Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Clare of Assisi, "Shining in Name, More Shining in Life"

St. Clare of Assisi (died 11 August 1253)


Chiara Offreduccio was born in Assisi on 11 July 1194, the daughter of a wealthy count, Offreduccio di Favarone, and his wife, Ortolana.

Simone Martini's fourteenth-century
fresco of Clare of Assisi,
Basilica of San Francesco, Assisi
Although there is no reliable information about her childhood, traditional accounts, such as the one found in the Catholic Encyclopedia, stress the miraculous signs her mother received before her birth (the baby would be "a bright light of God in the world"), her childhood piety, her extreme penitential acts, even as a child, and her "distaste for the world." 

Whatever she was like as a child, Clare must have received some form of education, because she is literate--as a woman, she writes letters and composes devotional literature. 

What we know of her life begins when she was eighteen and heard Francis of Assisi preach during a Lenten service at the church of San Giorgio. She arranged to meet him secretly after the service and asked for his help so that she could, like Francis and his followers, live a life "after the manner of the Holy Gospel."

She attended church the next day, Palm Sunday. That evening, 20 March 1212, she secretly left her father's home "by the door used to take a corpse on its way to burial" (at least according to legend), accompanied by her aunt and another companion, and made her way to the chapel of the Portiuncula, where Francis was then living with his small community. 

Francis immediately consecrated her, exchanging her luxurious clothing for a rough tunic tied with a cord and cutting her hair. Then, since a woman could not exactly live the public and itinerant "apostolic life" of Francis and his male followers, he took Clare to the Benedictine convent of San Paolo delle Abbadesse.

Although her father tried to force her to return home, she resisted, and she was disowned by her family. But still not finding the rigorous penitential life she was searching for--the kind of poverty to which Francis was devoted--she left the Benedictine convent and joined the Franciscan community of Sant'Angelo di Panzo, where she was joined by her fourteen-year-old sister Caterina, whom Francis renamed Agnes. 

The result was more conflict with "her infuriated relatives," but by the end of 1212 Clare and her sister were resettled in a small building for them next to the church of San Damiano, the first of the churches Francis had rebuilt after his conversion. She was eventually joined, after her father's death, by her mother, Ortolana, her other sister, Beatrice, and a niece, Balbina.

Fresco of Clare of Assisi and her sisters,
Church of San Damiano, Assisi
Like Clare, Francis seems originally to have imagined that "the Poor Ladies of San Damiano" would live the same mendicant life as his friars, and, like them, devote themselves to caring for the sick and the poor. By 1215 he had provided them with a brief formula vita, or way of life. 

But in 1219, Rome issued the first of a series of Rules for Clare and her sisters, each based on the Rule of St. Benedict and each subsequent Rule insisting on enclosure for the women. Aside from the issue of enclosure, these papal rules imposed on the women took away their Franciscan dedication to absolute poverty and insisted that they would have to accept endowments. Clare objected and resisted.

The conflict persisted until after Francis's death in 1226. But on 17 September 1228, Clare and her sisters were finally granted the Privilegium paupertatis, the "privilege of poverty." Pope Gregory IX announced his decision to Clare "and the other handmaids of Christ dwelling together at the church of San Damiano":
It is evident that the desire of consecrating yourselves to God alone has led you to abandon every wish for temporal things. Wherefore, after having sold all your goods and having distributed them among the poor, you propose to have absolutely no possessions, in order to follow in all things the example of Him Who became poor and Who is the way, the truth, and the life. Neither does the want of necessary things deter you from such a proposal, for the left arm of your Celestial Spouse is beneath your head to sustain the infirmity of your body, which, according to the order of charity, you have subjected to the law of the spirit. Finally, He who feeds the birds of the air and who gives the lilies of the field their raiment and their nourishment, will not leave you in want of clothing or of food until He shall come Himself to minister to you in eternity when, namely, the right hand of His consolations shall embrace you in the plenitude of the Beatific Vision. Since, therefore, you have asked for it, we confirm by Apostolic favour your resolution of the loftiest poverty and by the authority of these present letters grant that you may not be constrained by anyone to receive possessions. To no one, therefore, be it allowed to infringe upon this page of our concession or to oppose it with rash temerity. But if anyone shall presume to attempt this, be it known to him that he shall incur the wrath of Almighty God and his Blessed Apostles, Peter and Paul. Given at Perugia on the fifteenth of the Kalends of October in the second year of our Pontificate.
In negotiating this "privilege of poverty," Clare of Assisi worked with a woman we have met before, Agnes of Bohemia

By the time of Clare's death in 1253, there were fifty sisters living at S. Damiano and over twenty more monasteries of the Poor Ladies. On 9 August 1253, Pope Urban IV issued the Solet annuere, a papal bull confirmed that the rule Clare had composed for her community would be the governing rule for the order. 

Two days later, on 11 August, Clare died at the age of 59. On 15 August 1255 Clare of Assisi was canonized by Pope Alexander VI. In 1263, Pope Urban IV officially changed the name of the Poor Ladies of San Damiano to the Order of St. Clare.

For the Rule composed by Clare of Assisi, click here.

Clare's letters, including those sent to Agnes of Bohemia, are available at the Epistolae: Medieval Women's Latin Letters website.


Basilica di Santa Chiara,
Assisi