On Aug. 11, members of the Franciscan family commemorated the feast day of Clare of Assisi (1193 – 1253). Among those celebrating were friars as well as members of the Order of the Poor Clares, which now has more than 20,000 members. As he often does, Stephen Lynch provides a reflection on the saint’s life.
Both Francis and Clare were born in Assisi. Francis in 1182; Clare in 1193. Francis was the son of a rich cloth merchant. Pietro di Bernardone. Clare came from a noble and wealthy Assisi family. In the upper part of the town, where the cathedral church of San Rufino is located, Clare’s home overlooked the cathedral square.
In terms of Clare’s vocation, the Portiuncola played a significant role. On a March evening in 1211, Clare fled her family’s home in Assisi and took refuge at the Portiuncula. It seems that a plan was carefully worked out between her and Francis, with the approval of Bishop Guido. On Palm Sunday, Clare took part in the celebration of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, in the cathedral church. Francis cut her golden tresses at the foot of the altar of the Virgin Mary. She changed her noble garments, and put on the habit of penance.
Monastery of Poor Clares
Francis sent Clare together with some friars to a secure refuge, the female Benedictine monastery of San Paolo delle Abbadesse in Bastia Umbra. Her family would come demanding her return, but in that place she was protected by the papal cloister. After a short time, Clare passed to another religious house, Sant’Angelo di Panzo, on the foothills of Mount Subasio. There, she was joined by her sister, Caterina. In 1212, Francis brought Clare to San Damiano, where she and her sisters made their first monastery of Poor Clares.
At San Damiano, Clare was joined by her mother, Ortolana, and her sister, Beatrice, who changed her name to Agnes. As Francis had predicted, it was here that the Order of the Poor Ladies of San Damiano was founded. In this small chapel and adjacent monastery, Clare and her sisters lived a cloistered life, without any property or possessions, for 41 years. Clare died there in 1253 at the age of 60. Her sisters remained at San Damiano until 1260.
At that time, they removed the precious body of their foundress to the new church and convent of Santa Chiara, within the confines of the city of Assisi. Clare never left San Damiano. She petitioned two popes to confirm the Privilege of Poverty for her sisters. At San Damiano, just two days before she died, Clare received the final approval of her Rule, modeled upon that of the Friars Minor.
Balancing to life of Francis
Clare’s life of contemplation was complementary to the active apostolic life of Francis and the brothers. Francis also cherished the contemplative life. He spent long months in solitude, normally with a small group of brothers, in one of the many hermitages he founded in the Italian Appennines.
At San Damiano, Francis composed the first part of his Canticle of Brother Sun, or Canticle of Creatures. He became virtually blind, and was taken care of by Sister Clare. Both in life and death, Francis and Clare shared a beautiful love of mutual commitment to God, to their neighbors and to each other.
— Fr. Stephen ministers at Church of St. Mary on Broadway in Providence, R.I.