Many of us know something about Francis of Assisi but perhaps less know about Clare of Assisi. She, like Francis, came from a rich family and chose to turn her back on this in order to live her life for God. On her festival day I told those present a little more of her story.
The readings were Psalm 63:1-8, Song of Solomon 2:10-13, Luke 12:32-37.
Most people will have heard of St Francis of Assisi. His riches to rags story captures the imagination as he leaves a comfortable life to be a poor travelling friar. His gentle nature seemed to attract animals and he certainly seems to have felt an affinity for them.
In the same way that people are drawn to him now, they were drawn to him during his lifetime. One of those who was hugely influenced by him was Clare, who we remember today.
Clare Offreduccio was born in 1194 in Assisi. Her father was the Count of Sasso-Rosso. Her mother, Ortolana, was a devout woman who received a vision that Clare, her first child, would be delivered safely. She was convinced that the child would be enlightened by God and so called her Clare. During Clare’s childhood there was conflict going on in Assisi which led to her family taking refuge in Perugia. As she was in a noble family she was well educated. Her mother brought her up to be prayerful and gentle and to show generosity to the poor. Perhaps it was this upbringing that prepared her to hear what Francis had to say.
She heard Francis talk about his order when she returned to Assisi. She wanted to become a member of this group but noble women did not join wandering groups. If they went into a monastery it would be one of the great orders such as the Benedictines. Clare’s family had hoped she would make a good marriage but instead, at the age of 18 she went to join Francis. Her family were horrified and brought her back to her home by force. Not long after that, Clare left her home again by the door of the dead, a small door which was traditionally used to take a corpse out of a house. Although not dead, Clare was dying to her privileged life and embracing a life of great poverty.
Francis cut off her hair and gave her a habit and veil to wear. She went to stay at first in a Benedictine monastery. After a few weeks Clare went to another monastery at the foot of Mount Subasio where she was joined by her sister Caterina. Francis eventually sent the two to the church of San Damiano, which he had rebuilt himself. He gave them a basic rule of life to follow. Clare continued to live at San Damiano for the rest of her life. Unlike the Franciscan brothers, her life was cloistered and contemplative. Gradually other women joined them there, including another sister, her mother, several members of the rich Ubaldini family of Florence and her best friend Pacifica.
This group became known as the Poor Ladies of San Damiano. They were also called Minoresses or Poor Clares. Despite the very austere way of life, the order attracted the most beautiful girls from the best families in Assisi. Their day to day life was devoted to prayer, nursing those who were ill and caring for the poor and neglected.
It was usual for monasteries to own property but Clare was given permission not to do so, in the same way as the Friars Minor, as the Franciscan brothers were called. The rule was one of absolute poverty. They did not have beds but slept on twigs with very rough blankets. They begged for food and did not eat any meat. The wind and rain were able to get into their accommodation.
In 1216 Clare became abbess and used her power to defend her order against well meaning attempts by popes to soften their rule of life. She wanted a rule close to that of Francis and the brothers but this was much stricter than was normal for women’s orders. Even the fact that she was ill for many years before her death did not deter Clare from her quest to have her strict rule accepted by the Pope. Finally on August 9, 1253 Pope Innocent IV accepted Clare’s Rule. Two days later Clare died. Her last words are recorded by Sister Filippa: “Go calmly in peace, for you will have a good escort, because He who created you has sent you the Holy Spirit and has always guarded you as a mother does her child who loves her. O Lord, may You Who have created me, be blessed”.
Two years later Clare was canonised and became known as St Clare of Assisi. Ten years after her death, the order she founded became known as The Order of Saint Clare.
Jacques de Vitry wrote in 1216 about the Franciscans and Poor Clares:
“I found one consolation in those parts: many men and women, rich and worldly, after renouncing everything for Christ, fled the world. They are called Lesser Brothers and Lesser Sisters. They are held in great esteem by the Lord Pope and the cardinals. They do not occupy themselves with temporal affairs, but work each day with great desire and enthusiastic zeal … They live according to the form of the primitive Church … They go into the cities and villages during the day, so that they convert others, giving themselves to active work; but they return to their hermitages or solitary places at night, employing themselves in contemplation. The women live near the cities in various hospices. They accept nothing, but live from the work of their hands”
Obviously all Christians are not going to live such radically austere lives as Francis, Clare and their followers did, but it’s good to learn from their example just how much really loving Jesus can change a person’s life. As we follow Jesus we too can expect to be changed.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor