Saint Clare, Virgin

Clare was born on 16 July, 1194, in Assisi, Umbria, Italy, the eldest daughter of Favorino Scifi, Count of Sasso-Rosso, and his wife Ortolana. Ortolana was a devout woman who had made pilgrimages to Rome, Santiago de Compostela and the Holy Land. Later in life, she entered Clare’s convent. Stories that Clare heard Francis of Assisi preaching in Assisi about his new mendicant order, recently approved by Pope Innocent III, and was deeply moved by his words cannot be firmly established. In 1212, her parents had decided she should marry a wealthy young man, but Clare fled from her home and sought refuge with Francis, who received her as a nun.

Clare lived for short periods, first, at a nearby Benedictine convent, San Paolo della Abadesse, and then at a house of women penitents, Sant’ Angelo on Monte Subasio. Clare was joined here by her mother and two sisters, as well as by some of the wealthy Ubaldini family from Florence.

They both then moved to the church of San Damiano, which, in response to a vision, Francis had restored. Here other women joined Clare and they became known for their austere lifestyle. They were at first known as the “Poor Ladies”. San Damiano emerged as the most important house in the order and Clare became its undisputed head. They followed a life of extreme poverty and austerity, believed to be more severe than other nuns of the period. Like the Franciscan friars, Clare’s nuns rapidly spread to other parts of Europe. Spain saw 47 convents already in the 13th century and there were others in Bohemia, France and England. Four convents were established in England in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Unlike the Franciscan friars, whose members moved around the country to preach, Clare’s sisters lived an enclosed life. It would be much later before nuns could move round freely in public places. Their life, like monks, consisted of manual labour and prayer. In 1216, the order came directly under Francis, and Clare was given the title of prioress. In this role, she resisted attempts by church officials to impose a Benedictine rule rather than Francis’ more strict way of life. By the papal Privilegium paupertatis of 1228, three convents, including San Damiano, would live entirely on alms, renouncing all income from rents or other property.

For her part, Clare also played a significant role in encouraging Francis, whom she saw as a spiritual father figure. During his illnesses towards the end of his life, she took care of him until his death in 1226. After his death, she continued to promote the growth of her Sisters while still resisting Church efforts to lessen her commitment to an austerely simple way of life, in spite of experiencing long periods of poor health up to her death. On 9 August, 1253, the Papal bull Solet annure of Pope Innocent IV confirmed that Clare’s Rule would serve as the governing rule for the Order of Poor Ladies. Two days later, on 11 August, Clare died at the age of 59.

On 15 August, 1255, Pope Alexander IV canonized her as Saint Clare of Assisi. In 1263, Pope Urban IV officially changed the name of the Order of Poor Ladies to the Order of Saint Clare, now commonly referred to as the Poor Clares.

On 17 February, 1958, Pope Pius XII designated her patron saint of television, on the basis that, when she was too ill to attend a Mass, she had been miraculously able to see and hear it on the wall of her room.

In art, she is shown carrying a monstrance or pyx, in commemoration of the time when she warded away attackers at the gates of her convent by raising the Blessed Sacrament over the wall.

Clare herself never left her convent at Assisi. She was regarded as one of the great medieval contemplatives, committed to serving her community with great joy and closely following Franciscan ideals, including Francis’ love of nature, long after his death in 1226. Although her body is no longer incorrupt, her skeleton is displayed in Assisi.

After her death, there was much controversy among the Sisters about the observance of poverty until Colette reformed the Poor Clares in the 15th century.

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