Reenvisioning St. Clare of Assisi

imageAs with St. Francis of Assisi, St. Clare’s image has suffered from popular varnishing that, however well-intentioned, has come to cloud our vision of the great saint under a rosy haze of hagiography and piety. This past summer, during my studies at the Franciscan Institute at St. Bonaventure University, I was acquainted with writings and sources from the early days of the Franciscan movement as well as contemporary critical historical analysis of Francis and Clare. It is my opinion that an objective analysis of the lives of these great saints, using current historical methodology, will serve to produce a more nuanced understanding of their achievements and help to inform our vision as we seek to live out the Franciscan charism in the twenty first century.

One such analysis, Maria Pia Alberzoni’s Clare of Assisi and Women’s Franciscanism (Grayfriars Review, 2003), recounts the life of St. Clare of Assisi and the struggles of her nascent community of Poor Ladies in the beginning of the thirteenth century. While drafting a framework of the various expressions of women’s religious devotion in the twelfth and thirteenth century, Alberzoni makes a clear distinction between contemporary notions of a single “women’s religious movement” and the reality of a more generalized, broader spirit of renewal that pervaded the Church at this time. She asserts that while Clare found in Francis a kindred spirit and a close ally, it is ultimately from this latter, penitential renewal and the ensuing plurality of spiritual expression that St. Clare and the Poor Ladies emerged. Still, Clare’s close association with Francis cannot be disregarded and Clare herself would go on to use her intimacy with the newly canonized saint to not only legitimize her vision of the evangelical life, but also to secure for herself and her community the provisions needed to support and realize her vision.

We can get an understanding of the spiritual milieu from which Clare’s story unfolds by analyzing early documents such as The Acts of the Process of Canonization of Clare of Assisi and The Legend of St. Clare, both of which were written after her death and, in the case of the latter, her canonization. The precipitous reception of Clare into Francis’s fraternity on Palm Sunday of 1212 foreshadows the tumultuous history of her life in religion and the challenges faced by the community she would go on to establish. The difficulties encountered by Clare and her community resulted from several factors. The challenges brought about by the sheer novelty of Clare’s vision of evangelical life, which found its parallel in Francis’s own unique vision, was exacerbated by medieval preconceptions of what constitutes a female religious. Since 1207, the Church, under the papacy of Innocent III (1198-1216), had worked to establish a universal coenobium, which sought to standardize female expressions of religious life under a monastic and enclosed model. This was continued during the reigns of Honorius III (1216-1227) and Gregory IX (1227-1241), whose papacies would have a more direct impact on the lives of Clare and her community.

This initial community, a small group of women comprised of Clare, her family, and other ladies she knew from Perugia, enjoyed a period of relative insulation from ecclesial interference during Francis’s lifetime. Clare had established her community in San Damiano, which indicated a close relationship with the friars living there. This affection was further validated when Francis, during an illness two years prior to his death, convalesced at San Damiano. Francis’s death in 1226 however exposed the Poor Ladies of San Damiano to the encroachment of the Church’s regulations regarding women religious.

The period after Francis’s death in 1226 until Clare’s death in 1253 was marked by several contentious battles of wills, between the foundress of the Poor Ladies at San Damiano and the ecclesial authorities that sought to bring the new community in line with a monastic expression of female religious life. As early as 1227, Pope Gregory IX, the former Hugolino of Ostia, initiated steps to achieve this goal by referring to Clare’s community as “poor cloistered nuns” and entrusting their spiritual to the care of the Order of Friars Minor. In July 1228, shortly after the canonization of St. Francis, Gregory IX pressed Clare to accept a forma vitae which he had already offered to other monasteries during his tenure as bishop of Ostia. This forma vitae was flatly rejected as it did not assure the San Damiano community the practice of absolute poverty, which by this moment had become the foremost characteristic of Clare’s vision of the evangelical life. In order to mitigate the damaging effects of this refusal, Gregory IX granted the San Damiano community a special dispensation in September of 1228, which became know as the Privilege of Poverty, while assimilating them into the larger federation of monasteries under his Hugolinian forma vitae. By 1235, this federation of monasteries was referred to as the Ordo Sancti Damiani, in which the community at San Damiano held a special, but distinct, place.

The onslaught of papal pressures to conform to a traditional monastic way of life with moderated poverty and a stable source of revenue continued when, after the friar’s general chapter of 1230, Gregory IX issued Quo elongati. In addition to nullifying the juridical authority of the Francis’s Testament, Quo elongati reinforced the primacy of the Regula bullata, especially as it pertains to the friars’ visitations of women’s monasteries. Quo elongati prohibited the friars from entering all cloistered women’s communities, including San Damiano. Without the support of the friars, Clare and her sisters would have to find an alternative source of stable income and therefore mitigate their practice of absolute poverty. Furthermore, Clare saw in Quo elongati a direct attack on the close relationship she and her sisters had enjoyed with the Order of Friars Minor since the time of Francis. She responded by evicting the friars from San Damiano. Gregory backed down and, as with the Privilege of Poverty in 1228, he exempted San Damiano from Quo elongati and allowed the friars to continue to beg alms for Clare and her sisters.

The relationship between the friars and the Clarian community continued to be eroded in the 1230’s and 1240’s by political turmoil within the Order of Friars Minor. When Elias was deposed as general minister during the general chapter of 1239, Clare lost an ally who had shared her vision of the evangelical life. The friars became increasingly unwilling or unable to aid in the sustenance of Clare’s community and the growing number of monasteries belonging to the Ordo Sancti Damiani. Furthermore, in 1247 Pope Innocent IV reintroduces Gregory IX’s forma vitae from 1228, which was updated with a reference to the rule of St. Francis. This forma vitae reiterated a traditional Benedictine monastic model, which allowed for a mitigated poverty through the provision of a secure source of income and a more legalized relationship with the friars.

Intuiting the precarious situation of her community within the context of these events, Clare decided to write her own rule with the help of friars who had been close to Francis. Clare inserts two quotations from “our most blessed Father Francis”, who exhorts her and the sisters to “live according to the perfection of Gospel… in this most holy life and poverty,” while promising “for myself and for my brothers to always have the same loving care and special solicitude for you as I for them.” Clare capitalizes on her association with Francis, hereto referred as “saint” or “blessed”, in an attempt to legitimize her vision of evangelical perfection as mentioned in the Rule, while asserting her insistence on absolute poverty and her special relationship with the Friars Minor. Remarkably, Clare’s Rule was approved by Innocent IV’s bull Solet annuere on August 9, 1253, the day before she died. However, the approval of Clare’s Rule would not prove to be a lasting victory for the Clarian communities in the decades following the saint’s death; in fact, most communities associated with and including San Damiano would go on to adopt the more traditionally monastic forma vitae promulgated in Innocent IV’s Beata Clara in 1263. Reform communities of women religious will pick up the struggle for the implementation of the Rule of St. Clare in the ensuing decades.

In charting Clare’s determination to live out her evangelical vision, her struggles with the ecclesial hierarchy, and the eleventh-hour approval of her Rule in 1253, Maria Pia Alberzoni reflects on the struggle women who wished to live out an evangelical life faced during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In a time of intense spiritual renewal, devout men and women embraced a penitential life that strove to view the world through the eyes of the poor and the marginalized. Francis and Clare emerged from this spiritual milieu, each with their own unique take on living the penitential life according to Gospel values. Whereas Francis and his followers found Gospel perfection through minority and solidarity with the poor, women religious like Clare were forced to forge a new path through terra incognita. Clare had to contend with gendered expectations of her medieval society, as well as the monastic cloister imposed on her and the community by Church hierarchy. She was able to navigate past these strictures through her insistence on the virtue of altissima paupertas.

Of course, as a medieval woman, Clare was not at liberty to insist on the authority of her singular vision. The only acceptable expression of female religious life at this point in time was monasticism, and women who operated outside of that system, either through preaching or the begging of alms, were viewed with suspicion. Thus, Clare’s persistence in forging for herself and her sisters a community based on evangelical values was in need of a male conduit to both validate her vision and to ensure protection for their way of life.

In Francis of Assisi, Clare found a kindred spirit who not only shared her desire to live evangelical perfection, but one who offered, through his support and that of his brothers, the aid and sustenance Clare and the sisters needed to live out their lofty goal. The intimacy of this great, symbiotic relationship can be seen in several of the hagiography and legends that were written after Francis’s death, especially in Chapter VIII of the First Book in Thomas of Celano’s Prima Vita. In the period after 1226, Clare was left to assert her vision amidst challenges, not only from ecclesial authorities, but from the Friars Minor as well. As a testament to her strong will and the righteousness of her conviction, Clare withstood unprecedented pressures, while encouraging other communities of women to not waiver in their desire to live evangelical perfection in highest poverty. In the face of increasing opposition, Clare reclaimed her unique relationship with the newly canonized St. Francis to endorse and bolster support for her vision. By placing her movement under the purview of the original Franciscan movement and stressing the saint’s pivotal role in the establishment of her forma vitae, Clare secured legitimacy and, ultimately, papal approval for her beleaguered community of Poor Ladies.

By viewing Clare’s foundation of the community at San Damiano, not merely as an imitation Francis of Assisi, but rather out of a sincere desire to live a penitential life of evangelical perfection in accord with the great saint, we remove Clare from the shadow of St. Francis and the male-dominated early Franciscan movement. Instead see a picture of a strong woman, not merely a plantula, but a vanguard who strove to forge for herself and her sisters a singular vision of an evangelical life, despite fierce opposition from the highest echelons of the institutional Church and the Order of Friars Minor. In analyzing Clare’s desire to live altissima paupertas and her determination to cling to the ideals set forth by her and Francis of Assisi in light of the religious and political milieu of in the early days of the movement, we can understand a more nuanced image of the foundress and the unique role she played in the development of women’s religious orders and Franciscanism in the thirteenth century and beyond.


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