By: Juniper Cummings, OFM Conv.
Clare called herself “the little plant of Francis,” but she was no shrinking violet and not so little nor totally planted by Francis. Although in Assisi Clare and Francis lived near to each other, they had little contact. When Francis was sixteen, he took part in the revolution against Clare’s class. She was a little girl not yet a teenager. She may have heard of his wild life and parties but she grew up living with a pious mother and some other holy relatives. She was determined to be chaste and charitable and began giving her property to the poor. After Francis’s flashy conversion, she may have contributed to his rebuilding the dilapidated San Damiano church. When Francis learned of Clare’s charitable dedication in her home, he went to visit her, to encourage the following of the gospel.
In 1212 when she was about nineteen years old, she escaped from her home “through the door of the dead.” On that Palm Sunday she had the blessing of the Bishop and the help of her aunt to go to Francis to join him and his lesser Brothers. Up to that time she had led a very protected life. Suitors like Lord Ranieri had pursued her hand in marriage, attracted by her beauty, her family’s wealth and prestige, but she let it be known that she was already bound to the suffering Christ as her spouse. When she came to Francis and his lesser Brothers on that Palm Sunday, he cut off her beautiful hair. [The Poor Clares in the Assisi monastery still have a relic of her hair.] He veiled her, gave her a rough gray tunic with a cord and sent her off to live temporarily in the convent of the Benedictine Nuns. Eventually she was joined by her sister Agnes and other members of her family.
While the youthful Francis was by no means poor, he was definitely of a lower social class than Clare. After his conversion, when he gained brothers he did not want his Friars to own any thing and not even to touch money or coins since that was what the rising merchant class flaunted as a show of wealth. For Clare, daughter of the noble class as she was, income producing property was the sign and means of wealth. She did not object to her Sisters having a plot of land to raise flowers for the altar and vegetables for the table but she insisted on the “privilege of poverty,” i.e. being exempt from papal directives requiring monasteries to have income producing to support the Sisters.
When she was in her early 20s, Francis moved the Poor Ladies to San Damiano and gave them a brief rule while designating Clare Abbess. She fulfilled that role reluctantly, as an office of service. Cardinals and Bishops often visited her and she gave advice as it was asked, just as she had advised Francis to continue preaching and not just to live a contemplative life.
It may have been under Cistercian influence that Francis has in his rule of 1223 that friars should avoid suspicious conversation with women and only with the permission of the Apostolic See could they visit monasteries of nuns. Clare did want close ties with Francis and the friars, she relied on the friars to beg for the material needs of the Sisters. But she appreciated also their spiritual service to the Sisters. Friar Juniper was a favorite preacher. When she was sick, Juniper and Angelo visited to comfort her in her trials.
Francis himself was not one to visit the Sisters but once when he was ill, he did stay in a hut on their property and they made slippers for his stigmatized feet that helped him walk less painfully. There is no record of Clare and her sisters visiting him when he was dying but to their great consolation, the procession transferring his dead body to Assisi stopped at their monastery so they could receive comfort in their grief.
Clare is the first woman to write a rule of life. She was wise enough to include references to the rules that had been imposed on her by Hugolino and Innocent IV but the heart of her way of life was based on Francis’s rule. It was only on her deathbed in 1253 that she received Papal approval of her rule.
Some think of Clare as a Mother General but the groups of Poor Ladies are organized as independent monasteries, each with its own elected Abbess. The Holy See has given every monastery the right to follow the rule written by St. Clare and approved by Innocent IV. There are about 10,000 Poor Clares in the world today. They are divided into federation like the Colletines, Urbanists (under care of the Conventuals), regular Observants, Capuchins and others. St. Clare is the Mother of all Franciscans as St. Francis is the Father of all Franciscans. They are inspirations, models and intercessors for us all.
(Originally published in The Cord, July/September 2011)