· Vatican City ·

Different ways of seeing

Poverty and work: Clare’s revolution

The icon of St Clare and the first saints of the order, created by Mother Pierpaola Nistri, abbess of the monastery of Grottaglie (Taranto).
26 September 2020

In the collective imagination, Clare is always viewed within the outline of Francis’ shadow, linked to him by a more or less sublimated love. Franco Zeffirelli’s 1972 film, Fratello Sole, sorella luna, [Brother Sun, Sister Moon], which was an extraordinary success, helped to reaffirm this stereotype. Clare, on the other hand, was a saint endowed with great courage and independence and a very strong personality.

When Clare began to visit Francis, she was young, noble, rich and beautiful. This is how Giovanni di Vettuta, the house servant, described her at the canonization process. From his mother she had received a deeply rooted religious education. In fact, she modulated her own scale of values on this scale, for example, dressing very modestly to remind herself of solidarity with the dispossessed through poverty taken as a model, of Christ and Our Lady. However, everything that Clare saw around her in the society of Assisi or that she had to suffer in the family, whether it be the pressure to accept a husband, or her subsequent rejection -which would have greatly increased the tensions-, was profoundly at odds with what her inner voice suggested. By refusing marriage, she would have had to oblige the destiny ahead of her; withering in the house or becoming a cloistered nun. In the latter case, her parents would have given her a dowry and in the monastery, as she was a noblewoman, she would have lived with the privileges of her birth.

At the age of eighteen we must imagine her restless and unhappy, agitated by indistinct desires without a satisfying project. Remaining reserved and secret for some time, it was Francesco who solicited the meetings with her.

Listening to Francis, Clare was surprised to hear her own thoughts, but within a project that had already taken shape and clarity. The way of life of the young fraternity, which was at once so new, yet so ancient because it retraced the way of Christ, Mary and the apostles, would have been hers,  and of her future companions. Clare had finally arrived where she had always wanted to be and where she intended to remain definitively. She did not act hastily, however, and it took time for her to stock up on enough courage for the rest of her life. She left her father’s house in Assisi in 1211 or 1212 and never returned, and lived for about forty years in the small monastery of San Damiano with her mother Ortolana, her sisters Agnese and Beatrice, her nieces Balvina and Amata, and her sisters who adored her, until her death on August 11, 1253.

Clare was forced to accept the title of abbess and formally the cloister, but she never wanted her community to be able to count on land property income, like all other cloistered communities, where the nuns, dedicated to a life of asceticism and prayer, had to rely on external means of support.

Clare wanted to live like Francis in the most radical poverty. She even clashed with Gregory IX - a little nun from Assisi against the Pope! - ready to dispense Clare from the vow of poverty, from possessing nothing either individually or in common, and who would have wanted to give her the monastery as a dowry. However, Clare opposed it with an unshakeable decision and in no way allowed herself to be convinced. Moreover, when the Pontiff replied: “If you fear for the vow, we will dispense with it” Clare replied “Holy Father, in any way and never, forever, do I wish to be dispensed from following Christ”. (“Come and follow me”: this is how Jesus answered the question of the rich young man who sought perfection, according to Matthew 19:21).

Clare did not want to possess anything, like Francis. She wanted to keep her mind free and refused firmly to compromise with all forms of power. She struggled all her life with the Curia and with the official hierarchies of the Franciscan Order. This struggle was both for the right to exercise the highest poverty with her companions would be recognized, as has been said, but also to preserve her fraternal bond with Francis; them belonging to the same family, and the sharing of the same forma vitae, albeit with the prudence of a feminine version. The first friars who united with Francis worked, and accepted only their daily food as compensation, and did not depend on the charity of the Assisians. Clare also wanted her nuns to work,  and their manual labour helped to maintain contact with the world. What the nuns produced had to be distributed “pro communi utilitate”, for the benefit of all, wrote Clare, and not only for the benefit of the monastery. Clare was already in her thirties when she became very ill. She lay sick in bed for about twenty-eight years, spinning silk or linen uninterruptedly so that the sisters would then make the thin fabric of the corporals (one of the elements of the liturgical furnishings still in use today for the celebration of the Eucharist), and the relative bags “covered by silk and samite”, brought first to be blessed by the bishop and then distributed to the churches of the city and diocese.

Clare was the first woman to write a rule for women; previously nuns had been forced to adapt a written rule for men to their needs. Clare’s rule is a very beautiful rule, which is not based on rigid prescriptions but which leaves everything to the nun’s conscience, to the application of love and peace of the Gospel. As a woman, Clare was capable of great understanding and listening. If the Church forced her to accept the cloister, her monastery was open to heal children and to heal the worries of women, and those of men.

However, not all the nuns worked in the monastery, for some of them went out regularly.  These were the sorores extra monasterium servientes. By Clare’s rule, which she began to write in 1250 and which was approved only two days before her death, takes their duties for granted, but we can reasonably reconstruct them.

The sorores extra monasterium servientes of Clare - we note that they are called sorores and not servitiales, sisters and not servants - dress in the same way as the other nuns and are treated as equals; they are not distinct in their habit (like the Benedictine servitiales). However, they are allowed not to go barefoot like their companions in the monastery. It is clear that Clare believed that the bumpy roads and long journeys to be confronted were different from the smooth floors and short journeys inside the small San Damiano convent. According to the abbess, they are dispensed from fasting; they are not required to respect the silence from the third hour, that is from sunset until about nine o'clock in the morning. They do not have to ask any permission from the abbess to go out. They maintain a normal acquaintance with the laity, as can be deduced from a series of recommendations and prohibitions that concern them: the time the sorores remained outside the monastery should not be too long (“unless an evident cause requires it”); a modest demeanour has to be maintained along the way; the nuns should not talk too much, nor entertain themselves in advice or in suspicious relationships with anyone. They could, however, address brief exhortations to those who encountered them. The saint, like Francis, showed a joyful appreciation of creation and exhorted the sisters who served outside the monastery that, when they saw “the beautiful, flowering and leafy trees, they praised God. And similarly, when they saw the men and the other creatures, always for everything and in everything they have to praise God” (as a nun testified at the process of canonization). It seems to me, therefore, that I can deduce that these sorores - who walk for a long time; do hard work for which they must be able to refresh themselves; who can speak freely, for example, praising creation in public, speaking even from evening to early morning; considered absolutely on a par with the other nuns who remained in the monastery - should exercise an active apostolate in the service of the sick in hospices-hospitals and women’s leprosariums (where help or a consolatory word cannot depend on the monastic hours, meditation and prayer times).

It should be underlined how much Chiara/Clara cared about service to others, a concrete, tangible service, and how her project, in addition to circumventing the essential principles of the cloister, was revolutionary for her times.

In the Middle Ages, in fact, the Church permitted entrance, as has been said, only to the moniales, that is to all cloistered nuns, women taken care of. It did not conceive possible the lifestyle of what we call nuns (from the Latin sorores), that is, groups of nuns gathered in congregations – and who  flourished especially from the nineteenth century onwards! - who lived in convents, and who dedicated themselves to the education of children in schools and the care of the sick in hospitals.

It was likely around 1216-1217 when Francis elaborated a special rule, About the behaviour of the friars in hermitages, dedicated to those friars who wanted to live for a short time in hermitage solitude. So that their living quietly would not be disturbed, some friars, “mother friars”, as Francis defined them, would take care of all material tasks by taking care of the “friar-sons”, who in turn, after a certain period, would exchange functions and roles with the “mother friars”. In the Monastery of Clare we see the nuns dedicated to prayer and asceticism alternating in complete equality with the nuns, we can now take it for granted, who were in charge of helping the sick. Perhaps the saint’s rule was inspired by the life of Clare and her companions; for they alternated between contemplative and active life, prayer and meditation and charitable service (even outside the monastery).

After all, it is not a question of who was inspired by whom: Bishop Giacomo da Vitry, an attentive witness of the Minorite novelty, describes it as open to those men and women who are called, he writes, “fratres minores et sorores minores”.

by Chiara Frugoni

Clare of Assisi

Assisi  July 16, 1194
Died  August 11, 1253
Venerated by the Catholic Church
Canonization 1255 in Anagni Cathedral
Main Sanctuary Basilica of St. Clare in Assisi
Anniversary  August 11

The author

A historian, medievalist, and specialised in Church History, she has taught Medieval History in several universities, including those of Pisa, Rome and Paris.
A large part of her research is dedicated to the figures of St Francis and St Clare, and many of her books have been translated abroad. In particular, she explored in depth the way in which the institutions opposed the action of Francis.
In 2011, she identified in one of the frescoes attributed to Giotto in the Upper Basilica of Assisi a profile of the devil traced in the clouds. The profile was until then unknown and there was no literature or documentation on it.