Research Paper: Clare of Assisi Saint

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[. . .] She believed in the "liberating power of humility and poverty" -- definitely not a modern idea -- and her main preoccupation was not life in this world but the next (Anderson 83).

Clare can only be understood in the context of this 13th Century religious reform movement, which was a very different world from the present. She thought that the saints and martyrs had "often included examples of women preaching, governing and healing" in imitation of Christ (Anderson 84). In this era the church was greatly concerned about corruption and worldliness in its ranks at all levels, and this would grow even worse in the centuries ahead. Clare, Francis and other reformers like the Waldensians advocated a return to the purity, simplicity, poverty and charity of the early church. This could be regarded as a very early precursor of the Protestant Reformation, although Clare and Francis never broke openly with the Catholic Church as the later Reformers did in 15th and 16th Centuries. Even so, one of the reasons the Popes created the Inquisition in the 1200s was precisely because so much dissent and heresy had already broken out in Europe (Anderson 85).

A constant theme in all of Clare's writings is that the poor were blessed by God and would inherit his Kingdom, and that poverty was a holy condition because Jesus Christ had also been poor during His time on earth. Assisi was a town of very stark class divisions, with the nobles living on the hills of San Rufino, the merchants families living around the town square, while "the poor and outcast often lived outside the walls in the malarial swamps of the valley" (Mueller 11). She not only rejected worldly honors, titles, wealth and power, she despised them and stated repeatedly that those who loved the world would only inherit hell in the afterlife. Clare wrote in her first letter to St. Agnes of Prague in 1234 that "you, more than others, could have enjoyed the magnificence, honor and dignity of the world, and could have been married to the illustrious Emperor, with splendor befitting You and His Excellency" (Armstrong 43). She was supposed to have married the Holy Roman Emperor Frederic II, who had asked for her hand from her father King Wenceslaus of Bohemia, but Pope Gregory IX -- a hated enemy of the Emperor -- supported her decision to enter religious life (Goorbergh and Zweerman 51).

Agnes was 23 when Clare wrote this letter, and had arrived at the convent of St. Francis with seven aristocratic women and five Poor Ladies from Trent, Italy. Instead of occupying this high station of worldly power and wealth, she had chosen to be the spouse and sister of Jesus Christ. Poverty was a holy and blessed condition, and an imitation of Christ, who was also poor and despised when He came into the world. Following Christ's example would "bestow eternal riches" for those who stored up treasures in heaven instead of on earth, for only the poor would ever enter the Kingdom of God (Armstrong 46). As the Gospel's stated, no one could serve both God and money. Since Clare was also from the nobility, she used the polite form of address in Latin to Agnes although "later, when a certain friendship had developed between the two women, she would address her much more intimately" (Goorbergh and Zweerman 47). Her four letters to Agnes are certainly authentic, although the other writings attributed to her like the Blessing, the Testament and two letters to Ermentrude are either disputed or "highly questionable," and possibly forgeries written in the 15th Century (Mueller 14). In general, scholars also regard her Form of Life as genuine and believe that the ideas she expressed in the Testament and Blessing were quite consistent with her undisputed writings. She may even have dictated the former to Brother Leo, who was one of the closest allies and collaborators of Francis (Knox 14). Thomas of Celano wrote the first biographies of Clare and Francis, noted the similarities in their careers and theology, and her Blessing and Testament seem to be copies from earlier works that Francis wrote (Mooney 55).

Clare described herself as a servant (famula) of Christ, in the sense of a serving woman who has been adopted into the lord's family. This was how "Jesus Christ incorporated Clare into his service and his 'family'," but this was a great honor since Jesus was also the slave or servant (servus) of all humanity (Goorbergh and Zweerman 49). Like all the Poor Ladies, Agnes should rejoice at "poor clothing in cold and heat, uncertainty about daily bread" because Christ also came to suffer for the entire world. All the sisters had a strong desire for "union with the Suffering Christ," which always included poverty and physical hardship. At the same time, they are also the brides of Christ and sisters to each other as well (Goorbergh and Zweerman 52). Francis was also closely associated with the Imitation of Christ (Imitatio Christi), and even in being like another Christ in his poverty and humility. In 1224, he even received the five stigmata or wounds of Christ on his body, while at the same time Clare "contracted a debilitating illness which she bore until her death and which those around her similarly interpreted as a sign of her sanctity and union with the suffering Christ." Both were canonized two years after their deaths and their earthly remains were interred in basilicas. In fact, Clare was usually depicted as "the dedicated helper, docilely heeding Francis's directives" (Mooney 57).

Given the feudal, hierarchical society into which Clare and Agnes were born -- and in their case they had once been part of the ruling aristocracy -- their idealization of holy poverty was a radical and egalitarian vision indeed, even though expressed in terminology that seems archaic to modern ears. After all, the families of Agnes and Clare had servants, serfs and slaves, even if their female members had far less power than the male patriarchs. Both of them had rejected that station in life, however, and joined the lowest social order of all in medieval society, the beggars, the starving and outcasts. They were among the literate few at that time, especially among women, and had learned enough from reading the Gospels that they were literally becoming more like Christ in doing this. In a letter to Ermentrude of Bruges (which is probably a forgery), Clare congratulated her for founding several other monasteries on the model of the Poor Ladies of San Damiano and having "fled the mire of the world." She went on "may the excrement of the world, fleeing like a shadow, not disturb you" (Armstrong 420).

Her disputed Testament of 1247-53 was one of the few documents that contained any personal or biographical details, but its purpose was hardly egotistical, but to obtain approval of the Pope for the Rule of the Poor Ladies of San Damiano. When St. Francis was just beginning his work on the church at San Damiano and still had only a handful of followers, "the holy man made a prophecy about us that the Lord later fulfilled" about their "vocation and election." He foresaw that the sisters were to become a model for the rest of the world and that "although we were physically weak and frail, we did not shirk deprivation, poverty, hard work, trial, or the shame and contempt of the world" (Armstrong 61). Francis wrote the Rule that they were always to live in holy poverty of Jesus, which the Poor Ladies everywhere were expected to observe, and that their monasteries should have no more land "than strict necessity demands." They were always to remember that they had given up their own wills and personal desires, and that they must walk on the narrow path to salvation even though "there are very few who persevere on it" (Armstrong 64). Clare sent blessings to Agnes of Prague and Ermentrude of Bruges, as well as to all the sisters of her order, and gave a final one when she was on her deathbed. In this, she called herself the "handmaid of Christ, a little plant of our most holy father, Francis." She offered the petition that "the heavenly father give you and confirm for you this most holy blessing in heaven and on earth," and prayed that they would multiply in their virtues, and continue to be exalted and glorified "among his holy men and women in His Church Triumphant" (Armstrong 67),

Clare received the papal bull recognizing the Rule of her order personally from Pope Innocent IV the day before her death on August 10, 1253. This was the first Rule "for a female religious community written by a woman," and absolute poverty was at the heart of it (Petroff 174). She claimed to have received the verbal Rule directly from Francis of Assisi two years after she moved to San Damiano, centered on… [END OF PREVIEW]

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