FIOR (Franciscan Institute Outreach - Malta)

3. Writings of St. Clare of Assisi (1)

Basic Background 3.1. Clare of Assisi (1193-1253) can be defined as the feminine expression of the ideals of Francis of Assisi. Her name means "the enlightened one"'. Her life was often seen against the background of the radical Gospel ideals of Francis. It is only in recent times, and particularly since 1953, and during the 8th centenary of her birth in 1993-94, that Clare has emerged as a unique contribution to the ideals of Francis. Clare often called herself "the little plant of the most blessed Francis" (Rule I,3; Testament 37. 49). Her ideals matched those of Francis, but they are the expression of an authentically female approach to the Gospel, and a proof that radical evangelical living is not only the prerogative of male apostolic spirituality. We shall take a brief look at her life, and then proceed to study her Writings, which portray a faithful picture of this unique mediaeval woman whose role as a great mystic rivals that of other great female figures of her age.

3.2. Clare was born in 1193-94, in a noble family, whose house overlooked the cathedral square of Assisi. Her father was Favarone di Offreduccio di Bernardino, and her mother's name was Ortolana. This pious woman was convinced that her daughter would be "enlightened" by God, and hence called her Clare, after being assured of a safe delivery in a vision (Process of Canonization of St. Clare = Proc III,28; Legend of St. Clare = LegCl 2). Clare's childhood years were marred by some sad events, notably the ransacking of the Rocca Maggiore by the Assisi citizens in 1198 and the war between Assisi and Perugia. During these years, when Clare was still a child, the nobility had to flee from Assisi and her family had taken refuge in Perugia. On the other hand, Clare was growing up as an educated young lady, as befitted her noble status. From her mother Ortolana she learned to become a woman of prayer, with a gentle heart, generous towards the poor. These qualities were later to become the salient points of her spirituality.

St. Francis welcomes Clare on palm Sunday at the Porziuncola

3.3. Back in Assisi in the early years of the 13th century, Clare soon became aware of the fresh ideals of Francis and his brothers, who were living down at the Porziuncola. She longed to become a member of the new movement, but she was a noble woman, and her only choice would have been that of joining one of the great monastic Orders for females, notably the Benedictines. An apostolic and itinerant life for a noble woman was not a common thing in the Middle Ages, even though we have ample witness of female movements which harmonised contemplation with apostolic witness and a penitential life, such as Beguines, Recluses, Hermits, etc. (cfr. H. Grundmann, Religiose Bewegungen im Mittelalter, Darmstadt, 1961; Movimenti religiosi femminili nel Medio Evo, (italian translation), Bologna, 1980). After a period of reflection, during which Clare met Francis on some occasions, and most probably with the consent of bishop Guido of Assisi, Clare decided to choose a life of radical evangelical poverty.

3.4. During the night of Palm Sunday (28 March 1211 or 18 March 1212, according to different chronological tables which we shall not discuss here), Clare escaped from her family's home in Assisi and hurried down to the Porziuncola, where Francis gave her the habit of penance at the feet of the altar of the Virgin Mary of the Angels. That same night Clare was escorted to the Benedictine monastery of San Paolo in Bastia Umbra, where she was protected by papal interdict against possible intrusion by her family to take her back home by force . After some weeks Francis transferred Clare to another monastery at the foot of Mount Subasio, Sant'Angelo di Panzo. There Clare was joined by her sister Caterina (Sister Agnese). All attempts by the paternal uncle Monaldo to take back the two girls by force proved futile. Francis then sent Clare and Agnese to the small church of San Damiano and gave them a Form of Life, which is the basis of the Rule of St. Clare. San Damiano was to be the place where Clare lived a cloistered contemplative life, but with great apostolic horizons, until the day of her death in 1253. The first sisters to join her would be called the Poor Ladies of San Damiano. Although compelled to accept the title of Abbess in 1215, a year later Clare asked Pope Innocent III to approve the Privilege of Poverty, by which the Poor Ladies were bound to live without property like the Friars Minor. This Privilege was confirmed by Gregory IX in 1228.

The countryside around Assisi

3.5. We have an important document relating to the early years of the history of the Poor Ladies of San Damiano, written by Jacques de Vitry (c. 1170-1240), who was Bishop of Acre in the Holy Land. This historian was the biographer of the life of Marie d'Oignies, who died in 1213, and a great enthusiast of the Beguine movement in northern Europe. While in Perugia in 1216, after the death of Innocent III, he came into contact with the movement initiated by Francis of Assisi. During the same year, in a letter written from Genova, he states:

3.6. "I found one consolation in those parts: many men and women, rich and worldly, after renouncing everything for Christ, fled the world. They are called Lesser Brothers and Lesser Sisters ("Fratres et Sorores Minores"). They are held in great esteem by the Lord Pope and the cardinals. They do not occupy themselves with temporal affairs, but work each day with great desire and enthusiastic zeal ... They live according to the form of the primitive Church ... They go into the cities and villages during the day, so that they convert others, giving themselves to active work; but they return to their hermitages or solitary places at night, employing themselves in contemplation. The women live near the cities in various hospices. They accept nothing, but live from the work of their hands" (Clare of Assisi. Early Documents. Edited and Translated by Regis J. Armstrong OFMCap, Paulist Press, New York, 1988, pp. 245-246).

Chapel of San Damiano (interior)

3.7. This picture of the first community of Poor Ladies shows certain characteristics worthy of note. Clare and her Sisters were the product of Francis' evangelical initiative. They were so close to the Friars Minor that they were also known by the name "Lesser Sisters". Their way of life was a cloistered one, but not in the style of the old monastic Orders. The cloister at San Damiano was more spiritual than material. Moreover, the Poor Ladies lived close to the cities, and seemingly in close collaboration with the apostolic work of the Friars Minor, of whom they shared the zeal in a contemplative attitude. The Poor Ladies were quite unlike other female religious movements, in the sense that they had no property. The Privilege of Poverty could be seen as the characteristic note of Clare and the Poor Ladies of San Damiano.

3.8. The reason for this insistence upon voluntary radical poverty lay in the fact that the Church was continually insisting that Clare and the Sisters accept a more stable way of life according to the canons of monastic Orders. This would have included property in common. Clare resolutely refused this condition, even when she had to accept a Rule given by Cardinal Hugolino in 1218-19, which was modelled on the Rule of St. Benedict. Again, in 1247, Innocent IV made her accept another Rule, even though it placed the Poor Ladies under the jurisdiction of the Friars Minor. Clare continued to insist, and went even as far as taking the initiative of writing a Rule modelled upon the Later Rule of the Friars Minor. This Rule was finally approved by the Cardinal Protector Rainaldus on 16 September 1252, and finally by Pope Innocent IV himself on 9 August 1253, just two days before Clare died.

The choir used by Clare and the Poor Clares at San Damiano

3.9. The years which Clare spent in San Damiano were marked by the spreading of her movement. In 1219 her sister Agnese was sent to found the monastery of Monticelli, near Florence. Clare's ideals travelled far and wide, especially with the help of the first Franciscan missionaries to northern Europe. In 1234 the Poor Ladies had a monastery in Prague (Bohemia), where the princess Agnes took the penitential habit and began to live in radical poverty according to the style of the Poor Ladies at San Damiano. Four letters which Clare wrote to Agnes of Prague have been handed down to us.

3.10. Clare was frail in physical health. Since 1224 she was always ill at San Damiano. Nevertheless her strong character and youthful spirit never left her. She welcomed Francis, who was blind, at San Damiano in the spring of 1225. There he wrote the Canticle of Creatures. To her and the Sisters Francis directed his Last Will before dying, and his funeral cortege stopped at San Damiano for a last farewell by Clare and the Poor Ladies on Sunday 4 October 1226.

The refectory of San Damiano
(encircled a bouquet of flowers at the place where Clare used to sit)

3.11. Twice Clare saved San Damiano and her Sisters from plundering hordes of Saracen mercenaries, especially in September 1240, through the miracle of the Eucharist which Clare held while praying for her Sisters and the city of Assisi, and again from the troops of Vitalis d'Aversa in June 1241 (Proc III,18-19). The first event was to leave an indelible mark on later iconographical representations of Clare, even though the small ivory ciborium she held on that occasion has often been represented as a post-Tridentine Council monstrance.

3.12. As the day of her death approached, Clare twice received the visit of Pope Innocent IV himself and begged him to approve her Rule. This he did on 9 August 1253. Two days later, on 11 August, Clare died at San Damiano. Her last words are recorded by Sister Filippa, the third witness in the Process of Canonization: "Go calmly in peace, for you will have a good escort, because He who created you has sent you the Holy Spirit and has always guarded you as a mother does her child who loves her. O Lord, may You Who have created me, be blessed" (Proc III,20).

3.13. Just two months later, on 18 October 1253, Pope Innocent IV nominated bishop Bartolomeo of Spoleto to conduct the process of canonization, which was held in Assisi between 24-29 November. On 15 August 1255, the successor of Innocent IV, Pope Alexander IV, who had been Cardinal Protector of the Poor Ladies, solemnly canonised Clare in the cathedral of Anagni, and promulgated the Bull of canonisation "Clara claris praeclara".

3.14. In 1260 the Poor Ladies moved to their new monastery in Assisi, where the church of San Giorgio once stood. They took with them the crucifix of San Damiano and the mortal remains of Clare. After her death her Sisters became known as the Order of St. Clare (OSC).

The urn containing the body of St. Clare

3.15. The tomb of St. Clare was found on 30 August 1850, and on 23 September her relics were exhumed. In 1872 they were placed in an urn in the cript of the basilica, for the veneration of pilgrims. The original Rule of St. Clare with the bull of approval "Solet annuere" was found in 1893.

3.16. We shall now pass on to the Writings of St. Clare. Clare is the author of 4 Letters written to St. Agnes of Prague, a Letter written to Ermentrude of Bruges, the Testament, the Rule and a Blessing.

© copyright FIOR-Malta
Text by Fr. Noel Muscat ofm


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