“Go forth without fear, for he that created you has sanctified you, has always
protected you, and loves you like a mother.”
– St. Clare of Assisi
This evening as news reports roll out about starvation in Somalia – 600,000 children are on the brink of death by starvation – I know that, if Clare had been born in this time, she would find a way to feed those kids. She would not — she could not — allow herself to be distracted by all the perfectly logical, well supported arguments that would prove it is simply impossible to save them. Clare would not arrive at the certainty of her conviction through careful analysis and human reasoning; she would simply respond to the light of Christ within her, driving her forward to do the just, loving thing.
According to Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2003, Clare (Abbess at Assisi, 1253) responded to a powerful sermon preached by Francis of Assisi at the first gathering of his order, calling Christians to a holy life. His commitment to a life of holy poverty and servant-hood was in part a response to a Church that had lost its way.
Clare was known as a young woman of great beauty, modesty and integrity. She repeatedly and gracefully resisted attempts by her family to marry her off, and in her position of status was well within her rights. Her sole occupation was drawing closer to Christ and caring for the poor and forgotten. She often collected the excess food that was brought into her family’s home and sent this to the poor.
She and Francis visited often, though quietly. Clare usually went to Francis, as her privileged home did not lend itself to discreet visits from a holy man. Reports of this relationship suggest what, in today’s Church, we call a vocational discernment process. As Clare prepared to commit herself to a rule of life – an order – in community with the Franciscan order, Francis designed a daylong “ritual” to mark this enormous transition and “worthily to welcome Clare in the name of the Lord.” He advised her to dress in her finest clothes and jewelry and to join with others who would process to church for the service of palms, celebrating Christ’s triumphal procession into Jerusalem. As congregants approached the altar to receive a palm from the bishop, Clare remained frozen out of modesty and shyness; the bishop, taking note of her, walked to her and gave her a palm. Immediately following this, Clare entered the way of Christ’s passion:
“The heart of this liturgy lies in the moment when Clare, leaving her home and coming out of the city, arrives at Saint Mary of the Angels. There, setting aside her aristocratic clothing, she is clothed with the garment of the poor who lived in the plain around Assisi and she allowed her hair to be cut by Francis … before the altar of the Porziuncola…”
These “liturgical” acts marked Clare’s transition to a life of holy poverty, committed to the poor and forgotten.
Very little is written or known about Clare, particularly in comparison to what is known and written about Francis. This is how Clare wanted it – her desire was to keep the focus on Francis. She seemed oblivious of, or unconcerned about, the effect that she had on so many. That Francis would grant her request to join the order suggests that he could not say “no” to the light of Christ she emanated. Even the Pope acquiesced when Clare, unruffled by controversy or Church politics, rejected the rule of life he had written for her order of women (familiarly known as the Poor Clares); without argument, he accepted the rule of life she had drawn up.
(Impressions drawn largely from Saint Clare: beyond the legend by Marco Bartoli.)