Clare Offreduccio, whom we know as St Clare of Assisi, may seem like a remote medieval figure. What could such a woman, who lived most of her life locked up in a monastery in Assisi in the 13th Century, have to say to those of us living in this high-tech age? Could her life possibly have any relevance for those of us living at the dawn of the third millennium?
The first female follower of St Francis of Assisi, she has for many years lived in his shadow. However, Clare was no shrinking violet locked up in an ivory tower, unaware of the realities of life. As one who had to fight to achieve what she felt was necessary, she has much to say to us.
Living at a time when women had little or no say in their destinies, she emerges as a woman who lived her life in a passionate way, and who let nothing get in the way of living out her vision of life as it began to unfold. She came under the influence of St Francis, having often heard him preach and she met many times with him. This had to be done in secret, as she was of a noble family, and her family would certainly not approve of her associating with this madman.
But she could not keep away, because his "words seemed to her afire with God" and, it became clear to her that she was being called to embark on a new way of living with the Lord. Leaving aside all security, she secretly left home on the night of Palm Sunday, 1212, to join Francis and his followers.
It is hard for us, nowadays, to imagine how shocking this must have been - a young, beautiful girl of 18, to go off on her own with this band of ragamuffin friars. However, she was single-minded and passionately in love with the Lord, and would allow nothing to stand in her way. She later counselled that we should "Love Him totally, who gave Himself totally for our love" - she was clearly speaking from experience.
Life was difficult in those early years. Originally, there was no particular monastery for her to stay in, but eventually she moved into San Damiano, one of the old churches that Francis had repaired. Not long after leaving home, she was joined by her younger sister, Agnes. Eventually, many other women joined her (even her mother), and so the Poor Clares began.
As leader of this group of women, she had to fight to secure in the Church supports which would enable them to live a radically poor way of life. In those days, it was unheard of that monasteries of women would live without a lot of land and revenues to support them.
However, Clare wanted to embrace the Poor Crucified Christ in a radical way, and so she appealed to the pope in order to secure the "privilege of poverty" (as she called it). Although highly thought of by three popes, they were very reluctant to grant this to her. However, her conviction about poverty was crucial to her vision of life. One who lives in poverty lives in dependence on God and gives a clear testimony to her trust in God.
She was also the first woman in church history to write a rule of life for religious women and to get it approved. This was something very close to her heart, as several different religious rules had been imposed on them, none of which reflected the Franciscan ideal that she wanted to live. So, she set about writing her own ‘Form of Life', and had it approved by the pope on her deathbed, just the day before she died! Two years later (1255) her name was enrolled among the saints.
Such then was Clare of Assisi - a woman of courage and determination, and an all-consuming love for the Lord. Yet she was very gentle and considerate in her nature, as is borne out by the testimonies of her sisters and also her rule, which is noted for these traits. Down through the years, the noble and austere way of life founded by her has never ceased to inspire and attract women who have the generosity and love to follow it.