Skullduggery in the Darkness
Something furtive was afoot. On the night of March 20, 1212, a shadowy figure worked feverishly but silently to clear rubble from in front of a little-used gate of a mansion in Assisi, Italy. She shifted beams, broken columns, and other debris from the exit, known as the "gate of death" because it was used by the family only to bear the dead out to their final resting place.
The task would have been fitting for slaves, but it was evident the worker was no slave. Gold threads in her dress caught the pale moonlight. Pearls glinted in her hair and were echoed by pallid gleams from her jeweled bodice. If a slave had stolen such finery, she would conceal it in a bundle until safely off the premises.
For the sake of love, women have moved mountains. Was this secret labor the prelude to an elopement? The gate creaked open. Shadowy figures appeared on the street. There was a whispered exchange, and the girl squeezed through the crack in the gate to join them.
The Plot Thickens
The three figures hurried forward. All were women. Ahead of them men in the cowls of the poor detached themselves from thicker shadows. Their words showed that these were no brigands. "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior."
The jeweled girl replied as if giving a countersign, repeating the next fine of Mary's famous Magnificat: "Because he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaid."
Torches were lifted. in their flickering glare, the men arranged themselves protectively around the ladies and they proceeded together toward their clandestine goal.
Assisi's Rogue Saint
The path of their flight dipped down to the plain. By now anyone in Assisi might have suspected where the torches were headed: the Portiuncula.
Six years before, an astonishing event had taken place. Giovanni di Pietro Bernardone, commonly called Francis, the son of a wealthy merchant had behaved madly, stripping naked in church so as to return his clothes to his merchant father, symbolizing his renunciation of his parent's wealth. He began begging stones to repair a ruined church. As the work of restoration progressed, he meditated much, washed lepers' sores, sought to follow Christ completely and began to preach repentance and peace. Rich young men renounced their wealth and gathered around him, forming a brotherhood. The brothers settled at a small church of Assisi, the Portiuncula
It was to Francis that the young woman was going. He welcomed the gaily garbed girl.
Wealth to Flaunt, but She Wanted Christ
She was Clare, daughter of Favorino Scifi, Count of Sasso-Rosso of the noble family Offreduccios. She had wealth to flaunt. In fact, just that morning, Palm Sunday, Clare had attended church dressed like a princess. Had she seemed somewhat preoccupied? When the other girls went forward to accept their palm leaves, she remained seated. The bishop had to bring her leaf down to the absent-minded girl.
Young men looked on and wondered, while poorer girls envied. Clare's beauty, wealth and virtue had made her a prize to be pursued, but she rejected all suitors.
Now, like Francis, whom she had often heard preach, she was planning to renounce her wealth in a desire to serve Christ who had become poor for our sakes. Francis encouraged her plan and arranged for his cowled brothers to escort her through the night.
She Wouldn't Go Back
The next day, Clare's family discovered her absence. Enquiries put them on her trail, and they found her. Francis had moved her to the Benedictine convent of San Paolo in Bastia. Gathering armed men around them, father and uncle entered the sanctuary, demanding that Clare return home.
Clare clung to the altar cloth and silently refused to budge. Gone were her jeweled clothes and graceful shoes. She now wore open sandals and coarse cloth.
When the angry men and Clare's weeping mother continued to insist that she return with them, Clare bared her head, and they saw that it was shorn of its lovely blond tresses. Finally her father and his retinue left, helpless in the face of her firm decision.
San Damiano: A Task She Didn't Want
Francis transferred Clare to another location. Two weeks after Clare's escape, her sister Agnes joined her. Mother and father had tried to force Agnes into marriage. Again armed men stormed into a convent. They seized Agnes, but unexplainably her body could not be moved. When her Uncle pounded her with his mailed fist, pain shot up his arm and he fled howling.
Other women soon joined Clare. Francis placed her in charge of these "Poor Clares" and gave her the chapel of San Damiano, which he had restored with his own hands. Although Clare did not want this responsibility, she would bear it for forty years. One day her mother would join her, too.
Joy in Every Circumstance
Like great Christians of all ages, Clare cultivated God's presence. To her, contemplation was to live in his presence, whatever her outward duties or recreation. She fixed her mind on Christ, meditating upon him as both man and God. "Jesus is the splendor of glory, the fight of the eternal fight, the mirror without tarnish."
She saw joy as an attitude which must be adopted regardless of the vicissitudes of life. Physical pain itself became a chance to express joy. Clare, who was often near death with illness, said, "I tremble with joy, and I do not fear that anyone may rob me of such happiness."
Counselor to Her Counselor
Francis was a poet of the soul. He knew that he had little knack for administration. Because of this, even in his lifetime, direction over the Franciscans was taken from him. Uncertain at times which course he should take, Francis consulted Clare. He knew that he could count on her for prayerful advice. It was she who encouraged him in the work of evangelization, when he debated whether the brothers should live lives of contemplation or travel about preaching. "Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel," was her scriptural counsel.
A Nurse to Dying Francis
Late in his life, blind, ill, and dying, Francis turned again to Clare. She erected a wattle hut in San Damiano's olive orchard and nursed him. Inspired by Clare's quiet, prayerful presence, Francis composed his famous "Canticle of the Sun" which begins,
O most high, almighty, good Lord God, to Thee belong praise, glory, honor and all blessing!
Praised be my Lord God with all His creatures, and specially our brother the sun, who brings us the sky and who brings us the light; Fair is he and shines with a very great splendor O Lord, he signifies to us Thee.
The Saracens Flee
In 1234, the army of Frederick II scaled the walls of San Damiano to open an assault on Assisi. Clare rose calmly from her sick bed and, taking the Eucharist from a little chapel by her cell, faced the invaders at an open window. When she raised the elements, the soldiers fell backward and fled.
A larger force headed by General Vitale di Aversa returned to attack Assisi. Clare and the poor sisters knelt in earnest prayer for their town. A furious storm overthrew the tents of the attackers, causing them to flee in terror.
Crushed by a Fantail
Clare suffered many pains in old age. Yet she insisted on performing chores that she could have delegated to others. One night as she shut the heavy outer door of San Damiano, its fantail swung loose, crushing her. Although seriously injured, she continued to praise God.
Her one fear as she lay dying was that the Poor Clares might be forced to relax their vow of poverty. Popes had already tried to lift it, but Clare insisted that just as Jesus left everything for us, so must she and her ladies leave everything for him. She pleaded urgently for the "privilege of poverty," which finds its all in Christ. On August 9, 1253, Pope Innocent IV issued a bull affirming Clare's rule. Two days later, she died, satisfied with her victory.
Why Such Insistence on Poverty?
Today, when money-making is an obsession, when game shows grab viewers by giveaways, lotteries lure players with the promise of huge payoffs and gambling is a mania, Clare's insistence on poverty seems quaint or is dismissed as an attempt to earn one's way into heaven. But she saw it as a way to follow Christ.
In becoming man, Christ emptied himself of everything--even his rank. He lived hungry, homeless, and humble. With such an example before them, how could Christians seek wealth or lordship over others?
The people of the world live above their material means and below their spiritual means. Clare chose to do the opposite. She knew that greed is idolatry and that we become what we worship. Many of us have found that shiny cars, swanky clothes, clever gadgets and big houses cannot satisfy our spiritual longings, but leave us weary instead. Clare recognized the essential emptiness of mere things before she was eighteen.
The Poor Clares had to beg for a living but lived to help others. They prayed, educated communities, nursed the sick and attended lepers (it is no fluke that Europe alone eliminated leprosy at a time when it was the scourge of the known world.) Their delight in God's creation was possibly an element in the rise of the Renaissance.