Just over eight hundred years ago, on Palm Sunday 1212, a young woman stole out of her home in the dead of night.
She wasn’t the first teenager in history to elude her family’s watchful eye, nor would she be the last. We remember her, however, because she was not just another free-spirited eighteen-year old: Clare of Assisi was slipping away in order to respond to God’s call.
As the eldest daughter of wealthy aristocrats, Lady Clare was expected to marry a nobleman with money and influence. Instead, she longed to give her life to God, after the example of Francis, the son of a prosperous Assisi merchant, who had given up all his inheritance to follow Christ as a poor beggar. Knowing that her relatives would never agree, Clare left home in a dramatic and symbolic way.
Throughout the region, houses of the day were built to include a side or back door called the “death door.” It was used to remove the bodies of deceased family members for burial, following the customary at-home wake. In Assisi, this “death door” was also used when a young woman was leaving home to get married—a sign that she was dying to her own family in order to join her husband’s.
Clare chose to leave home through the “death door,” for in giving herself totally to Jesus, she, too, was dying to her family and her former way of life. This was no simple matter, however. The door was kept blocked with heavy wooden beams and a stone pillar so that it would be used only for its special purposes
But love overcomes every obstacle! With the strength of Jesus in her heart, Clare removed the barriers quietly and swiftly. Divine love burst forth, and she was free!
A New Light Shines. This was just the first of many doors that Clare would break through in her life. Armed with courage, inner strength, and the grace of the Lord, she blazed a new trail that affected not only other women religious but the whole Church.
While Clare was still in the womb, her mother, Ortolona, received an insight that this child would light the way for many others. Fearful because of the high mortality rate at childbirth, Ortolona prayed intensely for a safe delivery. One day she heard an interior voice: “O lady, do not fear, because you will joyfully bring forth a clear light that will illumine the world.” Fittingly, Ortolana named her daughter Chiara (Italian for Clare), meaning “clear” or “light.”
Ortolana was a devout woman with a concern for those in need. Through her witness, Clare learned to be kind to the serfs who worked the fields and did other menial labor for Assisi’s noble families. Frequently, she and her mother carried baskets of food down the steep slopes of Mount Subasio to the homes of the poor. All of this touched Clare’s young heart deeply, and prepared her to look beyond class boundaries.
Clare also observed her seven strong uncles, who were knights in armor, and admired the way they valiantly defended the women and children from danger. She seemed to inherit their courage, along with her mother’s gentleness, compassion, faith, and trust in God. This combination of characteristics proved vital as she pushed through the many doors in her path.
Hardships, too, were part of Clare’s early years. When war broke out in Assisi, Ortolana and her three young daughters took refuge in the neighboring city of Perugia. Clare had grown into a fine young lady by the time they returned home in 1205. People remarked, though, that she did not seek to display her beauty, like the other young noblewomen of Assisi. While they stood on their balconies, hoping to be noticed by the young knights, Clare’s heart was elsewhere.
Courageous Escape. Despite the advantages of her class, a young noblewoman like Clare did not have many options. Somewhere between fourteen and eighteen, she was expected to marry a rich, prestigious suitor chosen by her family. Clare, however, had refused all proposals for quite another reason: the poor, crucified Jesus had captured her heart. Through the preaching of Francis, the desire that God had already planted in Clare burst into an intense flame of love.
Quietly, courageously, she found a way to speak to Francis about her desire. After several secret meetings, he saw that she was sincere and conveyed her intentions to the bishop of Assisi. Both resolved to help Clare, for they knew that her uncles would try to snatch her from a way of life that was considered unworthy of aristocrats. A place of safety was arranged—a monastery of Benedictine nuns in nearby Bastia.
On the night of her escape, Clare and a cousin met Francis and his brothers at the city gate. By torchlight, they walked through the woods to the tiny church of St. Mary of the Angels, where Clare consecrated herself to Jesus. Francis cut her beautiful hair, and she exchanged her fine clothes for a rough robe, veil, and sandals. Then she and the brothers walked into the night to Bastia, where the Benedictine Sisters were waiting.
The following morning, as expected, Clare’s seven uncles came riding in to bring her home. Clare clung to the altar in the monastery church—according to the right of sanctuary, it was a privileged place, where fugitives could not be touched. Her relatives followed, nonetheless, using force and accusing her of shaming the family. Clare resisted with the courage of a knight and the strength of Jesus in her heart.
Finally, she tore off her veil to reveal that her beautiful hair had been cut. Aghast, her uncles finally understood that she had chosen a new path. She had gone through the “death door” in order to join herself not to a wealthy bridegroom but to Jesus, who became poor for our sake.
Breaking the Class Barrier. Clare’s short time at the monastery, which was rich and well-known, proved valuable. It gave her a chance to observe the pitfalls of owning property. She also noted that the class system prevailed. Clare had a different vision—she believed that everyone, wealthy or poor, was equal before God. As quickly as possible, Francis established Clare and her younger sister, Catherine (who was given the name Agnes), at the church of San Damiano. So began the first monastery of the Poor Clares. Clare’s deep love for Jesus was obvious to all, and soon other women felt called by God to join them.
This community was unique, for though women came from all classes—the nobility, merchants, and serfs—everyone was equal. Sisters from aristocratic backgrounds worked side by side with those from peasant families, with Clare herself doing the most difficult, repugnant tasks.
Breaking Through. Clare wasn’t finished opening doors. She insisted that her new community own no property. The sisters were to live totally on alms and trust in the Lord. They all worked hard, spinning donated flax straw into linen thread, then weaving the thread into cloth that they turned into altar linens for poor churches. They slept on straw mats in a large dormitory and ate whatever food people gave them, mostly bread.
Many churchmen tried to persuade Clare to give up her vision. More than one pope was concerned for the welfare of her community. How could it survive without a stable income or a little property? Clare placed her trust in God and asked the holy father for the “Privilege of Poverty,” the privilege of owning nothing. This was something no women religious had ever requested! Pope Gregory IX deliberated and then, observing Clare and her sisters happily and successfully living this poverty, granted the privilege to her particular monastery. In order to make it available to all her monasteries, however, this privilege needed to be concretized within a Rule.
Clare found a way to open this door, too. Up to that point, women religious had always followed a Rule written for them by men. Clare decided to write her own. Courageously, with all due respect for the authority of the Church, she prayerfully set down the way of life she felt called to live and submitted it to Pope Innocent IV.
Clare received the approval of her Rule on her deathbed on August 9, 1253, and kissed it many times out of gratitude. Just two days later, she passed through her final door—the door to eternal life. Clare had firmly stood by the way God had called her to, and had done so lovingly.
Doors Will Open. God has a plan and a mission for each of us, as he did for Clare. Although we live in a world that is very different from thirteenth-century Italy, her life of courageous commitment invites us to ask: “Where is Jesus leading me? What doors is he asking me to break through?”
At every stage of our lives, we can be sure that Jesus will equip us for our calling, as he did Clare. When we encounter the inevitable obstacles—whether in our society or in ourselves—we can remember her example of trusting faith. Then, receiving “the strength for everything through him who empowers” us (Philippians 4:13), we will find ourselves blazing our own unique path to him.
Sr. Inez Marie Salfer is a Poor Clare of Perpetual Adoration at Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament Monastery, in Washington, DC.