IVP - Strangely Dim - Poor Clare

March 23, 2009

Poor Clare

We continue our celebration of women from Christian history with a key figure in the monastic tradition, profiled by Scott Bessenecker in his Likewise book The New Friars:


Just a few years after the start of [St.] Francis's order, on March 18, 1212, the seeds of another order germinated, this time in a young woman. On that brisk Italian night eighteen-year-old Clare Offreduccio snuck out of her Assisian home for a clandestine meeting. This was not a rebellious teenager stealing away under cover of dark in order to engage in some kind of silly prank or passionate interlude with a young man. On that destiny-forging Palm Sunday evening, Francis wed Clare to Jesus Christ and to a life of voluntary poverty.


The preaching of Francis was a magnet for idealists regardless of gender. Thomas of Celano, the first biographer for Francis, describes Clare as "young in age, mature in spirit, steadfast in purpose and most eager in her desire for divine love, endowed with wisdom and excelling in humility, bright in name, more brilliant in life, most brilliant in character." For years the beautiful but fiercely independent Clare had spurned the machinations of her very wealthy family to marry her off. There were certainly rich and handsome suitors who would have gladly solved the family problem of Clare's singleness. To be a wealthy fifteen-year-old girl and unwed was strange in Clare's day; to be eighteen and single was a downright embarrassment, making it appear that something was wrong with her or the family. And her younger sisters wouldn't be able to marry unless Clare did so first. Rumors spread and the pressure to marry increased.


On that Sunday evening when Clare knelt to pledge herself to the Franciscan ideal, Francis cut her hair, shaving the crown of her head (a practice of the monastic orders that perhaps harkens back to the Nazirite vow), and then covered her head with a veil. Dressed in sackcloth, she was whisked away to a Benedictine nunnery, as it would have been out of the question for her to live with the dozen or so brothers holed up with Francis. The next day the family patriarchs, learning of Clare's folly, raided the Benedictine house to "rescue" Clare from her impulsive decision and delusion under the teachings of a madman. But Clare was neither impulsive nor deluded. She pulled off her veil, revealing the tonsure cut into her hair, and claimed the refuge the church afforded those who would make such a pledge.


The excitement of a family kidnap attempt was not the Benedictine sisters' cup of tea. They asked Francis to do something else with Clare besides foist her and the unwanted attention that came with her onto their community. Since the brothers were now living at Saint Mary's, Francis moved Clare into an addition he had made to San Damiano, and she spent the next forty-one years living as austerely as the brothers. She opened the floodgates for young women and was soon joined by her fifteen-year-old sister, Catherine, and eventually by her own widowed mother. Although Clare was expected to live the single life in keeping with medieval norms that associated celibacy with the clergy, she held the conviction that following Jesus is sweeter than yielding to the social pressure to marry at all costs. Writing to Agnes of Prague, daughter to the king of Bohemia, Clare addresses Agnes's decision to refuse marriage to Emperor Frederick II and join the Poor Clares: "You, more than others, could have enjoyed the magnificence and honor and dignity of the world, and could have been married to the illustrious Emperor with splendor befitting you and His Excellency. You have rejected these things and have chosen with your whole heart and soul a life of holy poverty and destitution. Thus, you took a spouse of a more noble lineage."


Within twenty-five years Clare drew fifty other women to the Franciscan life, and just hours before her death she received papal approval for the rule she had written for her community, thereby becoming the first woman to define a rule of life for a community of women. Many men, bishops and popes included, tried to dissuade Clare from the strict rule of absolute poverty that governed the lives of the sisters, but she stubbornly refused to live in any other way. If poverty was good enough for the Son of God, it was good enough for them.


Posted by Dave Zimmerman at March 23, 2009 6:07 AM Bookmark and Share

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

Rebecca Larson is a writer/designer/creative type who has infiltrated IVP's web department, where she writes and edits online content. She enjoys a good pun and loves the smell of freshly printed books.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

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