Sharp. Intense. Obedient.
St. Clare of Assisi, though not as well-known as her mentor and companion Francis, embodies the magnanimity and dedication of an Entrepreneur of the Spirit. Determined to pursue the path to which Christ invited her regardless of worldly pressures, Clare successfully began a community for women to enter cloistered religious life that simultaneously celebrated Franciscan spirituality and became a new creation.
Making Herself Available to Christ
Born into a wealthy Italian family in the high Middle Ages, young Clare lived a pious and privileged life. After hearing Francis preach while she was a teenager, she approached him and asked him to help her live the Gospels. He immediately made plans for her to leave home and live with Benedictine nuns, which she managed to do with the help of a family member and a friend. Her father tried to bring her home—even pulling at her as she clung to an altar!—but she persevered and said she would have no husband but Christ.
The Budding Entrepreneur
She was freed from arranged marriage, but had much more to do for the world. Catarina joined her, and together they moved into a new home Francis had prepared. There they were joined by many other women in a life of poverty and seclusion. Francis prescribed their Rule, and thus the Second Order of the Franciscans were created. He originally directed their community and established their routine of manual labor and prayer, imitating the Christ-like brotherhood of the First Order. Yet, Clare had a vision for the “Poor Ladies,” and she saw that under the direction of a woman, the community would better serve its ends.
When Clare was appointed abbess in 1216, she led the community with strength, even as other orders attempted to determine in which direction the Order would grow. Her leadership preserved the practices of the community and helped it to flourish even under authoritative pressures as well. By the time Pope Innocent III tried to force a more comfortable Rule on Clare and the Sisters in 1228, they had grown to three communities.
Ultimately, Church authorities were moved by their devotion to poverty and observed the profound effect the Order was having on Italy. Catholics throughout the country were eager to follow their way of living radically. Thus the Church acceded to her wishes and watched the Order grow.
Clare so admired Francis and hung upon his words that she was often called alter Franciscus. Even as she directed the Order independently, she often appealed for his guidance. Theirs was a relationship of a spiritual father and daughter, and as Francis neared death she tended to him faithfully.
When Clare first met Francis, she could not have known the plans he had, which had been instilled in him by God. His generosity and focus on establishing communities to be witnesses to Christ made her entire endeavor possible. She succeeded because of his experience, translucency, and focus on the heavenly goal.
Her spirituality had a profound impact on her most immediate community: family. Her mother and two sisters—one of whom would also become abbess and be canonized a saint—likewise surrendered the comfortable life of nobility and joined Clare’s order. Their neighbors, other women of Assisi’s wealthiest class, also joined them.
In the 1230s, Agnes, a princess of Bohemia, began correspondence with Clare after escaping her betrothal to Emperor Frederick II and coming to know members of the First Order in Prague. Like Clare, she allowed the message she heard to affect real change in her life. Agnes sought to grow in relationship with the Franciscans.
Their letters reveal Clare’s use of her high-bred education to communicate spiritual truths in a compelling and effective manner. They found in each other kindred spirits, because both had rejected the highest things the world could offer and chosen instead Christ for their spouse. The bond between Clare and the members of her Order reflected a maternal tenderness and genuine interest in the health of their souls.
Unique Charism: Reflecting Christ From The Eucharist to The World
St. Clare provides a beautiful image for what it means to be an “Entrepreneur for Christ”: she imagines the Eucharist to be a mirror, in which all things are transformed. In this mirror, we are bedecked not with earthly wealth, but “the flowers of the virtues,” and behold poverty, humility, and charity, the greatest riches we can know. She writes to Agnes, and speaks to all of us:
“What more can I say? Let the tongue of the flesh be silent when I seek to express my love for you; let the tongue of the Spirit speak, because the love that I have for you, O blessed daughter, can never fully be expressed by the tongue of the flesh, and even what I have written is an inadequate expression.”
Continued Evolution of the Community
Clare pursued poverty, humility, and charity with a fiery intensity and fierce desire for Christ to be loved in all things. While she toiled daily to serve the heavenly Kingdom on earth, she also recognized that the real work was done through her by the Spirit.
The canonization process took only two years after her death in 1253—the verification of miracles, 6 days! Such powerful beginnings fuel the continued dedication of the Order.
No One Way to Be Holy
In the centuries following her death, the Second Order of the Franciscans further divided to pursue various expressions of Franciscan spirituality. Some adhered more closely to the original Rule, emphasizing a surrender of ownership and complete dependence on alms for day-to-day living. Others chose to live by Rules laid out by various popes over the years, and thus the Third Order of the Franciscans—the lay branch—formed. And there remains, of course, communities of nuns throughout the world who choose to honor the original Rule of St. Clare.
The Franciscans continue to thrive because they recognize that different people are called to various expressions of the core Franciscan identity—rather than being disturbed by this variety, they take it before Christ and allow Him to use them in unique ways.
Amidst these variations, the Poor Clares have honored the Franciscan dedication to the Person of Christ. Clare’s prayer in the presence of the Eucharist was so fervent and intimate that it is said that when she was ill and unable to attend Mass, she would see the Sacrament as if projected on a wall; hence, her patronage of television. Today, the Poor Clares remain in His presence by extensive practices of Eucharistic adoration. The Sacrament has given them their founder’s strength to endure reform, war, and plague in Europe and beyond.
Clare pursued poverty, humility, and charity with a fiery intensity and fierce desire for Christ to be loved in all things. She toiled daily to serve the heavenly Kingdom on earth while also recognizing that the real work was done through her by the Spirit. In her emphasis on relationships, particularly with Christ in the Eucharist, Clare found the means to create thriving and lasting communities that were exactly what the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus desired for the world.