Accompanied by her chaperone, sixteen year old Clare would sneak off, without the knowledge of her parents, in order to hear the preaching of St. Francis. What attracted this young, wealthy beauty to the teaching of Francis? Why would she exchange the pleasures of a landed and aristocratic inheritance for the shorn hair, sackcloth, barefooted, celibate seclusion of the female Franciscans?
So moved with “Jesus’ love and the joy of poverty,”1 as preached by Francis, Clare is said to have yearned for nothing more than to join his company in the only way permitted women, as a Second Order Franciscan. In pursuit of this goal Clare journeyed to the church of St. Mary of the Angels on Palm Sunday, 1212, where she renounced her life as she had known it, and consecrated herself in service to God. Clare’s father, Count Favorino Sciffi, was quite dismayed, not only because he had intended an important marriage for his daughter, but worse, Clare was soon joined by her sister Agnes. Together Clare and Agnes became the first two women installed as Second Order Franciscan nuns, the ‘Poor Clares,’ as her order was later called.
Francis built an adjacent house to his chapel at St. Damian for Clare and Agnes, who were later joined by their mother and other wealthy friends, including the princess of Bohemia and the king of Hungary’s niece. Ten thousand women eventually followed Clare, perhaps as evidence of the need women had to participate in an organized clergy.
Though the Poor Clares began in the small town of Assisi, by the time of her death Clare would establish branches of the Poor Clares in France, Germany, Rome, and other major cities in Italy and elsewhere. These bare footed sisters, Second Order Franciscans, sought a life of simplicity and poverty, and thereby challenged a church troubled by greed and corruption.
In an effort to emulate the life of Christ, the Franciscans lived in the barest of dwellings, and satisfied their hunger by begging for food. Though food was scarce in San Camiano, Clare and her sisters of poverty continued to follow a most severe ascetic lifestyle, even more so than their male counterparts. So intense was their self-discipline that Pope Gregory offered to free Clare from her rigorous lifestyle with these words:
“Remember that of your own free will you have followed the divine call, that you have enclosed yourself in these poor cells to the end that being free from the tumult of the world, and preserved from the snares of earthly vanity, you may unite yourselves by a pure and holy love to the heavenly Bridegroom, whom you have preferred to all others until he shall introduce you into His eternal dwellings.”2
Clare was resolute in her commitment to a life of absolute poverty, wishing to remain faithful to the vision of ‘holy poverty’ preached by Francis. Clare and her sisters agreed to hold only as much property as needed to grow enough food to sustain their lives. So devoted was she to works of charity that Clare did not keep her substantial inheritance, but gave it away in order to provide for the needs of the poor.
A blend of prayer, meditation, and good works best characterized Clare’s life. The Poor Clares could be found tending to the needs of the ill, washing the wounds of lepers, working the garden, and weaving clothes for the infirm. Francis believed Clare bore the gift of healing, and those over whom she made the sign of the cross were said to have been healed.
But perhaps Clare is best remembered for her servant-hood among the other sisters. She was known to wash the feet of her sisters, to serve those seated at a table, to pull blankets over those fallen asleep uncovered, and to wash the latrine of those taken ill. Clare exhorts she who would replace her to refrain from calling herself abbess, but to strive to lead the other sisters through the servanthood of a mother meeting the needs of her daughter. A leader should always ‘govern’ through example and love, rather than power, dare argued that a mother wishes to be obeyed out of love rather than compunction.
In 1249 her cloister was laid siege by nomads. Clare called to God with these words: ‘Doth it please thee, O my God, to deliver the defenseless children whom I have nourished with Thy love into the hands of these beasts? Protect them, Good Lord.’3 Following Clare’s prayer the intruders were routed.
For more than forty years Clare remained cloistered behind walls, hid from the world. Yet, the world sought her out. She was visited by royalty, by popes, and was frequently in correspondence with those who sought her spiritual guidance. Clare’s profound love for Christ is memorialized in a letter to Agnes of Prague:
His affection holds one fast;
his contemplation is like a breath of new life.
His kindness fills one to the brim;
his sweetness is in overflowing measure.
The recollection of him shines with a soft light.
His fragrance revives the dead…
Now, since he is the splendor of eternal glory
and the brightness of everlasting light
and the mirror without spot (Wis 7:26)
look steadfastly into his mirror every day.
See in it every time you look-
and look into it always-
your own face.4
Clare outlived her precious Francis by almost thirty years, and both suffered physically from the consequences of asceticism. Following the death of Francis, Clare assisted the friars through their transition, and sought to preserve Francis’ ideals.
Did she love Francis? Most certainly these two were the closest of friends, for together they shared a common vision and commitment to Christ, which the hedonism of their world could not understand. Some say that “theirs is one of the outstanding examples of Christianity of a pure and perfect friendship.”5
- Joanne Turpin, Women in Church History (Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1990) p. 102.
- Ruth Tucker, Daughters of the Church. (Grand Rapids; Academie Books, 1987). p. 155.
- Edith Deen, Great Women of the Christian Faith. (Westwood; Barbour and Co., Inc., 1959) p. 42.
- Gloria Hutchinson, Six Ways to Pray from Six Great Saints. (Cincinnati; St. Anthony Messenger Press 1982). p. 29-30.
- Joanne Turpin, op. at., 1990). p. 109