At the beginning of the thirteenth century, when luxury and sensuality held sway, St. Francis of Assisi made his appearance, giving to men the example of a poor and penitential life. But God wished also to give the vain and pleasure-loving women of that period an example of contempt of the world’s vanities. For this mission He chose Clare, the daughter of a prominent and noble family of Assisi, born on January 20, 1194. Her father was Favarone di Offreduccio, count of Sassorosso; her mother, the servant of God Ortolana, who died in the odor of sanctity.
Before the child’s birth it was revealed to the mother that her offspring would be a brilliant light in the world. This light the mother detected in her daughter from her earliest years. Besides being favored with personal beauty, Clare possessed a charming personality and rare qualities of mind. She was a favorite in the family, and hardly had she attained to young womanhood, when several suitors sought her in marriage.
But her virtues surpassed the gifts with which nature endowed her. She interested herself in the poor and frequently denied herself things so as to be able to give more to the poor members of Christ. She loved prayer, and it was her sweetest delight to surrender her heart to sentiments of ardent devotion before Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Beneath her beautiful garments she wore a sharp penitential belt in order to honor the sufferings of Christ and to preserve herself a chaste virgin for His sake.
She was eighteen years old when she heard St. Francis preach in the cathedral of Assisi during the Lent of 1212. His words on contempt of the world and on penance, and particularly the holy example he set, so earnestly affected Clare, that she conferred with him and soon recognized that God was calling her to lead a life similar to his in the seclusion of a convent. She did not hesitate to carry out God’s plans. Realizing that her family, intent only on a brilliant future for her in the world, would oppose her vocation in every way, she had to leave home in secret.
On Palm Sunday she went to church, dressed in her richest garments, to attend divine services. That night, attended by an elderly relative, she went to the little chapel of St. Mary of the Angels, where St. Francis and his brethren came to meet her with lighted candles in their hands. Before the altar she removed her beautiful head-dress, then St. Francis cut off her hair and covered her head with a veil of common linen. In place of rich garments, she received a coarse penitential garb and was girded with a white cord. This was the way in which the mother and founder of the Poor Clares was invested on March 18, 1212. For the time being, St. Francis placed her in a convent of Benedictine sisters.
When Clare had successfully overcome the great opposition of her family, who had intended to force her to return home, her sister Agnes joined her in her sacrifice. St. Francis arranged a little convent for them near the church of St. Damian. There the number of consecrated virgins soon increased. They served God in great poverty, strict penance, and complete seclusion from the world according to a rule which St. Francis gave them as his Second Order. Clare was obliged in obedience to accept the office of abbess in 1215 and to continue in it for thirty-eight years until her death. But her love for humility found compensation in the performance of the lowliest services toward her sisters. In spite of her great physical sufferings, she set her sisters a striking example of zeal in penance and prayer.
In the year 1240 an army of Saracens who were in the service of Emperor Frederick II drew near Assisi. They rushed upon the little convent of St. Damian that lay outside the city and had already scaled the walls of the monastery. In mortal fear the sisters had recourse to their mother, who was ill in bed.
The saint, carrying the pyx containing the Most Blessed Sacrament, had herself carried to a convent window. There she pleaded fervently with St. Clare of Assisi the Lord of heaven in the words of the Psalmist (Ps. 73,19): “Deliver not up to beasts the souls, that confess to thee, and shield thy servants whom thou hast redeemed with thy precious blood.” A mysterious voice coming from the Host said: “I shall always watch over you.” Immediately panic seized the besiegers. A ray of brilliant light which emanated from the Blessed Sacrament had dazzled them. They fell down from the walls and fled from the place. The convent was saved and the town of Assisi was spared.
After suffering from a serious illness for thirty years, Clare felt that her end was drawing nigh. After she had received the last sacraments, she and one of her sisters beheld the Queen of Virgins coming with a large escort to meet her, the spouse of Jesus Christ. On August 11, 1253, she entered into the joys of eternity, and on the following day her body was buried. Pope Alexander IV canonized her already in the year 1255. She was chosen as the universal patroness of television in 1958. The feast of St. Clare is celebrated on August twelfth by all the branches of the Franciscan Order. (Cf. Forum, 1953, pp. 259-261, and 1958, pp. 25, 35-36; Brown, The Little Flowers of St. Francis, p. 326.)
THE GREATEST GLORY
1. “Oh, how beautiful is the chaste generation with glory!” (Wisd. 4,1). This praise of heaven St. Clare and her great company of sisters have merited for themselves. Corporal beauty, personal charm, and costly clothes in which the children of the world take so much pleasure, this wise virgin considered as naught. She understood the meaning of the Psalmist’s words: “All the glory of the king’s daughter is within” (Ps. 44,14). Untainted purity of soul, humility, voluntary poverty, penance, ardent love of God, these were the virtues in which she sought her glory, and in them she found imperishable beauty. Where are now the beautifully dressed women of Assisi of that period? Their memory has vanished. But Clare, like St. Francis, shines in heaven and on earth. Both have made their town famous throughout the world. — Do you want true and lasting glory? It is to be found only in virtue. Where have you sought it in the past?
2. Consider that, like a wise virgin, St. Clare did not make a display of her virtues before the world, but strove to hide them in the strictest seclusion. If the violet, which gives forth such a sweet scent in its seclusion, is planted in an open garden, its beauteous color fades and the sweetness of its scent diminishes. The same thing happens with our virtues and good works. That is why St. Gregory, commenting on the Gospel parable of the ten virgins, says: “The good that we do must be carefully concealed, so that we do not look for favor and honor among men, otherwise that which externally appears as virtue would be inwardly deprived of its merit.” Christians who are interested in their salvation, and especially Christian women and girls, even though they do not live in a convent, are included in the words of the Apostle: “For you are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3,3). — Can this be said of you?
3. Consider what happiness St. Clare found even here on earth in her life of seclusion. This did not consist in material comfort, nor even in continual spiritual consolation, but in sacrifices made for God, by which she became ever more intimately united with the Source of all happiness. She once said to a young girl: “Our alliance is arrived at by self-denial and the renunciation of earthly things, by the crucifixion of the body and the sacrifice of the will, but the joys attached to it are eternal, the bond is indissoluble, it begins in the world, death puts the final seal to it.” On the morning of the day on which she died she received the holy Viaticum; in the afternoon, Pope Innocent IV paid her a visit and gave her the general absolution. But Clare felt happier at having received the Lord of heaven in holy Communion than at having been honored by a visit from the pope. — May we, too, become indifferent to all earthly glory so that we may be permitted to enjoy the eternal!
PRAYER OF THE CHURCH
We beseech Thee, O Lord, grant us Thy servants who devoutly celebrate the feast day of the holy virgin Clare, to be made partakers of the joys of heaven and co-heirs of Thy only-begotten Son. Who livest and reignest forever and ever. Amen.