Saint Clare: A woman with an iron resolve
Known to contemporaries as Chiara Offreduccio, Clare was born in 1194 in Assisi, a small city in the Umbrian region of Italy, the eldest daughter of Favorino Scifi, Count of Sasso-Rosso, a forceful but honest Catholic gentleman. Her lovely mother Ortolana, of the noble Fiumi family from Florence, was conspicuous for her piety and care for the poor.
Clare was an attractive, highly intelligent young woman. Well-educated Clare had a first-rate intellect; her letters exhibit a fine literary style. Young women, even members of noble families, were expected to find work for their hands. She exhibited a great talent for embroidery, examples of which still display the clean artistry of her industry.
Beyond that Clare was a handful. She was as stubborn and single-minded as any man or woman focused on God. Earthly endeavors had no appeal to Clare. From her youth, she desired spiritual union with Jesus above all else — despite pressures to the contrary from family, society, authority, and even the hierarchy of the Church.
Such dedication is disturbing to those who think that docility, meekness, modesty, and humility really mean being fainthearted, submissive, spineless, and cowardly. Courageously resolute saints like Clare have a tendency to disturb people who aren’t. Taking seriously Christ’s declaration that perfection comes by renouncing riches, power, and fame, Clare herself was going to achieve that ideal — come hell or high water.
At the age of 18 she heard the words of a man considered a traitor to his well-born merchant class and her life turned a somersault.
Francesco di Pietro di Bernardone, son of a wealthy cloth merchant, was poking about the tumbledown ruins of a church called San Damiano on the outskirts of Assisi when he heard the voice of God: “Behold My Church has fallen into ruin. Rebuild My Church!”
Francesco, Assisi’s master of revels, left behind the soft arms of his ladies, the gambling tables of his friends, and all his fine clothing. He donned a coarse woolen tunic of “beast color,” the same as worn by the poorest Umbrian peasants. Around it he tied a knotted rope.
Thus attired, Francesco took literally the command he heard, begging for stones from friends and neighbors who were at first sure he’d gone mad. Yet Francesco restored the walls of San Damiano and two other churches aided by men touched by his love of poverty. In time Francesco grasped that God meant him to use human hearts, transformed into living stones and galvanized with love, to rebuild the Church as the reality of “the Body of Christ” on earth.
Pope Innocent III, impressed by Francesco’s humility, allowed him to form his Ordo Fratres Minores, the “Order of Little Brothers,” as beggars and street preachers. Regarding the priesthood as a vocation far above him, Francesco followed the pope’s command that he be ordained a deacon so he could sing the Gospel and preach at Mass.
Now the apostle of “Lady Poverty,” Francesco preached a Lenten sermon in Assisi’s cathedral in 1212. Hearing him, Clare found her heart and soul awash in a deluge of ardent love. She implored his aid to live in poverty, “after the manner of the Holy Gospel.” She wanted to live with women consecrated to Francesco’s vision, sisters prayerfully united with his mendicant brothers, devoted to the love of Jesus.
That Palm Sunday evening she arrived at St. Mary of the Angels, one of the churches Francesco restored. Stepping out of her beautiful gown, Clare bent her head to Francesco who sheared off her radiant blonde tresses. She donned a nun’s woolen homespun habit and quickly fled to a nearby Benedictine convent, a few steps ahead of her father.
The mighty Count Scifi and her uncles banged on the doors of the convent demanding she leave and return home. He intended that Clare should make a fine marriage with a husband from another highborn family.
Her father was adamant. Clare was uncompromising.
Unable to overcome his daughter’s unyielding resolve, the Count at last gave way and left in peace. Clare wanted no one other than Jesus.
The holy Clare attracted other holy women. Indeed, two weeks after Clare’s flight from home, her father was again infuriated when his daughter, Agnes, now also a canonized saint, joined Clare. Their little sister Beatrix followed. Eventually, the girls’ Aunt Bianca sought admittance. After her husband’s death, Clare’s widowed mother came also to join her daughters in Franciscan poverty. She is now honored as Blessed Ortolana Scifi.
Having renounced comfort and wealth, Clare and her religious family lived in crude shelters adjoining San Damiano. “Love Him totally, who gave Himself totally for your love,” she told her sisters. A sturdy wall was soon built and afforded the women a measure of privacy. Originally calling themselves the Poor Ladies, ever since her election as abbess they became known as Poor Clares.
Clare and Francesco planned for the order to be devoted to prayer, begging their bread from whomever would share it. The two friends joyfully discovered Jesus in serving the poor, the heartbroken, the desperately diseased — everyone whom Jesus called “the least of My brothers.”
In 1219, with Francesco away preaching to the Saracens in Palestine, Cardinal Ugolino di Conti, appointed protector of the Franciscans by Pope Honorius III, drew up a rule for Clare’s order, effectually canceling the Franciscan principal of absolute poverty which the cardinal regarded as impractical for an order of women.
The cardinal insisted. Clare resisted.
She and her sisters continued to pray and work as they had. Clare continuing living in her hut, austerely sleeping on a bed of twigs covered with a mat woven out of rope. “Love that cannot suffer is not worthy of that name,” she said. The cardinal gave way.
In 1228 Ugolino, now Pope Gregory IX, came to Assisi to canonize Francesco a scant two years after his death. While there, Gregory visited Clare, again hoping to convince her to be more prudent and accept the rule he’d drawn up. She replied that she was just fine as she was, thank you very much.
Calmly but firmly, Clare explained her position, finally convincing His Holiness that she and the members of her order really could live in Christ-like poverty.
After Gregory died, Clare’s heroic otherworldliness prevailed on Pope Innocent IV. She was finally left in peace to live in holy poverty.
Having stood up to popes, Clare was ready to take on Emperor Frederick II as well. In September 1240, during his on-again, off-again struggle with whomever was pope, a contingent of Frederick’s Saracen mercenaries thought to invade the walled cloister of San Damiano at night to establish a foothold from which to attack Assisi.
With the soldiers scaling their walls, the sisters fearfully sought out the abbess. She was ill but rose from her sickbed. Always devoted to the Blessed Sacrament, Clare brought from the chapel a silver and ivory basket-shaped pyx containing the Sacred Host which she raised on high as she entered the courtyard.
At the sight of her carrying the pyx, the Saracens were suddenly overcome with fear and took flight. This is why Clare is often represented in art holding high a ciborium or monstrance.
The Church celebrates Clare’s life of devoted love on the day she died in 1253, August 11. Like her beloved Francesco, it took only two years for Pope Alexander IV to recognize her
sanctity, canonizing her in 1255. Her body can be viewed in the crypt at the Basilica di Santa Chiara in Assisi, Italy.
Casting about for a patron saint in 1950 for people working the wonder of television, Pope Pius XII recalled how Sister Clare, again suffering from a severe illness one Christmas Eve, was granted a vision of the Mass she ached to attend.
So clear were the proceedings shown on the wall of her little cell, Clare recognized people from the town and later accurately described what they wore — the first instance of high-definition TV, courtesy of God.
While St. Clare of Assisi is now the patroness of all who work in the television industry, the prayerful intercession of the gentle abbess of Assisi who embraced poverty is available to anyone seeking higher goals of spiritual perfection.
Sean M. Wright, an Emmy-nominated television writer, is a Master Catechist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He is also part of the RCIA team at Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in Santa Clarita, CA. He responds to comments sent him at [email protected].