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During her first pregnancy, Ortulana di Offreduccio often visited a nearby church to pray for a safe delivery.
One day, as she stood before a cross there, she heard a voice say, “You will give birth to a light that will shine brilliantly in the world.”
This child of promise, whom we know as St. Clare of Assisi, did indeed “enlighten the whole world,” as a biographer of her day put it. The reputation of her holiness “spread through the neighboring areas, and from all sides women ran after,” eager to follow Clare’s way of living the ideals of St. Francis (Legend of St. Clare, 10-11). By expressing her passionate love for Christ in a prayerful, penitential community life, this brilliant light blazed a new path of discipleship that eventually drew Ortulana herself, as well as Clare’s sister Beatrice.
“Follow Me.” To her many friends and admirers, Clare of Assisi was a model of medieval womanhood. Born around 1193 into one of Assisi’s noble families, she seemed to flourish naturally in an environment of privilege and prestige. Her father, Favarone, was an accomplished warrior-knight, and her mother, Ortulana, was known both for her ability to manage her extensive household and for her personal piety and charity.
Consequently, Clare possessed her mother’s refined spirit and her father’s courageous determination. She was also one of the most beautiful young women of Assisi. Many were the young knights and merchants’ sons who sought her favor, vying for her hand in marriage.
From her earliest years, however, something different was stirring in Clare. Unlike the storybook princesses we are all familiar with, her life was not one of minor adventures followed by a great “happily ever after.” She lived through a terrible war between Assisi and Perugia, was sent into temporary exile with her mother and sisters, and lost her father in battle while she was still young. All of these experiences combined to produce in her a strength of character and a reliance on God that would last her whole life.
As Clare approached marrying age, her uncle Monaldo began to consider who might be an appropriate husband for her. He wanted someone who could not only care for her, but whose wealth would bring greater security and honor to the family name. Clare resisted. Growing within her was a desire to be united with no man, so that she could be united more fully with Jesus, whose love far surpassed any other love she could know. Eventually, much to Monaldo’s chagrin, Clare took a private vow of virginity and sold her family inheritance, giving the money to Assisi’s poor. There could be no turning back: She still had her physical beauty, but she had relinquished her wealth and social standing.
Clare had embraced a life of simplicity, but she wanted to go further in committing herself to the Lord. She had heard about Francis, the young would-be knight who had also left his family’s wealth to live in poverty. He spent his time begging food for the poor, repairing churches, and preaching in Assisi’s public plazas. Francis too had heard about Clare’s courageous acts of charity and her love for the Lord. Eventually, the two met and a brother-sister relationship quickly developed. Clare went often to Francis, to hear him preach, to seek his advice, and to pray with him. Over time, her desire to adopt Francis’ way grew, until she made the final break with her old life.
On the night of Palm Sunday, 1212, Clare stole out of her uncle’s house and met Francis and his friars at one of his churches. There, following ancient tradition, Francis cut Clare’s lovely hair and clothed her in a coarse habit. With those acts, Clare embraced a new life. Leaving her home in the world, she found a home with Christ as she began a life of austerity and prayer in the convent of San Damiano, the same place where Francis heard Jesus tell him to rebuild the church.
The Pull of Lady Poverty. As news of Clare’s decision spread, other women joined her, and a community of prayer and service formed around her. The “Poor Ladies,” as they became known, lived in utter simplicity, owning absolutely nothing, so that they could rely on God to provide for them as he had promised he would. This was the first time in church history that an order of women lived in such radical poverty, and it met with much opposition. Not only family members, but even bishops and popes warned Clare that she was being too idealistic, that the gospel’s demands shouldn’t be taken so literally. How could she care for her sisters when they had absolutely no security or protection? Yet, despite these questions, Clare remained serene and determined.
Clare chose such a radical path for one reason: This embrace of poverty best enabled her to imitate Christ. He was her goal, not the lifestyle, and it was his simplicity of heart, his poverty of spirit, and his intimate love for the Father, that motivated her. In a letter to Agnes, a Bohemian princess who had chosen to follow her example, Clare wrote: “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 . . . absolute need of heavenly nourishment might become rich in him by possessing the kingdom of heaven, then rejoice and be glad! Be filled with a remarkable happiness and a spiritual joy!” (First Letter to Agnes of Prague, 19-20)
As she read the gospels, Clare saw in Jesus the freedom and spontaneity of spirit that flowed from his poverty. Because he had separated himself from the complexities of the world, Jesus could relate more intimately with his Father. He could know his Father’s will, receive his love, and bring his life to others. Living with the comfort and protection of the Father, he could spread that love to others, through miracles and healings, and in the parables and discourses he preached.
The Power of Humility. As a result of her imitation of Christ, Clare began to reflect his attributes in greater measure--at times with astonishing results. The story is told that in September of 1240, during a Saracen invasion of Assisi, some soldiers had begun to climb the walls of her convent, looking for the women. On hearing of the threat, Clare threw herself before the Blessed Sacrament and cried out, “Does it please you, my Lord, to deliver into the hands of the pagans your defenseless handmaids whom I have nourished with your love? O Lord, I beg you to defend these your servants whom I am in this hour unable to defend!” Then, Clare and those with her heard a small voice reply, “I will always defend you.” With that, she told her sisters not to panic, and within moments the soldiers “quickly clambered over the walls they had scaled, being routed by the power of her prayers” (Legend of St. Clare, 22).
Clare died in 1253, just two days after she obtained from Pope Innocent IV the “Privilege of Poverty.” For almost forty years, she had fought with humble determination to secure the promise that her Poor Ladies would be free to live in radical poverty and simplicity, never seeking nor being forced to accept the protection of an institution, however holy or well-endowed. Like Mother Teresa’s sisters today and like Francis in her own time, Clare wanted to be a mirror of Christ, reflecting his heart of humility, love, and service. Her reflection not only changed thirteenth-century Europe, but continues to draw others today into the clear light of Christ.