Once upon a time...
Eight centuries ago to be exact, an eighteen year old girl named Clare,
audaciously approached a young man of twenty six and asked him to show
her how to live as he did. The said young man already had quite a reputation
for wild ways, but now was wandering about wearing a cast-off garment,
going bare-foot, eating whatever he could beg and earnestly preaching
the word of God. That man was Francis of Assisi. Clare’s story
has been told again and again. Her search for Jesus, and the vibrant
living of his Gospel, according to the form of life Saint Francis gave
her, enthused, not only Clare, but generations of women after her.
Two centuries later, St. Colette, an outstanding French
woman, born in Corbie, moved by “Divine inspiration” and
the compelling influence of Francis and Clare, was particularly enthused
by the form of Clare’s life. She set herself to define it more
clearly and has been a dominant figure in the Order ever since.
Our Story begins with the story of Saint Francis and Saint
Clare. It is impossible to tell the story of one without the other,
for in the Providence of God these two are inseparably intertwined.
The tiny seed sown in thirteenth century Assisi rooted itself firmly
in the Church and thrust out vigorous shoots to become the great tree
of the Franciscan family, spread far and wide through time and space,
flourishing still, right into the 21th century.
It was a seed of divine origin – Francis is quite clear: “And
after the Lord gave me brothers, no one showed me what I should do,
but the Most High Himself revealed to me that I should live according
to the form of the Holy Gospel” ( Testament of St.Francis). And
Clare, who loved to refer to herself as “the little plant of the
blessed Father Francis”, writes in her Testament,“The Lord
gave us our most blessed Father Francis as founder, planter and helper
in the things we have promised to God and himself”.
Who were these two saints who have influenced so greatly the life of
the Church and the history of Christian spirituality through the ages?
They grew up in the same Italian town of Assisi towards the end of the
twelfth century – Francis, the son of Bernardone, a rich cloth
merchant, and Clare, eldest daughter of the noble and wealthy Offreduccio
family. Clare was ten or eleven years younger than Francis, and because
the merchant class was fighting against the nobles, neither of them
would have known each other in their early years.
When Francis grew to young manhood he went off to war against neighbouring
Perugia, hoping to win knightly glory – but the Lord made him
realise that he was calling him to His service instead. So Francis returned
to Assisi to spend some years in searching, struggle and indecision
before he finally became aware of God’s call to preach the Gospel
of peace and forgiveness to all. He gave up everything, dressed in a
poor garment and barefooted walked the streets and countryside, speaking
in simple and glowing words the message of the Gospel that burned within
him. Soon he was joined by other men from all walks of life.
They worked with the local labourers for the food they ate and when
that was not enough they begged their bread from door to door. At first,
people thought them mad, then they saw how they reacted to derision
and mockery, really living the message of the Gospel and giving away
all their worldly goods to the poor, and finally, Francis was regarded
as a saint, the founder of a new religious family in the Church, and
his followers were respected and loved by all.
Clare, meanwhile, had grown into a beautiful young girl, not only in
outward appearance but also in true spiritual goodness, deeply prayerful
and concerned about the plight of the poor in her native town, with
whom she frequently shared her own rich food. At eighteen, she was being
urged by parents to enter into a suitable marriage; but having heard
Francis preach in the Cathedral she realised that she, too, was being
called by God to a life of poverty and prayer.
Accompanied by a trusted relative, Clare spoke to Francis in secret
about her vocation several times. She realised that her family would
never agree to her joining this new Order so totally removed from the
society in which she had been brought up, so on the night following
Palm Sunday 1212 she left her father’s house with her companion
and was received by Francis and his friars in the little chapel of Our
Lady of the Angels in the woods. There, her long golden hair was cut
off and she put on the simple, rough robe of the Franciscan habit, tied
around the waist with a cord, and a black veil over her shorn head to
show that she was henceforth consecrated to God forever.
The friars then escorted Clare and her companion to a nearby Benedictine
monastery until Francis' had a place ready to be lived in. Her family
members were furious, but no amount of threats could persuade her to
return. Only a fortnight afterwards, she was joined by her younger sister,
Catherine, who would henceforth be called Agnes in religion. This time
the fury of the family knew no bounds and they attempted to take Agnes
by force from the monastery, but by the intervention of God they were
unable to succeed and the two sisters, united even more strongly now
by the double bond of both blood and religion, settled into the place
Francis had repaired to be their future home – the little monastery
attached to the old church of San Damiano.
Here, while rebuilding the church in response to the voice which spoke
in the depths of Francis being from the huge crucifix still hanging
on the crumbling walls: “Francis, rebuild My Church which, as
you see, is falling into ruin”, he was filled with great joy and
the light of the Holy Spirit, calling out loudly in French to the inhabitants
living by in prophetic words: “Come and help me in the work of
building this monastery of San Damiano! Ladies will one day live here
who by the fame of their holy life will glorify the heavenly Father
throughout the entire Church!” The voice of the Crucified One,
with the eyes of immense tenderness and gentleness, had penetrated to
the very depths of Francis' being and engraved the marks of His suffering
and the reality of His infinite love upon his inmost soul long before
the Sacred Stigmata appeared in visible form on Francis’ hands
and feet and side.
Clare was filled with wonder and gratitude to the heavenly Father for
having chosen and called her, with the sisters who began to join her
in San Damiano, to build up her Church by a life of loving contemplation
of the Poor Crucified, poor, lying in the manger; poor living in this
world; poor hanging naked on the cross and poor in His lowly Sacrament
of the Eucharist. In this holy place, cradle of the Poor Clare Order,
Clare lived enclosed for the next forty–two years until her blessed
death on August 11 1253, in her sixtieth year, dying with praise and
thanksgiving to God for having given her the great gift of life: “O
Lord, may you who have created me, be blessed!”
When Francis died in 1226, revered as a great saint, he was canonized
only two years later. Likewise Clare, the living embodiment of his spirit
and ideals, was canonized just two years after her holy death in 1253.
These two great Saints have given to the Church the three–fold
Franciscan family: the Friars preaching the Gospel, the Poor Clares
praying for the needs of the world and praising God for all those who
neglect this duty of grateful love, and the Secular Franciscans, men
and women, married and single, who want to live their daily lives in
the spirit of Francis and Clare.
Many of the Poor Clare monasteries all over the world are called “Colettine
Poor Clares”, like our own monastery here in St. Damian's. This
is because they have sprung from communities either reformed in the
fifteenth century by Saint Colette, or newly founded by her. Colette
of Corbie in France was born into a Church torn asunder by the Hundred
Years’ War and the Great Schism. Many of the Poor Clare monasteries
then existing needed to be reformed in order to live the primitive ideal
of Francis and Clare, and this is the work which Colette was called
by God to do.
She had been living as a recluse from the age of twenty in the shadow
of the church in her native city, but now, after the will of God had
been made clear to her in several visions, she spent herself tirelessly
travelling through Europe, solidly re-establishing St. Clare’s
Rule by writing constitutions or commentaries of her own which were
to be upheld without any basic modifications for five centuries. These
strongly emphasised personal and communal poverty and a simple and austere
lifestyle in sisterhood. St. Colette was canonized in 1807.
It is necessary and important for the life of the Church to
repeat the discovery of Saint Clare; it is vital to rediscover that
charism, that vocation. It is necessary to rediscover the divine legend
of Francis and Clare.
Pope John Paul II