A Scandalous, Tumultuous Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday was the day chosen by Saint Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) when Francis’ beloved Clare of Assisi (1192 – 1258) would sneak out at night, run the fields below the town, leaving her family forever to follow Francis till the day she died. Both Francis and Clare were revolutionaries in this regard: he, by championing the first monastic order for women; she, by running through the fields to claim it. Rather than marry into wealth and royalty, as was her destiny as part of the house of Offreduccio, she chose poverty, and Francis. She was a rebel and female champion of the faith that few people know anything about.

The early sources create a stunning, sometimes shocking, depiction of the dramatic events surrounding Clare’s choice to leave her family and follow Francis. It was an event that sent tremors through Assisi at the time, and its impact remains to this day.

The noblewomen of the house of Offreduccio–including Clare, her mother and two sisters–attended mass together in Assisi on that Palm Sunday in March, sometime between the years 1210 and 1212. Clare would have been sitting on the bench with her sisters and mother, wearing her most elegant attire. Palm Sunday, celebrated the week before Resurrection Sunday, highlighted the occasion of Jesus’ final entrance into Jerusalem before his death, when crowds turned out to greet him with palm fronds. It was a festive occasion on which noble women showed off their most extravagant fashions.

A 14th century German altar piece (and the cover of my book) shows Clare receiving the palm from the Bishop, with Francis waiting in the wings to cut her hair. (Tonsure.)

On this particular day, however, while her mother and sisters advanced to the altar, Clare remained in her place weeping. The presiding bishop, Guido, took note of the disconsolate young woman alone on the bench, tears tracking down her cheeks. Departing from church protocol, he left the platform and went to her to extend a palm branch, which she accepted and deemed his signal of assent to the life-altering choice she was about to make.

That night, after dark, Clare put on her walking shoes. She cloaked herself to face the bracing night winds off Mount Subasio and, loosening the iron bolt from a hidden door in the family home, known as the death door (from which bodies of deceased family members would be removed from the home for burial), she then slipped away from her childhood home, never to return.

“Embarking on her long-desired flight,” as one source described it, Clare would have skirted through Assisi’s dimly lit alleys to escape through the southern gate that opened on to the plain below town, where Francis awaited her. Clare’s blood sister Beatrice, who would later join her in penitential vows, attested in the testimonies related to Clare’s canonization investigation that her sister left the family at the urging of Francis. “He went to her many times, so that the virgin Clare acquiesced, renounced the world and all earthly things and went to serve God as soon as she was able.”

Francis, along with a few of his brothers, met Clare in the plain with torches and a plan. Exhausted, mud-splattered, and flushed, Clare followed him to his dwelling, the small church he had rebuilt called the Portiuncola. There he cut her hair. The following days would prove harrowing for Clare and Francis.

After her tonsure, Francis took her to a Benedictine convent called San Paolo, approximately four kilometers west of Assisi near the River Chiagio. She was to remain there temporarily under the protection of the sisters until Francis could secure her permanent dwelling. When light broke on Monday morning, Clare’s family discovered that she was gone. Outraged, they dispatched knights and relatives to retrieve her—by force, if need be. Her sister Beatrice recounts that these emissaries went to the convent at San Paolo and attempted to drag Clare out. “Clare grabbed the altar cloths and uncovered her head, showing them she was tonsured.” With that, the family despaired of her and gave her up to Francis. The commotion with the knights and relatives violated the rules of asylum that had been granted to Benedictine sisters, and the tumult compelled Francis to remove Clare promptly from San Paolo.

He then took her to another convent, east of Assisi along the slope of Mount Subasio, called Sant’Angelo di Panzo. A little more than two weeks after her departure, Clare’s blood sister Catherine (later called Agnes) joined her there. The Legend of Saint Clare notes:

Embracing her with joy, [Clare] said, ‘I thank God, most sweet sister, that he has heard my concern for you.’ The next day, hearing Agnes had gone off to Clare, twelve men, burning with anger and hiding outwardly their evil intent, ran to the place and pretended to make peaceful entrance. They turned to Agnes, since they had long ago lost hope of reclaiming Clare, and said, “Why have you come to this place? Get ready to return immediately.” When she responded that she did not want to leave her sister Clare, one of the knights, without sparing blows and kicks, tried to drag her away by her hair, while the others pushed her and lifted her in their arms.

According to the Legend (a Legend is a medieval biography written with a bias toward the holy aspects of the subject) they carried Agnes along the slope of the mountain, still tearing her clothes and pulling out her hair, casting them aside along the path. Clare followed them, beseeching them on her sister’s behalf, and finding her sister near death on the ground alongside the road. How (and if) Clare convinced them to leave her is not known. But no one knows how long she took to recover after being left along the road. In time, however, Francis tonsured her, too, and soon established Clare and her sister at the place he had intended for them all along—the small church he rebuilt called San Damiano.

Thus with blows, wounds, tears, and blood, Clare’s life as a follower of Francis commenced, which is oddly reminiscent of the events that unfolded for Jesus himself, after he entered Jerusalem that day, heralded by waving palms.


About Wendy Murray

Wendy Murray is a veteran and award-winning journalist. She served as associate editor and Senior Writer at Christianity Today magazine and has written extensively for other publications such as Books & Culture and The Christian Century. She has written 11 books.