By Br. Vince Carrasco - I have always been fascinated by the life of St. Clare of Assisi. There are so many moments in her life that tell us how courageous she was, often trusting in God through providence, faith in his plan, and portraying his light through her life of virtue. She was a model of virtue indeed, showing the people of her time true humility, obedience, firmness, gentleness and compassion.
A Light Born For Light
Born a noble woman in a family of knights and wealthy relatives, her family was one of the largest in Assisi and ived in the upper part of the city. At the time, only the wealthiest lived at the high ends of the city, while the poor lived in the lower city slums and the middle class somewhere in between. Born in 1194, she was given the name Clare due to a vision that her mother had during her pregnancy. As she was praying before the crucified Jesus for a healthy delivery, she heard a voice:
“Do not be afraid woman, for you will give birth in safety to a light which will give light more clearly than light itself.”
Amazed at these words, her mother asked that her daughter be named Clare, which means, “light.” At a young age, Clare was taught the basics of the faith by her mother, whose name was Ortulana, meaning “gardener.” It was a fitting name for a mother who cultivated a beautiful garden that would soon give provide fruits for the whole Church.
Splendor of an Early Saint
In her early years, Clare was known to have a sincere heart molded by the Holy Spirit She always gave to the poor and the needy out of the goodness of her soul. She prayed frequently, keeping prayer eve on her lips. She began fasting and acts of penance as a means of mortifying the flesh and the “mirrors” of the world. She wore hair-shirts, slept on hard beds, and ate next to nothing during meal-times with her family. Many times, she would gather leftovers to give to the poor and pray especially for those living in the slums at the bottom of her city. When her family asked her to marry, she refused. When Lord Ranieri di Bernardo of Assisi proposed to take her hand in marriage, she refused and vowed to entrust her vocation and virginity to God himself.
At the age of 17, Clare heard of Francis and his zeal for Christ. Francis likewise learned of Clare, mostly because of her care for the sick and the alms that she gave to the poor. The two soon-to-be saints would meet with each other secretly for the next year, confiding in each other, encouraging each other, supporting each other, and building that community of faith that was first founded by Jesus and the first apostles with Mary. Clare shared with Francis her desire to serve Christ by living out the Gospel, seeking advice on how to do so. In a planned event advised by Francis, Clare attended the Palm Sunday Mass along with all the woman in the city, “beautifully adorned with flowers, in brilliance and with all their finery.” The custom was to dress for the king’s entrance into the city. They would have done the same with their noble knights during the years of war. As the people began processing through the Church to receive their palms, Clare stood still, shy and nervous. Suddenly, the Bishop of Assisi made his way down to her after seeing her face and placed in her hands a palm branch. Clare, immediately consoled by the Bishop’s gesture, received peace in her heart and was affirmed in her desire to serve God with all her being. This event indicated a few things: the bishop’s permission to flee her home and follow Christ; that Clare was participating in a spousal relationship with Jesus; and affirmed her honor as a true Bride. The marriage has been set!
A Happy Marriage
That night Clare snuck out of the back door of her family’s home, breaking through a door of wooden beams and an iron rod. She ran two or three miles through the city gates, down the hill of Assisi, and past the lower city slums to the small church, Saint Mary of the Portiuncula. There the brothers, along with St. Francis, greeted her and, after putting aside everything she had ever known, her golden hair was sheared from her head. She was left with a tonsured scalp, a penitential act that symbolized entering into the religious life.
“A happy marriage and a happy profession, a chaste embrace, a joyful love, a sweet union, a restless desire, a fervent love! Great is the piety, wonderful is God’s honor through which the devoted soul is wedded to God, the fragile flesh to the Word, the lowly to the Most High, and the trifling to the dear!” (The Versified Legend of the Virgin Clare).
A Model of Love
Not long thereafter, Clare’s family found out where she was staying and rushed down to the church of the Portiuncula. Their intention was to bring her home immediately. Clare grabbed the altar cloths firmly and, as her family began pulling her away, she revealed her tonsured head. They left defeated and resigned to their daughter’s choice. Clare remained in her place without the slightest thought of being separated from the love and service of God to which she had committed her life. Clare loved Jesus Christ so much that it bore fruit and caused many more women to follow in her steps. She loved the Eucharist with great fervor and her love for Christ began to show in her prayers. Encouraged by St. Francis, Clare would write the new and holy observance of the Poor Ladies, known familiarly today as the Poor Clares.
"O how great is the vibrancy of this light and how intense is the brilliance of its illumination! While this light remained certainly in a hidden enclosure, it emitted sparkling rays outside… Yes, Clare hid, yet her life had come to light. Clare was silent, yet her fame was proclaimed. She was hidden in a cell, but was known in cities” (Papal Decree of Canonization of St. Clare).
On August 9, 1253, two days before her death, Clare received the approved Form of Life issued and signed by Pope Innocent IV.