Favorino Sciffi and his wife, Ortolana, lived in a castle near the town of Assisi. They were nobly born and wealthy. He was a brave warrior, and she a pious woman, given to works of mercy and charity. Yet, with all these blessings, there was one they desired which God had withheld, for no children’s faces gladdened their home.
At length Ortolana went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and at Bethlehem prayed earnestly, that if it was God’s holy Will, she might no longer be childless, and, as an answer to her request, a daughter was born to her, whom she was directed by Heaven to name Clare.
The little infant seemed to bring joy and blessing with her; and as she grew up, it was plain that God’s favours had been early bestowed upon her, for even as a tiny child, she showed a remarkable spirit of penance, refusing herself everything she did not strictly need, for the sake of others, and trying to live retired from human notice, for Christ alone. On reaching the age of reason her love of God became more ardent, and the more she thought of Him so much more did she grow to hate herself.
To accord with her rank, the wealth of her parents, and what they desired for her, Clare was obliged to wear rich and costly clothing, but underneath it were rough hair shirts and other instruments of penance, which she put on for the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, so that she might never forget His cruel sufferings for her.
When Clare was fifteen years of age, her parents determined to have her married; but although many husbands, both rich and noble, were proposed to her, she would not listen to their entreaties, but begged to be allowed to remain at home while she was still so young. The cause of this was, that Clare had fixed her mind upon belonging wholly to God, although as yet she did not know in what way to sacrifice herself to Him; and when, through a relative, she heard of the holy Saint Francis, who had left parents, and friends, and home for the love of Christ, she longed to follow in his footsteps.
At length she went to speak to him, and poured out all her desires into his ear. But Francis asked a hard thing, as a test of her sincerity. “Lay aside your rich garments, put on sackcloth, and go through the town begging alms if you wish me to believe you,” he said.
Clare never hesitated, never wavered. She returned at once to her home, wrapped herself in a coarse piece of sackcloth which covered her, and went through the streets of her native city asking bread for the love of God.
After seeing her once or twice more, and feeling convinced that it was really a divine voice which called her to a life of penance, Francis told her to dress in her richest clothing upon the coming Palm Sunday, go to church for the blessing of the palms, and then come to him at Saint Mary of the Angels, where he would give her the habit of a religious.
Clare obeyed all these directions, dressed herself with so much care that her mother and her younger sister were surprised, and then accompanied her friends to the cathedral, after which she returned home to prepare to leave it for ever. She was in her eighteenth year when she left her father’s house in secret, and gliding softly down the castle stairs, escaped by a small side door which was usually open, but then to her dismay was closed by large stones rolled against it. These, however, she moved sufficiently to pass through, praying to God, without Whose help she could not have made her way, and then, with the Mend who had first told her of Saint Francis, she hurried to the church where he was waiting for her.
Putting off her rich dress, she was clothed in a coarse ash-coloured tunic, girded with a thick cord, her long hair cut off, and a veil put upon her head, and she made her vows to God, whilst her garments and her jewels were distributed amongst the poor. Saint Francis placed her in a Benedictine monastery in Assisi, to which her father pursued her, intending to force her back into the world; but no entreaties shook her resolve to follow Jesus in poverty and suffering. Then Favorino threatened to drag her away by violence, but Clare ran to the altar, and, clinging to it, lifted her veil, showing her head without its covering of hair, as a proof that she belonged for ever to God, and then her friends left her and troubled her no more.
Soon afterwards, when Clare had been removed to another convent, her next sister, Agnes, came to see her, declaring that she would also give herself entirely to God. Then Favorino’s anger burst out afresh, and, calling his family together, lie told them that his second daughter had left her home, and besought them to help him bring her back.
Twelve strong men went with the father to the convent, where they asked to see Agnes, and urged her to return, but when she refused they rushed upon her, seized her by her hair and dragged her out. “Help, help,” cried the frightened girl, as they forced her roughly down the mountain path, but there they stayed, for the slight form had become as heavy as lead at the prayer of her sister Clare, and all their strength united failed to lift her. One of them, fiercer than the rest, raised his sword to kill her, but his arm fell withered to his side, and was only cured later by the intercession of Agnes. Then Clare came forward, and besought them to spare her the torn and bruised form of her sister, and they departed, leaving Agnes to rise, all bleeding and wounded, from the ground, to return to the convent, where Francis gave her to God, clothing her also in the habit of penance.
These two sisters were to be the first of that company of poor and holy women who form the Second Order of Saint Francis, and he placed these at Saint Damian’s, where others joined them, forming a little community of which Clare was abbess.
Afterwards Agnes was sent to Florence to commence a house of the same kind there, and thus the sisters were separated, never meeting again till thirty years later, when the elder was dying. It was a severe life of penance, prayer, and almost unbroken silence, but in it both the sisters found great happiness, because God had placed them there. Clare had so wonderful a spirit of prayer that she would often remain hours wrapt in the thought of the sacred Passion of Jesus; and when the time for rest came, she remained with God, and then went to awaken the sisters, light the lamps, ring the bell, and return to her place for the Divine Office. The devil tried to hinder the union of her soul with God by appearing to her in a hideous form, but Clare said:
“They who serve the Lord need never be afraid,” and he immediately disappeared.
In honour of the Blessed Sacrament, the Saint spent much time in working for the altar, even when upon her sick-bed; spinning with her own hands linen for the use of the churches which needed it.
Though Clare had been compelled to take the place of abbess, she loved better to serve her sisters than to command them, and in sickness she waited upon them most patiently and charitably. Weak as her body was, she treated herself with great severity, eating only herbs or vegetables, sleeping on the ground with a log of wood for her pillow, and never even in the coldest weather wearing any covering upon her feet; yet these mortifications never made her gloomy or unhappy, and her smile was bright and her voice always cheerful
During the time of Saint Clare, the Church was persecuted by the Saracens, and the infidel troops entered Assisi and saw the convent upon the hill before them. They at once determined to attack it, and choosing a dark night, scaled the high walls and made their way into the outer court. At their first shout, the hearts of the defenceless nuns were filled with fear, and they came crowding round the bedside of the holy abbess, who was sick.
“Fear not, my children, Jesus will defend you,” she said; and bade them carry her to the convent gate.
They reminded her of the danger, of her weak health, but it was in vain. Saint Clare made her way to the battlements, assisted by two of her nuns, but first she knelt before the Blessed Sacrament and begged Jesus to protect those who were given to Him, and not allow their fierce and wicked enemies to harm them. As she prayed, a sweet voice like that of a child seemed to come from the tabernacle. “I will protect you for ever,” it said. Then the Saint’s confidence grew stronger, and she cried:
“Lord, defend also this city which maintains us for the love of Thee.”
To which the silvery voice answered:
“This city shall suffer, but it shall be defended by My protection and your prayers.”
Then Clare, full of power from God, took the remonstrance in her hand, and mounting the wall, held it up before the eyes of the infidels, who were just going to leap into the inner court, and, blinded by the light, which streamed in brilliant rays from the Blessed Sacrament, the terrified men fell back, and the convent was left in peace.
Once more a troop encamped beneath the walls of Assisi, under a clever general, but Saint Clare and her nuns scattered ashes upon their heads, and wept, and sighed before God, praying for the deliverance of their city, and their supplication prevailed, and the enemies were driven away utterly defeated.
During a famine the nuns suffered want as well as the other inhabitants of that part, and at length came to their last morsel of bread; but Clare gave orders for it to be divided and one half sent to the friars, whilst the remainder should be distributed amongst the community in portions.
“But, mother, it will need the help of a miracle to divide this bread into sufficient pieces,” said the sister who had received the command; upon which the holy abbess smilingly bade her do what was told her, and the bread multiplied in her hands, so that there was enough for the meal of all the sisters that day. Another time oil was miraculously supplied to them in answer to the prayer of this true servant of God, who turned to Him in her necessity with such trust and love. When Saint Clare had passed forty years in poverty and penance she became very feeble, and grew gradually weaker until her death. During her illness she was always in prayer or asking to have the sacred Passion of Christ read to her, and as her hope of leaving the world became surer, the expression of her face grew radiant with joy.
On the evening of the 10th of August the nuns who were attending her, saw a number of white-robed virgins appear, following Mary, who entered the poor cell, bent over the dying Saint, and kissed her lovingly, as the virgins threw a royal mantle over her worn habit.
Next day Clare died, and her body was carried to the church where her holy Father Francis had been carried years before, whilst the entire populace followed in her honour; and there, some time later, a splendid church was built where her sacred relics were enshrined, and to which her daughters removed that they might dwell by the tomb of their mother and foundress, whose virtues had shone so brightly, whose holiness had brought down God’s blessing upon her Order, and whose name should live ever to the glory of her Lord throughout the Catholic Church.
– from , by Mary F Seymour