Saint Clare is remembered as the Cofoundress of the Order of Poor Ladies, or Poor Clares, and the first Abbess of San Damiano. She was born at Assisi the 16th July 1194, and her feast is celebrated in the traditional liturgical calendar on the 12th August.
From her tender youth Clare seems to have been endowed with uncommon virtue. As a child she was much given to prayer and mortifications. Saint Francis of Assisi, who first met Clare when she was eighteen years of age while preaching a Lenten retreat at the Church of San Giorgio, in Assisi, immediately recognised in her a soul set apart by God for great things.
The night of Palm Sunday, she secretly departed her father’s house by Francis’s advice and, accompanied by her aunt and another companion, made her way to the little chapel of the Porziuncula, where Saint Francis and his disciples met her with lights in their hands. Francis, having cut off her hair, clothed her in a nun’s tunic and veil, whereupon she vowed herself to the service of Jesus Christ.
Saint Clare was placed by Saint Francis for a time with the Benedictine nuns of San Paolo, near Bastia. Her father however, who had expected to find her a suitable husband and was furious at her secret flight, on discovering her location attempted ardently to dissuade Clare from her noble designs. Seeing this was of no avail, he then tried to drag her home by force. But Clare held to her plans with a firmness not ordinarily found in youth, and he ultimately had to leave his daughter to her religious solitude.
The saint’s virtue in this instance offers a powerful example of fidelity to the will of God before all others. This lesson is especially relevant today; in a world in which so many hesitate to pursue a vocation to the priesthood or the religious life because of opposition from parents or the lack of comprehension of friends and peers.
Clare, her sister and some other young women were eventually established by Saint Francis as a community of nuns near the chapel of San Damiano. The saint became in short order the Abbess of San Damiano, and she would live out the rest of her days there, remaining the superior of the house until her death nearly forty years later.
When in 1234 the army of Frederick II was ravaging the valley of Spoleto, the soldiers scaled the walls of San Damiano by night in preparation for an assault, spreading great fear among the nuns. Clare, though sick at the time, took the ciborium (a vessel for the holding and transport of consecrated hosts) from a little chapel by her cell and proceeded to confront the invading troops at a window against which they had already placed a ladder.
As she lifted high the Blessed Sacrament, the soldiers on the ladder fell backward as if entranced, and the others below fled.
It is in reference to this incident that Saint Clare is generally represented in art bearing a ciborium or a pyx (a kind of small ciborium). The great devotion she had for Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament has also led the saint to be depicted in Christian art with the attribute of a monstrance, the golden vessel with a transparent glass compartment in the centre employed for Eucharistic Adoration.
The saintly Clare passed on to her eternal reward on the 11th August 1253. After her death, the Poor Clares desired to retain the body of their foundress at San Damiano, but local officials interfered and secured for the town the venerated remains of the holy Abbess. It was only right, they argued, that Clare, “the chief rival of the Blessed Francis in the observance of Gospel perfection”, should also have a church built to the honour of her memory in Assisi.
Meanwhile, Clare’s remains were placed in the Chapel of San Giorgio, where Saint Francis’s preaching had first planted in her heart the desire to leave all for Christ, and where after his own death Francis’ body had been buried pending the erection of a basilica in his honour.
On the 3rd October 1260, Saint Clare’s remains were transferred from the Chapel of San Giorgio and buried deep under the high altar in the new church, safe from prying hands. After extensive searching and having remained hidden for six-hundred years (as with the remains of Saint Francis), Clare’s tomb was found in 1850, to the exultation of the residents of Assisi. On the 23rd September that year the coffin was exhumed, upon which it was seen that Clare’s flesh and clothing had been reduced to dust, but her skeleton had been perfectly preserved.
Finally, on the 29th September 1872, the saint’s bones were transferred with great fanfare by Archbishop Pecci (the future Pope Leo XIII) to the shrine, in the crypt at Santa Chiara, which had been erected for the express purpose of holding them. There it is where they may now be venerated. Among other causes, Saint Clare is the patron of those suffering from eye disease, of goldsmiths, and of needle-workers.
Prayer: “God of mercy, You inspired Saint Clare with the love of poverty. By the help of her prayers may we follow Christ in poverty of spirit and come to the joyful vision of Your glory in the Kingdom of heaven. We ask this through Our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, Who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever, amen”.