Francis’ recognition and honoring of the feminine, that was such an important part of his life and teaching, took concrete and personal shape in the person of Clare. She has usually been overshadowed by her partner, Francis, in the public imagination; in her writings, she seems to see herself that way very humbly, as we see in this wonderful opening quote. But Chiara Offreduccio (1193–1253) has finally begun to emerge as her own person, with her own unique identity, writings, and message. She was not just Francis’ feminine counterpart, but also had her own strength, message, and identity.
Many cultures have tended to see women largely as appendages to men, as daughters and wives, and almost as property. My mother signed her name “Mrs. Richard Rohr” and thought nothing of it. That sense of ownership of women is evident in the brutal attempts that Clare’s twelve male relatives made to recapture her (and later her sister, Agnes) from San Paolo in Bastia after her Palm Sunday departure from their family home when she decided to join Francis. But we can no longer be content, nor would Francis be content, nor will history be content, with such a limited understanding of Clare. We know too much now—about her, her equal and parallel calling, and her beautifully independent spiritual journey. Her subsequent treatment by history is a lesson in how we all suffer when the feminine is overlooked, subsumed, or even denied.
Saint Clare’s letters and writings are so consistently upbeat, positive, hopeful, encouraging to others, and lovingly visionary that we can only conclude that she faced her demons down, dove into the negativity that all of us avoid in ourselves and in the world, and came out the other side as clear light or Chiara. Clare allowed herself no place to run or hide, and lived for forty years in one little spot of earth, outside the walls of Assisi, called San Damiano. She was both a master and mistress of letting go of all that was unnecessary or unimportant. She went inside instead of outside, and subsequently discovered the outside to be a perfect mirror for the grace she had already found within—and vice versa. Clare went deep instead of far, low instead of high—and thus redefined both high and low. Breaking all records, the formal process for her canonization began only two months after she died.
Many friars often felt that Francis was a bit of a fanatic in regard to poverty, whereas Clare just quietly lived it. After Francis, his Friars Minor moved toward an extroverted, education-oriented lifestyle that made it impossible, or at least highly impractical, to be honestly “poor.”Once you are educated into various institutions, you have access and connections and are not really powerless anymore. Francis’ radical poverty was soon forgotten, deemed impossible, or quietly rejected, for it placed him in a different social class than men prefer, quite specifically the “minors” and not the “majors.”
This very real change of social class was glossed over by many of his male followers; they usually understood such downward mobility in an ascetical or private way, but without the clear message for society or the Church that we see in Francis and Clare. The social critique was gone. Franciscan poverty was just too “radical,” too strong a judgment on the rest of the Church and on society.
Only Clare and her sisters created a way for the radical life of Francis to be actually lived with freedom and joy. The common name for the sisters, “Poor Clares,” emerged in the vernacular of many languages and reveals the social statement they were seen to be making. Clare absolutely insisted on “the privilege of not being obliged to receive privileges, the right to live without any rights, the guarantee of living without guarantees.” How countercultural can you get?!
Though Francis lived and taught a radical humility, the friars in his order moved from their original humble lives into a status- and role-conscious male society, and soon into a clerical domain where humility was neither admired nor sought after. In the male world, humility commonly looks like weakness, lack of exposure to the “real world,” or even low self-esteem; but it is not an admirable virtue or any kind of needed strength. Laypeople and women often put clerical men to shame here.
Saint Clare, however, created a humble lifestyle of “structural humility”—where she and the sisters could not fake humility but had to live and love their own ordinariness day by day—living in a closed community with few distractions. There was no place to hide from themselves or from God. There was no one to impress, no one who needed to be impressed by their cloistered life except God alone.