Radical Saint, Radical Faith: Clare of Assisi

She gave up a world of privilege for a world of poverty. Her profound faith is a model for us all.

In every age, a saint is born. Not that someone is born a saint, but there is something about him or her—a characteristic or trait that distinguishes a person. Clare of Assisi is one such person. Born in 1194 to a family of nobility, Clare was the first of three children. It is said that her mother was apprehensive about Clare’s birth and went on pilgrimage to pray for her safe delivery. While she was at prayer one day, she heard the words: “O Lady, do not be afraid for you will joyfully bring forth a clear light that will illumine the world.” The word for clear in Italian is chiara; hence the name Clare, or “bright one.” Clare grew up in a household of holy women, including her mother, sisters, and cousins.

Poverty and penance were practiced at home among the women, and Clare gained a reputation for holiness at a young age. While she probably heard Francis of Assisi preach at the local church of San Rufino in 1208 or 1210, it is likely that her religious vocation was in place long before their encounter.

Clare was 17 when she met Francis in 1211. According to “The Acts of the Process of Canonization,” Francis had already heard of Clare before their first meeting. It is unsure what the meetings between Francis and Clare involved, but it is likely that he spoke to her about following Christ and living the Gospel life. At about the age of 18, with the consent of Bishop Guido of Assisi, Clare decided to devote herself to a kind of penitential life closely linked to Francis and his brothers, whose form of life Pope Innocent III had approved orally only a few years before. On the night of Palm Sunday 1212, Clare ran away from home and was received into Francis’ fraternity at the small church of the Portiuncula, below the town of Assisi in the Umbrian valley.

The Italian scholar Maria Pia Alberzoni says that the beginning of religious life for Clare, as for Francis, was obscure since there was no clear path to follow. After Clare joined Francis and the brothers at the Portiuncula, where Francis began his movement, Clare received the tonsure and dressed as a penitent. Francis then placed her in the monastery of San Paolo delle Abbadesse, where she was received as a servant, since she had given away her belongings to the poor and had no dowry to warrant entrance into the monastic community.

The sources indicate that her family opposed her radical choice of life and tried to get her to abandon it by use of force, but without success. After some time, Clare moved to San Angelo in Panzo, where she was joined by her sister Catherine (who would be known in religious life as Agnes). Although their uncle Monaldo tried to capture Catherine and bring her home, he was unsuccessful. Both Clare and Catherine eventually moved to the convent of San Damiano. There, they would devote their lives to poverty.

Clare, the Radical

We read daily about poverty around the world. Sometimes the stories are directly beneath the stock market quotes or surrounded by stories of the world’s wealthiest people. The juxtaposition may be coincidental or purposeful. I tend to think the latter is true because poverty makes us nervous.

The unnerving quality of poverty makes St. Clare’s emphasis on poverty difficult to grasp. Her desire to be poor, however, was not a glorification of human deprivation or neglect, but her desire for God.

Had she not beheld the poverty of God as the immensity of divine love, I wonder if she would have pursued a life of poverty so vigorously or urged Agnes to do so. In her first letter to Agnes, she writes, “You have rejected all these things and have chosen with your whole heart and soul a life of holy poverty and destitution.”

It is difficult to understand how a woman of the aristocracy could choose a life of destitution and be happy, unless she had an understanding of poverty beyond material means. Clare had a God-centered understanding of poverty. For Clare, the logic of poverty was the logic of love. She saw the poverty of God as a fountain of love—a love that brings us into being, sustains us, and yearns for us. Her emphasis on the centrality of love is characteristic of Franciscan spirituality.

‘Become Poor’

How do we center ourselves in the love of God? Clare’s answer is simple and disarming: Become poor. Clare encouraged Agnes to pursue a life of poverty. It is hard to admit in a consumer culture that poverty is the key to the fullness of life. To the secular mind, it seems absurd. Western culture is immersed in a capitalism based on the idea that worldly success is a blessing of God. The type of poverty that Clare and the Franciscans speak of is opposed to the spirit of capitalism and self-sufficiency. It means to be dependent on others. That is exactly what Clare and Francis saw in the mystery of Jesus Christ.

In his Rule, St. Francis writes: “They must rejoice when they live. . . among the poor and the powerless. . . . Let them . . . remember, moreover, that our Lord Jesus Christ . . . was not ashamed. He was poor and a stranger and lived on alms.”

Francis perceived that Christ lived dependent on others so that God’s goodness could be revealed. When we allow others to do things for us, God’s goodness shines through them. Poverty is not so much about want or need; it is about relationship. Poverty impels us to reflect on our lives in the world from the position of weakness, dependency, and vulnerability. Poverty calls us to be vulnerable, open, and receptive to others—to allow others into our lives and to be free enough to enter into the lives of others. While Clare and Francis call us to be poor so that we may enter into relationship with the poor Christ, they also ask us to be poor so as to enter into relationship with our poor brothers and sisters in whom Christ lives.

In her second letter to Agnes, Clare writes that she is to “gaze upon him [Christ].” Although she does not explicitly link poverty and gazing upon Christ, the foundation of poverty in her first letter and the call to “gaze upon him” in her second letter suggest that poverty is the basis of spiritual vision or contemplation. To gaze is not simply to see, but to see with the eyes of the heart. It is the vision of the spiritually poor person who is inwardly free to contemplate the presence of God. If we are to enter into real relationship with God, we must become poor; we must embrace our poverty.

Poverty Equals Truth

Economic poverty is not difficult to attain. Spiritual poverty, however, can be. It means relinquishing that which we possess to smother the ego or barricade it against the intrusion of others. It is the antidote to human violence—to the need to assert ourselves over and against others. Gazing upon the crucified Christ gave Clare insight into the human person. She realized that becoming poor is not contrary to the fulfillment of human nature, but rather the very fulfillment of our humanity.

Christ reveals to us that the human person is poor by nature. Our poverty, however, is a forgotten poverty because the sin of self-centeredness has made us “grabbers” and “graspers.” That is why conversion is the movement toward poverty: Poverty is the basis of authentic humanity. To be truly human is to be poor.

Poverty means that human life, from birth to death, hangs on the threads of God’s gracious love. While we may enjoy a wealth of goodness today, we may lose that wealth tomorrow. Life is radically contingent; nothing has to be the way it is. Everything is gift.

Poverty reminds us of the deepest truth of our human existence: that we are created by God and are dependent on God in an absolute sense. It is the sister of humility since it prompts us to recognize that all we have is gift. Humility is the acceptance of being what we are, with our strengths and weaknesses, and responding in love to the gift of being. Humility can open one to the renewing spirit of grace and make possible the return of creation to the Father.

Dependence on God

Thomas Merton said that if we were truly humble, we would not bother about ourselves at all—only with God. Such an idea seems possible only for the saints. Yet when we are free from attachments, we are able to pursue our spiritual goals, to really live in love and devote ourselves to a life of adoration. This does not mean turning our attention away from earth to an imaginable place called heaven. Rather, to adore God is to see the goodness of every created thing on this marvelous planet. It is to realize that everything is created by God, reflects the power, wisdom, and goodness of God, and is destined to share life in God.

Poverty allows us to contemplate the goodness of God in creation because it makes us free to see things for what they are: unrepeatable, unclonable, loved-into-being gifts of God. Only one who can taste the world and see it as an expression of God’s love can renounce the spirit of possessing it. In human relationships, poverty allows us to be open to one another, to receive and share with one another.

“Poverty is the basis of authentic humanity. To be truly human is to be poor.”

Clare of Assisi did not elaborate on the poverty of the human person, but she knew it in the depths of her soul. She fought for the “privilege of poverty” because she knew that if she failed to be dependent on others, she would ultimately fail to be dependent on God. Like Francis, she firmly believed in a God enfleshed in fragile human nature—the Incarnation. Had she sought a nice, clean, minty type of God in heaven, she might have opted for more autonomy. But she believed that God has come among us and revealed to us, in the poverty of being human, how to live united in love to God and to one another.

She realized that only the poor and humble can share in the poor and humble love of God. Clare’s path to God through the depths of poverty impels us to admit that real relationship with God requires humble humanity. Only when we come to the truth of who we are (and who we are not) as poor persons can we come to that place of vulnerability in our lives where God can enter. Only then can we know what it means to be a human being embedded in a world of goodness.

This article was adapted from the book Clare of Assisi: A Heart Full of Love.

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