Assisi is an Italian hilltop village of medieval homes and churches. Birds soar overhead, and scenic countryside views are plentiful. It’s gorgeous. Every year, tourists of every (or no) spiritual outlook descend on the small town to visit the beautiful basilica dedicated to Francis, one of the world’s most popular Catholic saints, who promoted peace and justice while founding the Franciscan religious order. In 2019, I traveled to Assisi and planned to see the basilica. But, I also hoped to learn more about another saint — Clare — who was Francis’ first female follower.
Who Was Clare?
In 1194 Chiara (Clare) Offreduccio was born into one of Assisi’s noble clans. In medieval society, aristocratic families like Clare’s reigned over the feudal system in which lords and merchants lived off the backs of poor serfs. But, wealth also came with a personal price: families warred with each other to protect their property and riches, and unhappy marriages were contracted under strategic alliances.
When Clare was 17, she heard Francesco di Bernardoni — the future Saint Francis — preaching in public. Francis came from the merchant class, but had turned his back on money, property, and weapons. He wanted to serve the poor by helping to redistribute the wealth in Assisi: if he gave up his money, the serfs would have more of it. Francis also was weary of the constant violence that came with life in a rich family; he himself had been a soldier and a prisoner of war.
As Clare listened to Francis’ message, she liked what she heard. So, in the middle of the night on the holy day of Palm Sunday, she ran away from home and joined the Franciscans as their first female devotee. The knights in her family were not pleased with this decision. They tried to force her to return home. Instead, Clare resisted and committed herself to a new way of life, in poverty. Soon, she formed a Franciscan order of like-minded women, the Poor Clares, whose convent was at San Damiano Church, down the hill from central Assisi.
The idea of an impoverished women’s convent was radical in the 13th Century. Religious orders for women were set up with income streams, often from agricultural property. Four consecutive popes forbade Clare and her sisters to live in poverty. Permission finally came shortly before Clare’s death.
Such was her confidence in her own wisdom and actions that Clare could be patient and wait for what she wanted. And she projected this sense of self-worth in other ways, notably in four letters she wrote to Agnes of Prague, the head of another convent who had given up her status in a royal family to join the Franciscan movement.
Like Clare, Agnes had her own struggles with papal authority and politics. And she had questions about how she and her sisters could best live out Franciscan teachings. These issues caused Agnes much anxiety and self-doubt, so Clare urged her counterpart to let go of things she could not control and find joy in honoring herself, a woman with many virtues and a great capacity for love. Clare saw divinity in Agnes, and she saw it in herself. In Clare’s third letter, she wrote:
“[Y]ou, too, dearest, must always rejoice in the Lord, and not let bitterness and confusion envelop you. . . . and through contemplation, transform your entire being into the image of the Divine One himself. . . . See, it is already clear that the soul of a faithful person, the most worthy of God’s creations through the grace of God, is greater than heaven, since the heavens and the rest of creation together cannot contain their Creator and only the soul of a faithful person is his dwelling place and throne. . . .”
In 1253, Clare died shortly after writing her fourth letter to Agnes. Clare hoped her final words would provide strength and comfort to her friend in the years ahead.
The Franciscan order of contemplative nuns, the Poor Clares, spread throughout the world. Today there are over 20,000 sisters in more than 70 countries.
Clare became a saint two years after her death. But, as the “second saint” of Assisi, many visitors don’t realize there are two basilicas in town — one dedicated to the first female Franciscan. And, even fewer tourists hike the steep path that leads from the main village down the hillside to San Damiano Church and Monastery. This is where Saint Francis received his spiritual calling and where the Poor Clares broke bread, prayed, worked, and slept during Clare’s lifetime.
At quiet San Damiano, surrounded by olive groves, meadows, gardens, and wide-open skies, it’s easy to understand the true meaning and beauty of the simple, peaceful life that produced not one, but two, great minds and hearts.
My Song for Clare
Visiting Assisi and reading Clare’s letters helped me see clearly this saint’s humanity and knowledge of her place in the world. I came to admire her supreme confidence in her own self worth. Clare thought her soul was one with, and part of, God. When she died, she said, “Blessed are you, O Lord, for having created me!”
My own evolving idea of God is that I, too, am a bit of divinity, as are all other elements of creation. Even so, it’s sometimes difficult to see and trust my inner light.
While in Assisi, I noticed beautiful medieval symbols, such as the ancient town crest, adorning the buildings. But, consistent with the age of knights in armor, there were also dragons. Personally, it seems like I’m always facing and fighting with “dragons” — those who represent my self-doubt. If only I could defeat them. If. ∗