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In the folds
of her mantle

· Clare of Assisi and evangelical poverty ·

Clare favoured “the privilege of poverty most attentively”, as the sisters who lived with her at San Damiano testified, because “she had a special love for poverty and could never be induced to receive possessions either for herself or for the monastery”. However it was not easy for her, closely linked to Francis by an intense spiritual friendship, to have this principle accepted. In 1219 Cardinal Ugolino, of the family of the Counts of Segni, Papal Legate for Central and Northern Italy, wrote a formula vitae for them where the accent is placed on the cloister rather than on poverty. In fact the safeguard of chastity was of prime interest to the Cardinal: hence the obligation of the cloister and the need to endow individual monasteries with permanent goods, on pain of their extinction when they came to lack their daily alms, in order to prevent the nuns from going out alms-collecting.

Simone Martini, “St Clare” (1322—1326)

The movement of a predominantly urban type to which the followers of St Clare initially belonged was made up of lay women who, however, lived as nuns. It fits into the picture of the larger religious movement which in the early years of that century had pervaded the whole of Europe. On the other side of the Alps it came to be known as the Beguine movement, from the name given to the semi-religious of the Rhineland, Alsace and the Netherlands (Flanders and Brabant). These were women who intended to live a devout and chaste life. They had penitential life as their common denominator, but attuned to a range of vocations, which led them to give priority to reclusion or charitable service. They were “unofficial” hermits of the city, all infected with the ideal of renunciation and mendicant poverty.

Ugolino, a Count of Segni who became Pope Gregory ix, in 1227 channelled a large part of the women’s penitential movement into the Order of Damianites, assigning a rule to them, the Benedictine Rule, and imposing the cloister.

San Damiano, just outside the town of Assisi, was the monastery where St Clare lived. She was the “fist plantlet” of that religious family which Francis had founded and supported. On 17 September 1228 Gregorio ix had personally renewed for Donna Clare and her community the privilegium paupertatis – the guarantee conceded to her in 1216 by Innocent iii, whose authenticity is attested by the codex of the Poor Clares’ monastery at Montevergine, Messina. This, despite the formula vitae of Ugolino, permitted them to continue to observe absolute poverty, without proceeds or incomes. The Franciscan fidelity to poverty was in fact permitted but not imposed by Ugolino’s rule which, it is necessary to reassert, had been extended to the whole Order, today commonly called Damianite or Poor Clares. This gradually distanced the Monastery of San Damiano – and the few other monasteries that had the courage to follow Clare – from the mainstream Damianite monastic course which therefore received another four rules until 1263, without counting the authorizations granted to individual monasteries. The last one, that of Urban iv (1263), established possessions and incomes as a normal means of subsistence. These authorizations of Urban iv’s rule, known as Rule ii, had in a certain sense confused the specific features of the forma vitae desired by Clare, different from Ugolino’s and recognized by Innocent iv, while with the Bull Solet annuere on 9 August 1253 he approved the Rule she had written, the so-called “Rule i”. Clare had the joy of kissing this rule: Hanc beata Clara tetigit et obsculata est pro devotione pluribus et pluribus vicibus; this is exactly what a contemporary hand noted on the back of the original Bull. Two days later Clare died, clasping in her hands this same Bull whose destiny, since a charismatic guide was lacking, it was not difficult to imagine.

Indeed, not four years had passed since Clare’s death when her spiritual daughters who lived in San Damiano abandoned the “shrine of fidelity”. They moved to the new monastery, called after the saint. Clare’s body was translated here too, by an order of Alexander iv, on 3 October 1260, in the presence of the Bishops of Perugia, Spoleto and Assisi; it had been temporarily buried in the little Church of San Giorgio. Laid beneath the main altar, at a depth of about three metres in a stone urn set in a grotto carved out of the rock, her body was sought, recovered and exposed to the faithful only in 1850, with the involvement of the Poor Clares of Italy and France, and in particular of those in Marseille. Something similar also happened to the rule written by Clare and approved by Innocent iv. This text – called Rule i, the thing most precious to Clare – had in a certain way lain buried for a long time like Clare. The original Bull had in fact been placed among the relics and sewn into the inside of the saint’s mantle and thus with time had been forgotten. It was “discovered” only in 1893, at the insistence of the Poor Clares in Lyon.

It is not known when and why the Poor Clares of the proto-monastery took the decision to conceal the Bull in the folds of the saint’s mantle. It is certain that at least since the 17th century, this Bull had been sought in vain both in Assisi and outside it. However copies existed which circulated in Clarissian monasteries of strict observance, such as the one kept in the Monastery of Montevergine in Messina founded by Eustochia Calafato.

Mario Sensi

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