Sometimes obscured by the reputation of her mentor Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Clare was an innovator and hero of the faith in her own right. While initially inspired by the convictions and teaching of Francis, Clare went on to develop her own wisdom in interpreting the Franciscan life, as seen in the distinctive guidelines she wrote for living the monastic life. Her drive to live out her ideals led her into conflict with family and with popes.
Clare’s early life is fairly well known due to the personal witnesses called during the church’s canonization process in 1255 and by the biographies First Life in 1228 and Second Life in 1246 by Thomas of Celano.1 Born in 1194, Clare di Favarone came from a well-known and aristocratic family in Assisi of central Italy.2 Her name was chosen from a prophetic dream of her mother’s, who learned of the birth of “a certain light which will make the true light shine forth all the more clearly.”3 Clare’s mother, Lady Ortolana, was devout and spiritually aware, taking pilgrimages to the Holy Land and developing a reputation for caring for the less fortunate.4
While she was reared in a wealthy family, Clare’s childhood was not always serene. In 1198, the Assisians rose up against their foreign rulers, attacking the fortress where the family of the emperor lived. Subsequently, years of war between families and cities followed until Perugia, the rival city of Assisi, defeated Assisi in 1202.5 Clare’s family voluntarily lived in exile in Perugia during those years rather than live under the influence of the rebels of Assisi.6
As Clare became an adolescent and her personal spiritual quest developed, she resisted the many marriage opportunities that became available.7 Clare most likely had contact with Francis during her childhood; her cousin was an early follower of Francis, who converted in 1206.8 Clare’s conversion was noted by Francis as occurring five years after his own, and they had regular contact during the interim. Whether he or she initiated the meetings was disputed by witnesses, though there was greater weight that she initiated the friendship.9 Clare made her decision to leave her family and join Francis in living the gospel life some time prior to her flight during the night of Palm Sunday, 1212. Francis was assured that she had
committed herself wholly to his guidance, considering him to be, after God, the director of her steps. Now her soul depended on his admonitions, and she received with a ready heart whatever he spoke to her of the good Jesus. . . . And “counted all things as dung” which the world esteems that she “might gain Christ.”10
The impact of her decision was more radical than we may understand. Clare did not flee to a monastery where there was a female order, though there were some in the vicinity. She met companions of Francis who took her to the church of St. Mary of Portiuncula where Francis met them. It was he who consecrated her to the Lord, though he was still a layman; it was customary for a bishop to consecrate virgins. The cutting of her hair, or tonsure, was a liturgical act done by Francis. She then presented herself, accompanied by Francis’s companions, to the rich and influential Benedictine monastery, San Paolo delle Abbadesse, as a poor woman. Her dowry had already been disbursed to the poor, so her arrival was that of a servant, not that warranted by her family’s social standing.11
Her extended family was scandalized by her actions and attempted to remove her physically from the monastery after verbal threats proved ineffective. After she revealed to them her shaved head, her relatives were convinced of her decision and let her be. Not only was the scandal the manner of her departure, but also that the dowry meant to secure marriage had been “wasted.” Being from a noble family, she had chosen to join the following of a lower-class rebel against the class system. The ultimate disgrace was to enter seclusion as a servant.12
After time spent in another monastery, Clare moved on to a house near the church of San Damiano. By this time, several women had joined her, Clare’s two sisters and mother included. San Damiano was significant in the Franciscan movement because it was here that Francis had heard the call to repair the church and had gathered his first followers.13 The Poor Ladies of San Damiano were not yet a formally organized order. Clare had committed herself in obedience to Francis, and he was the personal director of the women, having drawn up guidelines for his followers to live by.
With the gathering of the 1215 Fourth Lateran Council and the resulting mandate to such informal groupings that did not live under a specific rule or by authorization of a bishop, a need emerged for further organization. The choice of rule at the time was either the Benedictine, resulting in monasticism, or the Augustinian, resulting in a canonical life. In choosing a rule to follow, the women’s community would also be choosing a male order to provide spiritual care for them, which many orders were reluctant to supply.14 Francis desired that Clare take the position of abbess. This was distinctly different from other informal communities whose lead woman was called prioress, still submitting to the priest in charge. The title abbess placed the group within the Benedictine tradition. Clare’s nuns would have autonomy and power similar to that of the richer monasteries (which San Damiano certainly was not like.)15
While accepting the position reluctantly, Clare desired to ensure that the order remain unique in its choice of a life of poverty. She requested of Pope Innocent III that the Poor Ladies of San Damiano be recognized as having the “privilege of living without privileges.”16 The document Privilege of Poverty, the pope’s response in 1216 to Clare and the other women, confirmed, “. . . with our apostolic authority . . . your proposal of most high poverty granting you by the authority of this letter that no one can compel you to receive possessions.”17
This ruling, written in response to Clare’s request, is the oldest papal document that speaks of any Franciscan community. It authorizes for the first time that a church community was not obligated to receive possessions as gifts (which was a normative practice for the period). For Clare, this was “the very secret of her community, that which defined her uniqueness and her vocation.”18 Living the gospel in this new way meant sharing a life in common, working with one’s own hands, and choosing poverty. In spite of the community’s commitment to living without possessions, church hierarchy continued to offer endowments or yearly revenue to them. The implications of their continual refusal conveyed the rather radical belief that the church was not responsible for them—God was. The people of the locale would be used of God to help provide for them.19 The later Pope Gregory IX, having prior to the gain of his position been an enthusiastic supporter of the Poor Ladies, renewed the privilege of poverty in 1228. Clare followed up by requesting that it be extended to other monasteries that were beginning to take on this way of living.20
As abbess, one of Clare’s primary goals was seeing that her own written rule, an interpretation of the vision she shared with Francis, be approved. This was important to ensure that the rule continue to be used after her death. During Clare’s forty-year tenure, five different rules were given to the community from the church hierarchy, yet each did not include the important aspects of poverty and maintaining the unique relationship between the Poor Ladies of Saint Clare and the Franciscan brothers. After thirty-seven years of being the abbess, she put into writing her rule that she had lived and fine-tuned over that time. She was the first Western woman to do so.21
The tone of the Rule of Saint Clare was full of joy, emphasizing the value and contribution of community that was distinctly different from that of male rule writers. In contrast to warnings of austerity, Clare writes with gratitude of living the vocation. The value of the community in important decision-making was impressive. Clare actually limited the power of the abbess by having the sisters elect eight of their group whose discernment she was to use in matters affecting their form of life.22 Early hints of implementation of the priesthood of believers can be found in her reason for consulting weekly with the sisters, both on monastery matters and to confess to one another, “for the Lord frequently reveals what is best to the least among us.”23 The abbess was to be “the servant of all the sisters,” and Clare lived up to her mandate.24 The sisters were to confess at least twelve times each year, in comparison to the more usual seven times.25
The rule included descriptions of the nature of the relationship between the Poor Ladies and the Friars Minor, with a designated Visitator, Chaplain, and companion. After Francis’s death in 1226, Pope Gregory IX forbade the friars to enter Clare’s monastery. Clare, in response, refused to accept material food supplies from the friars, since they were not providing spiritual food as Francis had promised they would do. The pope soon relented.26
Only a small quantity of Clare’s writing with a firsthand account of her spiritual values has been found. It consists of her rule; four letters to Agnes of Prague, who was forming an order similar to Clare’s; a Testament; a Blessing; and one other letter to a sister.27 In the letters of advice to Agnes, Clare provides the clearest picture of her spiritual life. The gospel life begins with an understanding that one is called, loved, and gifted. This discernment draws one to have a passion for returning to Christ the love that one has received. The follower returns Christ’s love by living in continual conversion, chastity, and constancy. These attributes are not negatives, but free one up to love unreservedly. The passion for this love is maintained and sustained by contemplation, poverty, and community.28
Committed to the vision of living the gospel as preached by Francis (defined as an intimate relationship with the poor and crucified Christ),29 Clare was known as being “the most authentic Franciscan” ever.30 She persistently lived a life of poverty that was more demanding than Francis’s and perhaps served as an example to him. In contrast, over time, the friars were living less and less as Francis had.31
Though confidant and colleague to Francis, his death twenty-seven years prior to hers meant that her life could not be one of dependence on him. She was more than “the little plant of St. Francis,” as she has been referred to historically. In her living out the Franciscan ideal, she was the primary person to determine what the ideal looked like in practice. She added her own experience and wisdom to that ideal and became an innovator in living the religious life.32 Two days before Clare’s death in 1253, she received final confirmation in a visit from Pope Innocent IV that her rule was accepted in her form.33 In frail health and near the end of her life, Clare shared her love for her sister in the Blessing. Taking from Scripture, she mentioned “the intercession of all the saints” and then added “and all the women saints.” Clare felt a special bond with the women with whom she had shared her life, a spiritual unity of living the gospel life. At her death on August 11, 1253, Clare was surrounded by the sisters with whom she lived and the first three companions of Francis, coming full circle.34
Clare of Assisi began her spiritual journey by fleeing from her given life circumstances to take on new and radical living circumstances. Not content to follow the usual passage into a monastery, she chose to align her life with a man who never became a priest, whom some called crazy. Living in an informal community of women, she took the authority given to her to transform it even more into the ideal of the gospel, as she understood it. Not intimidated by church hierarchy, she sought to have her wisdom, gained from years of religious experiences, affirmed and made permanent after her death. Today, Clare still serves as an example of a spiritual life lived in sacrificial and joyful love to Christ.
- Marco Bartoli, Clare of Assisi, trans. Frances Teresa (Quincy, IL: Franciscan, 1993), 10.
- Kathleen Jones, Women Saints: Lives of Faith and Courage (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999), 91.
- Gabriel Reidy, “St. Clare of Assisi” in Spirituality through the Centuries: Ascetics and Mystics of the Western Church, ed. James Walsh (New York, NY: P. J. Kennedy and Sons, n.d.), 144.
- Karen Karper, Clare: Her Light and Her Song (Chicago, IL: Franciscan Herald, 1990), 30, 34.
- Regis J. Armstrong, Clare of Assisi: Early Documents (New York, NY: Paulist, 1988), 11.
- Karper, Clare: Her Light and Her Song, 42.
- Bartoli, Clare of Assisi, 28.
- Reidy, “St. Clare of Assisi,” 145.
- Bartoli, Clare of Assisi, 39.
- Karper, Clare: Her Light and Her Song, 73.
- Bartoli, Clare of Assisi, 43–46, 49.
- Jones, Women Saints, 93.
- Bartoli, Clare of Assisi, 58.
- Bartoli, Clare of Assisi, 68.
- Bartoli, Clare of Assisi, 69–71.
- Bartoli, Clare of Assisi, 73.
- “The Privilege of Poverty of Pope Innocent III (1216),” in Armstrong, Clare of Assisi: Early Documents, 84.
- Bartoli, Clare of Assisi, 74.
- Carol Lee Flinders, Enduring Grace: Living Portraits of Seven Women Mystics (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1993), 26.
- “The Privilege of Poverty of Pope Gregory IX, 1228,” in Armstrong, Clare of Assisi: Early Documents, 103.
- Flinders, Enduring Grace, 34–35.
- Flinders, Enduring Grace, 34-36.
- “The Rule of St. Clare 1253,” in Armstrong, Clare of Assisi: Early Documents, 67.
- “The Rule of St. Clare 1253,” in Armstrong, Clare of Assisi: Early Documents, 73.
- Reidy, “St. Clare of Assisi,” 153.
- Flinders, Enduring Grace, 27.
- Armstrong, Clare of Assisi: Early Documents, 25.
- Benet A. Fonck, To Cling With All Her Heart to Him: The Spirituality of St. Clare of Assisi (Quincy, IL: Franciscan, 1996), 3, 5.
- Fonck, To Cling With All Her Heart to Him, 7.
- Reidy, “St. Clare of Assisi,” 149.
- Armstrong, Clare of Assisi: Early Documents, 27–28.
- Armstrong, Clare of Assisi: Early Documents, 10.
- Jones, Women Saints, 96.
- Bartoli, Clare of Assisi, 187–88.