The Church in western Europe was not in such good shape at the end of the 12th century. But it was at this time that the Holy Spirit stirred the hearts of two young people in central Italy, giving rise to the remarkable Franciscan movement.
Clare was born Chiara Offreduccio in 1193 or 1194, the daughter of a wealthy and highly educated family in Assisi. When Francis began to preach the Gospel in the squares of Assisi in 1210 Clare was 16 years old, 11 years younger than him. Even as a child her heart was turned towards the Lord, and she would share her food with the poor and needy people of the town. She had already refused several offers of marriage. At the age of 18, she was captivated by Francis' Lenten preaching of a Christ-centred simple gospel life, and especially his emphasis on poverty as a special vocation. She had several secret meetings with him, accompanied only by a friend, Bona, and made up her mind to join him.
On Palm Sunday 1212 Clare left her parents' house secretly. She had already sold her dowry and given the money to the poor. At the little church of St Mary of the Angels, just below Assisi, she met Francis and a few of his brothers. She changed her dress for a simple habit, and took off her jewellery. Francis cut her hair, and she made a vow of obedience to him. At first she lived with a nearby Benedictine community of nuns, doing simple menial tasks.
Not surprisingly, Clare's family were outraged at what she had done. They sent armed men to bring her back, without success. When Clare's younger sister, Catherine, followed her only a fortnight later, the family made even more violent attempts to force her to return home. They were in fact carrying Catherine away physically, but Clare prayed, and Catherine became so heavy that they could not lift her. Defeated, they returned home.
Francis received Catherine, too, as a sister, and gave her the name Agnes. Then Clare, Agnes and several friends moved to San Damiano, the church where Francis had heard Jesus speak to him from the crucifix, charging him to "rebuild" the Church. Here the first community of Poor Clares came into being. Clare's widowed mother joined as well.
It was said that the followers of Clare were the most beautiful young girls from the best families of Assisi. The community grew rapidly, and in 1215, very much against her will, Clare was made Abbess.
The women devoted themselves to prayer, nursing the sick, and works of mercy for the poor and neglected. The order came to be called the "Poor Clares." They wore no shoes, ate no meat, lived in a house that was unsatisfactory even by the standards of that era. They also kept silent most of the time. They had no beds, but slept on twigs with patched hemp for blankets. Whatever they ate was food they begged for. Clare made sure she fasted more than anyone else.
Clare Remained in charge until her death in 1253. In spite of long years of sickness, we know the depth of her love for the Lord by the letters she wrote. Two years after her death, in 1255, she was declared a saint by the church.
In the early years of the movement Francis visited Clare often, but as his own community grew his visits decreased and she had to find within herself the inspiration she had received from him. Their relationship grew more equal, and Francis would consult her on important decisions. In his last illness he came to San Damiano and Clare cared for him.
Although she called herself “the little plant of Francis” Clare was in fact a powerful and innovative woman, the first woman to write a Rule (a guide to a way of life) for a religious community. She struggled with the institutional church for most of her life, as Popes and Cardinals resisted the renewal movement and sought to draw her away from the poverty which was at the heart of her following of Jesus. But she remained firm and her Rule was finally approved by the Pope himself just a few days before her death. By that time there were more than 150 communities which followed her way of life, mainly in Italy, southern France and Spain, but spreading as far east as Prague, and as far west as Bruges.
God of peace,
who in the poverty of the blessed Clare
gave us a clear light
to shine in the darkness of this world:
give us grace so to follow in her footsteps
that we may, at the last,
rejoice with her in your eternal glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
(above from http://www.fministry.com/2012/08/st-clare-of-assisi-consecration-to.html)