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Clare, 1194-1253, founder of the ‘Poor Clares’

Painting of St Clare of Assisi saving a child froma  wolf, by Giovanni di Paolo

Clare of Assisi was the first woman to write a religious rule for women. She founded the Order of Minoresses or ‘Poor Clares’ as they became known. Although inspired by St Francis of Assisi, she was more than just a follower. She became an interpreter and guardian of his vision and values and a saint of almost equal importance to ‘Il Poverello’ himself. They were lifelong soul friends. She was as important to him as he was to her.

Exciting Holiness Determined looking woman.Clare was another of those counter cultural women, refusing the normal respectable life of a woman of her class. She came from a wealthy family, members of the nobility. The phrase that has been in my mind in thinking about her, and indeed all the saints, is: “Sainthood is not for cissies.” At the start of her saintly career she could hardly have been called a woman. Her behaviour was completely scandalous by the standards of the times. Man preaching in the mountainsEven by today’s standards she would probably be thought very disturbed, a disgrace to her family, and St Francis a very suspect character. I doubt many parents would be too keen on their daughter abandoning her family, social status and any chances of a decent marriage in order to take up with a mendicant friar 13 years her senior, prone to giving away the very clothes he was wearing. Hearing St Francis preach she was inspired by him and his example of the lifestyle of extreme poverty and ascetism, and was determined to follow him and embrace the same life of renunciation and poverty.

Life of Clare Woman with head veil sitting on the ground.She was 18 when Francis helped her to escape from her parents house and cut off her hair to signify her vows. He then found her a place in a convent. She founded her Order soon after although she refused to be Prioress till she had turned twenty-one. “They devoted themselves to prayer, nursing the sick, and works of mercy for the poor and neglected. They adopted a rule of life of extreme austerity (more so than of any other order of women up to that time) and of absolute poverty, both individually and collectively. They had no beds. They slept on twigs with patched hemp for blankets. Wind and rain seeped through cracks in the ceilings. They ate very little, with no meat at all. Whatever they ate was food they begged for. Clare made sure she fasted more than anyone else. Despite this way of life, or perhaps because of it, the followers of Clare were the most beautiful young girls from the best families of Assisi.” justus anglican The renunciation of all forms of property ownership or provision for their own needs was extremely controversial. It was felt by the church authorities that this was too difficult for women. Clare was determined and persistent.

What was it about Clare and the life she offered that was so attractive to women of her class and time? Surely not just the opportunity to break out of the conventional roles and lifestyles allotted to women in that age. The life she offered was too hard for that to be the primary motive.

Wide open eyes

Whatever it was I think we find something like it in all the lives of all the saints. Something without which the message of our Lord ceases to be inspirational and transformational and becomes merely a matter of boring morality and even more boring theology. Is it that through them and the example of their lives we feel we are meeting Jesus? Sharing in their love affair with Jesus? Wanting that love for ourselves? From a letter written to Blessed Agnes of Prague shortly before Clare’s death:

“I rejoice and exult with you in the joy of the Spirit, O bride of Christ,….Happy indeed is she to whom it is given to share this banquet, to cling with all her heart to him whose beauty all the heavenly hosts admire unceasingly, whose love inflames our love, whose contemplation is our refreshment, whose graciousness is our joy, whose gentleness fills us to overflowing…..” From ‘Celebrating the Saints’ by Robert Atwell

See here for the full text. It is strong stuff! And as with many of the greatest saints, male and female is heavy on the erotic imagery as a means to express the unspeakable delight of the love of Christ. As far as we know she never left the confines of her convent until her death. Shortly before his death St Francis visited her and lived in a small hut in the convent grounds while convalescing. It is thought that it was here that he composed the ‘Canticle of the Sun’.

A hermitage hut in a fieldThe Order of Poor Clares continues today. They still do not own property. The community house of the Poor Clare I met was owned by the Diocese. Patronage: embroiderers; eye disease; eyes; gilders; goldsmiths; gold workers; good weather; laundry workers; needle workers; Santa Clara Indian Pueblo; telegraphs; telephones; television; television writers. Television? The answer is “Toward the end of her life, when she was too ill to attend Mass, an image of the service would display on the wall of her cell; thus her patronage of television.” Brief Life of Clare


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