There is a church in Assisi, overlooking the Umbrian valley, striated in pink and white stone. Wide lateral buttresses anchor it to the ground on one side, and a bell tower rises into the sky. It is an imposing building, but it makes you think mainly of light. Basilica di Santa Chiara, the Church of Saint Clare..
Her name means light; that which is clear, as opposed to the darkness of night. In her own life, she held with remarkable clarity to a single vision: that of the poor Christ, and she too poor therefore, in obedience and for love of him.
She was born in Assisi in 1193/4 into the nobility, daughter of Favarone di Offreduccio and Ortolana. These were restless times: In 1198 the citizens of Assisi sacked the (German-built) castle on the hill, Rocca Maggiore, sign of German power in Italy; there was war between Assisi and the neighboring town of Perugia (Assisi lost when Clare was not quite 10, and in the defeat a young fighting Francis was captured and imprisoned for a year, until his father ransomed him); Clare and her family, together with the rest of Assisi’s nobility, had to flee the town.
Against this background Francis emerged with his message of peace—where there is hatred, let me sow love—and poverty, and the real brotherhood and beauty of living things, these good creatures of God. Clare knew about Francis and his “little brothers”; they were living just down the hill, after all, at the Porziuncola (a tiny chapel that Francis restored after he heard Christ telling him from the crucifix of San Damiano to “rebuild my church”; today it stands inside the basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli), and Francis preached and begged in the town. At the age of 12, Clare refused to marry the rich young nobleman her parents had chosen for her, and by the time she was 18 she wanted passionately to live the life Francis proclaimed. Her family was not happy about it: she was beautiful, well-educated, eminently marriageable, and marriage was crucial to family fortunes. She was their investment in the family’s future, and they were loath to lose her.
Finally one night Clare ran away and took refuge with Francis in the Porziuncola, asking him to help her follow a calling like his. It is a dramatic story: Francis hid her at the Porziuncola and then at another house; Clare’s uncle led a posse to drag her back home to be married, but Francis at Clare’s request cut off her hair, rendering her “tonsured.” She was now unmarriageable, vowed to celibacy.
Clare became the head of a community of women, many of them wealthy, many of them well-born—including, before long, her sister Caterina (Sta. Agnese) and her mother— who left everything they had to live a life of poverty, prayer and manual work. They were women, and so they were not itinerant like Francis’ friars; rather, they lived and died enclosed, within the walls of the convent Francis gave them next to the church of San Damiano. Above all, Clare insisted on poverty. Like the child who was laid in a manger, like the man who had no place to lay his head, like the Christ who was finally crucified, the Poor Clares were to give up all things and follow him.
If so great and good a Lord, then, on coming into the Virgin’s womb, chose to appear despised, needy and poor in this world, so that people who were in utter poverty and want and in absolute need of heavenly nourishment might become rich in Him by possessing the kingdom of heaven, then rejoice and be glad!http://www.franciscanfriarstor.com/archive/stfrancis/St_Clare_of_Assisi/stf_st_clare_of_assisi_writings.htm
So Clare writes to Lady Agnes, daughter of the King of Bohemia, abbess of the Poor Clares that have been planted in that land. The poverty she sought was absolute: even the Order was to possess nothing. The Popes repeatedly resisted this, ordering her to follow the more moderate Rule of St. Benedict; demanding that she allow the possession of property by the Order. She was adamant, convinced that to follow Jesus was give up everything as he did, and so to witness to him.
In the end she won: two days before her death in 1253, Pope Innocent IV ratified the Rule of Life she had written years ago, and with it her claim to absolute poverty.
Why was poverty so important to St. Clare? Why insist on it, against the wisdom and power of Bishop and Pope?
Because to be poor is to be God-centred. You cannot, Clare says, love both God and money; they constitute competing loyalties, and it is not possible to be true to both. For that matter, she adds (in a wonderful bit of practical wisdom), it is easier to wrestle with temptation when you’re naked: the adversary can’t get a grip on you.
Most of all, however, to be poor is to be close to Christ. It is to discover a great love. Be poor so that “you might totally love him who gave himself totally out of love for you, whose beauty the sun and moon admire, and whose rewards, in both their preciousness and magnitude, are without end.” Clare’s letters are full of the surpassing joy of loving this Christ, and being loved by him.
“Happy indeed is the one permitted to share in this sacred banquet so as to be joined with all the feelings of her heart to him,” Clare writes to Blessed Agnes of Prague.
Look on the poor Christ, Christ on the cross, as in a mirror, so that
“Heaving a sigh because of your heart’s immeasurable desire and love you may exclaim:
“Draw me after you, Heavenly Spouse, we shall run in the fragrance of your perfumes! I shall run and not grow weary until you bring me into the wine cellar, until your left hand is under my head and your right arm blissfully embraces me, and you kiss me with the most blissful kiss of your mouth.”
The Song of Songs, that ancient love song between God and his people, Christ and the church, becomes lived experience for this Poor Clare. To live for Christ with nothing, so as to possess everything: her life knit with Christ in God.
Today the Poor Clares still live and pray in Assisi. At the hour of Vespers you can join them, in the chapel of Santa Chiara, under St. Francis’ cross. Their voices rise unseen in the daily song of praise, full of peace, and very beautiful.