She was the eldest daughter of Favorino Scifi, Count of Sasso-Rosso, the wealthy representative of an ancient Roman family, who owned a large palace in Assisi and a castle on the slope of Mount Subasio. Such at least is the traditional account. Her mother, Blessed Ortolana, belonged to the noble family of Fiumi and was conspicuous for her zeal and piety.
From her earliest years Clare seems to have been endowed with the rarest virtues. As a child she was most devoted to prayer and to practices of mortification, and as she passed into girlhood her distaste for the world and her yearning for a more spiritual life increased. She was eighteen years of age when Saint Francis came to preach the Lenten course in the church of San Giorgio at Assisi. The inspired words of the Poverello kindled a flame in the heart of Clare; she sought him out secretly and begged him to help her that she too might live “after the manner of the holy Gospel”. Saint Francis, who at once recognized in Clare one of those chosen souls destined by God for great things, and who also, doubtless, foresaw that many would follow her example, promised to assist her. On Palm Sunday Clare, arrayed in all her finery, attended high Mass at the cathedral, but when the others pressed forward to the altar-rail to receive a branch of palm, she remained in her place as if rapt in a dream. All eyes were upon the young girl as the bishop descended from the sanctuary and placed the palm in her hand. That was the last time the world beheld Clare. On the night of the same day she secretly left her father’s house, by Saint Francis’s advice and, accompanied by her aunt Bianca and another companion, proceeded to the humble chapel of the Porziuncula, where Saint Francis and his disciples met her with lights in their hands. Clare then laid aside her rich dress, and Saint Francis, having cut off her hair, clothed her in a rough tunic and a thick veil, and in this way the young heroine vowed herself to the service of Jesus Christ. This was 20 March, 1212.
Clare was placed by Saint Francis provisionally with the Benedictine nuns of San Paolo, near Bastia, but her father, who had expected her to make a splendid marriage, and who was furious at her secret flight, on discovering her retreat, did his utmost to dissuade Clare from her heroic proposals, and even tried to drag her home by force. But Clare held her own with a firmness above her years, and Count Favorino was finally obliged to leave her in peace. A few days later Saint Francis, in order to secure Clare the greater solitude she desired, transferred her to Sant’ Angelo in Panzo, another monastery of the Benedictine nuns on one of the flanks of Subasio. Here some sixteen days after her own flight, Clare was joined by her younger sister Agnes, whom she was instrumental in delivering from the persecution of their infuriated relatives. Clare and her sister remained with the nuns at Sant’ Angelo until they and the other fugitives from the world who had followed them were established by Saint Francis in a rude dwelling adjoining the poor chapel of San Damiano, situated outside the town which he had to a great extent rebuilt with his own hands, and which he now obtained from the Benedictines as a permanent abode for his spiritual daughters. Thus was founded the first community of the Order of Poor Ladies, or of Poor Clares, as this second order of Saint Francis came to be called.
The history of the Poor Clares will be dealt with in a separate article. Here it suffices to note that we may distinguish, during the lifetime of Saint Clare, three stages in the complicated early history of the new order.
In the beginning Saint Clare and her companions had no written rule to follow beyond a very short formula vitae given them by Saint Francis, and which may be found among his works. Some years later, apparently in 1219, during Saint Francis’s absence in the East, Cardinal Ugolino, then protector of the order, afterwards Gregory IX, drew up a written rule for the Clares at Monticelli, taking as a basis the Rule of Saint Benedict, retaining the fundamental points of the latter and adding some special constitutions. This new rule, which, in effect if not in intention, took away from the Clares the Franciscan character of absolute poverty so dear to the heart of Saint Francis and made them for all practical purposes a congregation of Benedictines, was approved by Honorius III (Bull, “Sacrosancta”, 9 Dec., 1219). When Clare found that the new rule, though strict enough in other respects, allowed the holding of property in common, she courageously and successfully resisted the innovations of Ugolino as being entirely opposed to the intentions of Saint Francis. The latter had forbidden the Poor Ladies, just as he had forbidden his friars to possess any worldly goods even in common. Owning nothing, they were to depend entirety upon what the Friars Minor could beg for them. This complete renunciation of all property was however regarded by Ugolino as unpractical for cloistered women. When, therefore, in 1228, he came to Assisi for the canonization of Saint Francis (having meanwhile ascended the pontifical throne as Gregory IX), he visited Saint Clare at San Damiano and pressed her to so far deviate from the practice of poverty which had up to this time obtained at San Damiano, as to accept some provision for the unforeseen wants of the community. But Clare firmly refused. Gregory, thinking that her refusal might be due to fear of violating the vow of strict poverty she had taken, offered to absolve her from it. “Holy Father, I crave for absolution from my sins”, replied Clare, “but I desire not to be absolved from the obligation of following Jesus Christ”.
The heroic unworldliness of Clare filled the pope with admiration, as his letters to her, still extant, bear eloquent witness, and he so far gave way to her views as to grant her on 17 September, 1228, the celebrated Privilegium Paupertatis which some regard in the light of a corrective of the Rule of 1219. The original autograph copy of this unique “privilege” – the first one of its kind ever sought for, or ever issued by the Holy See – is preserved in the archive at Santa Chiara in Assisi. The text is as follows:
Gregory Bishop Servant of the Servants of God. To our beloved daughters in Christ Clare and the other handmaids of Christ dwelling together at the Church of San Damiano in the Diocese of Assisi. Health and Apostolic benediction. 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.”
That Saint Clare may have solicited a “privilege” similar to the foregoing at an earlier date and obtained it vivâ voce, is not improbable. Certain it is that after the death of Gregory IX Clare had once more to contend for the principle of absolute poverty prescribed by Saint Francis, for Innocent IV would fain have given the Clares a new and mitigated rule, and the firmness with which she held to her way won over the pope. Finally, two days before her death, Innocent, no doubt at the reiterated request of the dying abbess, solemnly confirmed the definitive Rule of the Clares (Bull, “Solet Annuere”, 9 August, 1253), and thus secured to them the precious treasure of poverty which Clare, in imitation of Saint Francis, had taken for her portion from the beginning of her conversion. The author of this latter rule, which is largely an adaptation mutatis mutandis, of the rule which Saint Francis composed for the Friars Minor in 1223, seems to have been Cardinal Rainaldo, Bishop of Ostia, and protector of the order, afterwards Alexander IV, though it is most likely that Saint Clare herself had a hand in its compilation. Be this as it may, it can no longer be maintained that Saint Francis was in any sense the author of this formal Rule of the Clares; he only gave to Saint Clare and her companions at the outset of their religious life the brief formula vivendi already mentioned.
Saint Clare, who in 1215 had, much against her will been made superior at San Damiano by Saint Francis, continued to rule there as abbess until her death, in 1253, nearly forty years later. There is no good reason to believe that she ever once went beyond the boundaries of San Damiano during all that time. It need not, therefore, be wondered at if so comparatively few details of Saint Clare’s life in the cloister “hidden with Christ in God”, have come down to us. We know that she became a living copy of the poverty, the humility, and the mortification of Saint Francis; that she had a special devotion to the Holy Eucharist, and that in order to increase her love for Christ crucified she learned by heart the Office of the Passion composed by Saint Francis, and that during the time that remained to her after her devotional exercises she engaged in manual labour. Needless to add, that under Saint Clare’s guidance the community of San Damiano became the sanctuary of every virtue, a very nursery of saints. Clare had the consolation not only of seeing her younger sister Beatrix, her mother Ortolana, and her faithful aunt Bianca follow Agnes into the order, but also of witnessing the foundation of monasteries of Clares far and wide throughout Europe. It would be difficult, moreover, to estimate how much the silent influence of the gentle abbess did towards guiding the women of medieval Italy to higher aims. In particular, Clare threw around poverty that irresistible charm which only women can communicate to religious or civic heroism, and she became a most efficacious coadjutrix of Saint Francis in promoting that spirit of unworldliness which in the counsels of God, “was to bring about a restoration of discipline in the Church and of morals and civilization in the peoples of Western Europe”. Not the least important part of Clare’s work was the aid and encouragement she gave Saint Francis. It was to her he turned when in doubt, and it was she who urged him to continue his mission to the people at a time when he thought his vocation lay rather in a life of contemplation. When in an attack of blindness and illness, Saint Francis came for the last time to visit San Damiano, Clare erected a little wattle hut for him in an olive grove close to the monastery, and it was here that he composed his glorious “Canticle of the Sun”. After Saint Francis’s death the procession which accompanied his remains from the Porziuncula to the town stopped on the way at San Damiano in order that Clare and her daughters might venerate the pierced hands and feet of him who had formed them to the love of Christ crucified – a pathetic scene which Giotto has commemorated in one of his loveliest frescoes. So far, however, as Clare was concerned, Saint Francis was always living, and nothing is, perhaps, more striking in her after-life than her unswerving loyalty to the ideals of the Poverello, and the jealous care with which she clung to his rule and teaching.
When, in 1234, the army of Frederick II was devastating the valley of Spoleto, the soldiers, preparatory to an assault upon Assisi, scaled the walls of San Damiano by night, spreading terror among the community. Clare, calmly rising from her sick bed, and taking the ciborium from the little chapel adjoining her cell, proceeded to face the invaders at an open window against which they had already placed a ladder. It is related that, as she raised the Blessed Sacrament on high, the soldiers who were about to enter the monastery fell backward as if dazzled, and the others who were ready to follow them took flight. It is with reference to this incident that Saint Clare is generally represented in art bearing a ciborium.
When, some time later, a larger force returned to storm Assisi, headed by the General Vitale di Aversa who had not been present at the first attack, Clare, gathering her daughters about her, knelt with them in earnest prayer that the town might be spared. Presently a furious storm arose, scattering the tents of the soldiers in every direction, and causing such a panic that they again took refuge in flight. The gratitude of the Assisians, who with one accord attributed their deliverance to Clare’s intercession, increased their love for the “Seraphic Mother”. Clare had long been enshrined in the hearts of the people, and their veneration became more apparent as, wasted by illness and austerities, she drew towards her end. Brave and cheerful to the last, in spite of her long and painful infirmities, Clare caused herself to be raised in bed and, thus reclining, says her contemporary biographer “she spun the finest thread for the purpose of having it woven into the most delicate material from which she afterwards made more than one hundred corporals, and, enclosing them in a silken burse, ordered them to be given to the churches in the plain and on the mountains of Assisi”. When at length she felt the day of her death approaching, Clare, calling her sorrowing religious around her, reminded them of the many benefits they had received from God and exhorted them to persevere faithfully in the observance of evangelical poverty. Pope Innocent IV came from Perugia to visit the dying saint, who had already received the last sacraments from the hands of Cardinal Rainaldo. Her own sister, Saint Agnes, had returned from Florence to console Clare in her last illness; Leo, Angelo, and Juniper, three of the early companions of Saint Francis, were also present at the saint’s death-bed, and at Saint Clare’s request read aloud the Passion of Our Lord according to Saint John, even as they had done twenty-seven years before, when Francis lay dying at the Porziuncula. At length before dawn on 11 August, 1253, the holy foundress of the Poor Ladies passed peacefully away amid scenes which her contemporary biographer has recorded with touching simplicity. The pope, with his court, came to San Damiano for the saint’s funeral, which partook rather of the nature of a triumphal procession.
The Clares desired to retain the body of their foundress among them at San Damiano, but the magistrates of Assisi interfered and took measures to secure for the town the venerated remains of her whose prayers, as they all believed, had on two occasions saved it from destruction. Clare’s miracles too were talked of far and wide. It was not safe, the Assisians urged, to leave Clare’s body in a lonely spot without the walls; it was only right, too, that Clare, “the chief rival of the Blessed Francis in the observance of Gospel perfection”, should also have a church in Assisi built in her honour. Meanwhile, Clare’s remains were placed in the chapel of San Giorgio, where Saint Francis’s preaching had first touched her young heart, and where his own body had likewise been interred pending the erection of the Basilica of San Francesco. Two years later, 26 September, 1255, Clare was solemnly canonized by Alexander IV, and not long afterwards the building of the church of Santa Chiara, in honour of Assisi’s second great saint, was begun under the direction of Filippo Campello, one of the foremost architects of the time. On 3 October, 1260, Clare’s remains were transferred from the chapel of San Giorgio and buried deep down in the earth, under the high altar in the new church, far out of sight and reach. After having remained hidden for six centuries – like the remains of Saint Francis – and after much search had been made, Clare’s tomb was found in 1850, to the great joy of the Assisians. On 23 September in that year the coffin was unearthed and opened, the flesh and clothing of the saint had been reduced to dust, but the skeleton was in a perfect state of preservation. Finally, on the 29th of September, 1872, the saint’s bones were transferred, with much pomp, by Archbishop Pecci, afterwards Leo XIII, to the shrine, in the crypt at Santa Chiara, erected to receive them, and where they may now be seen. The feast of Saint Clare is celebrated throughout the Church on 12 August; the feast of her first translation is kept in the order on 3 October, and that of the finding of her body on 23 September.
The sources of the history of Saint Clare at our disposal are few in number. They include (1) a Testament attributed to the saint and some charming Letters written by her to Blessed Agnes, Princess of Bohemia; (2) the Rule of the Clares, and a certain number of early Pontifical Bulls relating to the Order; (3) a contemporary Biography, written in 1256 by order of Alexander IV. This life, which is now generally ascribed to Thomas of Celano, is the source from which Saint Clare’s subsequent biographers have derived most of their information.