Look into this Mirror
What do you see when you look into the mirror?
Clare saw the reflection of Christ. Her name means clear, unshadowed light. When her mother, Ortulana, was pregnant, she went to pray before the crucifix and heard a voice say, "You will bear a bright light." Clare was that child, born around 1193 in Assisi, in Umbria - a name which means, Shadowland. If you visit Assisi today, you will find the Basilica of St Francis on a spur jutting out at the edge of the town. But Clare's Church is in the heart of Assisi. She belonged to a noble family. Her father was a crusader knight. Her mother, who was a devout woman, had been on pilgrimage to Rome, Jerusalem and St Michael's at Monte Gargano, quite a feat for a woman in that time. Clare had two younger sisters, Catherine, (known later as Agnes), and Beatrix. Her family supported the interests of the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry II, against the Holy See, and as a result of this, she found herself in 1199 a six year old refugee with the rest of her family in Perugia. An amnesty permitted them to return in 1202. She received the education of a gentlewoman, and though in later life she was fond of describing herself as "your worthless handmaid," she wrote it in unmistakably elegant Latin. When Clare was about 12 years old, Francis, a son of that merchant class which had once driven her family out, suffered his bewildering conversion. Clare in her Testament, tells us herself that before Francis had as much as one brother, sang out prophetically in French whilst rebuilding St Damians:
"Come and help me in the work of building the monastery of San Damiano, because ladies are yet to dwell here who will glorify our heavenly Father throughout his holy, universal Church by their celebrated and holy manner of life."
From the Legenda of her life we know that via her kinswoman Bona, she sent food for the brothers who later worked there. Clare's cousin Rufino, regarded by Francis as a saint, was amongst the first friars, and it may have been from him that Francis learned about Clare. But Assisi was a small place; a young woman refusing to marry, refraining form staring out of windows, and spending her time in prayer and good works, was a light on a hill top that cannot be hidden.
Walk in the Light
Francis sought to "capture this noble prize from the world". They met on several occasions - in secret, naturally. On Palm Sunday of 1212, Clare went to Church attired in her best clothes, but when the time came for the distribution of the palms, she did not go forward. Perhaps that was the prearranged signal, perhaps at that moment she was paralysed with fear. Certainly, she understood the meaning of the palm. It is the symbol of martyrdom.
That night she fought her way through a pile of heavy pillars and discarded lumber to a little used door in her palazzo. Some have thought it to have been that door by which the dead alone were carried out, and which, because of superstition, was left otherwise unused. If this was the case, she had made a profound statement that her family could not miss.
In the darkness she ran down the hill to St Mary of the Angels. There, Francis and the brothers waited, with lighted torches; Clare's hair was cut off and she received the poor habit of the lesser brothers, held at the waist by a knotted cord. Then they took her to San Paolo in Bascia, the nearest house of Benedictine women, to have the right of sanctuary. Clare was going to need it. The following morning, her relatives came hotfoot. They tried persuasion, threats, and every means to get her back, "they employed, violent force, poisonous advice and flattering promises," (Legend of St Clare, 9)
Holding delicately to the altar cloth with one hand, she pulled off her head covering and revealed her shorn hair. This palpable argument silenced the opposition. They fell back and left her to it.
When the fuss had died down a little, Francis took Clare to San Angelo in Panzo, which we now know to have been a Beguinage. Here she was joined by her fifteen year old sister, Agnes. And, since there was no protecting right of sanctuary there, her uncle, the head of her family, tried to drag Agnes away. But Clare's prayers prevailed and Francis, hastily summoned, gave Agnes the habit and took them to San Damiano.
Building in Faith
Clare had faith. She had given away her heritage and, though she only had a few companions, she approached the Holy Father, Innocent III, to grant her an extraordinary privilege; the Privilege of Holy Poverty that gave her the moral and canonical right not to be forced to own property. The Pope, more usually inundated with the opposite sort of request, was so stunned that he assented. "We confirm with our apostolic authority, as you requested, your proposal of most high poverty, granting you by the authority of this letter that no one can compel you to receive possessions"!
In 1226 Francis died, and Thomas of Celano, in his first life of St Francis, attributes this lament to Clare and her sisters:
O Father of the Poor,
O lover of poverty,
when we are tempted who will make us strong?
You who every temptation knew,
and well knew how to overcome -
who will comfort us when we are tried?
You were our helper in times of distress
O most bitter going forth,
O most feared farewell,
O most dreaded death
One may wonder what there was to weep over. Clare had organised herself from the first; within a year of her leaving the world, Francis was all set to go to the Holy Land. Practicality was not his forte. Francis was the wing of the Spirit on which they had all flown. At his death Clare must have felt herself to be a bird with a broken wing
The Map of History
The community around Clare grew steadily. The early sources of our Franciscan history make life in the 13th Century sound like a garden of birds and troubadours. In reality it was a bloody battlefield in which the armies of the Emperor waged a semi-continuous war with the forces of the Pope. Assisi was on everyone's marching route. They lived in constant fear, too, of "Tartars, Saracens and other enemies of God and of Holy Church", (testimony of Sr Philippa. 18. Acts of Canonisation) The heirs of Gengiz Khan were sweeping over Europe from the east, and the princes of Arabia rising up from the south. Spain and Portugal were at this time, Moorish protectorates. The Crusades had failed, a fact few were willing to admit. And the last thing the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II wished to do was to wage a holy war.
It was an apocalyptic time. Innocent III, the visionary creator of the "Modern Papacy," was trying to rid the Church of secular intervention and reform the clergy. At the IV Lateran Council he saw himself as the scribe in Ezekiel's Vision, marking the saved with the sign of the Tau, a sign which St Francis appears to have used as his autograph, and which has become a symbol of our order.
And in the midst of this stands Clare, deliberately vowing poverty in a deliberately chosen life of enclosure - a profound paradox.
The dissensions which rent the Franciscan Brothers had begun before Francis had died. It was Clare who was now the focus of Francis' first companions; Leo and Angelo called her "Our Abbess", and the breviary from which Francis had prayed was lodged with the sisters at San Damiano as a symbol of the middle course which in actuality, their Father had chosen. Francis had not wanted to own storehouses, or advise princes, or ride horses, but also, he had possessed a breviary, prayed the Divine Office and been willing to let men like St Anthony, teach the brothers.
The order was divided between some who virtually wanted to own universities, and others, who thought that not even the Pope was allowed to define poverty.
Clare, frail in health, possessing no weapons but prayer, and perpetually enclosed, stood in the middle, in utter fidelity to Lady Poverty. She had her own trials. The order's first Cardinal Protector became Pope in 1227. He loved Clare. In 1220, after celebrating Holy Week with the sisters, he wrote: "My very dear sister in Christ! From the very hour, when the necessity of returning here, separated me from your holy conversation and tore me away from that joy of heavenly treasure, such a bitterness of heart, such an abundance of tears and such an immensity of sorrow have overcome me.... I entrust my soul to you and commend my spirit to you, as Jesus on the cross commended his spirit to the Father ..."
But he also felt it was his duty to look after her. He afflicted her with the Rule of St Benedict, an excellent institution the objectives of which could not even be said to run parallel to those of the Franciscan way let alone converge. Above all Benedict’s Rule sees poverty in a wholly different light; it is also inflexibly ordered. Whereas poverty, is a freeing gift and the poor must adapt themselves to what God gives to them; only the rich can order their days as they please. Houses of the sisters had sprung up in many of the places where the Friars had preached. Some of those to hear the good news were already Benedictine women religious. Not all of these had contact with San Damiano's. Clare's sister Agnes was sent to Monticelli, and, apparently, to several other houses in Italy as a herald of poverty. Clare is also known to have sent sisters to Prague and to Spain. Prague was the home of the most distinguished convert to Lady Poverty: St Agnes, a Bohemian princess who had rejected the hand of the Emperor Frederick II in order to follow her vocation. Before and after the death of Pope Gregory IX, both Agnes and Clare separately entreated the Holy See for a more authentic rule of life. They were not successful. Eventually, around 1250, Clare began to write her own rule. She was the first (and, strangely enough, only) woman to do so. It was presented to Pope Innocent IV as Clare neared her death. The Holy Father was in Perugia, and bringing an entourage of Cardinals, he came to visit Clare. When she begged him for absolution from her sins, he said with tears, “Would that I had as little need of absolution, as you!" Back in Perugia, Innocent signed the confirmation of Clare's rule and a Friar, in haste, brought it to her. She kissed the papal seal many times. Brothers Angelo, Leo and Juniper were among those at her bedside. Clare spoke to her soul, saying,
"Go without anxiety, for you have a good escort for your journey. Go, for He who created you has made you holy. And, always protecting you as a mother her child, He has loved you with a tender love. May you be blessed, O Lord, you who have created me!"
She died on the 11th August, 1253.
Clare of Assisi: Early Documents. Ed. and Trans. Regis J Armstrong OFM Cap. Paulist Press.(Also contains his academic bibliography.)
St Clare of Assisi. Nesta de Robeck. Franciscan Herald Press
Clare her Light and her Song. Sr Mary Seraphim PCPA. Franciscan Herald Press
Clare a light on the Way. Ty Mam Duw. CTS Publications