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Saint Clare of Assisi

Catherine Fournier

Saint Clare of Assisi
Virgin, Foundress of the Poor Clares
Feast Day: August 11
Patron of: Embroiderers, eye disease, eyes,
goldsmiths and gold workers, good weather, laundry workers,
telegraphs, telephones, television and television writers
Symbol: monstrance, woman with a monstrance in her hand.

Young Families

Everyone has heroes that they look up to. Some children think a hockey player or a ballet dancer is really special and want to be just like them when they grow up. Others admire doctors or nurses and begin to work and study so that they can learn medicine too.

Saint Clare had a hero, someone she looked up to and tried to imitate, but her hero wasn't a doctor or a famouse painter, or even a great singer, no, her heroes were Saint Francis and Jesus Christ. Even though she was a girl, not a boy, she wanted to be just like Saint Francis and live the way he did.

In the time of Saint Francis and Saint Clare, it was very strange for men to live totally on alms and the charity of others. It was absolutely unheard-of for women to live in this way. Most women religious lived in convents where they worked to earn money for the order, and farmed to raise food to eat. The order owned land and rented it out to farmers, other convents took in students and were paid tuition by parents.

But Clare wanted to be totally dependant on God, and to spend her time praising God and in prayer. She didn't want to have to spend any time thinking about what she was going to eat or where she was to sleep. Other people could practice the virtue of charity by providing those things for her.

Once Clare got permission from her parents to become a nun, and from Saint Francis to organise an order of women to live in the way Saint Francis and his order did, it still took a few years to begin. She was eventually joined by her sister Agnes and other young women who wanted to be brides of Jesus, and live in this way. Saint Clare and her sisters wore no shoes, ate no meat, lived in a poor simple house and kept silent most of the time. Yet they were very happy.

She was in charge of her order, called the 'Poor Clares' for 40 years.Everywhere that the Franciscans went in Europe, the Poor Clares followed, so that by the time of her death, there were convents all over Germany, Italy and Bohemia. Even before her death, many people were convinced she was a saint. The Pope himself, Pope Innocent IV gave her the last rites and attended her funeral. She went to her final Home, where the Lord takes care of all our needs on August 11, 1253.

Practiced Families

Assisi, the birthplace of the well-known Saint Francis, was also the birthplace of Saint Clare, his friend and spiritual daughter. Born in 1193 from childhood, she desired to consecrate herself to Jesus Christ. After hearing Saint Francis preach in the streets, she arranged to meet him with the help of a pious friend. She confided to him her desire to live for God, and the two became close friends.

On Plam Sunday in 1212, the bishop of Assisi gave her a palm. Clare took this as a sign and she and her cousin ran away from their parent's home in the middle of the night. They went to the Portiuncula where Saint Francis prayed. There, Clare cut her hair and received a penitential habit from Saint Francis.

At first, Francis placed her in a Benedictine convent of nuns, but this was not what Clare felt God had called her for. She persevered in her resolution to live as the Franciscans in total poverty and dependance on charity, despite the opposition of her friends and family. Later her sister Agnes joined her. At this point, Francis moved them to a separate house, where they could begin to live in silence and prayer. Soon after, Clare's widowed mother and several other ladies joined them and united themselves to Clare's way of life.

The foundation of the Poor Clares or the Second Order of Saint Francis was begun. Within a few years, Saint Clare had begun a number of other monastaries and her order had spread throughout Europe. Wherever there were Franciscans, so were there also Poor Clares. They lived in total poverty and simplicity.

Such was the spirit of poverty of Saint Clare, that when she received a large inheritance from her father's estate, rather than using it to secure the future of her order by purchasing a house or land, she gave it all away to the poor. Her trust was total. When the army of Fredrick II was devastating the valley of Spoleto, and were determined to destroy the convent before attacking the town, Saint Clare displayed the Blessed Sacrament in a monstrance at the convent gates and prayed before it: "Oh Lord, protect these Sisters whom I cannot protect now." A voice seemed to answer: "I will keep them always in My care." The attackers fled as fast as they could in sudden fright.

Saint Clare was sick and suffered great pain for many years, but always said that no pain could trouble her, so great was her joy in serving the Lord. Even before her death, she was hailed as a saint.

Experienced Families

The Lady Clare, was born in the town of Assisi about the year 1193. Her mother was to become Blessed Ortolana di Fiumi. Her father is said to have been Favorino Scifi, Count of Sasso-Rosso. There is little information about Clare's immediate family or her childhood.

She was eighteen years old when she heard Saint Francis preaching the Lenten sermons at the church of Saint George in Assisi, an experience which influenced her to change the whole course of her life. Perhaps to avoid an unwanted marriage proposal, she went secretly to see Friar Francis and asked him to help her to live "after the manner of the Holy Gospel." They became friends through these conversations, though neither had any idea of how to carry out Clare's wish.

On Palm Sunday of 1212, she went to the cathedral of Assisi for the blessing of palms. When the others went up to the altar-rails to receive their branch of green, a sudden shyness kept Clare back. The bishop saw it and came down from the altar to give her a branch. She took this as a sign of God's mission for her.

The following evening she slipped away from her home and went to the chapel of the Portiuncula, where Francis and his small community were living. He and his brethren had been at prayers before the altar and met her at the door. Before the Blessed Virgin's altar Francis sheared her hair, and gave her his own penitential habit, a tunic of coarse cloth tied with a cord. Then, since he had no nunnery, he took her at once for safety to the Benedictine convent of Saint Paul, where she was affectionately welcomed.

When relatives and friends found out what Clare had done they came to rescue her. When they tried to drag her away, she clung to the convent altar. Before the struggles pulled the altar cloths completely off, she bared her shorn head, declared that Christ had called her to His service, she would have no other spouse, and the more they continued their persecutions the more steadfast she would become. Finally, they left her, but the struggle was not yet over.

Francisthen moved her to the nunnery of Sant' Angelo di Panzo, where her sister Agnes, a child of fourteen, joined her. This meant more difficulty for them both, and the protest and obstacles from the family renewed. Eventually but Agnes' determination won out and in spite of her youth Francis also gave her the habit.

Sometime later he placed them both in a small and humble house, next to the church of Saint Damian, on the outskirts of Assisi where he had his Order housed. In 1215, three years after Clare had taken the habit, when she was about twenty-two, he appointed her superior of her Order and gave her his rule to live by. She was soon joined by her mother and several other women, making a total of sixteen. They all felt the strong call of poverty, and without regret gave up their titles and estates to join Clare's humble disciples. Within a few years similar convents were founded in the Italian cities of Perugia, Padua, Rome, Venice, Mantua, Bologna, Milan, Siena, and Pisa, and also in various parts of France and Germany. Agnes, daughter of the King of Bohemia, established a nunnery of this order in Prague, and took the habit herself.

The "Poor Clares," went barefoot, slept on the ground, observed a perpetual abstinence from meat, and spoke only when obliged to do so by necessity or charity. Clare herself considered this silence desirable to avoid the innumerable sins of the tongue, and to keep the mind steadily fixed on God.

Saint Francis had forbidden his order ever to possess revenues or lands or other property, even when held in common. He had seen the excesses and abuses that could arise from these kinds of possesions. The brothers were to subsist on daily contributions from the people about them. In following the rule that he gave her, Clare also followed this way of life. When she left home she had given what she had to the poor, retaining nothing for her own needs or those of the convent.

"He who feeds the birds of the air and gives raiment and nourishment to the lilies of the field will not leave you in want of clothing or of food until He come Himself to minister to you for eternity."

Clare governed the convent continuously from the day when Francis appointed her abbess until her death, a period of nearly forty years. In this time, though she occupied a position of power and authority, Clare always worked to serve the rest of her sisters. She served at table, tended the sick, washed and kissed the feet of her lay sisters when they returned footsore from begging. After caring for the sick and praying for them, she often had other sisters give them furthur care, that their recovery might not be imputed to any prayers or merits of hers. Clare would rise in the middle of the night to cover those of her sisters who had kicked off their blankets in the night, and would again be the first to rise in the morning, to ring the bell in the choir, and light the candles. She would come away from prayer with radiant face.

The power of her prayers, the depth of her trust in Christ and the effiacacy of both are illustrated by a story told by Thomas of Celano, a contemporary. In 1244, Emperor Frederick II, then at war with the Pope, was ravaging the valley of Spoleto, which was part of the patrimony of the Holy See. He had many Saracens in his army, and a troop of these infidels came to attack and plunder Assisi. Saint Damien's church and the convent, standing outside the city walls, were their first targets. While the marauders were laying ladders against the convent walls, and beginning to climb them, Clare, who was ill and bed-ridden, had herself carried out to the gate and there set a monstrance containing Sacrament in sight of the enemy.

Prostrating herself before it, she prayed aloud: "Does it please Thee, O God, to deliver into the hands of these beasts the defenseless children whom I have nourished with Thy love? I beseech Thee, good Lord, protect these whom now I am not able to protect." Whereupon she heard a voice like the voice of a little child saying, "I will have them always in My care." She prayed again, for the city, and again the voice came, reassuring her. She then turned to the trembling nuns and said, "Have no fear, little daughters; trust in Jesus." At this, a sudden terror seized their assailants and they ran away.

Shortly afterward one of Frederick's generals laid siege to Assisi. Upon hearing this, Clare told her nuns that they, who had received all support and charity from the city, now owed it all the assistance in their power. She had them cover their heads with ashes and plead with Christ as suppliants for the city's safety. For a whole day and night they prayed with all their might- and with many tears, and then "God in his mercy so made issue with temptation that the besiegers melted away and their proud leader with them, for all he had sworn an oath to take the city."

Clare's life neared its end in the summer of 1253. Pope Innocent IV came to Assisi to give her absolution, remarking, "Would to God I had so little need of it!" Her sister Agnes was with her, as well as three of the early companions of Francis-Leo, Angelo, and Juniper. They read aloud the Passion according to Saint John, as they had read it at the death-bed of Francis twenty-seven years before.

Pope Innocent IV and his cardinals assisted at the funeral of the abbess. The Pope would have canonized her immediately but the cardinals present advised against it. His successor, Alexander IV, canonized her two years later in 1255. Her body, which lay first in the church of Saint George in Assisi, was moved to a stately church built to receive it in 1260. Nearly six hundred years later, in 1850, it was discovered, embalmed and intact, deep down beneath the high altar, and subsequently removed to a new shrine in the crypt, where, lying in a glass case, it may still be seen. Today there are houses of the order in North and South America, Palestine, Ireland, England, as well as on the Continent.


The Tavola of Saint Clare

The tavola is the work of the Saint Clare Master and dates to the thirteenth century. It is a portrait of Saint Clare and the eight insets along the sides depict the most important events in the life of the saint. The tavola should be viewed starting from the bottom left.

Here, we can see Bishop Guido as he hands an olive branch to Saint Clare. This is followed, in order, by the scenes showing Saint Clare being taken in by the friars at the Porziuncola, her taking of the veil and her father's attempt to force her to abandon her intention of taking her vows. On the right is Agnes, who is being held back from following her sister Clare, the scene in which a cross appears on a loaf of bread before the Pope's eyes, the saint on her deathbed and her funeral, which was attended by the Pope.


Prayer:God, in Your mercy You led Saint Clare to embrace poverty. Through her intercession help us to follow Christ in the spirit of poverty and to contemplate You in the heavenly Kingdom.

Sources for the Life of Saint Clare from the 'Franciscan Experience' web site.

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