THE RADICAL SAINT FROM ASSISI (NO, NOT *THAT* ONE)
Operations Manager Sarah Hoffeditz offers a reflection on Clare of Assisi in honor of the saint’s Aug. 11 feast day.
When I set out on my pilgrimage to Assisi this past May, I expected to learn a lot about St. Francis of Assisi while I was there. After all, he is certainly the most famous resident of the city, his reach stretching worldwide and far beyond just Roman Catholics.
What I did not expect was that it would not be St. Francis who affected and changed me the most during this experience; it would instead be St. Clare, the much lesser-known and sometimes overlooked saint from Assisi, who would inspire me most on my spiritual journey.
People often use words like “radical” and “revolutionary” to describe Francis, his lifestyle, and his teachings. I feel the same words could also be used to describe Clare, one of Francis’ earliest followers who turned her life upside down in order to join Francis and follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.
Clare was born into an affluent life as a member of the nobility in the medieval city of Assisi. After hearing the teachings of Francis, she decided to leave her family and position in society to join him. To do so, she had to sneak out of her family’s home in the night and make her way to the valley below the city, where Francis cut off her hair in the Portiuncula and she traded her rich robes for simple garments.
When her family tried to come and get her the next day, she clung to the altar of a nearby church and proclaimed that Jesus Christ would be her only spouse.
Already, the parallels to Francis’ life can be seen, but Clare had an extra step down every path. She didn’t just abandon her life of affluence for one of abject poverty, she did it from the top rung of society.
She didn’t just help to create a religious movement vastly different from anything else going on at the time, she did it as a woman and therefore a member of society who had very little say or control over her own life.
Clare did not just simply join a traditional monastery, which was seen as the only other option for women of her class who did not wish to marry. Instead she chose to form a new community following this radical new way that Francis was preaching and Jesus was calling her to.
When founding her “Poor Sisters,” she continued to resist the strictures society tried to place on her by rejecting the proposed “Rules of Life” given to her by male clergy. How I admire the way Clare let no man tell her how to live! Sure, she followed the example of Francis’ teaching, but I bet she challenged him along the way, encouraging him to see things from a different perspective.
Eventually, Clare became the first known woman to write her own rule of life and get it approved by Pope Innocent IV, and her Rule emphasized the extreme simplicity and voluntary poverty of her community.
In addition to her radical way of life, Clare was also a bit of a radical when it came to leading her community. Clare viewed leadership as a service and led her community with an other-centered leadership, with all decisions coming out of love for others.
In serving others, she was not above them or separate from them. She thought a leader should have authority, which comes from within and is recognized, not power, which is something people take or is given to them. This idea of authority was certainly not one that the patriarchal structure of the time practiced.
Clare is a wonderful role model for everyone, especially women. Refusing to accept societal norms that impeded her ability to follow Christ fully and completely, she broke away and lived her faith by radical example. For the rest of her life, she resisted any form of rule that she felt went against Jesus’ teachings. Finally, her example of leadership is one that is unfortunately uncommon but very much needed in our world today.
I encourage everyone to learn more about Clare. You will find an example of a woman unafraid to live out her faith in everyday life no matter the consequences, who constantly put others before herself, and who preached a message of loving one another always.
I give great credit and thanks to my pilgrimage leaders, Jean-François Godet-Calogeras, Ph.D. and Fr. André Cirino, OFM for inspiring in me this new appreciation for the radical St. Clare of Assisi, and I offer an additional thank you to Jean-François for recommending the following books for anyone interested in learning more about this important saint:
- “Saint Clare of Assisi: The Original Writings” English translation and notes by Sr. Frances Teresa Downing, OSC
- “Saint Clare of Assisi: The Context of Her Life” by Sr. Frances Teresa Downing, OSC
- “Saint Clare: Beyond the Legend” by Marco Bartoli
- “Clare of Assisi and the Poor Sisters in the Thirteenth Century” by Maria Pia Alberzoni
- “Clare of Assisi, A Woman’s Life” by Jean-François Godet-Calogeras
Art by José Benlliure y Gil and licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons