Luke 2:32-37 , gospel reading for the commemoration of Clare of Assisi
The story of Clare of Assisi, whose feast we commemorate today, is one that almost sounds like a fairytale, but not quite. Claire was born into a rich family, and grew up living almost the life of a princess. She was educated, taught needlework and household skills that highborn girls were expected to have, and she was expected to marry well. That’s where Clare and her family held very different viewpoints.
Claire was a devout girl, and one who was eager to explore the spiritual side of herself. She was not interested in getting married and told her family that. It was not what her family wanted to hear, and especially after Clare had heard an itinerant preacher in the town, and was persuaded by his simplicity, eloquence, and his faith. She began to speak with Francis of her desire to live a life totally devoted to God and service to the poor. Her family had arranged a marriage for her when she was 15, but she was having none of it. One night, when she was 18, she ran away to attempt to live the life to which she was called. She met some monks who took her to Francis who accepted her as a follower.
He cut off her long beautiful hair, gave her a stiff homespun shift and a coarse rope to serve as a girdle. He then sent her to a cloistered Benedictine house. It is said her family attempted to remove her from the house, but she clung to the altar and finally ripped off the veil to reveal her shorn head. The family gave up, and Clare remained in the house for 41 years.
She continued with both visits from and correspondence to Francis, and their relationship deepened, not in a sexual way, but in the role of close friends who are comfortable with themselves and each other. Claire grew and blossomed under the discipline of the Benedictines and the discussions that she had with Francis. The friendship they shared lasted for the remainder of their lives. As Francis lay dying, Claire was by his side as his nurse and support. After his death, she returned to her duties in the Abbey where she had been made Abbess when she was only 21. She died in 1252 after a long illness. In 1255 she was made a saint, based on several miraculous events and a lifetime of dedicated to the service of God and God’s children. She is considered the patroness of a number of occupations and conditions such as needleworkers, goldsmiths, laundry workers, gilders, and also of television, telephones, and those with eye disorders.
I think the thing I like about this story is not the miracle of turning back a marauding army simply by standing in the window of the church, holding up a monstrance with a consecrated host which stopped the marauders in their tracks and saved not only the Abbey but also a number of local people. The thing I like most is that here was a woman in a time when women were seen as possessions and almost chattel. This woman was intelligent, hard-working, and dedicated, had a friendship with one of the great theological figures of the time, re-wrote the Benedictine instructions the nuns were ordered to live by, and was the first woman to have done so. With Francis, nothing suggests that it was a master- servant relationship, or a father-daughter relationship; it seems to have been more a meeting of great minds, two people with the same goals and the same approach, and the same faith in what they were doing. It’s a good reminder that men and women can have deep friendships without it necessarily turning into something more carnal.
Both Francis and Clare were dedicated to caring for the poor. Francis and his followers went about preaching and evangelizing but also helping to raise awareness that God loved the poor. Clare, in her turn, created the Poor Clares, who lived very austerely, and did all that they could to help others to live more godly lives. The nuns slept on the floor on burlap with a burlap coverlet every night. They wore course habits and went barefoot. They ate only food that was donated, and shared it with those who came to them hungry. They gave up any form of luxury for themselves in order to help others, including caring for the sick, elderly, and infirm. The lesson from Luke was about serving others while remaining as humble and invisible as possible. Clare and her nuns did their best to live lives that exemplified that teaching.
With Claire and Francis, we see the partnership that can be beneficial to both parties while at the same time leading them to follow what Jesus had preached so much about, loving one’s neighbor as oneself, and in so doing, making the world better. They didn’t focus on the material things. If they had to live on bread and water, they lived on bread and water, but they didn’t do it begrudgingly. They gave this as a gift to God and a gift to their fellow human beings. They worked together, as did their individual houses and followers, and, as a consequence, they both were given the accolade of saint. Claire’s beatification came only two years after her death.
The order of Friars Minor and the order of the Poor Clares gave us a glimpse of living a Christian life the way Jesus explained and taught. They didn’t have Jesus to go to in the flesh as the disciples did, but yet Francis and Claire both seem to catch on to Jesus’s message far more easily. With them, it was a partnership with God, a meeting of the minds, the joining of the hearts, and a gift to all the generations to come after them.
I think Francis and Clare together helped to change the world, even if only a little. I think Claire shows us what being steadfast and open to the will of God can do, regardless of gender or economic status. Sometimes it is the strength of love rather than the strength of arms that make things change.
Now to go out in the world and not fear to make a change. Claire was one person, and a woman worth admiring and emulating. I may not be of her caliber, but I can always try my best to be even a small force for change.
Image: St Francis and St Clare, by Giotto de Bondone, painted ca. 1300. Found at Wikimedia Commons.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and semi-retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She is also owned by three cats.