There is only one explanation for the way Saint Clare lived her life: she was in love with Jesus Christ. Hers was the all-consuming passion that spans centuries and reaches out to heaven itself.
Born in 1268 of a well-to-do family in Montefalco, Italy, Clare was the lively, sincere, and intelligent daughter of Damiano and Iacopa Vengente. In Italian, her name was “Chiara,” which means “clear, bright, pure.” While yet a teenager, Clare chose Christ as her one true love. Following her elder sister Joan’s example, Clare began the practice of religious self-denial. In keeping with the customs of the century, the two young women spent days in prolonged sessions of prayer and exceptional mortification of the flesh. Clare’s God-fearing parents gave moral and physical support to her lifestyle of renunciation by permitting her to live with Joan in the hermitage which Damiano had built not too far from home. There, after long hours in prayer during the day, Clare would at night fall to her knees in order to recite the Lord’s Prayer and then meditate upon what she was now convinced was the ideal of her life: giving honor to the passion of Christ.
Like Joan, Clare was no stranger to harsh acts of penance, but unlike Joan she went too far and had to be tempered in her zeal. No matter, Clare was happy at what she thought was her role in life: to suffer with her Savior, who had shed blood for her upon the cross. Her imitation of his sacrifice knew no bounds except those prudently imposed by the vigilant Joan.
Already a veteran ascetic at the tender age of twenty, Clare was suddenly thrust into the first of her three great trials. She was now experiencing every day spiritual upheaval in her heart. Temptations assaulted her, conflicts raged inside her previously well-ordered emotional life, spiritual aridity burned away whatever pleasure she had once enjoyed when communicating with God, and worst of all she was now subject to doubt: she could not resolve whether or not God had abandoned her. This upheaval she endured for eleven years. Christ was exacting of her the same total blind trust that he still exacts of all who profess to love him.
On 10 June 1290, Clare’s hermitage was declared a “monastery” to be governed by the Rule of Saint Augustine. The following year, Joan died. Beloved not only by Clare but by all the townspeople and the herders and hunters on the mountainside, Joan was given by them the title of “Blessed.”
The bishop of nearby Spoleto to the south sent his representative to Montefalco in order to supervise the election of the monastery’s new abbess. The choice was unanimous: Clare. So began Clare’s second great trial. Preferring to serve God and his people in a more humble way, she declined to accept the role and responsibility of abbess. “An abbess must be holy and wise,” said Clare. “I am neither: I’m only twenty-four. Please, choose someone else.” But the nuns would have none of it and insisted on their young and reluctant companion. “Clare! Clare! Clare!” they cried. Again she refused: “I want to be a nun, not an abbess. I want to serve you all at the most menial of tasks. Please!” But again the nuns would have none of it. She bowed to their will and she became their abbess.
Life in the convent ran smoothly under her direction. Work, prayer, and meetings followed one another with calm and dignity. On Fridays, it was customary for the abbess to give spiritual advice and instruction during that day’s regularly scheduled one-hour meeting (called “chapter”). It was also the moment for public avowals and penance. Clare often took advantage of this time of repentance to kneel before them as she spoke. For the next sixteen years, Clare served as mother, teacher, and spiritual director of her nuns. She governed wisely. Disrupting neither communal harmony nor the necessary day-to-day management of the monastery’s domestic affairs, Clare saw to it that each nun received what she merited. To a select few she granted the opportunity to pray longer hours.
One of Clare’s responsibilities was that of interpreting and reinforcing the Rule of Saint Augustine. In truth, the Rule was simply a man-made charter outlining the chief phases in the pursuit of a dedicated God-oriented life. Even in this matter of the Rule, however, she knew she was only God’s instrument, for she would tell her nuns: “Who teaches the soul if not God?”
Soon, Clare’s reputation for holiness and wisdom attracted visitors to her Monastery of the Holy Cross, where they sought to share in her godly understanding of life. They came in endless procession: priests, friars, theologians, jurists, bishops, lay people learned and illiterate, in a word, saints and sinners. They came to see her, to hear her words, to be inspired, encouraged, filled with the ardor that radiated from her heart. They came one and all because she had the answers to their problems. Though the answers were always scriptural, logical, and theological, they never failed to be thoroughly sensitive to each person’s needs.
Clare also loved the poor, the ill as much as the poor, and those who were persecuted. To all these desperate folk and to anyone in misery who knocked at the monastery portal, she gave whatever she could. Her heart was so forgiving that she even helped those who had spoken evil of her and who had wished evil upon her.
What Clare possessed was spiritual strength: the ability to focus intensely upon the spirit and its timeless needs.
Clare was a mystic. But she was realistic enough to obtain the funds to build a church for her monastery which would serve not only her nuns but also the citizens of Montefalco and all the pilgrims who came to this mountain village seeking her insights. Like the monastery, the church was also dedicated to the Holy Cross.
Frescoes on the chapel walls portray some of Clare’s conversations with Christ concerning his cross. In her talk with him in 1294 when she was only twenty-six she asks him: “Where are you going, Lord?” He answers, “I’ve been searching the whole world over for a strong place to plant my cross in. But I have found none.” Later, he tells her, “Clare, I have finally found a place for my cross: I shall place it in your heart.” From that day on, Clare’s body ached with acute pain caused by the tokens of his cross, marked there by Christ himself. Thus began the last of her three trials, that of physical illness.
By July of 1308, her illness became so severe she was bedridden. When nuns visiting her would trace the sign of the cross upon her as a blessing, Clare would respond, “Why do you make this sign over me, sisters? I already have Christ crucified in my heart.” On Thursday, 15 August, she summoned all her nuns to her room, gave them her last spiritual will and testament, and then asked to receive the holy oils of the sick. On Friday, very tired, she asked that her brother Francis be sent for. It was night by the time he arrived. He waited until the next morning to speak with her physician, who told him, “She slept well. She is completely healed.” As Francis was leaving to return to his own monastery, for he was a Franciscan friar, two nuns asked him to remain a while longer. “Mother Clare wants to speak with you,” they said. Entering the chamber, he saw that she was truly well; her face was full of color and beaming. They spoke at length about spiritual topics.
Then she called the monastery chaplain Friar Thomas and confessed her sins. Later, to her nuns, she revealed: “There is little else for me to say. Today, you shall all be with me with Christ, because I go to him.” She lay there, unmoving. Those were her last words. Her eyes were turned heavenward. Finally, at nine in the morning Francis thought it wise to take her pulse. It had stopped.
Clare’s nuns thought it unsuitable to bury her, for they remembered her words: “The life of the soul is the love of God.” Her body they embalmed. As for her heart, they placed it within a wooden bowl carved with flowers.
After the funeral the very next day, Clare’s heart was examined carefully by learned persons and lay folk. Just as she had said, the marks of the passion were upon it: the cross and the instruments of Christ’s passion.
To this day, her body lies in state, incorrupt, in the church of the Augustinian nuns at Montefalco, Italy. Her feast is celebrated by the Augustinian Family on 17 August.