The Church in western Europe was not in such good shape at the end of the 12th century. But it was at this time that the Holy Spirit stirred the hearts of two young people in central Italy, giving rise to the remarkable Franciscan movement.
Clare was born Chiara Offreduccio in 1193 or 1194, the daughter of a wealthy and highly educated family in Assisi. When Francis began to preach the Gospel in the squares of Assisi in 1210 Clare was 16 years old, 11 years younger than him. Even as a child her heart was turned towards the Lord, and she would share her food with the poor and needy people of the town. She had already refused several offers of marriage. At the age of 18, she was captivated by Francis' Lenten preaching of a Christ-centred simple gospel life, and especially his emphasis on poverty as a special vocation. She had several secret meetings with him, accompanied only by a friend, Bona, and made up her mind to join him.
On Palm Sunday 1212 Clare left her parents' house secretly. She had already sold her dowry and given the money to the poor. At the little church of St Mary of the Angels, just below Assisi, she met Francis and a few of his brothers. She changed her dress for a simple habit, and took off her jewellery. Francis cut her hair, and she made a vow of obedience to him. At first she lived with a nearby Benedictine community of nuns, doing simple menial tasks.
Not surprisingly, Clare's family were outraged at what she had done. They sent armed men to bring her back, without success. When Clare's younger sister, Catherine, followed her only a fortnight later, the family made even more violent attempts to force her to return home. They were in fact carrying Catherine away physically, but Clare prayed, and Catherine became so heavy that they could not lift her. Defeated, they returned home.
Francis received Catherine, too, as a sister, and gave her the name Agnes. Then Clare, Agnes and several friends moved to San Damiano, the church where Francis had heard Jesus speak to him from the crucifix, charging him to "rebuild" the Church. Here the first community of Poor Clares came into being. Clare's widowed mother joined as well.
It was said that the followers of Clare were the most beautiful young girls from the best families of Assisi. The community grew rapidly, and in 1215, very much against her will, Clare was made Abbess.
The women devoted themselves to prayer, nursing the sick, and works of mercy for the poor and neglected. The order came to be called the "Poor Clares." They wore no shoes, ate no meat, lived in a house that was unsatisfactory even by the standards of that era. They also kept silent most of the time. They had no beds, but slept on twigs with patched hemp for blankets. Whatever they ate was food for which they had begged. Clare made sure she fasted more than anyone else.
Clare remained in charge until her death in 1253. In spite of long years of sickness, we know the depth of her love for the Lord by the letters she wrote. Two years after her death, in 1255, she was declared a saint by the church.
In the early years of the movement Francis visited Clare often, but as his own community grew his visits decreased and she had to find within herself the inspiration she had received from him. Their friendship grew more equal, and Francis would consult her on important decisions. In his last illness he came to San Damiano and Clare cared for him.
Although she called herself “the little plant of Francis” Clare was in fact a powerful and innovative woman, the first woman to write a Rule (a guide to a way of life) for a religious community. She really struggled with the institutional Church most of her life, as Popes and Cardinals resisted the renewal movement and sought to draw her away from the poverty which was at the heart of her following of Jesus. But she remained firm, and her Rule was finally approved by the Pope himself just a few days before her death. By that time there were more than 150 communities which followed her way of life, mainly in Italy, southern France and Spain, but spreading as far east as Prague, and as far west as Bruges.
God of peace,
who in the poverty of the blessed Clare
gave us a clear light
to shine in the darkness of this world:
give us grace so to follow in her footsteps
that we may, at the last,
rejoice with her in your eternal glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The Church of San Damiano,
where St Francis heard the voice of Jesus say to him, "rebuild my Church."
It is also where St Clare died on August 11, 1253.
A LETTER OF St CLARE TO BLESSED AGNES OF PRAGUE
Agnes, previously a wealthy woman, was Abbess of the community of Poor Clares in Prague. Although she and Clare never met, a close friendship developed and was maintained through their correspondence for over twenty years.
Fortunate indeed is she who shares in the sacred banquet and clings with all her heart to him whom the hosts of heaven constantly adore! Contemplation of him refreshes her; his kindness and sweetness fill her being. "He is the splendour of eternal light, a mirror without blemish." Look daily into that spotless mirror, dear queen and spouse of Christ, and see your face in it. See how you are to adorn yourself, within and without, in all the blossoms of virtue, as befits a chaste daughter and spouse of that greatest of kings. In that mirror poverty, humility, and love beyond telling shine radiantly.
Contemplate the beginning therein mirrored - the poverty of him who lay in the manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes. What marvelous humility and astonishing poverty! It is the King of angels, the Lord of heaven and earth, who lies here! Contemplate next the course of his life, with its humility in the form of blessed poverty, endless toil, and torments to be endured for the redemption of humankind. Contemplate, finally, the boundless love that marks the end of that life, when love made him suffer and die on the Cross. The mirror cries out to us: "All you who pass along the way, look and see if there be any sorrow like mine!" What shall our answer be? "I remember and my heart fails within me." Here, noble queen of the heavenly King, your love will flame up ever more intensely.
If you go to contemplate his inexpressible delights and the riches and honours he bestows, your heart will sigh with loving desire: “Draw me after you; we shall run after you, drawn by your fragranet perfumes,” heavenly Spouse! I shall run and not cease until you lead me into your wine cellar.
When you contemplate all this, remember me, your poor little mother. Know that the memory of you is imprinted in my heart, for you are dearer to me than any other.
A LETTER OF St CLARE TO ERMENTRUDE OF BRUGES
In 1240 Ermentrude, a noble lady originally from Köln, went to Bruges, Belgium, where she lived for twelve years in a hermitage. She heard about Clare and the Poor Ladies and left for a pilgrimage to Assisi and Rome, but found that Clare had already died. She returned to Bruges and transformed her small hermitage into a monastery of Poor Ladies and then and then established other monasteries in Flanders. Clare had written two letters of encouragement to her.
I have learned, O most dear sister, that, with the help of God's grace, you have fled in joy the corruptions of the world. I rejoice and congratulate you because of this and, again, I rejoice that you are walking courageously the paths of virtue with your daughters. Remain faithful until death, dearly beloved, to God to whom you have promised yourself, for you shall be crowned by him with the gariand of life.
Our labour here is brief, but the reward is eternal. Do not be disturbed by the clamour of the world, which passes like a shadow. Do not let the faise delights of a deceptive world deceive you. Close your ears to the whisperings of hell and bravely oppose its onslaughts. Gladly endure whatever goes against you and do not let good fortune lift you up: for these things destroy faith, while these others demand it. Offer faithfully what you have vowed to God, and he shall reward you.
O dearest one, look up to heaven, which calls us on, and take up the cross and follow Christ who has gone on before us: for through him we shall enter into his glory after many and diverse tribulations. Love God from the depths of your heart and Jesus, his Son, who was crucified for us sinners. Never let the thought of him leave your mind, but meditate constantly on the mysteries of the cross and the anguish of his mother as she stood beneath the cross.
Pray and watch at all times! Carry out steadfastly the work you have begun and fulfil the ministry you have undertaken in true humility and holy poverty. Fear not, daughter! God, who is faithful in all his words and holy in all his deeds, will pour his blessings upon you and your daughters. He will be your help and best comforter for he is our Redeemer and our eternal reward.
Let us pray to God together for each other for, by sharing each other's burden of charity in this way, we shall easily fulfil the law of Christ.