Saint Clare of Assisi
Sister Moon to Francis’ Brother Sun
Franciscan Founder of the Poor Clare Nuns
“Always be lovers of God and your souls and the souls of your Sisters, and always be eager to observe what you have promised to the Lord”
It would be very easy for anyone, even someone as well known and loved as our Pope John Paul II to be dwarfed by the aura and the presence of the little poverello, St. Francis, to be totally overshadowed by the essence of Francis which continues to cover Assisi. Unless, however, that anyone happened to be Clare, the fairest in the land, the noble lady who gave her whole life over to Jesus through the inspiration of His little messenger on earth, Francis. As Mother Mary is the moon, reflecting the Light of Jesus, so Clare is sister moon, reflecting the light of Francis.
When a pilgrim approaches the great hill of Assisi from the valley of Santa Maria degli Angeli, he cannot help but notice the two largest, most imposing buildings in Assisi. At one end of town, on the Hill of Hell, later renamed the Hill of Paradise, looms the grand tribute to Francis, the Basilica of St. Francis. On the other end of town, somewhat smaller, so as not to outshine the Seraphic Father, rises the Basilica of St. Clare. It was originally called the Chapel of St. George. After Francis’ death, it became his resting place until the grand Basilica was built. Appropriately, it is now the resting place of St. Clare. It’s almost as if they’re looking at each other. As in life, the love of Francis for Clare and Clare for Francis is permanently etched in the skyline of the city, through the buildings dedicated to each of them.
While it’s true that most people do not get to meet Clare until they’ve met and gotten to know Francis, somewhat as if he were introducing you to the most important member of his family, once you have met Clare, you are immediately taken back by her own unique power and spirituality.
Her body has never decomposed, after over 700 years. She is the instrument the Lord used to give us a Miracle of the Eucharist1in Assisi, and is called the patron Saint of television and the airwaves. Clare, do we need you now! The order she co-founded under the tutelage of St. Francis, his second order, the Poor Clares are powerful movers in the Church. One Poor Clare we write about in this book, Mother Angelica of EWTN, strengthened and encouraged by the fact that her mother in faith, St. Clare, was patroness of the airwaves, spreads the Gospel through television around the United States. Sister Briege McKenna of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Clare, uses the airwaves by means of telephone to do the Lord’s healing work. And so, through her daughters, the spirit of St. Clare continues to live on and touch the Church.
But who is Clare? Is she a female clone of St. Francis, or is she her own woman? Why was she able to attract so many followers during her lifetime, and why has her Community of Sisters become so widespread down through the ages? We don’t want to go out of sequence, but later on in the story, we will tell you of an instance where Clare led her ladies on a hunger strike, how she singlehandedly dispersed an army of Saracens, how she was also able to write her own Rule, against all opposition, and how she got her way with Popes and Cardinals. This is just the tip of the iceberg, but it gives some insight as to who she was.
Clare, the fairest in the land
Clare was born of the nobility of Assisi in 1193. At that time, Francis was about twelve years old. He had not yet started any trouble in Assisi. There was a great distinction in those days placed on those who were nobility, and those who were rich. They were not always the same people. Clare’s family was noble; Francis’ family was rich. The nobility always looked down on the rich as being beneath them, while the rich knew they could very often buy and sell the nobility, but really wanted to be part of the club.
Clare had two sisters, Agnes and Beatrice. Her mother was Ortolana, and her father Faverone Offreduccio. There is not too much known about Clare’s childhood and teenage years, but we see a similarity between Clare and Francis even as youths. We learn that Clare was a good and spiritual young girl, even before she gave her life over to Jesus through Francis. She was obedient to her parents, caring for the poor, loving to others, very unlike many young women of her station. Francis was a good boy. But he was a normal young man, involved in the world and its attractions. He loved to party. He learned to play five instruments. He wore the best clothes. He had to have the best suit of armor and horse to go off and fight in the wars. His conversion was not so much from evil to good, but from the treasures of the world to the treasures of the Gospel, from materialism to poverty for the love of Jesus. And so it was with Clare.
The first accounts we have of Clare are when she was eighteen years old. Her father had died; her mother was in charge of all the Faverone girls, under the guidance of their uncles, led by Monaldo. At that time, young women carried a high price in the marriage market. Not that they were actually bought and sold, but marriage partners were arranged based on the attributes of the girl, and the wealth of the boy’s family. Very often, marriages were negotiated during the childhood of the bride and groom. This was not the situation, however, in Clare’s case. She had a mind of her own. She was breathtakingly beautiful. She had long blonde hair, which just added to her value as a highly desirable wife in the marketplace. Clare was determined not to marry, though she did not know why. The Lord had touched her heart from childhood. He was to be her spouse. But it would take someone she respected to make this known to her. While her mother and uncles tried to interest her in various young men, she kept asking about the di Bernardone boy, Francis, who was thirty by this time.
Clare and Francis
Possibly the only thing the nobility and merchants in Assisi agreed on was the anger that rose up in them when they heard the name of Francis di Bernardone. To their way of thinking, he had disgraced his family, and stolen from his father to give to beggars and lepers. He must surely be crazy. To add to their indignation, many of the sons of the nobility of Assisi kept flocking to Francis, joining him in his insanity. They were spellbound by him. They had left their homes, given their possessions away, and donned the heavy, coarse sack cloth tunic that Francis wore. There were families in Assisi who would have liked to wring Francis’ neck.
Clare knew the reaction she would get from her relatives every time she mentioned Francis’ name, but she couldn’t help it. She found him so fascinating! What he had done, and what he was preaching was so contrary to anything she had ever heard before. She had known him over the years. She most likely bumped into him from time to time, lowering her eyes as he passed by. She may have witnessed the public trial Francis’ father had subjected him to, when Francis took off all his clothes, gave them to his father, and proclaimed from that time, God was his father.
Clare had never spoken to Francis. She had to meet him! One day, she chose to go out walking on the very road she knew he would be taking. They met. Francis had known of her since she was a child. Hers was one of the few noble families living in Assisi. Francis could see in Clare that very special quality that Jesus would use some day. When their eyes met, the heavens opened up and the Holy Spirit entered into them. They could not break the fixed look. They gazed into each other’s souls. Finally, Francis spoke to Clare. “You will have to know how to die.”
Clare looked at him questioningly, and perhaps a little apprehensively. Never taking her eyes off Francis, she pleaded, “What do you mean?”
Francis replied, tenderly, “On the cross with Christ.” She still did not understand what he meant, but felt an unexplainable excitement surge through her. His words remained with her. She could not get them out of her mind. She met with him frequently over the next few months, listening in awe as Francis shared the overpowering love he had for Jesus and the Gospel life. He impressed on Clare the dignity and beauty of a girl like her, giving herself over to Jesus as a spotless virgin, to be His bride. His words were like arrows of love from the Lord penetrating her heart, burning her with an insatiable desire for more.
She went to the Church of San Giorgio1for a Lenten service. Francis spoke that evening. She was inspired by his powerful witnessing of the Gospel life; lifted up by the joy he transmitted in his poverty; and drawn to the Living Jesus so visible through him and his words. There was such a light in his eyes, a fire in his voice. She went to him after the service. She knew she, too, was being called to live the life of the Gospel. She asked him to help her achieve that goal. They planned for her to enter the Community on Palm Sunday.
The next Sunday was Palm Sunday. Clare went with all the young ladies of Assisi to the Palm Sunday services at the Cathedral in Assisi. The Bishop conducted the liturgy. As part of the Mass, after the readings and homily, the Bishop blessed and distributed palms to the faithful. The entire congregation filed up to the altar to receive them. The young unmarried girls of Assisi, of which Clare was a part, were to be last in the procession. They rose from their seats, resplendently outfitted in the latest Spring fashions, and glided up to the altar to receive the palms; all, that is, except Clare. She remained in her seat with her head down. She wasn’t sure what she was doing, or why she was doing it. Her thoughts must have been running amuck; Was she being holy, or shy? She honestly did not know. She just knew that was what she was supposed to do. The Bishop noticed her absence at the altar, as did the whole town. After presenting all the young girls with blessed palms, the Bishop rose, and walked over to where Clare was seated. He blessed her and placed a palm in her hands. Then he returned to the altar to continue the Mass. Clare just sat there looking down, her palm branch clutched to her heart. What had happened to her? She had been touched, and would never be the same.
That same Palm Sunday evening, Clare left her home for the last time, exiting through the Door of the Dead1, which signified a complete break with her family. Waiting for her at the door of her house was her faithful friend, Pacifica Guelfuccio. They walked together through the woods, to Santa Maria degli Angeli, where the Portiuncola2was located. At that time, it was almost a forest, with the Chapel in the middle. Francis had built little huts around the modest little church. Two of the friars were waiting for Clare and Pacifica. They led the girls through the brush, the thorns on the bushes ripping away at their good Palm Sunday clothes. Finally, they arrived at the Portiuncola. Before presenting Clare to Francis, Pacifica removed all Clare’s jewelry. She replaced Clare’s delicately embroidered Palm Sunday dress with a coarse habit, tied at the waist with a cord. Clare stepped over the gown that had fallen to the ground and out of her shoes, to a new walk and a new life.
Clare was brought before Francis. He was versed in the proper procedure for receiving a woman into a Religious Order. We have to believe the Bishop was aware of what was about to happen because one of the friars, Fr. Sylvester, stood in as his delegate. Francis asked Clare, “What do you want, my daughter?” She knelt before him while he sheared her magnificent blonde hair from her head.1He then placed a coarse piece of woolen cloth over her head. Being very proper, Francis brought her to stay with the Benedictine Sisters of St. Paul in Bastia, until he could set up a convent for her. Meanwhile, Pacifica left and went home. We believe she told the family what had happened to Clare.
Uncle Monaldo to the Rescue
As soon as word got out that Clare had run away to Francis, war broke out. The uncles, who had sworn to protect the daughters of Faverone, gathered as one, with Monaldo in charge, and stormed the Portiuncola. When they found that Clare had been moved to the Benedictine convent of St. Paul in Bastia, a short distance from Assisi, they converged on that place. They yelled; they threatened; they cursed; but trying to get into a cloistered convent is like trying to get into the Pope’s apartments, almost impossible.
Monaldo saw he was getting nowhere, so he changed his tactic from anger to syrupy sweet. He only wanted to be sure of his niece’s well-being. If he could just speak to her, he and his men would go home. Clare finally acquiesced, with the provision the church would be the meeting-place. Monaldo and his men left all their weapons outside, before entering the church. They saw Clare, as she stood at the altar, her hand clutching the altar cloth. This was a clear symbol that she was under the protection and asylum of the Church. Monaldo was aware of this!
At first, he spoke softly and sweetly to Clare. He tried to hide his displeasure. He had planned a very suitable marriage for Clare, and she was not interested. His focus was to get her out of this place at all costs. When it was obvious his sweet tact was not going to work, he resorted to anger again. He and his men began tugging at Clare. At one point, the cloth was pulled halfway off the altar. But she resisted, and prayed to Jesus, Mary, the Angels and Saints to protect her. It was as if all the legions of Angels were called down from Heaven, with St. Michael in the lead. No matter how hard Monaldo or his men tried, they could not pry Clare loose from the altar. Finally, she removed the woolen cloth from her head. They saw that her hair had been cut off. They were shocked; to them she was dead. She looked at them for a moment, then turned and disappeared inside the cloister. They were never to see her again.
But we have not heard the last of Uncle Monaldo. A few days later, Francis moved Clare from Bastia to the Convent of Sant’ Angelo di Panzo, on the hillside of Mount Subasio, right outside Assisi. Each day, her sister Agnes would go to visit Clare there. She was struck by the happiness she saw in Clare. It was as if this were not her sister, but someone else living in Clare’s body. Clare shared how all the things they had been taught to hold onto so dearly all their lives, were meaningless. The only thing that meant anything was the love of Jesus. Agnes was so overcome with the change that had taken place in Clare, she decided to stay with her and become a follower. She sent word back to her family that she would not be returning.
Uncle Monaldo went into a rage! This was too much! It was one thing with Clare. She had been possessed by Francis; but she was eighteen, old enough to go crazy if she chose. But Agnes was only fifteen years old! She was still under her guardian’s supervision. Since the death of Agnes’ father Faverone, he, Monaldo, was in charge of her well-being. He would have none of this! So he gathered together a little army. How many soldiers would they need to bring back one girl! They went to the Monastery of Sant’ Angelo di Panzo. They found Agnes outside, walking around the grounds. They grabbed her and managed to drag her away from the Monastery. Agnes called out to Clare to help her, but Clare appeared oblivious to all that was going on. Agnes could see Clare was in plain view of her abduction, but she was not lifting a finger to help her.
Monaldo’s soldiers dragged Agnes through the dense forest; the thickets slashing away at her body, the branches pulling at her blonde hair. Whole strands of hair were ripped out of her head. She actually left a trail of blood and blonde hair all the way down the hill. Finally, out of pain and exhaustion, she collapsed. The uncle, not really caring about the well-being of the girl, but more interested in beating out Clare and especially Francis, shouted out to his men to pick her up. They would drag her home! Two soldiers stooped over to pick her up, but she would not budge. It was as if she were weighted down with lead. They tried again, to no avail. Finally, Monaldo, overcome with anger, raised his arm to strike her. It became paralyzed in mid-air; he cried out a blood-curdling scream, so excruciating was his pain. The soldiers scattered, fearing they had gone too far against Our Lord Jesus. Monaldo also ran off, never to return.
Very calmly, Clare followed the trail of blonde hair and blood left by her sister, to the place where she had collapsed. She bent down, and gently picked up her sister. All the cuts and bruises left Agnes. She was completely relaxed, remembering nothing of what had happened. It was as if she had just awakened from a peaceful sleep.
The Convent of San Damiano
Francis moved the ladies again, this time to the grounds of the Church of San Damiano. This was a very special place for him, as it was here the Lord spoke to him from the Cross, telling him to “go out and repair My Church, which as you can see, is in ruins.” Clare knew how important this church was to Francis; what a sacrifice it would be for him to give it away to her, because once she and her ladies moved in, Francis would be hesitant about coming back again. It was his own rule. He made a point of keeping a very respectable distance from Clare and her ladies. For her part, Clare stayed at the Convent of San Damiano for the rest of her life.
If there had ever been any doubt as to the sincerity of Clare’s vocation, if anyone had thought she did it for the love of Francis, they had but to visit the Poor Ladies, as they were called, in their convent of San Damiano. When we visit there today with pilgrims, it seems charming and romantic, but we wouldn’t want to live there. It has been repaired extensively since the time that Clare and her ladies took it as their refuge, and still, you wouldn’t want to do more than visit. Clare was used to the finest. It’s not that she was haughty or spoiled; she just never knew anything other than luxury. Here was the total other end of the spectrum, and she longed for it. While Francis wanted to embrace poverty, Clare was determined to be poverty.
Before very long, Clare attracted women from all over Italy, indeed, from all over Europe. Many of them were from well-to-do families. This was the amazing thing about it. The more austere Clare’s Rule was, the more she attracted ladies from nobility. The ladies wore no stockings or sandals at any time of the year. They lived in the worst possible conditions at San Damiano. They had no beds. They slept on twigs, with patched hemp for blankets. There were cracks in the ceiling of the upper floor of the convent, which served as sleeping quarters. Wind and rain seeped through the openings. They ate very little, no meat at all. But whatever they did eat was food they begged for. Clare made sure that she fasted more than anyone else. If the meager amount of food the extern Sisters1brought home was not enough to feed all of them, Clare made sure the other Sisters ate, and she fasted. Once, while Francis was still alive, he and the local bishop had to order Clare to sleep on a mattress, and take at least some nourishment every day.
Despite this way of life, or maybe because of it, the followers of Clare were the most beautiful young girls from the best families in Assisi. In the same way that Francis’ life had attracted the young men of noble families, Clare’s did the same. More and more girls came to San Damiano to visit, never to leave again. Her best friend, Pacifica Guelfuccio, who had gone with her that first Palm Sunday evening to Francis, could not stay away. She had returned home for a time, but found she had to be with Clare and Agnes. The better 14
families in Assisi stood guard, in an attempt to keep their daughters from running off in the night, to join Clare and her companions.
When Clare’s family realized that neither she nor Agnes were about to return to their old way of life, their mother Ortolana, gave away all the beautiful things she had collected for her daughters’ dowries. She took off her sandals, left their beautiful home near the Church of San Ruffino, and joined her daughters in poverty at the Convent of San Damiano. True to her name, ortolana meaning lady gardener, she took care of the gardens at San Damiano.
Clare’s influence on young women didn’t end in Assisi, either. Young ladies from noble families in Florence, and ultimately, all of Italy came to join her. They began to arrive from different parts of Europe. Convents cropped up in France and Germany. Blessed Agnes, the daughter of the King of Bohemia, came to Assisi for a time, to learn under the instruction of Clare. Then she went back to her homeland to begin a Poor Clare convent in that country. She took on the personality of Clare so much that Clare referred to her as “my half self”.
The way the Lord works is so beautiful! Francis loved Jesus so much he wanted to emulate Him in all things. Clare loved Francis and the Jesus she saw in Francis so much, she wanted to be like him in all things. Francis did not want her to imitate him, but the Jesus in him. He was afraid Clare might mistake Francis for the Jesus she saw in him. Francis was not Jesus. Clare was not Francis. The Lord used the individual, unique qualities He had given each of these two children before they were born. Therefore the Jesus they projected to the world was completely different, One from the Other. The end result was two distinct role models of Jesus, in the form of Francis and Clare. Francis gathered thousands of followers about him. For her part, Clare embraced and touched thousands of followers that Francis might not have been able to touch. But through the two of them, Jesus was the One who touched His children. Thus when Blessed Agnes was referred to as “my half self” by Clare, Agnes was reflecting the love of Jesus that projected from Clare. She was a completely different person, who then gathered her own little chickens under her wing. An ardent follower of St. Clare, Mother Angelica of EWTN, once taught her Sisters, “Show me one Saint who imitated another Saint to become holy. You can’t, because you can’t be somebody else and be a Saint. You must be yourself imitating Jesus.
“You never read that Jesus remade His apostles. He never sat down and told them, `Now, Peter, you’re impulsive and blustering. You must become someone else.’ No, Our Divine Lord used what He found in their individual natures and worked from there - grace building on nature”1
Clare was extremely wise for her age. When the Order of Poor Clares was formed, Francis suggested Clare for the Superior. It made sense in that she had been the first member of the Order, and her sister Agnes, the second. Clare refused the position for three years, however, until she reached twenty-one years of age. So we have to remember that this great movement had for its beginnings, a teenage leader. But she had the wisdom and love of a woman of much greater years. A perfect example occurred when her mother entered her Community. Here was a daughter who had to be responsible for the spiritual and physical well-being of her own mother. She never lauded it over her mother, however, but treated Ortolana with such tenderness and love, it became an extension and sign of the mother she was to all her ladies. She watched over them as they slept at night. She tucked them in when their bedclothes became undone. She washed the feet of the externs when they came in at night from begging for bread and provisions. These women were her priority for the forty years she was Superior of the community. She took to heart the words of Jesus, “Whoever aspires to be a leader must first serve the others.”
The Woman Clare
Clare was a woman, undeniably a holy woman, and a committed woman, but in the final analysis, a woman. Two instances in her life bring that point home very clearly. While it’s true that Francis was only the catalyst Jesus used to bring Clare into His bosom, there was that attraction. Both she and Francis knew their relationship would never transcend the spiritual and platonic. But it seemed that as soon as Clare joined Francis’ band of disciples, she was cut off from him completely. Francis’ reasoning was sound. He did not want even the slightest hint of scandal to shadow his movement, or that of the Poor Ladies, as Clare’s group was called. That was good, but Clare felt the need for the teachings of Francis for her own spiritual nourishment, as well as that of her ladies.
Clare was locked away in her little Convent at San Damiano, while Francis traveled about spreading the Gospel. She understood they were called to different walks, that she was to pray and he was to preach, but she had a problem in that he always stayed away from her and her ladies. This one day in particular, when she heard that he had returned from a trip and was at Santa Maria degli Angeli, she sent word with his friars, asking to share a meal with him. Francis refused. Even his followers thought he was being too hard on Clare. They told him,
“Father, it does not seem to us that your way of acting accords very well with charity. Clare has given up all the riches of the world; she is a choice plant in your spiritual garden. Why then do you not wish to make her happy in so little a thing as allowing her to have a meal with you?”
In his heart, Francis knew they were right. He really looked forward to being able to share with Clare. He decided, however, rather than going to San Damiano, he would have Clare come to Santa Maria degli Angeli. He felt it would be good for her to get out. So Clare and one of her ladies went to visit him. First she went into the Portiuncola to pray; then Francis took her on a tour of the little community that had been built there. She had fond memories of that Palm Sunday evening when she first went there to join Francis.
They went into the woods. Francis laid out the meager bread and water dinner on a stone. But before eating, they began to pray. They were so filled with the Holy Spirit that the entire area became illuminated. There was so bright a light, it could be seen for miles around. Townspeople thought there was a fire in the woods around Santa Maria degli Angeli and came running with buckets of water to put out the flames. When they arrived, they saw Francis and Clare, with their two companions, deep in prayer, covered by a brilliant aura. After their prayer was over, the light went out and the townspeople dispersed. Clare and Francis stood up, spiritually filled, never having touched one drop of food.
The second instance took place some time later. It was very dramatic, in that Clare got her Italian up. Francis went back to his old ways of staying away from the ladies at San Damiano. He would come from time to time, but only to peek in the door. He wanted to be sure they were living up to their vow of poverty, which they were. But he never gave them any spiritual direction, never talked about the Lord, nor shared on the joy of living the Gospel life. Clare felt deeply that she and her ladies needed this. She had never regretted trading the luxuries of her life for the way of the Gospel. If there was not enough bread to eat, she could handle that. If there was no wine, that was better yet. But there was a great need for spiritual food. She could not allow her ladies to be deprived of this. Francis, on the other hand, felt the need to turn Clare and her ladies completely over to the Lord. To add fuel to the fire, he instructed the brothers who brought provisions to San Damiano, not to speak to the ladies of spiritual matters, only their physical needs. Clare felt it was time for action. She and her ladies went on a hunger strike. They would not accept any more food or oil from Francis. She told her ladies, “If we are to be deprived of our spiritual nourishment, we will be able to manage also without their material help.”
When word got back to Francis of Clare’s decision, he immediately moved into action. He went over to San Damiano to speak to the ladies. They were all excited having their spiritual father there to share with them. Francis was somewhat ill-at-ease. They formed a circle around him. They waited for his words. He meditated for a few moments. Then, filled with the Spirit, he spoke words that touched their hearts. The more inspired he became, the more beautiful the words that flowed from him. Then he went into a deep silence, after which he left them. He had not stayed with them long, but that short period was so powerful, the ladies were in Paradise on earth for days. Clare said a prayer of thanksgiving to Our Lord Jesus for coming through once again, with this most special gift.
Clare gave up all material possessions gladly. But one of the most difficult things for her to give up was her beloved Francis. Because of his lifelong goal of spreading the Gospel and saving souls for Jesus, he abused and mistreated his body, which he called Brother Ass. It took its toll after he had received the Stigmata, the 18
five wounds of Jesus, on Mount Alverna in September of 1224. He lived for two years with this gift from Our Lord, but they were to be the most painful he would ever suffer.
The End of the Beginning
During late Spring of 1225, Francis went to the Convent of San Damiano to be nursed by the Sisters. He thought it would be acceptable, because he was considered a “Crucified Christ.” He was almost blind. He described the pain in his eyes as “great splinters of glass scratching against his pupils.” He suffered in his sides, hands and feet from the Wounds of Jesus. His internal organs were disintegrating; his stomach ulcerated from fasting, and his spleen destroyed by fatigue. When he arrived at San Damiano, though it was bright daylight, he groped as if he were walking in the dark of night. Clare met him and gently helped him inside. While he allowed them to minister to him inside the Convent, he would not sleep there. A small hut was set up on a balcony, outside the upper room, which is called today, the balcony of the Canticle of the Creatures.
He never told the ladies how he suffered at night, when all God’s creatures, whom he loved so much, bit at his toes, and crawled all over his open sores. But one morning, as Clare went to see how he was feeling, she heard him singing a Canticle to the Creatures.
Most High, Omnipotent, Good Lord.
Thine be the praise, the glory, the honor and benediction.
To Thee alone, Most High, they are due,
And no man is worthy to mention Thee.
Be Thou praised, my Lord, with all Thy creatures, above all Brother Sun,
Who gives the day, and lightens us therewith.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor,
Of Thee, Most High, he bears similitude.
Be Thou praised, my Lord, of Sister Moon and the Stars,
In the heavens Thou has formed them, clear and precious and comely.
Be Thou praised, my Lord, of Brother Wind.
And of the air and the cloud, and of fair and of all weather,
By which Thou givest to Thy creatures sustenance.19
Be Thou praised, my Lord, of Sister Water,
Which is much useful and humble, precious and pure.
Be Thou praised, My Lord, of Brother Fire,
By which Thou has lightened the night,
And he is beautiful and joyful, robust and strong.
Be Thou praised, my Lord, of our Sister Mother Earth,
Which sustains and hath us in rule,
And produces divers fruits with colored flowers and herbs.
We have to believe that the most difficult period in Clare’s entire life was this year and a half, between the time Francis visited the convent of San Damiano and that fourth day in October, 1226, when she lost him completely to God. The Lord gave the Franciscan Community a special gift in allowing their father in faith to linger for those last two years. They were able to brace themselves for the inevitable time when he would die.
It was a mixed blessing for Clare, also. She knew from the time he staggered blindly away from San Damiano, that it was just a matter of time. But no matter how much time the Lord may have given her to adjust to the fact that he would die, it was not enough. When Sister Death closed in on Francis, Clare felt as though her heart were being ripped out of her body. Her whole world crumbled. She was inconsolable.
Word came from Santa Maria degli Angeli that Francis had been brought there from the Bishop’s residence in Assisi. Francis knew he was dying; he wanted to be near the Portiuncola for the end. Clare had to be with him. But because her own life of fasting and austerity had taken a toll on her health, she, too, was closer to death than life. It was a touch-and-go situation for a while, as to who would die first, Francis or Clare. For that reason, he sent word back with one of the friars that she was not to come to visit him. Instead, he sent a blessing for Clare and her ladies. With it there was a prophecy.
“Let her (Clare) know that before she dies, she and all her Sisters will see me again and receive great consolation from me.”
Her Sisters were consoled. Clare was thankful to the Lord for this ray of hope that she would see him again. But seeing him once more was not enough! She wanted time with him. She wanted Francis alive! She needed the little poverello who had been her Jesus on earth. The journey to their dream had gone so fast. It couldn’t end this way! But it did. She wished she did not have to set an example at this time. She wanted to be a normal woman for just an hour, instead of a Mother figure. She wanted to run out, away from San Damiano, over to Santa Maria degli Angeli. She wanted to cradle Francis in her arms; she wanted to bathe him in her tears; she wanted to take away his sickness; she wanted to make him better. She knew the Angel of Death was coming to take her Francis Home to the Father and she did not want him to go, not yet! She wanted to stop Francis from dying! But she couldn’t. The Lord mercifully gave her the gift of illness, which kept her a prisoner of her thatched bed, on the upper level of the Convent of San Damiano. Her Master Jesus saved her from her own desires. He cried with her, by her side, as she unleashed all the sorrow in her heart, crying uncontrollably, without stopping, until she heard the sound of the funeral procession coming to the front of the Church of San Damiano. The body of Francis was brought into the church.
Francis had promised Clare she would see him again. Now he was lying dead on a stretcher. Half the town of Assisi was in attendance. This was not what she wanted. She wanted to be with him; she wanted to talk to him; she wanted to listen to his voice. But that was not the gift the Lord gave her. This was her gift. She accepted it. She stopped crying. She opened the Grille. The creaking sound of metal grinding against metal ripped through the silence of the church. Everyone focused on the lone figure emerging from behind the enclosure. She walked over to the stretcher. Before her was her love, her role model, the instrument the Lord used to change her life. He was broken. The body was frail, gray, lifeless. A cold chill blew through the church, richocheting off the walls. Francis’ hair was tossed by the wind, as was his tunic. It was the only movement on his body. Clare looked at him. For a moment, she thought he had blinked his eyes, but it was the wind. Then the wind died down, and Francis was still again. She bent over and kissed his wounded hands, his feet and side. She painfully rose and took a long last look at him. She tried to memorize every inch of him. It would have to last her twenty seven years. She turned and disappeared behind the iron Grille, among a sea of Sisters, weeping and moaning the loss of their spiritual father. Clare never looked back. Francis had kept his promise.
We can’t say that Clare stood firm on the Rule of her Community because of loyalty or in memory of Francis, who was now in Heaven with the Father. She had always been true to her call, maintaining her position, uncompromisingly, even while he was alive. But we can say she became a ramrod where the Rule of Poverty was concerned, for the rest of her life. It’s very possible this was to keep alive the dream of Francis, of which she was an integral part, and which so many were trying to tear down. Perhaps her insistence on her Community not owning any property, not accepting money under any conditions, was her way of telling the friars “This was the way Francis wanted it to be.”
With Francis physically parted from her, she turned her focus to the two most important things in her life, keeping alive the dream of Francis through the Rule he had started, and shaping the Second Order of St. Francis into the truest representation of his vision. She was tough, but in an elegant way, so that while she would not bend in her beliefs, Cardinals and Popes believed she was doing them a favor by their giving in to her demands. Rules were written for the Poor Ladies. She rejected them. It was inconceivable that a Community could exist without some form of property, she was told. The friars were accepting property! Clare said no! That was not the Rule Francis wrote, and she would not accept it. Everyone backed down from her, but the final Rule, the one she waited for, fought for, didn’t come until two days before she died. She was so determined, she even made the Lord wait to take her to Paradise until she got what she wanted.
Miracle of the Eucharist of Assisi
She was firm in the face of adversity. The famous incident, which we call the Miracle of the Eucharist of Assisi, took place at San Damiano in 1241, twelve years before Clare died. The catalyst that the Lord used to bring about this miracle was a German prince, Frederick II of Swabia. There is a tradition that Frederick was born in Assisi at the same time as Francis, and was baptized on the same day in the church of San Ruffino. The Pope had treated this Frederick very well, being sure he was brought up comfortably, affording him every courtesy. The young German repaid his kindness by turning on the Pope and the Church, waging a war against them, and the people of the Umbria. He had visions of an empire that would spread itself from Assisi down to Sicily. To this end, he recruited a band of Saracen (Arab) mercenaries to be his army. Reinforced by his band of merciless cutthroats, Frederick proceeded to march against Assisi.
The convent of San Damiano stood between the troops of Frederick II and the city of Assisi. The fact that there was a group of virgin nuns in the convent was particularly appealing to the Saracens, who hated Christians, and had a lusty appetite for Caucasian women. They proceeded to attack the Convent. Clare was sick in bed at this time. Her ladies rushed to her, crying, in a state of panic. What would they do? Could she protect them from the attacking soldiers? One of the Sisters ran into the room to report that she had seen soldiers in the fields close to the convent. A general state of alarm broke out.
Clare had two Sisters help her up out of bed. She went to their little Chapel, and removed a Monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament. She held it in her hands, pressed her head against it, and prayed to the Lord. She walked to the large open window facing the courtyard below. She spoke to the Lord, and He answered her. She implored, “Protect, Lord, these your servants, that I now, by myself, cannot protect.”
A very sweet voice, that of a young child, answered her, “I will take care of you always.”
Clare added another prayer. “My Lord, protect also, as it pleases you, this city that by your love supports us.”
The reply she received was, “It will have to go through suffering, but it will be defended by my protection.”
Strengthened by these words, Clare turned to her Sisters, who were terrified by the prospects of the attack of the feared Saracens. “I guarantee you, my daughters, that you will not suffer any evil. Only have faith in Christ.” She took the monstrance and held it high in the air.
The advancing Saracens froze in their tracks at the courtyard of the Convent. They looked up at Clare, at the Monstrance in her hand. Petrified with fear, as if they could recognize the God Who was there, they turned and ran, fleeing from the convent of San Damiano, leaving Clare and her Sisters in peace. The next day, the people of Assisi were pleased, but astonished that the Saracens had not attacked their city. Survival not conquest, uppermost in their minds, the invaders had left without ever setting foot in the town.
The Hot Cross Buns
Penny has a great devotion to St. Anthony of Padua, another Franciscan, another Doctor of the Church. She becomes downright embarrassed when the only reference people can make to this extremely Powerful Man in the Church is as the founder of lost articles. But a friar in Padua once told us that St. Anthony has no problem being called upon to find lost things. “That’s how he hooks you,” we were told. After he finds something for you once or twice, you have a desire to know more about this Saint. That’s when St. Anthony gets his greatest followers, helping them to find the Jesus he wanted them to know in the first place.
In light of that, I’m willing to tell the story of St. Clare and the Hot Cross buns. After reading this chapter, no one can accuse me of making Clare’s claim to fame the fact that she instituted the Hot Cross buns.
Pope Gregory IX came to Assisi for the Canonization of St. Francis. He had stopped at the Convent of San Damiano, but wanted to go back one more time before he left Assisi. So, early one morning, bringing his cortege of Cardinals with him, he made the trip out of Assisi to the humble Convent of the Poor Ladies.
When the Sisters of St. Clare heard that their Pope was coming, they decorated the church and choir stalls with garlands of flowers. Everyone was truly in a festive mood as His Holiness entered the Convent. All the Sisters, including Clare, were in rapt attention, their eyes and ears riveted on the Holy Father, eager to hear what he had to say. But he knew he was in the presence of a Saint; he wanted to hear her speak. Clare obediently shared with the Pope and all present, the glory of God, and the virtues of the new Saint, Francis. As the Holy Spirit filled them through Clare, they became lost to time, and before they knew it, it was noon.
Clare knew the Pope and his Cardinals could not get back to Assisi in time for lunch, so she invited him to join them in their extremely humble fare of stale bread. We really believe the Pope was honored to be able to live the Gospel life with these selfless ladies, if only for this brief time. He joyfully accepted their hospitality.
The hard pieces of bread were placed on the table. Clare asked the Pope to bless the meal. He asked her to bless it. Out of humility, she said she was a sinner, and could not possibly bless the bread, especially in the presence of Christ’s vicar on earth. The Pope had no problem with that. He ordered Clare to bless the bread. She closed her eyes, raised her arm, and blessed the bread with such reverence, not a sound could be heard. When she was finished, a gasp of amazement escaped from all present. A large cross had formed on each piece of the hardened bread. Although it has not been chronicled anywhere, we have to believe that bread was the most delicious anyone had ever eaten.
St. Clare of the Airwaves
We would like to share one other of Clare’s experiences, which is recounted in the Fioretti, the Little Flowers of St. Clare. It is the foundation for the title she was given, Patron Saint of the Airwaves. It took place on Christmas Eve, 1252, the year before she died.
Clare was too ill to go to Midnight Mass services with her Sisters. She was too feeble to get out of bed. She lay there, her heart breaking as she was to be deprived of our Lord Jesus in the Eucharist on this special night. Her thoughts brought her back to the time in Gubbio, when Francis made the first Nativity Scene, after which all Nativity scenes in the future would be fashioned. Christmas had always been a joyous time for both Clare and Francis. She missed not having him with her on earth, but especially at this, so important a time.
She looked about the bare room that served as the sleeping quarters for the Sisters. Suddenly, there was a great light in the room. She could hear the sounds of Christmas hymns being sung at the great Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. She felt herself being lifted out of her bed. The cool breeze of the December night brushed across her face; she was transported to the church amidst what sounded to her like the voices of angels. She could smell the sweet fragrance of burning candles, and altar incense. She was taking part in the Midnight Mass at the Basilica.
Then she was whisked off to the east, to the Bethlehem of 1200 years before. She was brought down to the cave where the Infant Jesus was born. St. Joseph and Mary were there, in the company of the animals whose cave the Holy Family shared. Our Lord Jesus came to her as a grown man, and placed the Sacred Host in her mouth. Then she was transported back to the convent of San Damiano in Assisi. When her daughters in Christ came back upstairs from the Church, their joy was overshadowed by the great sorrow they felt because their Mother had missed the beautiful service. She smiled weakly. Her face was flushed, but not from the illness. She told them of her experience, and how the Lord Himself had given her Communion. They sat by her bed listening and smiling. As they all fell off into a peaceful Christmas slumber, the soft, distant sound of angels singing Gloria in Excelsis Deo could be heard.
Clare was tired. She missed Francis. It had been twenty-seven years since she had seen him. She wanted to go Home. But she had her obligation to her Sisters. She could not leave them until the Rule was finally cleared up. Towards the end of 1252, Cardinal Raynaldus, the Protector of the Poor Clares, visited Clare on her sickbed, and gave his verbal approval for her Rule. She had been fighting for years, and now, she wanted so desperately for the struggle for her Rule, to be over. But this verbal approval from the Cardinal was not good enough. She could not leave her ladies with this. She needed official word from the Pope, himself. So she held onto life, praying that the Pope’s “yes” would come before Sister Death.
Our Lord Jesus knew with whom He was dealing. If He were to call her home without the Rule being accepted, she would only insist that she come back to earth to get the final approval. So He waited for her, while she waited for the Pope. It’s been said that those last months were the most physically excruciating for Clare, but the most spiritually rewarding. Her soul seemed to be ready for the journey Home. Her only concern was not receiving the approval of her Rule before she died. She feared that her ladies would not be strong enough, nor have the influence she had to fight for it. Inevitably, the Lord came to her rescue. Why not?
The Pope, Innocent IV, moved his court from Perugia to Assisi. Possibly a worldly reason for this was because the Upper Church of the Basilica of St. Francis was almost completed, and was ready to be consecrated. That may have been the Pope’s reason, but not the Lord’s. More likely, He did not want Clare to be pestering Him when she arrived in the Kingdom. So He brought the Pope to Clare. Pope Innocent went to visit this lady whom everyone had already proclaimed a Saint. She asked two favors of him. The first was absolution of all her past sins, which he gladly granted. The second was for her Rule to be approved, as she had written it. He gave her that assurance also. But Clare needed it in writing. She wanted his Papal Seal on it. The Holy Father assured her it would be done. This meeting took place during the first week of August.
Clare held out. It took all she had, and all the ministering of the Holy Angels to keep her on earth much longer. Her Sisters stayed by her side day and night, weeping, because they knew it was just a matter of time before she would leave them. Clare could hardly speak. She prayed with her Sisters, but could barely be heard. On August 9, word got back to the Pope, who was staying at the Basilica of Saint Francis, that Clare would die momentarily. He had promised her the approval of her Rule before she died! Hurriedly, he wrote a note on the Rule, bypassing the normal chain of command, and stated the reasons why he was doing it. He gave it his formal approval. It was brought over to Clare on the tenth of August, and she kissed it, praising God for answering her prayer. The next day, August 11, she died.
As tough and hard as Clare was, when it was called for, she was also that tender and sensitive. Although she was always firm in following the Rule, which was strict in itself, her reasoning, and pleading with her Sisters to be true to the Rule was always out of love. It’s sad that most of what she wrote has not survived her. She put her very soul, and all the love she had for her Community, into everything she wrote. The Rule she wrote, which was finally accepted at the eleventh hour, two days before she died, is a compilation of her life and her values. In it, she reaffirms her staunch loyalty to Francis, and his original Rule. She insists on that loyalty from anyone who would succeed her, and anyone who would carry on the Poor Clare tradition anywhere in the world. In addition, she focuses on her Community, and the all-important need to do everything from a sense of love of God and one another.
It’s very interesting and exciting to read the Rule of St. Clare, in that it is so multi-faceted. Her love for Francis is obvious; no one can deny it. Her obedience to the Monastic tradition of the day is spelled out. And yet, the underlying love of her Sisters smacks of the spirit of the Monastic reforms of Vatican II. One might wonder if the authors of this section of Vatican II didn’t get some of their wisdom from the Rule of St. Clare, written some 700 years before.
Again we see an example of Infused Knowledge, given directly by the Lord. Although Clare was an intelligent woman, she was by no means a theologian. Nor was she trained in the workings of a Community, or how to deal with women. We can’t chalk it up to instincts, because there’s nothing in Clare’s background that would indicate the enormous ability she had to parent, even to the extent of parenting her own mother.
As Jesus said to Peter, “Blest are you, Simon son of Jonah! No mere man has revealed this to you, but my Heavenly Father,” we say the same of Clare. As in the case of sisters to follow, Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila, Clare was taught directly by God. The knowledge was infused. She is a personification of the words of Mother Mary in the Magnificat, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for He has done great things to me, and holy is His Name.”
Clare is a role model for all women in headship, not exclusively of the Church, but especially of the Church. She may very well have been placed on this earth to be a prototype for Superiors of Religious Communities, male and female, for centuries to come. Clare could easily be the standard bearer for anyone who would lead a community of people, whether it be a Religious Community, as Superior, or a country, as President, Dictator, or King. And her philosophy was not new, or complicated. It was simple. “Love one another as I have loved you.”
Miracle of the Eucharist of Assisi - described in detail in Bob and Penny Lord’s book, This Is My Body, This Is My Blood, Miracles of the Eucharist.
Church of San Giorgio - This is the church where Clare’s decision to follow Francis was made. It is also the church where Francis was buried for two years, and where the incorrupt body of St. Clare is kept today. The Basilica of St. Clare is built on this spot. The original little church of Saint George is still there.
Door of the Dead - A door which was kept closed except when a dead person was taken out of the home. It is somewhat higher off the ground than the entrance door.
Portiuncola - little portion - a dilapidated chapel owned by the Benedictines, which was given to Francis and his followers for the rental of a bucket of fish per year.
All these items, her dress and blonde hair have been miraculously preserved and can be seen today in the Basilica of St. Clare in Assisi.
Extern Sister - A member of a cloistered religious community who was given permission to go outside the cloister to handle matters of the community. In Clare’s case, the externs went out and begged for food.
About the Authors:
Bob and Penny Lord are renowned Catholic authors of many best selling books about the Catholic Faith. They are hosts on EWTN Global Television and have written over 25 books. They are best known as the authors of “Miracles of the Eucharist books.” They have been dubbed, “Experts on the Saints.” Many of the ebooks are now available at Smashwords.com.