is only one explanation for the way Saint Clare lived her life: she was
in love with Jesus Christ. Hers was the all-consuming passion that spans
centuries and reaches out to heaven itself.
Born in 1268 of a well-to-do family in Montefalco, Italy, Clare was the
lively, sincere, and intelligent daughter of Damiano and Iacopa Vengente.
In Italian, her name was “Chiara,” which means “clear,
bright, pure.” While yet a teenager, Clare chose Christ as her one
true love. Following her elder sister Joan’s example, Clare began
the practice of religious self-denial. In keeping with the customs of the
century, the two young women spent days in prolonged sessions of prayer
and exceptional mortification of the flesh. Clare’s God-fearing parents
gave moral and physical support to her lifestyle of renunciation by permitting
her to live with Joan in the hermitage which Damiano had built not too far
from home. There, after long hours in prayer during the day, Clare would
at night fall to her knees in order to recite the Lord’s Prayer and
then meditate upon what she was now convinced was the ideal of her life:
giving honor to the passion of Christ.
Like Joan, Clare was no stranger to harsh acts of penance, but unlike
Joan she went too far and had to be tempered in her zeal. No matter, Clare
was happy at what she thought was her role in life: to suffer with her Savior,
who had shed blood for her upon the cross. Her imitation of his sacrifice
knew no bounds except those prudently imposed by the vigilant Joan.
Already a veteran ascetic at the tender age of twenty, Clare was suddenly
thrust into the first of her three great trials. She was now experiencing
every day spiritual upheaval in her heart. Temptations assaulted her, conflicts
raged inside her previously well-ordered emotional life, spiritual aridity
burned away whatever pleasure she had once enjoyed when communicating with
God, and worst of all she was now subject to doubt: she could not resolve
whether or not God had abandoned her. This upheaval she endured for eleven
years. Christ was exacting of her the same total blind trust that he still
exacts of all who profess to love him.
On 10 June 1290, Clare’s hermitage was declared a “monastery”
to be governed by the Rule of Saint Augustine. The following year, Joan
died. Beloved not only by Clare but by all the townspeople and the herders
and hunters on the mountainside, Joan was given by them the title of “Blessed.”
The bishop of nearby Spoleto to the south sent his representative to
Montefalco in order to supervise the election of the monastery’s new
abbess. The choice was unanimous: Clare. So began Clare’s second great
trial. Preferring to serve God and his people in a more humble way, she
declined to accept the role and responsibility of abbess. “An abbess
must be holy and wise,” said Clare. “I am neither: I’m
only twenty-four. Please, choose someone else.” But the nuns would
have none of it and insisted on their young and reluctant companion. “Clare!
Clare! Clare!” they cried. Again she refused: “I want to be
a nun, not an abbess. I want to serve you all at the most menial of tasks.
Please!” But again the nuns would have none of it. She bowed to their
will and she became their abbess.
Life in the convent ran smoothly under her direction. Work, prayer, and
meetings followed one another with calm and dignity. On Fridays, it was
customary for the abbess to give spiritual advice and instruction during
that day’s regularly scheduled one-hour meeting (called “chapter”).
It was also the moment for public avowals and penance. Clare often took
advantage of this time of repentance to kneel before them as she spoke.
For the next sixteen years, Clare served as mother, teacher, and spiritual
director of her nuns. She governed wisely. Disrupting neither communal harmony
nor the necessary day-to-day management of the monastery’s domestic
affairs, Clare saw to it that each nun received what she merited. To a select
few she granted the opportunity to pray longer hours.
One of Clare’s responsibilities was that of interpreting and reinforcing
the Rule of Saint Augustine. In truth, the Rule was simply a man-made charter
outlining the chief phases in the pursuit of a dedicated God-oriented life.
Even in this matter of the Rule, however, she knew she was only God’s
instrument, for she would tell her nuns: “Who teaches the soul if
Soon, Clare’s reputation for holiness and wisdom attracted visitors
to her Monastery of the Holy Cross, where they sought to share in her godly
understanding of life. They came in endless procession: priests, friars,
theologians, jurists, bishops, lay people learned and illiterate, in a word,
saints and sinners. They came to see her, to hear her words, to be inspired,
encouraged, filled with the ardor that radiated from her heart. They came
one and all because she had the answers to their problems. Though the answers
were always scriptural, logical, and theological, they never failed to be
thoroughly sensitive to each person’s needs.
Clare also loved the poor, the ill as much as the poor, and those who
were persecuted. To all these desperate folk and to anyone in misery who
knocked at the monastery portal, she gave whatever she could. Her heart
was so forgiving that she even helped those who had spoken evil of her and
who had wished evil upon her.
What Clare possessed was spiritual strength: the ability to focus intensely
upon the spirit and its timeless needs.
Clare was a mystic. But she was realistic enough to obtain the funds
to build a church for her monastery which would serve not only her nuns
but also the citizens of Montefalco and all the pilgrims who came to this
mountain village seeking her insights. Like the monastery, the church was
also dedicated to the Holy Cross.
Frescoes on the chapel walls portray some of Clare’s conversations
with Christ concerning his cross. In her talk with him in 1294 when she
was only twenty-six she asks him: “Where are you going, Lord?”
He answers, “I’ve been searching the whole world over for a
strong place to plant my cross in. But I have found none.” Later,
he tells her, “Clare, I have finally found a place for my cross: I
shall place it in your heart.” From that day on, Clare’s body
ached with acute pain caused by the tokens of his cross, marked there by
Christ himself. Thus began the last of her three trials, that of physical
By July of 1308, her illness became so severe she was bedridden. When
nuns visiting her would trace the sign of the cross upon her as a blessing,
Clare would respond, “Why do you make this sign over me, sisters?
I already have Christ crucified in my heart.”
On Thursday, 15 August, she summoned all her nuns to her room, gave them
her last spiritual will and testament, and then asked to receive the holy
oils of the sick. On Friday, very tired, she asked that her brother Francis
be sent for. It was night by the time he arrived. He waited until the next
morning to speak with her physician, who told him, “She slept well.
She is completely healed.” As Francis was leaving to return to his
own monastery, for he was a Franciscan friar, two nuns asked him to remain
a while longer. “Mother Clare wants to speak with you,” they
said. Entering the chamber, he saw that she was truly well; her face was
full of color and beaming. They spoke at length about spiritual topics.
Then she called the monastery chaplain Friar Thomas and confessed her
sins. Later, to her nuns, she revealed: “There is little else for
me to say. Today, you shall all be with me with Christ, because I go to
him.” She lay there, unmoving. Those were her last words. Her eyes
were turned heavenward. Finally, at nine in the morning Francis thought
it wise to take her pulse. It had stopped.
Clare’s nuns thought it unsuitable to bury her, for they remembered
her words: “The life of the soul is the love of God.” Her body
they embalmed. As for her heart, they placed it within a wooden bowl carved
After the funeral the very next day, Clare’s heart was examined
carefully by learned persons and lay folk. Just as she had said, the marks
of the passion were upon it: the cross and the instruments of Christ’s
To this day, her body lies in state, incorrupt, in the church of the
Augustinian nuns at Montefalco, Italy.
Her feast is celebrated by the Augustinian Family on 17 August.