Another amazing woman!
Clare, or Clara di Favorone, was born in Assisi, Italy, in 1194 of a family of wealth and prestige. In her early teens, plans were already being made for her for marriage, but at 15 she heard Francis preaching in the city. And that changed her life. She planned a meeting with Francis, and shortly after this she and her sister, Agnes, secretly left home. As a sign of their acceptance of the vows of poverty and celibacy, they cut their hair short, put on rough tunics as Francis had done, and left home to join Francis.
Francis and his brothers brought Clare and Agnes first to the Benedictine monastery where they stayed with the Benedictine nuns, but as other women joined her they moved to a smaller church, which Francis had rebuilt, called San Damiano.
The Benedictines of that time owned properties with huge estates. However, Francis and his brothers decided that they did not want to go the way of the Benedictines but rather decided never to possess revenues or lands or other property, even when held in common.
In Clare’s group the women, in addition to practicing vows of celibacy and poverty, wore no shoes, slept on the ground, had meals without meat and lived in simple poor houses. The group spoke only when obliged to do so, preferring silence. The sisters brought no dowries, and the monastery had no income. They were totally dependent on the goodwill of the communities and ability of the Franciscan friars to find what the nuns needed to survive. It was unheard of for women to live totally on alms and the charity of others. But this was core of Clare’s belief, that through the goodness of God everything happens. She had complete faith in the overwhelming goodness of God. This is how she lived her life.
Despite their earlier severe disapproval, a number of family members including her widowed mother joined her over the years. This meant that they gave up their titles and estates in order to join the community.
The original plan for the Poor Ladies was that they would live as the brothers, or Franciscan friarsa public and partly itinerant life, caring for the poor. But instead Clare and her sisters were given six Rules from Rome, that insisted on enclosure for them.
Then, in 1215, the church council had decreed that all religious communities must follow a ‘rule’ that the council had prepared. As a result, Clare had to accept Benedictine Rule, but this was not what she had envisioned. She tried to get papal approval but was in conflict with the church hierarchy because she insisted on institutional poverty as well as personal poverty. In its attempt to keep control, church council had forbidden the creation of new orders leading to more problems for her group.
With Francis’ help, the women were able to receive from the Pope a ‘privilege of poverty,’ which meant they did not have to own property. Later, in 1226, the Pope renewed ‘the privilege of poverty’ but not for future nuns and not for future foundations.
Francis died at 44 and during his illness was cared for at San Damiano. Clare continued to live at San Damiano and was Abbess for 37 years. The rule that she prepared, for which she is best known, was based on her experiences and practices in San Damiano and in other sister communities across the region.
When she was about 55 years old, she thought it important enough to put in writing, for her community, her own rule called a form of life, or forma vitae, the earliest that we know of by a woman.
I have read a copy of this document and what strikes me is its elegant simplicity and its trust in the community of women to do things in the right way. What is striking about Clare’s Rule is that it is non-hierarchical and non-punitive when compared with the rules of the Benedictine monasteries and convents.
to her sisters
“If she is suitable, let the words of the holy Gospel be addressed to her that she should go and sell all that she has and take care to distribute the proceeds to the poor. If she cannot do this, her good will shall suffice.” (p.65)
or to an Abbess
“As Abbess, ‘She should strive...to preside over others more by her virtues and holy behavior than by her office, so that moved by her example, the sisters may obey her more out of love than out of fear.’” (p.25, Clare of Assisi)
Clare lived with many hardships. The extreme poverty she chose, and the practice of asceticism, penance, and other austere practices, and her ongoing difficult problems with Rome surely contributed to her illnesses. She was actually ill for a good part of her life, and mostly confined to her bed. Her writings, though few, are some of the earliest writings we have written by a woman.
Clare tells us very little about her prayer. She offers very few intellectual or practical formulas for making progress in prayer, only to be fully remaining in love, and focusing attention on God. In her writings over many years and in a series of letters sent to Agnes of Prague which cover a nineteen-year period, there is the persistent pattern to her relationship with God.
Amazingly, this fifteen-year-old called to God had started a community after which, by 1238, there were at least 50 monasteries following her rule spread throughout Italy, France, Germany, Bohemia, and Spain.
Each successive Pope tried to impose a rule on her order beyond the one she had originally envisioned. They all failed.
Just before she died, at fifty nine, she did get papal approval. And in 1253, Pope Innocent IV went to Assisi to give Clare last rites and confirmed that Clare’s Rule would serve as the governing Rule for the Order of Poor Ladies.
Two years later she was canonized, as St. Clare of Assisi, but within 10 years after her death, all of the houses were forbidden to practice institutional poverty.
For this synopsis of Clare of Assisi’s life, I have relied liberally on the following booksrecommended reading for those of you who wish to know more:
Visions and Longings: Medieval Women Mystics, Monica Furlong, Shambala Press, 1997
The Lady, Clare of Assisi: Early Documents, translation by Regis J. Armstrong, O.F.M Cap., New York City Press, 2006
Rule and Testament of St. Clare: Constitutions for Poor Clare Nuns, Franciscan Herald Press, 1987