August 11 is the feast of St. Clare of Assisi. Besides their example of faith, we may sometimes forget that saints like her are important in movements like women’s rights, that change the society they live in.
Clare came from a powerful aristocratic family of landowners who held extensive farmlands around Assisi in Italy and controlled the peasants working them. A private army of knights protected and advanced her family’s interests.
Like Francis of Assisi, whose family were merchants intent on bettering themselves by exploiting the new trade routes linking Italy to the rest of Europe, Clare felt called to another way of life. She wished to follow Jesus Christ.
She left her wealthy family as a young woman of 18 to embrace a life without property. “Foxes have dens and the birds of the air have their nest, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” Jesus said. Like Francis, who encouraged her, she began searching for treasures of another kind.
As she wrote to Agnes of Prague, princess of Bohemia:
“Happy is she who clings with her whole heart to him whose beauty the hosts of heaven admire, whose tenderness touches, whose contemplation refreshes, whose kindness overflows, whose delight overwhelms, whose remembrance delightfully dawns, whose fragrance brings the dead to life again, whose glorious vision brings happiness…
He is the radiance of eternal glory, the brightness of eternal light and the mirror without blemish.
Gaze on the mirror each day and study your face in it…Indeed in that mirror blessed poverty, holy humility and inexpressible charity shine forth.”
Assisted by Francis, Clare and some young companions, including her sister Agnes, moved to the abandoned church of San Damiano outside Assisi after Holy Week in 1212.There they renounced a life of privilege and properties to live humbly and simply, following Jesus Christ.
The community she founded would be known later as “The Poor Clares.” It drew women together from the ranks of royalty to the poorest peasants.
Clare and women like her were part of an important spiritual movement in medieval Christianity which enriched the church with new forms of religious life and devotion. They were young people reacting to a world in love with success and insistent on class. In a time of violence and competition, ruthless pursuit of wealth and privilege, they pursued another way:
“You are the spouse, and the mother and the sister of my Lord Jesus Christ.” It came down to that.