Clare's profession of vows: 13th Century paintingIn this Year of St Clare when we commemorate the beginnings of Clare’s vocation, Pat Conlan, OFM, traces the path she took.



Clare's profession of vows: 13th Century paintingIn this Year of St Clare when we commemorate the beginnings of Clare’s vocation, Pat Conlan, OFM, traces the path she took.


Clare was thinking about her prospects. She was seventeen. Her parents and family were planning her future. As a lady of noble birth and the oldest girl in the family her fate would probably be an arranged marriage to a suitable nobleman. She was of one of the most powerful families in Assisi. It traced its roots to Offreduccio. Her father was Favarone. Uncle Monaldo was the head of the family. They were soldiers fighting for the rights and riches of their family and city. The right marriage would extend the influence of her family.


Clare’s thoughts returned to her future. As a noblewoman she would be expected to spend her life in the female quarters of the house chatting to her equals about sweet nothings – the trivial pursuits of the neighbours, what the men were up to, who might get married to whom. If she went out she would have a companion in case unworthy people might trouble her. Ortolana, her mother, had led a full life and even gone on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. She loved to talk of her experiences there and on other pilgrim- ages that she had undertaken. Clare had been conceived after Ortolana’s return from the Holy Land. Sometimes she spoke of the vision she had while pregnant with Clare. While praying before the crucifix at the nearby chapel of St Catherine she heard a voice saying that her child would be a clear light that would illuminate the world. This was the reason why she named the baby Clare (Clara – light) when she was baptised in San Rufino. Her mother had given her a spirit of prayer and an awareness of the power of God in life. Perhaps that was where she might find meaning and fulfillment.





Meeting Francis


Looking out of the window she saw two men in the square collecting alms from some of the people. Happy, cheerful indi- viduals, they were barefoot, dressed in old clothes with a bit of cord around their waists. They were followers of Francis, son of Bernardone the cloth seller. He was one of those new people in the mid- dle between the nobility and the slaves, rich enough to be a noble but lacking real status. As a young girl she had heard talk of how Francis went carousing and drink- ing. She thought that she had seen him as a prisoner in Perugia. His father had fitted him out to go as a knight fighting in the south. But Francis had turned back and given his goods to the poor. Then he could be seen wandering around the woods in deep thought. Next he began rebuilding several ruined chapels. He had even robbed his father to get funds. When Bernardone demanded restitution before the bishop’s court, Francis had stripped off his clothes and thrown them back at his father. Now he lived with a group of followers near the chapel of Our Lady of the Angels on the plain below the city. Good Pope Innocent had approved their way of life a couple of years ago. The fri- ars lived in poverty but were happy and liked to talk about the goodness of God to anyone willing to listen. Clare had even sent alms to them in secret. Perhaps Francis might have the key to a fulfilled life.


Clare arranged a secret meeting with this strange man. She mentioned to him that she would soon be eighteen and was not happy with the prospects of life open- ing before her. He talked of being open to God and letting Him be your guide. She wondered about finding out what God wanted. He told of how Christ on the Cross spoke to him, asking him to rebuild His church. Francis smiled as he recounted how he had misunderstood Christ. He had begun rebuilding ruined chapels before realising his mistake and turned to telling people of the goodness of God. She saw his sincerity and famil- iarity with the Father in heaven. He talked of the fire of God’s love within him. She wondered how this might be. He replied that it took time and openness.


Clare slipped back home. She had a lot to think about. They would meet again and again. He opened for her the way towards real love in God that could inflame the heart. It was always a struggle. There were moments when you lost the way. God would rescue you when you fell. But He would do it His way, not yours. She began to think of becoming one of his companions. Francis immediately rejected the idea. She could not live with his rough and ready companions at his chapel. It would have to be with a group of women. He reminded her that she would be giving up a life of comfort and riches. Instead she would have to be open to the gentle voice of the Spirit. It would take time to grow into that Love which is God. Clare slowly came to a realisation that this was what she wanted. Her mother would probably be on her side. Her father and his family would be furious. But if she trusted in the Lord, He would work things out.





Palm Sunday


Poor Clare life: Consecrated to God

She was now eighteen. The Holy Week of 1212 was approaching. It would be a good time for a new beginning. Clare and Francis made plans. On Palm Sunday, 18th March, she went with her family to the cathedral. They went up front as befitted their status. She remained at the back in deep meditation. Wrapped in her thoughts she did not go up to receive the palm. The bishop came down to the back of the cathedral to give her a piece. She realised that Francis must have talked to him. She went home and made her own preparations, putting on her best dress and finest jewellery.

As darkness came, she made her way to the back door of the house. She knew that the front door would be locked and guarded. The back door was sometimes called the door of death because bodies were brought out through it on the way to burial. It was barricaded with heavy beams but she found the strength to move them. As she and her companion passed through, she realised that it was death to an old way of life but the birth of a new existence.


They went along back streets to a little-used gate in the town walls and began the walk to St Mary of the Angels. A short while later they saw lights in the distance. People were coming towards them. It was Francis and some of his companions ready to escort her through the darkness to the light of the church. There she stripped off her rich clothes and jewels, giving them to her companion for distribution to the poor. She had already secretly sold off her inheritance and arranged for it to be distributed to the poor. Clare put on the old habit that Francis had obtained and tied it with a cord like his. Then she knelt before the altar and allowed him to cut off her long flowing hair. By this gesture she received a tonsure and became a religious dedicated to God under the direction of Francis and the inspiration of Christ Himself.


Some of the companions of Francis brought her to the Benedictine monastery of San Paolo della Abbadesse where she was received as a poor woman rather than as a noble lady with a dowry. She wanted to be a servant in the community rather than a privileged nun. Inevitably her family came storming in to get her back. In a way they seemed more worried about the dowry than Clare. She clung to the alter and threw back her veil revealing the tonsure as a sign of her dedication to God. Eventually they left and they she began to think of what her choice would mean. Francis deliberately found other things to do. He did not want to interfere with her process of discernment. The nuns tried to get her to follow the Rule of St Benedict and follow their strict routine of liturgy. She had made her promise of obedience to Francis and would not be moved. He realised that things were not working out at San Paolo and arranged for her to move to the monastery of Sant’Angelo di Panzo on Mount Subasio, also near Assisi. Here a group of old nuns led a gentle life of work and prayer.


Less than a month after Clare left home her sister Catherine joined her. Again Francis cut her hair and this time gave her a new name in religion, Agnes. The family was more than just furious and tried to physically carry her away. Clare prayed and the body of frail Agnes became so heavy that it was impossible to lift and carry away. But the new monastery was still not right for the two sisters. Again Francis intervened and brought them to the little church of San Damiano just outside Assisi. It was here that he had found the right path in his life when Christ spoke to him from the Cross. It was here that Clare would find her own way to God and His Love. Here the Poor Clares really came to life.