Historians of the high medieval era (1050-1500) are revisiting the surprising strength and diversity of what we might call grassroots mystics, a source of free-spirited piety and energy which until recently, was regarded as dangerously independent of the mainstream Church. The Franciscans did not invent this nomadic lifestyle of prayer, penance and paucity; they were in fact one of its products who happened to enjoy the good fortune in having a charismatic leader who prudently cultivated communications with the local bishop, Guido of Assisi, and ultimately the age's most powerful pope, Innocent III. Medieval religious enthusiasm was a two-edged sword: some of its leaders and writers were highly regarded in their own time (Hildegard of Bingen) and some went to the inquisitor’s flames (Marguerite Porete).
In his final years St. Francis of Assisi would write that “the Lord sent me brothers.” It is equally true that the Lord sent him sisters, the first and most famous being Chiara di Favarone di Offeducio di Bernardino [1194-1253]. History has kindly passed down her memory as simply Clare of Assisi, her first name meaning “light.” During her adolescent years Francis and his early friars would have passed through Assisi preaching and doing works of charity. Like many of her fellow townsfolk, Clare was captivated by the friars’ direct preaching, which was reinforced by their austerity and devotion, in vivid contrast to most of the uneducated and uninspired secular clergy. It is also true that Clare’s mother, Ortulana, a woman who had made several pilgrimages including one to Rome, was well-traveled for her time and probably raised her daughters with more expansive religious experience.
Clare, then, was well suited to embrace the distinctive lifestyle of the friars, with their absolute poverty and community around devotion to the person of Jesus Christ, and as she turned eighteen, she postponed or evaded suitors for marriage. She had something else in mind, possibly a life in an established religious community, or an even more radical departure toward the friars’ style of Christic community and service. How Francis and Clare first communicated about such a possibility is not known, but the author explains that several of Francis’s first followers knew Clare and her family, and clearly Bishop Guido of Assisi, who admired and advised Francis, became a party to Clare’s plan to make the plunge into the friars’ life.
Regardless of how the idea was brokered, it was at the same time audacious and dangerous. The Offreducio family would certainly object, primarily to the idea of her not marrying. But beyond that, Clare was not aspiring to the safety and respectability of the Benedictine tradition of cloistered women, where she might someday assume the office of abbess, but to a new and yet unapproved band of exclusively men ministering in raw medieval cities and eschewing earthly honors. Francis certainly understood the impropriety of Clare’s joining his male community while respecting her desire for a spiritual life in imitation of the absolute poverty of Christ. Thus, on the night of Palm Sunday, 1212, Clare conspired with several parties to discretely leave her home and slip past the guards at the city walls to journey to a country church called Santa Maria degli Angeli. Here she was formally received into the fraternity, exchanging her worldly clothes and embracing the penitent’s robe of the friars. Her hair was shorn, and she professed her dedication to Jesus and to poverty and the simple rule of the brotherhood. In Carney’s words, “all that she would become as a woman fixed on God would be accomplished in partnership with them,” i.e., the friars.
But maintaining this unity would not be easy. Clare took immediate shelter in an accommodating cloistered monastery of Benedictine sisters where her angry family could not violate the cloister and carry her off. She remained there until several other women aspirants came forward; then the group took shelter in a non-cloistered residence, a small church where the community could serve the needs of needy neighbors and observe a daily routine of prayer and fasting. Eventually Clare’s sisters moved to the church of San Damiano under the protection of the bishop. San Damiano was a site of reverence among Francis’ followers; it was here that Francis had encountered Christ in the crucifix, who instructed him to “rebuild my house.” San Damiano functioned as a hostel, and its fountain gave it a reputation as a place of healing and restoration of body and soul.
Carney describes the San Damiano site as a cloister, but not as strict as would be enforced in a large, established order. The followers of Clare labored for several years to refurbish the site for community living. In this they had help from friars and other townspeople. Moreover, San Damiano serviced a stream of local indigents. It would seem from this account that the work of the Clare’s original sorority was restricted to this site; it is unknown if the sisters visited leper colonies as did the friars. It is safe to say that Clare’s community enjoyed greater public freedom at this early juncture than in later years when church authorities pressured Clare’s community toward more traditional cloistered formats of community living.
The material and spiritual life of the early sisters was hard, but its reward was the assurance and exhilaration of a union with Christ whom they followed with literal detail. Meanwhile, at the Church Council Lateran IV  Pope Innocent III, having approved the new Franciscan and Dominican communities as legitimate religious orders, closed the door to new communities, a strategy to maintain both legitimate reform and good order in the Church in the face of the spontaneous proliferation of enthusiastic grassroots religious movements. In view of Innocent’s intentions, both Francis and Bishop Guido harbored concern about the legal standing of Clare’s community, which had no separate formal rule of its own but lived under the ecclesiastical permission granted to Francis. Clare initially refused to accept the title of “abbess” recommended by both Francis and Guido, doing so only grudgingly and using it infrequently in the face of “strict new laws for women…blowing northward from the Tiber.” Francis and Guido, it would seem, were trying to buy time for Clare to continue to live under the pristine early vision of Francis.
In some respects, Clare and her community seem to have suffered the fallout of governmental issues plaguing the male order of friars. Francis, for all his remarkable charisms, was a poor administrator and frequently an absentee landlord. In his 2012 biography Francis of Assisi, [see my 2014 review here], Augustine Thompson cites Rome’s concern over deficiencies in the new Franciscan order, specifically in the screening and formation of novice members. In fairness the order was now home to thousands of friars spread throughout Europe, but Francis continued to engage in his own pursuits such as his attempts to convert the Sultan during the Fifth Crusade. In its work to create a governing structural rule for the Franciscan order of men to survive the inevitable death of the founder Francis, the Roman Curia was faced with the accompanying question of the legal identity and lifestyle of Clare and her women followers.
Subsequent wrangling and the imposition of a new constitution for the women followers of Francis is noted with wry dismay by the author; the final legislation “would be the source of endless headaches for scholars trying to untangle the web of Poor Sisters and San Damiano houses to the present day.” In short, Pope Honorius [r. 1216-1227] imposed a strict cloistered constitution for the general community of Clare’s followers, the Poor Sisters, with a temporary exemption for Clare’s immediate community at San Damiano. What followed was years of curial persuasion to convince Clare to submit to the comprehensive traditional cloistered rule, which Clare persistently rejected in favor of the stricter adherence to poverty of Christ, the initial charism of the Franciscan movement.
The admiration of Roman churchmen for the zeal of Clare probably averted a major conflict with her during her lifetime. It would be hard for any cleric to look past the lifestyle of Clare and her adherents without respect. Moreover, Clare’s community worked in tandem with the Church in producing linen altar cloths made from silk—an expensive and technical ministry which would have networked the community with women of the wealthy classes. More to the point, the product was manufactured for contact with the Eucharist. Clare’s devotion to the holy sacrament was unshakeable and stands as witness that there was nothing heretical about her beliefs or her intentions.
The motherhouse of Clare’s closest followers, the San Damiano church, retained its reputation as a place of healing. Francis himself convalesced there after receiving the stigmata. The sisters were sought by visitors from Assisi and other towns for prayers and religious comfort in times of trial. There was ecclesiastical concern about the rigors of Clare’s personal regimen. Bishop Guido’s successor, Guido II, enlisting the help of Francis, visited Clare with the intention of mitigating her strenuous fasts, though she seems to have gently sidestepped their concerns.
The exact relationship of Francis and Clare is known only to them. Information is sketchy. In the early part of their fifteen-year friendship Francis was certainly the mentor, and Clare exerted much energy to preserve the experience of the early days of her conversion at the feet of the poor man of Assisi. However, they did not see each other as much as one might expect, and a major conduit between them would have been other friars and personal correspondence.
Clare could not be with Francis at the time of his death, but he did leave her a last testament encouraging her to stay the course. It is tempting to think that he was encouraging her to do what he had ultimately been unable to do and avoid the compromises he had been forced to make as the leader of a large contingent, but his interventions with Bishop Guido that she take a moderate course in her spiritual observance in obedience to the Church suggest that he knew how vulnerable an outspoken woman leader could be in the medieval milieu. Francis was barely cold in his grave when major cracks in the Franciscan fraternity become to emerge.
In some ways these cracks were developing even toward the end of Francis’ lifetime. As more priests and professors joined the fraternity, their need for property [e.g., books, libraries] and even permanent residences led the Roman Curia to formulate an interpretation of poverty to accommodate a distinction between “ownership” and “[temporary] use.” In theory, a friar still owner nothing. But a friar could retain property for his mission. This interpretive loophole still stands in the twenty-first century in the Franciscan Orders as a necessity of pastoral ministry and earning a livelihood. Not surprisingly, the old guard of friars found this redefinition of poverty an abominable betrayal of Francis’ early vision. Some extreme friars held that the doctrine of perfect poverty was handed to the friars by the Holy Spirit and that no pope had the right to mitigate it. This extreme wing of the men’s order became known as the “Spiritual Franciscans” and would come to a tragic end. [See my review of The Spiritual Franciscans  by David Burr.
Clare would die before the Spiritual Franciscan crisis became a full-blown revolution, but she certainly sympathized with the surviving early followers of Francis, particularly as Pope Honorius approved a rule for the women Franciscans that in its detail resembled the standard lifestyle of most existing cloistered communities in existence for centuries. Clare had the wisdom not to confront the Church head on, and it appears that some sort of grand-mothering clause was arrived at whereby something of Clare’s founding lifestyle was permitted to endure through her lifetime. Several popes conceded to Clare a recognition of outstanding personal sanctity but could not bring themselves to let Clare’s rule of life endure through perpetuity.
This Roman ambiguity has produced a contemporary enigma, Today, the Order of Saint Clare lives in strict cloistered distance, while in recent centuries new communities of women teachers, nurses, and ministers—inspired by the Franciscan ideal--have been approved by Rome and reside in modified communities and work publicly in the Church. In her biography of Clare, the author has attempted to correct what one might call a domestication of Clare: the young woman of Assisi who left her family at great cost was not motivated toward the walls of a cloister, any more than Francis was. With that in mind, it is fitting to revisit her life as the public servant of the poor Jesus.