Virgin Saints and Martyrs – Saint Clara

Saint ClaraIt has been often remarked how that a saint who initiates a reform, or does some great work, has a faithful woman to assist, or carry on his work, and complete it. What he designed for all alike, he was competent only to apply to men, and she carried out his ideas among women. Thus Saint Bridget supplemented the achievements of Saint Patrick, and Saint Hilda those of Saint Aidan. Benedict’s twin sister Scholastica worked side by side with her brother; and, as we shall now see, Saint Clara was the spiritual sister and help-mate of Saint Francis. The moon, according to David, is an ever faithful witness in heaven; and yet the moon wanes and for a time disappears. The moon much resembles the Church.

“The moon above, the Church below,
A wondrous race they run;
And all their radiance, all their glow,
Each borrows from its sun.”

As the moon wanes, so there are periods when the Church proves dull, dark, and without much token of spiritual life; but this is for a time only, and precedes a restoration of illumination. The period when Saint Francis appeared was one of those of darkness in the Church. The enthusiastic faith of the barbarian kings and nobles, bred of the self-devotion and earnestness of the first missionaries among them, had led to their endowing the Church largely. This was done to enable her to carry on the great work of evangelisation without care for the material concerns of life. But it led to an unfortunate result. As the bishoprics were wealthy, and seats of power, ambitious and greedy men of the noble class rushed into Holy Orders for the sake of these material advantages, and in entire disregard of the religious responsibilities attached to such offices. And as with the prelates, so with the clergy. They seemed to think that the things of Jesus Christ were best served by making themselves comfortable; they were ignorant, careless, and worldly. The great ecclesiastics made a display of their wealth, and exercised their power tyrannically. “The Church might still seem to preach to all,” says Dean Milman; “but it preached in a tone of lofty condescension, it dictated rather than persuaded; but, in general, actual preaching had fallen into disuse; it was in theory the special privilege of the bishops, and the bishops were but few who had either the gift, the inclination, or the leisure from their secular, judicial, or warlike occupations to preach even in their cathedral cities; in the rest of their dioceses their presence was but occasional – a progress or visitation of pomp and form, rather than of popular instruction. The only general teaching of the people was the ritual.

“But the splendid ritual, admirably as it was constituted to impress by its words or symbolic forms the leading truths of Christianity upon the more intelligent, or in a vague way upon the more rude and uneducated, could be administered, and was administered, by a priesthood almost entirely ignorant, but which had learned mechanically, not without decency, perhaps not without devotion, to go through the stated observances. Everywhere the bell summoned to the frequent service, the service was performed, and the obedient flock gathered to the chapel or the church, knelt, and either performed their orisons or heard the customary chant and prayer. This, the only instruction which the mass of the priesthood could convey, might for a time be sufficient to maintain in the minds of the people a quiescent and submissive faith, nevertheless, in itself, could not but awaken in some a desire of knowledge, which it could not satisfy…. And just at this time the popular mind throughout Christendom seemed to demand instruction. There was a wide and vague awakening and yearning of the human intellect. Here that which was heresy stepped in and seized upon the vacant mind. Preaching in public and in private was the strength of all the heresiarchs, of all the sects. Eloquence, popular eloquence, became a new power which the Church had comparatively neglected or disdained, since the time of the Crusades. The Patropassians, the Henricians, the followers of Peter Waldo, and the wilder teachers at least, tinged with the old Manichaean tenets of the East, met on this common ground. They were poor and popular; they felt with the people, whether the lower burghers of the cities, the lower vassals, or even the peasants and serfs; they spoke the language of the people, they were of the people. All these sects were bound together by their common aversion to the clergy – not only the wealthy, worldly, immoral, tyrannical, but the decent yet inert priesthood, who left the uninstructed souls of men to perish.”

It was when, apparently, the bulk of the population was hesitating whether to break away from the Church, and when certain ardent spirits began to question whether the Church could be the Kingdom of God, wherein appeared so much of evil, that almost simultaneously two men stood forth to arrest the evil. The story was told afterwards that the pope in a dream had seen the Church under the form of a building tottering to its fall, but that two men rushed forward and sustained it. These men were Dominic and Francis. The former founded an order of preachers, by which Christendom in the West was overspread with a host of zealous, active, and devoted men, whose function was popular instruction.

Francis, seeing the universal greed after lands and money, took the vow of poverty, made that a capital point in his institution. The grasping after possessions should never curse his society, and he donned, and made his disciples don, the poor, coarse dress of the common labourer, to show that they were to be ever of the people, and for the people, even for the lowest. And he aimed first of all to encourage piety – the striving of the soul after God – and to show that within the Church that flame could burn brightest and give out most heat. But he taught as well. It was due to his great desire to bring home to the people the truth of the Incarnation, that he devised the crèche of Christmas, and composed the first Christmas carols. And he was a preacher – fervent, inspired, convincing. His heart so overflowed with love, that even birds and beasts were attracted to him, and his love extended to them – “his sisters and brothers,” as he termed them.

The story of the conversion of Saint Francis, the wealthy merchant’s son, is well known. He was a young man, just at the age when the deepest feelings of man’s nature begin to make themselves articulate. One evening he was revelling with his companions of the same age with himself. When supper was over, the merry party dashed out of the hot, lighted room into the open air. The dark indigo-blue vault of heaven overhead was besprent with myriads of stars, and Francis suddenly halted, looked up, and remained silent in contemplation of this wondrous canopy.

“What ails you, Francis?” asked one of the revellers.

“He is star-gazing for a wife,” joked another.

“Ah!” said Francis gravely, “for a wife past all that your imagination can conceive.”

His soul with inarticulate cravings strained after something higher than a merchant’s life behind a counter, a nobler life than revelling and drunkenness. Then probably he first conceived the idea of embracing poverty, and of devoting his whole life to his poor brothers.

The first great gathering of the Order he founded was in 1212, and that same year saw the establishment of a sisterhood in connection with the Society. It came about thus: –

Favorino Scefi was a man of noble family in Assisi, given to the profession of arms, and a good swordsman; his wife, Hortulana, had presented him with three daughters, Clara, Agnes, and Beatrix, but no son.

One day – it was Palm Sunday – in the before-mentioned year, when Clara was aged eighteen, she and her mother were present when Francis preached. The effect of his sermon on her young heart was overwhelming and ineradicable. From this moment she resolved to leave the world and its splendours, and the prospect of marriage, and to devote her whole life to God and to the advancement of His kingdom.

What she was to do, what God’s designs were, all was dark before her; only in her was the intense longing to place herself in His hands, that He might use her as He saw fit. And it appeared to her that her desire had been known and her self-offering accepted. As already said, it was Palm Sunday, and the custom was for the bishop to bless the palms that were presented him by the deacon, and to distribute them among those who came up in single file to the altar steps. Clara, shy and retiring, hung back. The bishop’s eye rested on her. All at once he stepped down into the nave, the acolytes bearing their tapers before him, and carrying a palm branch, he placed it in the hands of the shrinking maiden.

To her it was as a consecration.

In the evening she ran to the chapel of the Portiuncula, where Francis and his disciples were installed; she fell on her knees and implored to be received, and given work to do. In a paroxysm of devotion she plucked off her little ornaments, and tore away her rich dress.

Francis, unable as he was unwilling to refuse her offer of herself, cast over her a coarse habit, and she was enrolled in the ranks of the Champions of Poverty.

But where was the young girl to be put? He had no other female adherents. He accordingly took her to the Benedictine nunnery of Saint Paolo, where she was to remain till he had considered what to do with her.

The parents of Clara were indignant and annoyed when they learned what she had done, and they endeavoured by every means to induce her to return to them. They even employed violence. She escaped from them to the altar, and laid hold of the cloth that covered it. They tried to drag her away, but she clung with such tenacity as to tear the very cloth to which she clung.

Clara now removed to another convent of Benedictins, Saint Angelo di Panso, where she spent a fortnight in prayer and silence, considering the step she had taken.

At the end of that time her sister Agnes, two years younger than herself, came and entreated to be allowed to remain with her. The father was very angry, and called the members of the family together to consult on the matter. Nothing, however, could be done; the two girls were resolute.

In the meantime Saint Francis was busy preparing a dwelling for them near a little church of Saint Damian that he had restored. When this was complete he removed them to it. Many girls and even women now joined the sisters, and constituted a little community. Francis was appealed to for a rule by which they might form their lives, but this he was unwilling to give. Let them, said he, take Clara herself as their example.

Presently, little Beatrix arrived. She could not bear to be alone in the now desolate home, she yearned to be with her sisters. She also was accepted. After the death of her husband Hortulana also joined them, so that mother and daughters were united again.

As the fundamental rule of Francis was absolute poverty, his brothers were obliged to beg their bread. They went round the town and country with sacks, asking for scraps of food; and as it would not be seemly for the sisters of the house at Saint Damian to do the same, the friars were constrained to divide their crusts with them.

Gregory IX very sensibly objected to the friars going in and out of the convent, and he forbade it. “Very well,” said Clara; “if holy brothers may not minister to us the Bread of Life, they shall not provide us with the bread that perishes,” and she refused the crusts and broken meat they had collected on their rounds. What was to be done? The whole convent would starve. In a few days the Poor Clares would be dead. An express was sent to the Pope. Gregory could defy an emperor, and that such an one as Frederick Barbarossa; but he was no match for an obstinate woman. He gave way.

The rule imposed on the sisterhood by Saint Clara was one of dreary penance. Their services in church were to be without music, even on the high festivals. She would not allow those who were ignorant to learn to read, so that to such these services were unintelligible.

In fact, extravagance marked all she did. She did not suffer the sisters ever to interchange a word with each other without permission, and they were all shut up in their convent, which they might not leave. It is true that Saint Francis did slightly modify some of this severity. But his own rule of absolute poverty was a mistake. He intended it as a protest against the money and land grabbing which prevailed, not among laymen only, but among ecclesiastics, and also among the monks; but he went too far. He turned his friars into mere beggars. If he had insisted that they should be poor and work for their livelihood, that would have been well; but to employ them as tramps, begging from door to door, and sponging on the honest, hard-working people, was a fatal mistake, and led to very bad results.

So also Clara, in the hope of keeping her sisters devoted only to the service of God, dissuaded, nay, forbade, reading. In place of cultivating the intellect – a splendid gift of God – she made those under her direction bury their talents.

Insensibly, the Manichaean heresy had penetrated all minds, and made men and women think that the body was evil and must be tortured and bullied, and all that was human trampled underfoot, that the soul alone should be cared for. The result was the production of hysterical, ecstatic beings, who were helpless to do anything for themselves, and were, so far as their minds went, idiots.

Saint Clara’s work would have been worse than useless, positively mischievous, had it not been for one thing. Saint Francis, in order to extend religion among the people, had instituted a third branch of his institution, of which the second was that of the Poor Clares. This third order comprised men and women living in the world – in fact, a great guild of pious people, observing very simple rules, which bound all together in the service of God, His Church, and the poor and sick. This spread like wildfire: everywhere men and women, husbands and wives, young men and girls, rich and poor, nobles and merchants, day-labourers and needlewomen, joined this community, encouraged each other in good works, and learned, by knowing each other, to lose class exclusiveness.

311Inevitably the charge of the female members of the third order devolved on the Poor Clares. Then other duties sprang up. There were plenty of little orphan girls adrift; these had to be cared for, and the Clares took charge of them. The devout desired to have their daughters taught by them, and they were constrained to open schools, – and thus to cultivate their own minds, and abandon the rule of silence, or at least to modify it. Consequently the order of Poor Clares did a great deal of good, but not in the way in which Saint Clara desired.

The time was one of furious intestinal war in Italy between the factions of Guelph and Ghibelline, and there were far more women than men, as the latter had fallen. Children were left without fathers, wives lost their husbands, girls were deprived of their natural protectors, and the convent served as an asylum for these unfortunates, who otherwise would have succumbed.

In 1220 occurred a scene bearing some resemblance to that of the last meeting of Saint Benedict and his sister. Saint Clara felt a great desire to be with Saint Francis and to eat with him; but he constantly refused. At length his companions, seeing how this troubled her, said to him, “Father, it seems to us that this sternness is not in accordance with Christian charity. Pay attention to Clara, and consent to her request. It is but a small thing that she desires of you – just to eat with her. Remember how that, at your preaching, she forsook all that the world offers.”

Saint Francis answered, “As it is so in your eyes, so let it be. Let the feast be held at the Church of the Portiuncula, for it was in that that she took the vows.”

When the appointed day arrived, Saint Clara went forth from her convent with one companion, and came to the place appointed, and waited till Francis should arrive. After awhile he appeared, and he caused their common meal to be prepared on the grass. He seated himself beside Clara, and one of his friars beside the nun who had attended Saint Clara. Then all the rest of the company gathered about them.

During the first course Saint Francis spoke of God so sweetly, so tenderly, that all were rapt in ecstasy, and forgetting their food, remained wondering and thinking only of God.

When the repast was ended, Clara returned to San Damiani greatly comforted. This was her only meeting, for other purposes than those of ghostly counsel, with her friend and father.

Saint Francis died in 1226, six years after the meeting; but Clara lived on for more than a quarter of a century after his decease.

Concerning the austerities practised by Saint Clara it is unnecessary to write: a knowledge of them would provoke disgust; but they have probably been vastly exaggerated, for had they been what is represented, she could not have lived forty-two years of self-torture. As she died she was heard murmuring that she saw our Lord surrounded with virgins crowned with flowers, and that one, whose wreath was “like a windowed censer,” bowed over her and kissed her.

She died in 1257.

We cannot say of Saint Clara that she originated a great work of utility. She supplemented the undertaking of Saint Francis, and carried his extravagances to a further extreme. But she was sincere, she held to her purpose; and although her foundation was one void of common-sense and right principles, yet, because well intended, it worked itself into one of utility, and continues to the present day in the Latin Communion doing good service.

– text and illustration taken from Virgin Saints and Martyrs, by Sabine Baring-Gould, F Anger, illustrator, published in New York, 1901