fixed on God. Not content with the fasts and other mortifications required by the rule, she wore next her skin a rough shirt of hair, fasted on vigils and every day in Lent on bread and water, and on some days ate nothing. Francis or the bishop of Assisi sometimes had to command her to lie on a mattress and to take a little nourishment every day.

Discretion, came with years, and much later Clare wrote this sound advice to Agnes of Bohemia: “Since our bodies are not of brass and our strength is not the strength of stone, but instead we are weak and subject to corporal infirmities, I implore you vehemently in the Lord to refrain from the exceeding rigor of abstinence which I know you practice, so that living and hoping in the Lord you may offer Him a reasonable service and a sacrifice seasoned with the salt of prudence.”

Francis, as we know, had forbidden his order ever to possess revenues or lands or other property, even when held in common. The brothers were to subsist on daily contributions from the people about them. Clare also followed this way of life. When she left home she had given what she had to the poor, retaining nothing for her own needs or those of the convent. Pope Gregory IX proposed to mitigate the requirement of absolute poverty and offered to settle a yearly income on the Poor Ladies of St. Damien. Clare, eloquent in her determination never to break her vows to Christ and Francis, got permission to continue as they had begun. “I need,” she said, “to be absolved from my sins, but I do not wish to be absolved from my obligation to follow Jesus Christ.” In 1228, therefore, two years after Francis’ death, the Pope granted the Assisi sisterhood a Privilegium paupertatis, or Privilege of Poverty, that they might not be constrained by anyone to accept possessions. “He who feeds the birds of the air and gives raiment and nourishment to the lilies of the field will not leave you in want of clothing or of food until He come Himself to minister to you for eternity.” The convents in Perugia and Florence asked for and received this privilege; other convents thought it more prudent to moderate their poverty. Thus began the two observances which have ever since been perpetuated among the Poor Clares, as they later came to be called. The houses of the mitigated rule are called Urbanist, from the concession granted them in 1263 by Pope Urban IV. But as early as 1247 Pope Innocent IV had published a revised form of the rule, providing for the holding of community property. Clare, the very embodiment of the spirit and tradition of Francis, drew up another rule stating that the sisters should possess no property, whether as individuals or as a community. Two days before she died this was approved by Pope Innocent for the convent of St. Damian.

Clare governed the convent continuously from the day when Francis appointed her abbess until her death, a period of nearly forty years. Yet it was her desire always to be beneath all the rest, serving at table, tending the sick, washing and kissing the feet of the lay sisters when they returned footsore from begging. Her modesty and humility were such that after caring for the sick and praying for them, she often had other sisters give them further care, that their recovery might not be imputed to any prayers or merits of hers. Clare’s hands were forever willing to do whatever there was of woman’s work that could help Francis and his friars. “Dispose of me as you please,” she would say. “I am yours, since I have given my will to God. It is no longer my own.” She would be the first to rise, ring the bell in the choir, and light the candles; she would come away from prayer with radiant face.

During her life and after her death there was disagreement at intervals between the Poor Clares and the Brothers Minor as to their correct relations. The nuns maintained that the friars were under obligation to serve their needs in things both spiritual and temporal. When in 1230 Pope Gregory IX forbade the friars to visit the convents of the nuns without special license, Clare feared the edict might lead to a complete severing of the ties established by Francis. She thereupon dismissed every man attached to her convent, those who served their material needs as well as those who served them spiritually; if she could not have the one, she would not have the other. The Pope wisely referred the matter to the minister general of the Brothers Minor to adjust. After long years of sickness borne with sublime patience, Clare’s life neared its end in the summer of 1253. Pope Innocent IV came to Assisi to give her absolution, remarking, “Would to God I had so little need of it!” To her nuns she said, “Praise the Lord, beloved daughters, for on this most blessed day both Jesus Christ and his vicar have deigned to visit me.” Prelates and cardinals gathered round, and many people were convinced that the dying woman was truly a saint. Her sister Agnes was with her, as well as three of the early companions of Francis-Leo, Angelo, and Juniper. They read aloud the Passion according to St. John, as they had read it at the death-bed of Francis twenty-seven years before. Someone exhorted Clare to patience and she replied, “Dear brother, ever since through His servant Francis I have known the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, I have never in my whole life found any pain or sickness that could trouble me.” To herself she was heard to say, “Go forth without fear, Christian soul, for you have a good guide for your journey. Go forth without fear, for He that created you has sanctified you, has always protected you, and loves you as a mother.”

Pope Innocent IV and his cardinals assisted at the funeral of the abbess. The Pope would have had her canonized immediately had not the cardinals present advised against it. His successor, Alexander IV, canonized her after two years, in 1255, at Anagni. Her body, which lay first in the church of St. George in Assisi, was translated to a stately church built to receive it in 1260. Nearly six hundred years later, in 1850, it was discovered, embalmed and intact, deep down beneath the high altar, and subsequently removed to a new shrine in the crypt, where, lying in a glass case, it may still be seen. In 1804 a change was made in the rule of the Poor Clares, originally a contemplative order, permitting these religious to take part in active work. Today there are houses of the order in North and South America, Palestine, Ireland, England, as well as on the Continent. The emblem of St. Clare is a monstrance, and in art she is frequently represented with a ciborium.

Saint Clare, Virgin, Foundress of the Poor Clares. Celebration of Feast Day is August 12th by the pre-1970 liturgical calendar and August 11th (the actual date of her death) by the present one.

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