The Hidden Life of Clare of Assisi

The hidden life of Clare of Assisi (119-[something] to 1253) is forever bound to that of Saint Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), though Clare was a force unto herself who cast her own light and left a unique echo. I have already written a book about Francis (A Mended and Broken Heart, 2008, Basic Books) and have now turned my thoughts to Clare–the medieval feminine expression of Francis’ spiritual vision.

She has a lot she can teach today’s women because she was — as Hillary Clinton recently described herself — “a glass-ceiling breaker,” shattering social barriers and duties of rank to assume a new kind of life that leveled the playing field, the life of a penitent religious. Details of her life and spirituality will be outlined in my upcoming book. For now, this is a glimpse of Clare’s life, which, for too long has been obscured by the shadow of  Saint Francis.

Little known facts about Clare:

  • She lived in a home with an absentee and abusive father.
  • She was among Assisi’s most beautiful and marriageable women of nobility, being groomed by the age of 13 her for a marriage of rank.
  • She had many suitors, all of whom she stubbornly rebuffed.
  • She met frequently and conspired in secret with Francis of Assisi, who orchestrated the means of her escape from her family. She ran away from the family home alone at night to meet Francis, who hid her, and her relatives came to retrieve her and beat her. (A few weeks later they nearly killed her sister who followed Clare, leaving her near death along the side of a road.)
  • After following Francis into life as a penitent religious, she acquired (as the sisters call it) “the gift of tears.”
  • She needed much consoling and when Francis was in town he would go to her to console her with “honey-sweet words.”
  • The years following Francis’ death in 1226 Clare’s health declined and she became crippled. She couldn’t rise from her bed for the last 27 years of her life. Some say she was anorexic.
  • She defied popes and emperors to stand her ground and gain a Rule (governing document) for her religious order.
  • She is the first woman in Christendom to win her own Rule.
  • She held her ground of conviction, even if it meant defying church authorities of her time (including the Pope).

Biographer Marco Bartoli wrote, “Clare was not an ordinary young girl leaving her parents to enter monastic life. Nor was Francis a bishop—to whom the consecration of virgins was normally reserved. In fact, he was not even a priest but only a layman, and yet he took upon himself the right to consecrate Clare.”

Indeed she was consecrated. In her youth this marriageable, head-strong, delicate beauty ran through tall grass alone in the night to meet Francis in a field. She would become the first female to join his Order and in time become the consummate spiritual mother. Francis deemed her the “Woman of his Castle” — he was defined by his knightly imaginings — and she came of age knowing and loving him. She renounced rank and family to follow him. And then he died.

She outlived him by 27 years. As a result, she was forced to forge a new vision of life and devotion in the crucible of grief and physical incapacitation in equipoise with authentic love for and trust in an inexplicable God.

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