Clare was born in 1193-94, in a noble family, whose house overlooked the cathedral square of Assisi. Her father was Favarone di Offreduccio, and her mother’s name was Ortolana. This pious woman was convinced that her daughter would be “enlightened” by God, and hence called her Clare (meaning “brightness”), after being assured of a safe delivery in a vision. Clare’s childhood years were marred by some sad events, notably the ransacking of the Rocca Maggiore by the Assisi citizens in 1198 and the war between Assisi and Perugia. During these years, when Clare was still a child, the nobility had to flee from Assisi and her family took refuge in Perugia. On the other hand, Clare was growing up an educated young lady as befitted her noble status. From her mother Ortolana she learned to become a woman of prayer, with a gentle and brave heart, generous towards the poor but strong in her beliefs. Back in Assisi in the early years of the 13th century, Clare soon became aware of the ideals of Francis and his brothers, who were living down at the Porziuncola. She longed to become a member of the new movement, but being a noble woman, her only choice would have been that of joining one of the great monastic Orders for females, notably the Benedictines. An apostolic and itinerant life for a noble woman was not a common thing in the Middle Ages.
After a period of reflection, during which Clare met Francis on several occasions to speak with him of the things of God, Clare decided to choose a life of radical evangelical poverty. During the night of Palm Sunday, Clare escaped from her family’s home in Assisi through a secret back door and hurried down to the Porziuncola, where Francis cut her hair and gave her the habit of penance at the feet of the altar of the Virgin Mary of the Angels. That same night Clare was escorted to the Benedictine monastery of San Paolo in Bastia Umbra, where she was protected by papal interdict against possible intrusion by her family to take her back home by force. After some weeks Francis transferred Clare to another monastery at the foot of Mount Subasio, Sant’Angelo di Panzo. There Clare was joined by her sister Catherine (Sister Agnes, later St. Agnes of Assisi). All attempts by their uncle Monaldo to take them back by force proved futile for the two girls were valiant – opposed by all for their beliefs, unusual in those times for any woman. Francis then sent Clare and Agnes to the small church of San Damiano and gave them a Form of Life, which is the basis of the Rule of St. Clare. San Damiano was to be the place where Clare lived a cloistered contemplative life, but with great apostolic horizons, until the day of her death in 1253.
The first sisters to join her would be called the Poor Ladies of San Damiano, an order of nuns now called the “Poor Clares.” St. Clare and her sisters wore no shoes, ate no meat, lived in a poor house, and kept silence most of the time. Yet they were very happy, because the Lord was ever close to them. In choosing to live at San Damiano, outside the walls of the city, without protection and with the common folk, Clare was throwing in her lot with the poor. The women who joined Clare came not only from the wealthy class but also from simpler origins. Clare desired one class of sisters, who would labor side by side as well as pray together in the Divine Office and the Mass.
Once, God saved both the Sisters and the town from a great danger in answer to St. Clare’s prayer. An army of Saracen soldiers came to attack Assisi, planning to raid the convent first. Although very ill, St. Clare had herself carried to the wall and there, where the enemies could see it, she had the Blessed Sacrament placed. Then on her knees, she begged God to save the Sisters. “O Lord, protect these Sisters whom I cannot protect now,” she prayed. A voice seemed to answer: “I will keep them always in My care.” At the same time a sudden fright struck the attackers and they fled as fast as they could.
St. Clare was ill and suffered great pains for many years, but declared that no pain could trouble her. So great was her joy in serving the Lord that she once exclaimed: “They say that we are too poor, but can a heart which possesses the infinite God be truly called poor?”
St Clare’s Form of Life does not involve any renunciation of the beauty of the world, no denial of joy and no contempt for material things. She did not withdraw herself from the world because she thought it dangerous. Whoever sees this in any other light would mistake the real intentions of St Clare. Clare discovered in Jesus Christ the depths of her relationship to God, and in the face of this relationship, all else was for her second-rate and insignificant. The riches and the pleasures that this world affords lose their power to attract. Clare found a far greater treasure – that hidden treasure in the field the Bible speaks of, that pearl of great price that the merchant in the Gospel parable gives all his wealth to possess (cf. Matt 4, 44-46). Clare renounced many things so that she could devote herself entirely to Christ Jesus. Into this relationship she then invested the whole of her essentially feminine nature. Clare does not surrender herself and give up the world, but she surrenders herself and the world by enfolding it and herself in this religious relationship.
Clare was the first woman to write her own Rule which received papal approval two days before her death. Her way of life spread rapidly even in her own lifetime, and in her wisdom her rule reflects a great flexibility and respect for the women who would follow her example in other times, places and cultures. Thus the Rule of St. Clare has remained relevant throughout the centuries.
Clare died in 1253, twenty seven years after her mentor and guide, St. Francis.