A Light To Illuminate The World: St. Clare of Assisi
Mudslinging, name-calling, murmuring and general detraction…how else could people respond when this charming, affluent, well-loved young man openly disgraced his father, threw away his inheritance—and his future—and started begging in the street wearing little more than a burlap sack? He provided his neighbors with fodder for gossip to last them the year through! Francis was not oblivious to the reaction, but neither was he deterred from his purpose. For Francis Bernardone had been seized by a vision so clear, a reality so hard, a music so beautiful, that the din and dusk of this valley of tears could never hold sway over him again. Francis was determined to follow Jesus Christ, no matter where He led, no matter the outcome, results, or side effects. Losses or gains, pros or cons…Francis meant to follow, and follow he did.
To speak of St. Clare of Assisi, whom the Church celebrates annually on August 11th, one ought to begin with Francis of Assisi. The first interesting thing about Clare is that even hearing all the rumors—and she could not have been oblivious to the domestic drama of her neighbors, the Bernardone’s—Clare, unlike most Assisians, did not gawk at the spectacle; she looked upon Francis and saw Christ. (In case you don’t know the story: Francis went off to war clad like a knight, returned with nothing, ran away from home. His father dragged him back and locked him in the basement; his mom eventually released him. His father brought him to trial and finally, Francis publicly renounced his father in a public exhibition of defiance which included stripping himself of all his clothing. After this he found protection under the bishop and started living a quasi-religious life.) Francis of Assisi was a living Gospel for those who had the eyes to see. Clare Offreduccio had the eyes to see. Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God.
Francis is among the most known and loved saints worldwide, and I suppose there are sundry reasons for his popularity. But if it is imitators, and not just admirers we are looking for, these are far less easy to find. Saint Clare of Assisi was more than a mere admirer of Francis. She proved that when she left home in the dark of night at the age of 18 to throw in her lot with him. It was a radical choice. Sure, religious life was not an uncommon thing in 1212 when the young Clare allowed her hair to be shorn and laid aside her gown, jewels, and basically her whole life. But then, like now, many a family is vehemently against such a choice. And the Offreduccio clan seemed to have an extra dose of vehemence. They tried to forcibly remove Clare from the monastery that was harboring her, and Clare only prevailed after a dramatic unveiling of her shorn head and physically clinging to the altar. She has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.
One reason St. Clare has made a lasting impact on history is because her approach to religious life (which she observed in Francis) was, simply put, the Gospel. She wanted a poor, simple gospel life of a different sort than anything she had seen in the monasteries of her time—until Francis donned his burlap and started to live like the flowers in the field.
Prior to Francis, a person’s status tended to follow him into the monastery. As it was, a person of the noble class in the world was still considered nobility in the monastery. But Francis had no use for rank, nor did he have a structure for it within his mendicant band of merry men. He wanted no status other than to be like a little brother to Jesus and to all. He just wanted to be simple and a servant to all.
Clare, too, wished for a radical departure from worldly status derived from wealth or lineage. Our 21st-century American experience is so far removed from the way social strata worked in 13th-century Europe that just how revolutionary Francis and Clare were could easily be lost on us. Clare Offreduccio, more so even than Francis, had something to give up. While he was in the up-and-coming “merchant class,” she was from a noble family (think: land, power and politics). Yet, she was ready to freely renounce this status, along with the family, the ease of life, and the inheritance that went with it to become the Spouse of the Holy Spirit and heir to a greater kingdom. The King desires your beauty. He is your Lord, pay homage to him.
Not only that, Clare wanted to live a life of ongoing surrender. She was not content to give herself to God on Palm Sunday 1212 and consider it “accomplished.” No, she wanted to live as a perpetual offering to God, like a sanctuary light that burns before the Tabernacle, illuminating His Presence and consumed in the process. She trusted that if she attended to Him and His Kingdom, He would attend to her. She knew that her poverty provoked His Providence. And whether it was the miraculous replenishing of oil, or the multiplication of bread, or the healing of the sisters, friars, and townspeople she prayed over, God revealed His loving providence to her time and time again. Clare was dependent on Him in every way for all things. She lived, and taught her daughters to live, like bread cast upon the water—entirely given, holding back nothing in reserve for self. He emptied himself and took the form of a slave.
Clare was content to take God at His word. He told us not to worry. He told us to ask for our daily bread. He told us to look to the flowers of the field and the birds of the air as examples of how to live. And Clare spent four decades living this way day in and day out. Perhaps the most vivid moment of radical surrender and loving trust was during the invasion of the Saracens in 1240. The lives of many were in the balance, including her own. The ailing Mother Abbess Clare, with the support of two sisters, held the Blessed Sacrament aloft as a defense against the enemy, and she heard the voice of the child Jesus say, “I will always take care of you.” She did not need to hear it; she already knew it. Jesus had always taken care of her, and He always would. If you had the faith of a mustard seed, you would say to this mountain move and it would cast
itself into the sea.
What could be read in the “book” of St. Clare’s life had to be written down for formal approval by the Church, as well, if her daughters were to have the freedom to live the same radical reliance on Divine Providence that she had lived. Ecclesial authority, hesitant and cautious, did not think radical poverty, without property, and dependence upon Divine Providence realistic and “sustainable.” But Clare, with unflagging determination, seems to have prevented her body, long accustomed to obedience, from dying until she received the blessing she sought. The Pope, eager to see the saint before her death, visited Clare at the Convent of San Damiano and did not leave her without granting her desire. The Rule of St. Clare was approved by Pope Innocent IV on the 10th of August 1253; Clare died the following day and was canonized two years later. St. Clare of Assisi was the first woman to write a rule of life for a religious order approved by the Church. She went on her final journey as a child of a Provident Father and left behind her a legacy for her daughters yet to come. “I will always take care of you,” the voice of the child Jesus had spoken to her from the Eucharist. Blessed is she who believed that the promise spoken to her by the Lord would be fulfilled.
Mother Clare, CFR