THE LEGEND OF SAINT CLARE
No one should visit Assisi and overlook the Church of San Damiano or the Basilica of Saint Clare. Neither church promises the artistic splendor of the Basilica of Saint Francis, but both serve as timeless witness to the spirit of the Poor Man of Assisi. At San Damiano, we discover anew the poverty and simplicity that have inspired eight centuries of Franciscan discipleship. At the Basilica of Saint Clare, we find the crucifix that called to Francis and commanded him to rebuild the Church. And we see Clare, incorrupt and fragrant with holiness — the best friend and perfect disciple of Saint Francis; the light that shines in our dark world.
Thomas of Celano (1185-1260) was part of the first generation of Lesser Brothers. He was personally received into the Order of Friars Minor by Saint Francis. He wrote the first biography of Saint Francis. And in 1256, Pope Alexander IV asked him to write the first official biography of Saint Clare. Centuries later, in 1910, a version of the Latin text of this biography was published in Assisi. It has been translated here into English, simplified, and updated for contemporary readers and listeners; but it still contains language and ways of thinking that may seem to belong to another place and time. Nevertheless, the life of Saint Clare of Assisi (1194-1253) still has much to teach us about joy and love, sacrifice and discipleship, and the opening of one’s heart and mind to God’s universal call to holiness.
The Legend of Saint Clare
Episode 1 – Beginnings
Saint Clare, a most admirable person of the brightest virtue, was born in the City of Assisi. Her father was a knight and a man of influence. Her mother was much loved and well respected. She was called Madonna Ortolana. She was called by that name because she was fruitful in good works and destined to bring forth a holy child for the glory of God’s Church.
Although subject to the bonds of matrimony and responsible for countless household chores, Ortolana never failed to find time for the service of God. She was generous in almsgiving out of love for Christ. And being a devout person, she visited the Holy Sepulchre [in Jerusalem] and many other holy places beyond the seas. With great reverence and devotion, she visited the Shrine of Saint Michael the Archangel, the Shrines of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, and many other churches in Rome. She made large offerings to these churches and she gave generously to the poor. After each pilgrimage, Madonna Ortolana was filled with love for God!
As God willed it, Ortolana became pregnant. Dreading the pains and perils of childbirth, she went to the local church, knelt before the crucifix, and prayed tearfully that Christ might keep her safe from the coming trial. During these prayers, she heard a voice coming from the crucifix, calling her by name: “Ortolana, do not be afraid. You will bring forth a light that will illuminate the whole world. My grace will protect you.” Knowing that her prayers were heard, she was consoled, thanked God, and returned home filled with hope. In due time, she gave brith to her most blessed daughter. Trusting in God’s word, she called the child Chiara (or Clare), which means light, so that she would become a light of virtue for the whole world.
As a young girl, Clare showed herself full of light and shining splendor with every word and deed. As Clare grew older, Ortolana trained her to fear God, have pity on the poor, and take tender care of them. Clare was filled with the sweet perfume of Christian virtue. She prayed constantly and with deep devotion. As a young girl, she did not have her own rosary, so she counted her prayers to the Lord God and the Blessed Mother with little stones instead of beads. One hundred prayers. Two hundred prayers. One thousand prayers. And on and on and on.
As Clare grew older, she felt the fervor of God’s love. She shunned earthly love and the pleasures of this life. She disdained all worldly things. Feeling called by the Holy Spirit, she wore beneath her fine clothing a harsh and painful hair shirt next to her skin. This practice made her even more radiant with virtue and pleasing to God. When Clare turned seventeen years old, the family arranged a husband for her. Her mother promised her in marriage to a gentle and noble young man, but Clare refused him. She resolved in her heart to have Christ as her spouse, to keep faith with him, and to serve him alone. This was the beginning of her conversion within her family’s home.
Like a vase of precious ointment, she filled the air around her with the sweet smell of sanctity through her holy and blameless life. Clare was yet a closed vessel, but God made her virtue known through the witness of her neighbors. While still a young maiden and living at home, the perfume of her holiness spread among the local people.
In this same way, Clare heard about the conversion of Saint Francis, who like a new man was leading a new life full of perfection and resolving to rebuild the Church of God. Clare desired to meet him and talk with him. And inspired by God, Francis was eager to speak with her. He was preparing to rob the world, capture kingdoms and peoples, and form a whole new family for God. Clare wanted to do the same with those ladies who would follow her.
When Francis and Clare finally spoke together, their words were inspired by the heavenly fire of the Holy Spirit. Because their meeting was brief, no one could gossip or harbor unworthy suspicions. On just one occasion, Clare left her family’s home to visit Francis. She was alone except for a female companion in whom she placed the greatest trust. Their conversation was holy and full of virtue beyond all human estimation.
Saint Francis taught her to despise the world and its ways which are always hurtful to those who delight in them. His holy words were gentle, pleasant, and penetrating. He spoke about her espousal to Christ. He encouraged her to consecrate herself to Christ and to keep herself pure in the Lord’s service. Above all, he praised the white flower of holy virginity.
Embracing these words, Clare’s heart was pierced and on fire with love for Jesus. She opened her whole heart to Francis, who had experienced his own conversion to the holy life. She told him that she was ready to leave the world and dedicate herself to an apostolic life of poverty and virginity because she was filled with a desire for heavenly riches and for the Lamb of God. All worldly things now seemed tedious and worthless.
Moved by the Spirit, Clare asked Francis to advise her. She vowed that next to God, he would be her father and that she would be true to his teachings. As the fervor for Christ increased in her heart, she faithfully followed his commandments; and soon all worldly beauty and delight became distasteful to her. Clare now fixed her gaze on the heavenly beauty of her bridegroom, the Christ; and she faithfully observed the Holy Gospel and the instructions of her father, Francis.
A Prayer to Saint Clare of Assisi
O Saint Clare, Spouse of Christ,
teach us to be totally open
and responsive to the Holy Spirit
and its work in our lives.
We ask this in the name of Jesus,
the Poor Crucified One. Amen.
Glory to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen. Saint Francis of Assisi, pray for us! Saint Clare of Assisi, pray for us! Servant of God, Thomas of Celano, pray for us! Our Lady of the Angels, pray for us!
Legend of Saint Clare Podcasts
- Episode 1 – Beginnings
- Episode 2 – Vows
- Episode 3 – Sisters
- Episode 4 – Harvest
- Episode 5 – Miracle
- Episode 6 – Mortification
- More Coming Soon!
About the Presenter
Cliff Garvey is a co-founder of the Assisi Project. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Maine, Saint John Seminary College, and the Catholic University of America. Cliff is a writer, spiritual director, retreat leader, and university lecturer. He also serves as Associate Minister of the Catholic Community of Gloucester & Rockport in Massachusetts where his ministry focuses on adult faith formation. Thank you for listening to The Legend of Saint Clare, Episode 1 – Beginnings. The Assisi Project Podcast is produced by the Assisi Project, Inc. For more information about the Assisi Project: A Fellowship of Franciscans in Spirit and our programs and ministries for adults of all ages and backgrounds, please contact Cliff at email@example.com. Copyright 2022. All rights reserved. May the Lord give you peace!
Art Credit: Saint Clare of Assisi | Copyright Nicknickko Dreamstime.com
Founded in 2007, the Assisi Project is a Fellowship of Franciscans in Spirit with friends and followers throughout the world. We are dedicated to helping Christian believers of all ages more faithfully live the Gospel of Christ in the spirit of Saint Francis and Saint Clare of Assisi. The Assisi Project is a non-profit, tax exempt charitable organization. All are welcome to support our ministry via PayPal or AmazonSmile (see links below); or by sending a tax-deductible donation to the Assisi Project, Post Office Box 3158, Gloucester, Massachusetts 01931-3158. For more information about the Assisi Project, please contact Cliff Garvey at firstname.lastname@example.org. May the Lord give you peace!
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In Memory of All Deceased Poor Clares