By Denise Trull
Today we celebrate the wondrous Clare, the beautiful candle lit by the flame of St. Francis’s singular and holy vision. She was his first spiritual daughter and the fast friend who knew him best of all his followers.
She was born in the town of Assisi in the year 1193 to wealthy and doting parents. She was, by all accounts, a beauty with long golden hair curling to her waist, who had luminous eyes that shone with a zest for life. She loved dancing, singing, and poetry; perhaps also she listened with relish to the tales of traveling minstrels about kings and princesses and the daring deeds of knights. She loved wearing beautiful gowns and had a penchant for wearing her mother’s jewels on special occasions. She and her little sister Agnes shared each others’ secrets and dreams and perhaps giggled together late into the night about the exploits of their day. Her brothers looked out for her in their brother way. She was, in short, a beautiful and cherished daughter in a loving family.
But for all her comfortable, happy, carefree life, there was an anxious little place in her soul that kept whispering this was not enough, but it never told her why. Perhaps throughout her teen years, when she was in mid dance or revel, she would suddenly steal away to look over the wall of her castle and question the star-filled silence of the night wondering why she was so restless with a life that gave her everything.
Then the fateful day. The day she heard Brother Francis preach in the public square. She had heard rumors of this funny, little, spark of a man who had caused scandal by hugging lepers, wearing a ragged robe, and sleeping out in the open with his small band of brothers. People called him a radical. His father had disowned him, so embarrassed was he that Francis chose to strip down in the public square and declare himself the poor one who was rich in Christ. He wasn’t proper. He wasn’t status quo. Why couldn’t he have a proper vocation. He could have joined a Benedictine monastery. There was a kind of nobility to this kind of call. But to traipse all across the countryside preaching, begging at his father’s friends’ doors. Cautioning against riches, comfort, and status. This was not to be borne. His father was furious and ashamed. Clare, on the other hand, being an imaginative teenaged girl, was intrigued.
Perhaps she furtively hid in the back of the crowd that stopped to hear Francis preach, to steal some curious looks at him and to smile at his old brown rag of a habit. Then he began to speak. And Clare fell. Clare fell hard. I picture her slowly moving to the front of the crowd, hardly realizing it, so mesmerized by his words was she. Poverty. Total poverty lived in joy and freedom and singing. Complete trust and dependence upon the Lord. A life led by Jesus in his public life. Jesus, who had no place to rest his head. Jesus who gave all He had in this world to save souls -- her soul. And the more Francis preached about giving away everything, the more Clare felt that anxious little hole in her soul fill up. She and Francis were now forever bound by the grace of God in their vocation. Her vision became his vision. Did Francis see her there in the crowd? Did his brown-eyed gaze catch her blue one and witness the sudden flame begin to light and stir there? Did he whisper ‘come, follow’ to her with a sudden recognition given Him by God? She had a hard time pulling herself away from him, we know. But she returned home and her parents suspected nothing.
Here is where the story becomes exactly like the tales Clare must have loved. It reveals that Francis had a sense of drama as well as she. He made Clare’s dream come true. She would wed a King. That total poverty would not exclude beauty and charm and loveliness. Clare put on her best dress, her favorite jewels. She combed her beautiful long hair until it shown in the candlelight. She kissed her sister Agnes goodbye and swore her to secrecy. She ran off into the night to a small chapel where Francis and his brothers were waiting with candles glowing.
Did these simple brothers gaze at her in childlike awe as perhaps Samwise Gamgee did when so mesmerized by his first sight of Elves? Slowly she took off her jewels. She pulled the glory of her hair over her head and bowed humbly before Francis. Slowly he cut one strand after the other until they lay in a golden pool on the ground at his feet in total gift. And with each cut Clare’s heart grew lighter and lighter and joy seeped deeply into that anxious little spot within her soul and it shone with accepted grace.
Next Francis gave her the brown habit and veil and old white cord. She went within the church and quietly folded up her jeweled gown and put on the bridal dress of poverty. When she came back to the group of brothers, she was one of them. They had gained a sister and a mother. Did their joy erupt at the sight? Having given away all she loved and owned Clare felt suddenly rich. Perhaps she felt like singing. I think she did. I think they all did. Franciscans love to sing. They accompanied her to a Benedictine cloister that night and then later to her own monastery, where she would remain until her death. Her little sister Agnes joined her there as well as many other young women attracted by the Most High King and His beauty.
This is the stuff of fairy tales and poetry! It is why Francis and Clare are the special friends of poets, writers, actors, musicians. They speak their language. They reach into their hearts. And, most importantly, they model to them the virtue of physical and spiritual poverty, self-emptying, perseverance in prayer -- all those qualities that are not easy or appealing to poets, writers, actors, and musicians. But the language with which they draw them in is splendid! Poverty is a Lady that must be served as a knight would serve her. Poverty takes two sticks and turns them into a fiddle. There is still dancing and singing though there is no wine and pheasant on the table. There is laughter and ample room for eccentricity as long as it is given to the good Lord for his service. There is sickness and hunger and fasting -- perhaps temptation. But it is borne with joy and humor of the most serious kind. It is a romance of the best and holiest.
Francis and Clare celebrate the love and spiritual friendship that can wonderfully exist between men and women on fire with the Lord -- men and women with poet hearts. They were soulmates in service and vision. Clare’s nuns prayed for the brothers. They washed and mended their habits with love and care. They listened to their stories of life on the road. They always welcomed Francis in their midst as their father and guide. It was always a merry evening when Francis was among them lifting them up, giving them strength and encouragement over a banquet of dry bread and water.
Nothing is more moving to me than holy Francis’s words of farewell to his first daughter and sister, Clare -- she who understood him best of all, she his first candle lit. She was not there at his bedside like his friars but had remained faithfully with her sisters in the cloister. This was her last great sacrifice -- not to be there when he died.
Francis, sick as he was, heard from a brother that Clare was filled with deep sorrow at his coming death. His words about her are heartbreaking and filled with sweetness:
The Lady Clare heard and was comforted. She was faithful to the poor way of Christ and His mother until the very end of her days. I hope that in some way Francis came for her as she lay dying, and whispered in her ear the song he had composed and that she so dearly loved.
And she passed from this vale of tears to live happily ever after, as all true Romances must end.
Holy Clare, friend of poets and artists everywhere, pray for us to the Most High King.