ST. CLARE: FIRST WOMAN FRANCISCAN,
FIRST WOMAN FRANCISCAN SAINT
1193 – 1253
It all began with Clare beautiful young daughter of Count Faverone Offreduccio and Countess Ortolana di Fiumi. When her mother was pregnant with her she was praying before the crucifix for a safe delivery when she heard a voice assure her, “Do not be afraid, for you will joyfully bring forth a clear light which will illuminate the world. “This is why her mother named her CHIARA or Clare which means “Clear light” and why she had always known the fate of her daughter.
One of Clare’s earliest biographer said that the century Francis and Clare were born in was one of darkness because the eye of faith had grown dark. “But,” she wrote, “God sent Francis, the resplendent Sun of Assisi and then Clare, a most luminous lamp for all women.”
Her Early Life
It’s hard to believe that a beautiful rich girl would give up everything we consider to be the “good” life for a life of extreme poverty and penance.
Yet this is what Lady Clare born Claire Scifi of the noble Offreducci family in Assisi, Italy in 1194 did. Profoundly impressed and deeply moved by the Lenten sermons of St. Francis in 1212 that portrayed his deep spirituality she was inflamed with a love for the poor and suffering Christ that she secretly begged the astounded Francis to take her under his wing and allow her to follow in his footsteps living “after the manner of the holy gospel.”
Convinced of her sincerity and earnestness in her desire to leave all things of Christ, Francis met her surreptitiously and gave her the spiritual counseling and guidance she ached for.
After a year on March 18, 1212 on Palm Sunday (she was by now a mere eighteen years old) Clare secretly left her comfortable home and presented herself to Francis and his companions. But it was not to Francis she went to. He merely provided the meeting place and the means for her assignation which Christ. She came to consecrate herself to the Lord at the Porziuncola, St. Francis’s headquarters outside Assisi.
Snip, snip – off came her beautiful long hair. Swish, swish – off cam her luxurious fine clothes and jeweled belt which she exchanged for – of all things – a coarse tunic of sack cloth with an unglamorous common rope with knots in it as a belt.
Becomes First Woman Franciscan
Before Francis and his band of followers Clare took the vows of the Franciscan order thus making her the first woman Franciscan follower of II Paverello (the poor one) and the founding moment of the Order of Poor Clares, the second Franciscan order.
Francis had long dreamt of establishing a community of women that would correspond with his fraternity. He found in Clare the perfect partner he was seeking.
Since he had no convent yet for women he placed Clare in an old Benedictine convent near Bastia. When her parents tracked her down there they tried to bring her back as they considered Franciscan poverty not only degrading but also a disgrace to their good name. They only gave up trying to forcibly bring her back when she showed them her shorn head.
Francis then moved her to Sant’ Angelo di Panzo convent. Sixteen days later Clare’s younger sister Agnes joined her. Others came.
Francis then placed them and the other girls in a poor house belonging to the church of San Damiano on the outskirts of Assisi where he appointed Clare the superior and where she remained for forty years as abbess until her death on August 11, 1253. This became their convent and first community house and still is the Motherhouse. This is why they were called the Poor Ladies of San Damiano. It was only after Clare died that they were called Poor Clares after their foundress.
In time even Clare’s widowed mother and Beatrice, another sister, joined them. So did three members of one of the most influential families of Florence.
They lived a simple life according to the rule of “formula of life” that Francis gave them as the Second Order.
They were called “poor ladies” because they practiced a life of perfect poverty. Since they owned nothing possessing no property even in common they subsisted only on what a few of them got by begging and alms. Yet they would reject donations of whole slices of bread content to accept only the crumbs. They were given this right by the Pope’s granting them the Privilegium Pauperitatis.
When Clare inherited a fortune from her father she gave everything to the poor and to hospitals unbelievably keeping nothing for the Poor Ladies.
They also lived a life of strict penance. Living in complete seclusion they went barefoot even in winter, slept on the bare floor, ate no meat and observed complete silence. While the greatest emphasis was on Gospel poverty, they dedicated themselves to prayer, work, meditation and self-mortification although Clare went further than most of her nuns.
The Penance of Clare
The penance of Clare was hard and unbelievable. Her fastings were long and alternated with total abstinence of food. St. Francis had to intervene telling her to eat at least an ounce-and-a-half of bread daily.
Her haircloth was unbearable.
She spent long nights prostrated on the floor for hours on end.
Everyday at about three in the afternoon uniting herself to the death of Jesus she would flog herself very severely.
However no one ever saw her sad. She would always keep a joyous countenance.
The extent to which she was severe with herself is the extent to which she was kind and loving to her sisters.
Later in life she grew less harsh with her followers. In fact she wrote Agnes of Prague not to be quite so rigorous “since our bodies are not of brass.”
However she herself remained austere.
She kissed the feet of those who brought the goods they had begged in the streets.
At night she would walk round her nunnery to make sure that the Poor Clares were warmly covered up in bed.
“They say we are too poor. Can a heart which possess God really be called poor?”
First Woman Franciscan Saint
Clare was given many gifts by God so she is credited with many miracles – even cures. But her most famous ones were the ones (in 1940 and 1941) when she saved her nuns and the city of Assisi from the marauding Saracens of Frederick II. Though sick at the time she asked to be carried to the convent walls where she placed the Blessed Sacrament in full view of the enemy. Praying fervently to the Eucharistic Lord the terrified Saracens fled.
When Pope Gregory was having breakfast with Clare he asked her to bless the only food they had – a basket of bread. As she did so the loaves of bread cracked and there appeared on them a well defined cross.
One Christmas when she was too weak to attend mass at the Basilica more than a mile away she saw and heard it all in a miraculous vision. This is why Clare was named the patron of television.
Spread of the Order
It is surprising that the rigors of their hard life did not deter others from joining the order. In fact under Claire’s guidance and supervision it grew and grew till its branches reached all over Europe.
Clare’s example so inspired rich and poor women alike to join the Poor Clares. After her father’s death even her own mother and another sister came ready to change their life for Jesus. Even three of the illustrious and influential Ubaldine family in Florence responded to the call of the Gospel.
To this day the Poor Clares are flourishing not only in Spain, Italy and France but throughout the world – even in the Philippines called Santa Clara.
They were called Poor Clares because of the way they lived the virtue of holy poverty.
Clare tried so hard to emulate Francis – whom she called her Father, Planter and Helper in the Service of Christ – that she adopted and strove to carry out her ideal and mentor’s Rule of perfection: “that his order should never possess any rents or other property even in common, subsisting on daily contributions.”
Thus these poor ladies lived and supported themselves solely by begging alms. When given whole slices of bread they would even go to the extent of accepting only the crumbs.
Pope Gregory IX tried to soften her rule by offering to dispense them from the vow of strict poverty and provide them with a yearly revenue instead.
Clare was adamant in her refusal and instead told the pope, “I need to be absolved from my sins, but I do not wish to be absolved from the obligation of following Jesus Christ.”
Clare then set to work to draw up her own rule that would express in no uncertain terms that the sisters shall possess no property, either as individuals or as community (as proposed to them by Pope Innocent IV in 1247). In so doing Clare became the first woman founder of an Oder for which she wrote her own Rule.
It is ironic that the approval of her Rule came only two days before she died. It is said that the Papal letter granting his permission for them to live in gospel poverty relying wholly on god for their sustenance was found in her hands upon opening her tomb in 1893.
Death and Sainthood
Clare had to pay the toll for the austerities, which she imposed on herself suffering serious illness for the last 27 years of her life, mostly confined to bed in the convent of San Damiano in Assisi, which she never left.
Little Flower of St. Francis
On August 11, 1253 the living impersonation of Lady Poverty died at Assisi at the age of 60.
At her death there were already at least 120 Poor Clare monasteries.
The Assisi motherhouse, became a nursery of Saints. Her own sister Agnes became a saint like Clare who was solemnly canonized by Pope Alexander IV on 15 August 1255.
Just before she died Clare said. “Blessed be you, O God, for having created me” – the first Woman Franciscan saint.
Poor Clare proved to be not very poor after all. She was rich in the love of God and all that knew her. She was rich in the blessed life she led.
St. Clare is the patron of embroiderers and of television. She is also patron of eye diseases, gilders, goldsmiths, laundry workers, oculists and telephones.
She is invoked against fever and blindness.
SOURCES of REFERENCE
ST. CLARE of ASSISI
Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Vol. III pp 309 – 313
The Illustrated World Encyclopedia of Saints – p. 152
The Book of Saints – p. 208
Pocket Dictionary of Saints – pp. 119 – 120
The Watkins Dictionary of Saints – pp. 56 – 57
A Calendar of Saints – p. 153
All Saints – pp 345 – 347
Saints for Everyday – pp. 289 – 291
A Year With the Saints – August 11
Butler’s Saint for the Day – pp. 375 – 377
Lives of the Saints – pp. 332 – 334
Illustrated Lives of the Saints – Vol. I – pp. 356 – 358
My First Book of Saints – pp. 178 – 179
Saint Companions – pp. 296 – 298
Saints for Our Time – pp – 168 – 169
Saint of the Day – pp. 201 – 203
Lives of Saints – Part I – pp. 251 – 257
The Big Book of Women Saints – pp. 240 – 241
Meditation on the Saints – Vol. 4 pp. 86 – 111
Saints – a Visual Guide – pp. 216 = 217
Saints and Heroes Speak – Vol. I pp. 90 – 96
Voices of the Saints – pp. 374 – 375
Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives – Group 4 Card 10
The Lion Treasury of Saints – pp. 212; 144 – 145
Servants of God – pp 18 – 19
Best – Loved Saints – pp. 80 – 82
The Way of the Saints – pp 117 – 119
33 Saints for Boys and Girls – pp. 245 – 252
Book of Saints – Part 3 – pp. 12 – 13
Saints – Ancient and Modern – pp. 88 – 93
Saints of the Roman Calendar – pp 238 -239
Saints and their Symbols – pp 161 – 162