Today is the feast day of Saint Clare of Assisi. Ora pro nobis.
by Father Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876
St. Clare, foundress of the Order which bears her name, was born of rich and pious parents, at Assisi, in the district of Umbria, in Italy. She received the name of Clare, which means clear or bright, for the following reason. While her mother Hortulana, was kneeling before a crucifix, praying that God might aid her in her hour of delivery, she heard the words: “Do not fear. You will give birth to a light which shall illumine the whole world.” From her earliest childhood, prayer was Clare's only delight. She gave to the poor all the presents which she received from her parents. She despised all costly garments, all worldly pleasures. Beneath the fine clothes she was obliged to wear, she wore a rough hair-girdle. She partook of so little food, that it seemed as if she wished to observe a continual fast.
During this same period lived St. Francis, surnamed “the Seraphic,” on account of his great virtues. Clare frequently went to him and confided to him her desire to renounce the world and to consecrate her virginity to God, and to lead a perfect life in the most abject poverty. St. Francis who saw, that besides other gifts and graces, she was filled with the most ardent love of God, possessing great innocence of heart and despising the world, strengthened her in her holy desire, while at the same time he tested her constancy. Being sufficiently convinced that her desires were inspired by Heaven, he advised Clare to leave her home, which she did on Palm Sunday, going to the church of the Portiuncula, where she had her hair cut off, as a sign that she would enter a religious life. She divested herself of all feminine ornaments, and attired in a penitential garb, tied around her with a cord, she was placed by St. Francis in a vacant Benedictine convent. She was at that time just eighteen years of age.
When her parents heard of what she had done, they hastened to the Convent, to take Clare home, declaring that this choice of a state of life was only a childish whim, or that she had been persuaded to it by others. Clare, however, after opposing their arguments, fled into the church, and clinging to the altar with one hand, with the other she bared her head shorn of its hair, exclaiming: “Know all, that I desire no other bridegroom than Jesus Christ. Understanding well what I was doing, I chose Him and I will never leave Him.” Astonished at this answer, all returned home, admiring her virtue and piety. Clare thanked God for this victory and was, on account of it, all the more strengthened in her resolution. She had a sister younger than herself, named Agnes. A few days later she, too, fled from her parents' roof and going to Clare, wished to be invested in the same habit and to serve God in the same manner. St. Clare received her joyfully, but as all her relatives were provoked beyond measure that she, too, had entered a Convent, twelve of them went and forcibly tore her from her sister's arms. Clare took refuge in prayer, and as if inspired by the Almighty, ran after her sister, loudly calling her by name. God assisted her by a miracle. Agnes suddenly became immovable, as if rooted to the ground, and no one possessed strength enough to drag her from where she stood. Recognizing in this the powerful hand of God, they opposed her no longer, but allowed her to return to the Convent. Meanwhile, St. Francis had rebuilt the old church of St. Damian and had bought the neighboring house. Into this house he placed his first two religious daughters, Clare and Agnes, who were speedily joined by others, desirous of conforming themselves to the rule of life which St. Francis had given to Clare. This was the beginning of the Order of Poor Clares, which has since given to the world so many shining examples of virtue and holiness, to the salvation of many thousands of souls.
St. Clare was appointed abbess by St. Francis, and filled the office for forty-two years with wonderful wisdom and holiness. Her mother also, together with her youngest daughter, took the habit and submitted to the government of St. Clare. The holy abbess enjoined on her order the most severe poverty, and when the Pope himself offered her some property as an endowment, she humbly but earnestly refused to accept it. She was, to all in her charge, a bright example of poverty. In austerity towards herself she was more to be admired than imitated. The floor or a bundle of straw was her bed ; a piece of wood, her pillow. Twice during the year she kept a forty days' fast on bread and water. Besides this, three days of the week, she tasted no food, and so little on the others, that it is marvellous that she could sustain life with it. The greater part of the night she spent in prayer, and her desire for mortification was so great, that St. Francis compelled her to moderate her austerities. She nursed the sick with the greatest pleasure, as in this work of charity, she found almost constant opportunity to mortify and overcome herself. Besides all her other virtues, she was especially remarkable for her devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. She sometimes remained whole hours immovable before the Tabernacle, and was often seen in ecstacy, so great was her love for the Saviour it concealed. She sought her comfort in Him alone in all her trials, amidst all her persecutions; and how great were the graces she thereby received, the following event will sufficiently illustrate.
The Saracens besieged Assisi and made preparations to scale the walls of the Convent. St. Clare, who was sick at the time, had herself carried to the gates of the convent, where, with the Ciborium, containing the Blessed Sacrament, in her hands, prostrating herself in company with all her religious, she cried aloud: “O Lord, do not give into the hands of the infidels the souls of those who acknowledge and praise Thee. Protect and preserve Thy handmaidens whom Thou hast redeemed with Thy precious blood.” A voice was distinctly heard, saying: “I will protect you always.” The result proved that this was the voice of heaven. The Saracens, seized with a sudden fear, betook themselves to flight, those who had already scaled the walls, became blind, and flung themselves down. Thus were St. Clare and her religious protected and the whole city preserved from utter devastation, by the piety and devotion of the Saint to the Blessed Sacrament.
We must omit many miracles which God wrought through His faithful servant, in order to relate her happy end. She had reached the age of sixty years, during twenty-eight of which she had suffered from various painful maladies, though she had not been confined to her bed, or rather, her bundle of straw. Her patience while suffering was remarkable, and she was never heard to complain of the severity or the duration of her sickness. The contemplation of the Passion of Christ made her own pains easy and even pleasing to her. “How short,” said she one day, “seems the night to me, which I pass in the contemplation of the Lord's suffering!” At another time, she exclaimed: “How can man complain when he beholds Christ hanging upon the cross and covered with blood!” Having suffered so long and with such noble resignation, she saw at last, that her end was near. She received the Blessed Sacrament, and then exhorted all her daughters not to relax in their zeal to live in poverty and holiness.
When her confessor conversed with her on the merits of patience, she said: “As long as I have had the grace to serve God in the religious state, no care, no penance, no sickness has seemed hard to me. Oh, how comforting it is to suffer for the love of Christ!” The hour of her death drew near, and she saw a great many white-robed virgins come to meet her, among whom was one who surpassed all the rest in beauty. She followed them and they led her to see the Almighty face to face. Several who had read in the depths of her heart, said that she died more from the fervor of her love for God than from the effects of her sickness. Her holy death took place in 1253. The great number of miracles wrought after her death through her intercession, and the heroic virtues which made her so remarkable, induced Pope Alexander IV., only two years later, to place her in the number of Saints. (2)
When at length she felt the day of her death approaching, Clare, calling her sorrowing religious around her, reminded them of the many benefits they had received from God and exhorted them to persevere faithfully in the observance of evangelical poverty. Pope Innocent IV came from Perugia to visit the dying saint, who had already received the last sacraments from the hands of Cardinal Rainaldo. Her own sister, St. Agnes, had returned from Florence to console Clare in her last illness; Leo, Angelo, and Juniper, three of the early companions of St. Francis, were also present at the saint's death-bed, and at St. Clare's request read aloud the Passion of Our Lord according to St. John, even as they had done twenty-seven years before, when Francis lay dying at the Porziuncula. At length before dawn on 11 August, 1253, the holy foundress of the Poor Ladies passed peacefully away amid scenes which her contemporary biographer has recorded with touching simplicity. The pope, with his court, came to San Damiano for the saint's funeral, which partook rather of the nature of a triumphal procession.
The Clares desired to retain the body of their foundress among them at San Damiano, but the magistrates of Assisi interfered and took measures to secure for the town the venerated remains of her whose prayers, as they all believed, had on two occasions saved it from destruction. Clare's miracles too were talked of far and wide. It was not safe, the Assisians urged, to leave Clare's body in a lonely spot without the walls; it was only right, too, that Clare, “the chief rival of the Blessed Francis in the observance of Gospel perfection”, should also have a church in Assisi built in her honour. Meanwhile, Clare's remains were placed in the chapel of San Giorgio, where St. Francis's preaching had first touched her young heart, and where his own body had likewise been interred pending the erection of the Basilica of San Francesco. Two years later, 26 September, 1255, Clare was solemnly canonized by Alexander IV, and not long afterwards the building of the church of Santa Chiara, in honour of Assisi's second great saint, was begun under the direction of Filippo Campello, one of the foremost architects of the time. On 3 October, 1260, Clare's remains were transferred from the chapel of San Giorgio and buried deep down in the earth, under the high altar in the new church, far out of sight and reach. After having remained hidden for six centuries–like the remains of St. Francis–and after much search had been made, Clare's tomb was found in 1850, to the great joy of the Assisians. On 23 September in that year the coffin was unearthed and opened, the flesh and clothing of the saint had been reduced to dust, but the skeleton was in a perfect state of preservation. Finally, on the 29th of September, 1872, the saint's bones were transferred, with much pomp, by Archbishop Pecci, afterwards Leo XIII, to the shrine, in the crypt at Santa Chiara, erected to receive them, and where they may now be seen. The feast of St. Clare is celebrated throughout the Church on 12 August; the feast of her first translation is kept in the order on 3 October, and that of the finding of her body on 23 September. (5)
Image: Artist: Detail depicting Saint Clare from a fresco in the Lower basilica of San Francesco, Assisi; Simone Martini, circa: 1322-1326 (7)
Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff