Clare was the third of five children born to Ortolana and Favarone di Offreduccio, a well-to-do noble couple of Assisi, in 1193 or 1194. The History of St. Clare, written shortly after her death in 1253 describes the apprehension of Ortolana as the time of her child’s birth drew near. She frequently visited a nearby Church, the account narrates, and one day heard a response to her prayer for the safe delivery of her child. The voice told her,
“O lady, do not be afraid, for you will joyfully bring forth a clear light which will illumine the world.”
When the child was born Ortolana and Favarone named her Chiara or Clare, the clear one.
The men and women who knew Clare as a child tell us, in the Acts of the Process of Canonisation, that Clare was angelic, kind, humble and compassionate to the poor, even while she was just a small child. In this she was following her mother’s example for she was noted for her prayerfulness, her generosity to the poor, of which there were many, and for undertaking hazardous pilgrimages to holy places even as far as the Holy Land. Undoubtedly though, as the History tells us,
“the Holy Spirit worked within her, forming her into a most pure vessel”.
Assisi in the late 12th century was not the most peaceful place to live in. When Clare was three or four years old the Assisians in their desire for freedom from foreign power attacked the fortress which dominated their town and razed it to the ground. Then they turned their attention to the mansions of the nobles who held most of the power in the city and sacked them. Clare’s family fled to Perugia, a neighbouring city and long time enemy of Assissi. It is not known how long Clare lived in Perugia but it was long enough for two young girls, Benvenuta and Filippa to get to know her and admire her virtues enough to follow her into the monastery and remain with her to the end. By the time her family returned to Assisi Clare had become a beautiful young girl. The eighteenth witness in the Acts of the Process of Canonisaton, Lord Ranieri di Bernardo of Assisi tells us that
“because she had a beautiful face, a husband was considered for her. Many of her distant relatives begged her to accept them as a husband. But she never wanted to consent”.
He himself asked her many times to consent to marriage but she refused (moreover, she preached to him of despising the world!). Clare had other things in mind. She desired to preserve her virginity for Christ and live in poverty as He had done. So she sold her inheritance, much to her family’s annoyance, and gave it to the poor.
Clare then arranged with the help of her friend Bona di Guelfuccio, to meet Francis of Assisi, the popular young man who had turned his back on his father’s wealth and was preaching penance and peace in the Cathedral and piazzas of the town. The History of St. Clare narrates,
“the father Francis encouraged her to despise the world, showing her by his living speech how dry the hope the world was and how deceptive its beauty. He persuaded her to preserve the pearl of her virginal purity for that Blessed Spouse Whom love made Man”.
Following the advice of Francis and with the approval of the Bishop of Assisi Clare secretly left her home on the night of Palm Sunday, March 18th, 1212, and went to the little Chapel of St. Mary of the Angels, the Portiuncula where Francis and his brothers received her commitment to follow in the footprints of the Poor and Humble Christ and His most holy Mother as they were doing. She sealed her consecration to God by the cutting off of her long blonde hair. Then they escorted her to the Benedictine Monastery of San Paola delle Abbadesse, a short distance away where she was guaranteed sanctuary. This was necessary as, in the cultural context of the time, it was only to be expected that Clare’s father Favarone and his brothers Monaldo and Scipio would come looking for the runaway Clare and take her home by force if necessary. The monastery of San Paola enjoyed the right of asylum so Clare knew she could not be torn away by force. Nevertheless when her family did arrive to take her home she had to endure their reproaches, insults and threats for several days before she finally convinced them that she belonged to Christ alone. Holding the altar with one hand she took off her veil with the other, disclosing her shorn locks, the sign of consecration. Thus convinced that she was no longer a beautiful young lady of this world her family went home.
Francis and his brothers then accompanied her to the monastery of Beguine recluses called San Angelo di Panzo where some days later her younger sister Agnes joined her. Everything repeated itself. A group of horsemen galloped out of Assisi, the girl’s uncle Monaldo, at their head. This time they used physical force to bring Agnes back to her family: as they were dragging Agnes off Clare prayed to the Lord for help. Some accounts say Agnes became so heavy the men could not move her. Others say that Monaldo suffered severe pain in his right hand as he tried to strike her which frightened him off. Whichever actually happened Agnes was left with her sister.
By the end of April they moved to San Damiano, a poor little monastery attached to a small church half way between Assisi and St. Mary of the Angels, the home of Francis and his brothers. There they were safe. The property belonged to Bishop Guido of Assisi and he was not likely to brook interference with the rights of asylum. Soon they were joined by Pacifica de Guelfuccio of Assisi, a friend and distant relative and in September by Benvenuta of Perugia. Others followed steadily including her younger sister Beatrice and her mother Ortulana after her husband’s death. By 1238 there were fifty Sisters in San Damiano and at least thirty monasteries spread throughout Europe. The Order of Poor Sisters had been born.
Clare and her Sisters enclosed themselves in the poor little monastery of San Damiano to pursue an intensive relationship with the Son of God whom love made man.
Prayer was the principal activity of the day to which each Sister untiringly dedicated herself. Seven times a day, beginning at midnight they came together to praise the Lord in the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours, as it is now called. Their life of prayer was interspersed with other duties, cooking, cleaning, spinning, weaving, making altar cloths and vestments. Two of the witnesses at the Process of Canonisation tell us that Clare spent long hours with the Lord before and after the celebration of the liturgical hours. “Assiduous” is the word used to describe her prayer. We are given the impression that she used all her energy to give herself totally to the Lord. In the earliest of her writings, the first Letter to Agnes of Prague, canonised in our own time by Pope John Paul 11, Clare reveals the basic aspect of her prayer, its never ending fascination with the Person of Jesus. She encourages Agnes to
“love Him totally Who gave Himself totally for your love”, “cling to Him Whose beauty all the blessed hosts of heaven unceasingly admire”. “Look upon Him Who became contemptible for you”.
We are left with the impression that Clare was a woman passionately in love with Christ. It is almost as if Clare consciously wanted to teach her Sisters that prayer was simply a matter of falling in love, a process that defies plans or methods. In her letters to Agnes she teaches that a life of prayer comes only through a focussing our attention on Christ and on the teaching and example He left us.
From a contemplative gazing on
“the God Who was placed poor in the crib, lived poor in the world, and remained naked on the Cross”,
Clare realised, like Francis, the Poverello, that a life without anything of one’s own, frees us to enter more profoundly into the mystery of God and His Kingdom. This was the reason for her devotion to the “privilege of poverty” as she called it. This privilege, of living an intense poverty, without stable income and in an enclosure which prevented questing for alms, she received from Pope Innocent 111 shortly after entering San Damiano. However, succeeding Popes concerned for the material security of the Sisters, attempted to persuade Clare to accept property from which they would enjoy a stable income. So a struggle began for Clare that was to continue throughout her entire life. Through it all, she was 59 or 60 when she died, she remained on cordial terms with the Popes who visited her at times and requested her prayers for themselves and the whole Church.
During a period of forty years Clare’s ideals became more clearly defined. The intimacy of her experience of Christ, flowing as it did from the teaching and example of Francis made her more resolute. She began to write her own Rule. Clare was the first woman in the history of the Church to do so. Previously all Rules for women were written by men. Her Rule was based on that of Francis, whom she always referred to as the Founder of the Order of Poor Sisters, and on accepted passages of the Rules given her by the Popes. It is however a unique document articulating her understanding of her calling to observe the holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and, at the same time, a startling sense of individual freedom that was based on Clare’s experience of the maturity of her Sisters.
Throughout all these years of struggle Clare was ill and confined to bed. Time and again her Sisters tell us of incidents that happened when Clare was in bed; she had herself propped up in bed so that she could sew cloth for the tabernacle and altar – that being ill she was unable to attend midnight Mass at Christmas and being lonely she complained to the Lord who then allowed her to see and hear everything taking place in the Franciscan Church in Assisi. This is the reason why Pope Pius X11 declared her the patroness of Television on the 14th February, 1958.
They also tell us a charming little story of the monastery cat who used to fetch balls of wool or spools of thread that had fallen from the bed and rolled away, carrying them back to her in his mouth.
On September 16th 1252, Cardinal Raynaldus approved Clare’s Rule in the name of the Pope. But this did not satisfy her. She continued to seek the personal approval of Pope Innocent 1V, the living sign of the Church’s unity. This occurred on August 9th, 1253 when the Pope realised that Clare was dying. On August 10th the Rule was brought to her bearing the seal of Pope Innocent 1V. She kissed it many times and died the following day. The ideals she held so close to her heart had been accepted and ratified by the Church.
In 1255 Clare was canonised by her friend and confidant Cardinal Raynaldus, now Pope Alexander 1V. The Bull of Canonisation rhapsodised on her name:
“O Clare endowed with so many titles of clarity!
Clear (Clara) even before your conversion,
clearer (clarior) in your manner of living,
exceedingly clear (preclarior) in your enclosed life
and brilliant (clarissima) in splendour
after the course of your mortal life.
In Clare a clear mirror is given to the whole world”.
Whoever gazes into her writings will discover a reflection of the glory of God and the beauty of the human person.