Clare of Assisi (1194-1253) was one of the most influential women in the early medieval period of Roman Catholic church history. A follower of Francis of Assisi, Clare founded her own order, the Poor Clares, based on his tenets of charity and humility. She is thought to be the first woman in the history of the church to write her own rule, or guidelines for the religious life of her order.
Of Noble Italian Birth
Clare was born Chiara Offreduccio di Favaronne in Assisi, a hillside town in central Italy, in July of 1194. She was the eldest daughter in an affluent, landowning Umbrian family that had links to the Roman nobility of the past. Her father was Favorino Scifi, count of Sasso-Rosso, and her mother Ortolana also hailed from an aristocratic lineage. Growing up, Clare lived at both her family's villa in Assisi and a castle on the mountainside of Mount Subasio. She was likely schooled at some point, for the writings that survive her display a good grasp of Latin.
Clare was said to be a devout, pious child from an early age, but her family planned an advantageous marriage for her, and she resisted. When she was 18, she heard Francis of Assisi preach and was deeply moved by his words. He had come back to Assisi, his hometown, to preach Lenten sermons at the church of San Giorgio. Twelve years her senior, Francis hailed from a well-to-do cloth merchant family, but a stint in the army and a year as a prisoner of war in Perugia caused a religious awakening, and he became an ascetic. By the time Clare heard his sermons, Francis was called "Poverello" and was known throughout much of Christian Europe. His Franciscan order, founded in 1209, was the first mendicant, or beggar, order in Europe, created in what was then a radical attempt to follow Christ's teachings. It followed a verse from the Gospel of Matthew, which counseled, according to Butler's Lives of the Saints, "Freely have you received, freely give… . Do not possess gold … nor two coats nor shoes not a staff… . Behold I send you as sheep in the midst of wolves." Unlike other monastic communities, some of which were quite wealthy in land, the Franciscan communities were forbidden to own any property or worldly goods.
Desiring to join such a community herself, Clare sought out Francis, and according to her official church biography, went to Mass at the Assisi cathedral on Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter. Instead of joining the queue to receive the palm leaf—an act that recalled a biblical incident in which Christ entered Jerusalem and to welcome him, believers cut boughs from trees and tossed them in his path— Clare remained in prayer, and the bishop then reportedly went to her and placed a palm in her hand. She was said to have fled her father's home that night, on March 20, 1212, with the help of her aunt Bianca and another woman. They met Francis, as arranged, at a small chapel called Porziuncula that served as the spiritual home of his order, and Clare made her vows before him and accepted a rough brown tunic as her habit and a thick veil.
Francis first sent Clare to live with a community of Benedictine nuns in San Paolo, near Bastia, and at one point her relatives—it is thought that her father may have died by this time—learned of her whereabouts and attempted to bring her home by force. She resisted, however, reportedly clinging to the altar and declaring she would be the bride of no other except for Christ. While staying at another Benedictine monastery in Panzo, she was joined by her younger sister Agnes. Soon Francis found them a substandard dwelling next to the chapel of San Damiano, and with this Clare established with him a women's religious community that she called "Order of Poor Ladies;" it later became known as the Poor Clares. The order was unusual in that its first members were women from well-to-do families, inspired by Clare's devotion. Daughters of the famed Ubaldini family of Florence were among some of the first postulates.
Reputation Spread Across Europe
Against her objections, Francis made Clare abbess of her order in 1215, and she is believed never to have left the San Damiano abbey for the 40 years between then and her death. Another sister, Beatrix, also followed her there, as did her widowed mother and aunt Bianca. Like Francis's Friars Minors order, her idea swiftly spread throughout Italy and beyond, and several other communities of Poor Clares were founded. As abbess, she was known for the rigors of her penance and often fasted so drastically that she became sick; during the forty days of Lent, for example, she took only bread and water. The Poor Clares did not sleep on mattresses, rather on homely beds fashioned from twig and hemp and went barefoot at all times. They begged for food, never ate meat, and refrained from all unnecessary speech. "The foundress recommended this holy silence as the means to avoid innumerable sins of the tongue," noted Butler's Lives of the Saints, "and to preserve the mind always recollected in God and free from the dissipation of the world which, without this guard, penetrates even the walls of cloisters."
Clare was determined that her order should live as Francis's community of friars, without assets or land, subsisting only on daily charity. This was a radical proposition for religious communities in the early Middle Ages, for many possessed large estates that they farmed to survive; others took in students or made crafts that they then sold for subsistence; the Franciscan tenet believed that such work distracted them from fulfilling their religious vocation, to serve God. Clare's order had no formal written rule, or constitution, in its early years, save for a brief one written by Francis. In 1219, the Poor Clares came under the protection of Cardinal Ugolino when Francis joined one of the Holy Crusades, and Ugolino drew up a rule based on that of St. Benedict. It did not, however, contain the injunction for absolute poverty—instead allowing for the possession of common property—and Clare objected to this; the Clares were a cloistered order, and Ugolino believed it impractical that the women should go begging. Nevertheless, it was approved by Pope Honorius III that year; after several years of her entreaties, Clare won her case. On September 17, 1228, Ugolino, now Pope Gregory IX, granted her order the Privilegium Paupertatis, or "Privilege of Poverty." It was the first such decree kind issued by a pope and read in part: "It is evident that the desire of consecrating yourselves to God alone has led you to abandon every wish for temporal things… . Since, therefore, you have asked for it, we confirm by Apostolic favour your resolution of the loftiest poverty and by the authority of these present letters grant that you may not be constrained by anyone to receive possessions. To no one, therefore, be it allowed to infringe upon this page of our concession or to oppose it with rash temerity."
In his later years, when Francis was blind and ill, Clare was said to have constructed a small hut for him at San Damiano, where he wrote his "Canticle of the Sun." She herself carried out less of the penitential punishments for which she was known in earlier years. In writing to Agnes, daughter of the Bohemian king and founder of a Poor Clares community in Prague, she cautioned the abbess to be less drastic in her own mortifications, "so that living and hoping in the Lord you may offer Him a reasonable service and a sacrifice seasoned with the salt of prudence," Butler's Lives of the Saints quoted her as writing to Agnes.
Famously Repelled Looting Army
Clare lived during a tumultuous period in Italian history, and in 1234 San Damiano's walls were transgressed by soldiers in the army of the Holy Roman emperor, Frederick II. Clare was ill in bed but reportedly rose and went to the window with a ciborium, a chalice-like vessel that was used at the time to house the Eucharist. She was said to have raised the ciborium at the soldiers—some of them Saracen, or Muslim—who had mounted a ladder, and they fell over backwards and fled. Because of this story, Clare is sometimes depicted holding this object in artistic representations. She also repelled another attack, it was said, a few weeks later by prayer, reminding the sisters that the city of Assisi had nourished them through charity, and they owed it to render assistance in return in the form of prayer. She was a revered figure in Assisi, and reports that she was near death caused Pope Innocent IV to visit her on her deathbed. She died on August 11, 1253, in Assisi and was said to have uttered as her final words, according to Butler's Lives of the Saints, "Go forth in peace, for you have followed the good road. Go forth without fear, for He that created you has sanctified you, has always protected you, and loves you as a mother. Blessed be thou, O God, for having created me."
Clare was canonized two years later by Pope Alexander IV. Clare's remains lie in the church of Santa Chiara in Assisi. Her feast day is celebrated August 12, and some 750 years after her death, there are roughly 20,000 members of her Poor Clares order in 76 countries. They still live by the rule that she wrote, which stated that they live only by charity. Some communities are known as "urbanist," after an allowance by Pope Urban IV in 1263 that allowed some of them to possess land if they so chose. There were other reforms enacted in the fifteenth century under the direction of St. Colette in France. Clare is the patron saint of embroiderers, eye diseases, goldsmiths and gold workers, laundry workers, telephones, television, and television writers.
Butler's Lives of the Patron Saints, edited and with additional material by Michael Walsh, Harper & Row, 1987.
Butler's Lives of the Saints, edited, revised, and supplemented by Herbert J. Thurston and Donald Attwater, Christian Classics, 1981.
Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume IV, Robert Appleton Company, 1908, Online Edition, 2002.
America, September 24, 1994.
Commonweal, April 22, 1994.
Ecumenical Review, April 1994.