Saint Clare of Assisi
Possibly the only thing the nobility and merchants in Assisi agreed on was the anger that rose up in them when they heard the name of Francis di Bernardone. To their way of thinking, he had disgraced his family, and stolen from his father to give to beggars and lepers. He must surely be crazy. To add to their indignation, many of the sons of the nobility of Assisi kept flocking to Francis, joining him in his insanity. They were spellbound by him. They had left their homes, given their possessions away, and donned the heavy, coarse sack cloth tunic that Francis wore. There were families in Assisi who would have liked to wring Francis’ neck.
Clare knew the reaction she would get from her relatives every time she mentioned Francis’ name, but she couldn’t help it. She found him so fascinating! What he had done, and what he was preaching was so contrary to anything she had ever heard before. She had known him over the years. She most likely bumped into him from time to time, lowering her eyes as he passed by. She may have witnessed the public trial Francis’ father had subjected him to, when Francis took off all his clothes, gave them to his father, and proclaimed from that time, God was his father.
Clare had never spoken to Francis. She had to meet him! One day, she chose to go out walking on the very road she knew he would be taking. They met. Francis had known of her since she was a child. Hers was one of the few noble families living in Assisi. Francis could see in Clare that very special quality that Jesus would use some day. When their eyes met, the heavens opened up and the Holy Spirit entered into them. They could not break the fixed look. They gazed into each other’s souls. Finally, Francis spoke to Clare. “You will have to know how to die.”
Clare looked at him questioningly, and perhaps a little apprehensively. Never taking her eyes off Francis, she pleaded, “What do you mean?”
Francis replied, tenderly, “On the cross with Christ.” She still did not understand what he meant, but felt an unexplainable excitement surge through her. His words remained with her. She could not get them out of her mind. She met with him frequently over the next few months, listening in awe as Francis shared the overpowering love he had for Jesus and the Gospel life. He impressed on Clare the dignity and beauty of a girl like her, giving herself over to Jesus as a spotless virgin, to be His bride. His words were like arrows of love from the Lord penetrating her heart, burning her with an insatiable desire for more.
She went to the Church of San Giorgio1 for a Lenten service. Francis spoke that evening. She was inspired by his powerful witnessing of the Gospel life; lifted up by the joy he transmitted in his poverty; and drawn to the Living Jesus so visible through him and his words. There was such a light in his eyes, a fire in his voice. She went to him after the service. She knew she, too, was being called to live the life of the Gospel. She asked him to help her achieve that goal. They planned for her to enter the Community on Palm Sunday.
The next Sunday was Palm Sunday. Clare went with all the young ladies of Assisi to the Palm Sunday services at the Cathedral in Assisi. The Bishop conducted the liturgy. As part of the Mass, after the readings and homily, the Bishop blessed and distributed palms to the faithful. The entire congregation filed up to the altar to receive them. The young unmarried girls of Assisi, of which Clare was a part, were to be last in the procession. They rose from their seats, resplendently outfitted in the latest Spring fashions, and glided up to the altar to receive the palms; all, that is, except Clare. She remained in her seat with her head down. She wasn’t sure what she was doing, or why she was doing it. Her thoughts must have been running amuck; Was she being holy, or shy? She honestly did not know. She just knew that was what she was supposed to do. The Bishop noticed her absence at the altar, as did the whole town. After presenting all the young girls with blessed palms, the Bishop rose, and walked over to where Clare was seated. He blessed her and placed a palm in her hands. Then he returned to the altar to continue the Mass. Clare just sat there looking down, her palm branch clutched to her heart. What had happened to her? She had been touched, and would never be the same.
That same Palm Sunday evening, Clare left her home for the last time, exiting through the Door of the Dead1, which signified a complete break with her family. Waiting for her at the door of her house was her faithful friend, Pacifica Guelfuccio. They walked together through the woods, to Santa Maria degli Angeli, where the Portiuncola2 was located. At that time, it was almost a forest, with the Chapel in the middle. Francis had built little huts around the modest little church. Two of the friars were waiting for Clare and Pacifica. They led the girls through the brush, the thorns on the bushes ripping away at their good Palm Sunday clothes. Finally, they arrived at the Portiuncola. Before presenting Clare to Francis, Pacifica removed all Clare’s jewelry. She replaced Clare’s delicately embroidered Palm Sunday dress with a coarse habit, tied at the waist with a cord. Clare stepped over the gown that had fallen to the ground and out of her shoes, to a new walk and a new life.
Clare was brought before Francis. He was versed in the proper procedure for receiving a woman into a Religious Order. We have to believe the Bishop was aware of what was about to happen because one of the friars, Fr. Sylvester, stood in as his delegate. Francis asked Clare, “What do you want, my daughter?” She knelt before him while he sheared her magnificent blonde hair from her head. He then placed a coarse piece of woolen cloth over her head. Being very proper, Francis brought her to stay with the Benedictine Sisters of St. Paul in Bastia, until he could set up a convent for her. Meanwhile, Pacifica left and went home. We believe she told the family what had happened to Clare.