Humanities / Medieval

Saint Clare of Assisi – living by the Rule

By Raffaella Tommassi.

Clare of Assisi can be seen as one of the most influential women in the Middle Ages, at the forefront of the fight to ensure a true female religious mendicancy. Indeed, Pope Innocent IV agreed with me, stopping the Friars Minor from saying the office of the dead during her funeral and changing it to the office for holy virgins, implying her sanctity before the increasingly rigorous and legalistic process of canonisation had taken place. To his mind:

“God comes down to perform on earth many different miracles through her [Clare] and her prayers … it is fitting and right that she be honoured by the church militant. Through the divine mercy because of the gifts of her grace and the worth of her miracles has demonstrated that she be venerated by the faithful.”[1]

However, Clare’s importance in the eyes of the papacy hides her true worth. To a large extent Clare was venerated and made a saint so as to set an example to the growing number of female mendicant groups springing up in Italy and elsewhere in Europe during the middle ages. The papacy was nervous about this developing spirituality, disliking the idea of the rootless woman, and by honouring Clare it enabled a more stable idea of female religiosity to be propagated by manipulating her legacy after her death, the popular figure that she was. To this extent though Clare is still a difficult saint, as her entire religious life can be categorised by a struggle to resist the encroachment of the papacy on her vision of spiritual life.

Born around 1194 “of noble stock, of noble father and mother” Clare has a reputation as a young girl of being of immense good character, and it is this good character that sees sometimes Francis of Assisi enjoining her to meet with him and sometimes her desiring initially to meet with him. How such a meeting came about is of less importance: that it did is the key, leading to Clare’s rejection of her family for a spiritual Franciscan life. Tonsured by Francis himself, the problem what to do with her afterwards arouse. The Franciscan rule explicitly warned of the perils of contact with women, so we see Clare first working as a servant in a rich Benedictine nunnery, and then living in a house of penitents. However, after proving her worth to Francis and a handy vision on his behalf later Clare was moved to the church of San Damiano and it is here that we see her order founded. Clare desired to live the Franciscan ideal: a life of apostolic poverty, in which possessions, ownership and security were denied, the women living from hand to mouth each day.

Across Clare’s lives, in the testaments of her fellow sisters and in her own surviving letters to Agnes of Prague – the daughter of the king of Bohemia who desired to live a similar life to Clare – we see Clare’s struggle to maintain this ideal of poverty against Papal directives and initiatives designed to endow mendicant women’s movements with some element of property and income, and encouraging Agnes to do the same. Despite several rules and constitutions being written for the women, Clare’s insistence on complete poverty led to Innocent’s admission in 1250 to the nun’s protector, Cardinal Rainaldo that such constitutions were not legally binding on any community. Having won this battle Clare goes on to create her own constitution using the model of Francis’ Later Rule as well as passages from the Rule of Saint Benedict and earlier papal legislation directed at the order, insisting once again on complete evangelical poverty, living without endowment or income. Finally having her rule accepted on her death bed in 1253, this is a prime example of a highly driven woman fighting against all odds to preserve her unique vision of female religious life. This is made even more astonishing when read alongside the fact that by this point the Brothers Minor, following the death of Francis, had capitulated to papal demands and accepted modification to their observance.

In this way then we can see Clare as a woman who had a deep understanding of the core beliefs behind the Franciscan ideal: that evangelical poverty was at the heart of their vocation and necessary for a spiritual life. In resisting papal efforts to regularise San Damiano for almost three decades and succeeding in having her own religious vision papaly approved, Clare is indeed a figure worthy of veneration, religious or otherwise.

[1] Innocent IV, Glorious Deus, 18th October 1253 in Marco Bartoli, Clare of Assisi, Translated by Sister Francis Teresa OSC, page 191