Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Saint Clare, Virgin


The same year in which St. Dominic, before making any project with regard to his sons, founded the first establishment of the Sisters of his Order, the companion destined for him by heaven received his mission from the Crucifix in the church of St. Damian, in these words: “Go, Francis, repair my house which is falling to ruin.” The new patriarch inaugurated his work, as Dominic had done, by preparing a dwelling for his future daughters, whose sacrifice might obtain every grace for the great Order he was about to found. The house of the Poor Ladies occupied the thoughts of the seraph of Assisi, even before St. Mary of the Portiuncula, the cradle of the Friars Minor. Thus, for a second time this month, Eternal Wisdom shows us that the fruit of salvation, though it may seem to proceed from the word and from action, springs first from silent contemplation.

Clare was to Francis the help like unto himself, who begot to the Lord that multitude of heroic virgins and illustrious penitents soon reckoned by the Order in all lands, coming from the humblest condition and from the steps of the throne. In the new chivalry of Christ, Poverty, the chosen Lady of St. Francis, was to be the queen also of her whom God had given him as a rival and a daughter. Following to the utmost limits the Man-God humbled and stripped of all things for us, she nevertheless felt that she and her sisters were already queens in the kingdom of heaven: &ldqo;In the little nest of poverty,” she used to say, “what jewel could the bride esteem so much as conformity with a God possessing nothing, become a little One whom the poorest of mothers wrapped in humble swathing bands and laid in a narrow crib?” And she bravely defended against the highest authorities the privilege of absolute poverty, which the great Pope Innocent III feared to grant. Its definitive confirmation, obtained two days before the Saint’s death, came as the long-desired reward of forty years of prayer and suffering for the Church of God.

This noble daughter of Assisi had justified the prophecy, whereby sixty years previously, her mother Hortulana had learned that the child would enlighten the world; the choice of the name given her at her birth had been well inspired. “Oh! how powerful was the virgin’s light,” said the sovereign Pontiff in the Bull of her Canonization; “how penetrating were her rays! She hid herself in the depth of the cloister, and her brightness transpiring filled the house of God.” From her poor solitude which she never quitted, the very name of Clare seemed to carry grace and light everywhere, and made far-off cities yield fruit to God and to her father, St. Francis.

Embracing the whole world where her virginal family was being multiplied, her motherly heart overflowed with affection for the daughters she had never seen. Let those who think that austerity embraced for God’s sake dries up the soul read these lines from her correspondence with Blessed Agnes of Bohemia. Agnes, daughter of Ottacar I, had rejected the offer of an imperial marriage to take the religious Habit, and was renewing at Prague the wonders of St. Damian’s. “O my mother and my daughter,” said our Saint, “if I have not written to you as often as my soul and yours would wish, be not surprised: as your mother’s heart loved you, so do I cherish you; but messengers are scarce, and the roads full of danger. As an opportunity offers today, I am full of gladness, and I rejoice with you in the joy of the Holy Ghost. As the first Agnes united herself to the immaculate Lamb, so it is given to you, O fortunate one, to enjoy this union (the wonder of heaven) with him, the desire of whom ravishes every soul; whose goodness is all sweetness, whose vision is beatitude, who is the light of the eternal light, the mirror without spot! Look at yourself in this mirror, O queen! O bride! unceasingly by its reflection enhance your charms; without and within adorn yourself with virtues; clothe yourself as beseems the daughter and the spouse of the supreme King. O beloved, with your eyes on this mirror, what delight it will be given you to enjoy in the divine grace! … Remember, however, your poor Mother, and know that for my part your blessed memory is for ever graven on my heart.”

Not only did the Franciscan family benefit by a charity which extended to all the worthy interests of this world. Assisi, delivered from the lieutenants of the excommunicated Frederick II and from the Saracen horde in his pay, understood how a holy woman is a safeguard to her earthly city. But our Lord loved especially to make the princes of holy Church and the Vicar of Christ experience the humble power, the mysterious ascendancy, wherewith he had endowed his chosen one. St. Francis himself, the first of all, had in one of those critical moments known to the Saints, sought from her direction and light for his seraphic soul. From the ancients of Israel, there came to this virgin, not yet thirty years old, such messages as this: “To his very dear Sister in Jesus Christ, to his mother the Lady Clare, handmaid of Christ, Hugolin of Ostia, unworthy bishop and sinner. Ever since the hour when I had to deprive myself of your holy conversation, to snatch myself from that heavenly joy, such bitterness of heart causes my tears to flow, that if I did not find at the feet of Jesus the consolation which his love never refuses, my mind would fail and my soul would melt away. Where is the glorious joy of that Easter spent in your company and that of the other handmaids of Christ? … I knew that I was a sinner; but at the remembrance of your supereminent virtue, my misery overpowers me, and I believe myself unworthy ever to enjoy again that conversation of the Saints, unless your tears and prayers obtain pardon for my sins. I put my soul, then, into your hands; to you I intrust my mind, that you may answer for me on the day of judgment. The Lord Pope will soon be going to Assisi; Oh! that I may accompany him, and see you once more! Salute my sister Agnes (i.e. St. Clare’s own sister and first daughter in God); salute all your sisters in Christ.”

The great Cardinal Hugolin, though more than eighty years of age, became soon after Gregory IX. During his fourteen years’ pontificate, which was one of the most brilliant as well as most laborious of the thirteenth century, he was always soliciting Clare’s interest in the perils of the Church, and the immense cares which threatened to crush his weakness. For, says the contemporaneous historian of our Saint, Luke Wadding: “He knew very well what love can do, and that virgins have free access to the sacred court: for what could the King of heaven refuse to those, to whom he has given himself?”

At length her exile, which had been prolonged twenty-seven years after the death of Francis, was about to close. Her daughters beheld wings of fire over her head and covering her shoulders, indicating that she to had reached seraphic perfection. On hearing that a loss which so concerned the whole Church was imminent, the Pope, Innocent IV, came from Perugia with the Cardinals of his suite. He imposed a last trial on the Saint’s humility, by commanding her to bless, in his presence, the bread which had been presented for the blessing of the sovereign Pontiff; heaven approved the invitation of the Pontiff and the obedience of the Saint, for no sooner had the virgin blessed the loaves than each was found to be marked with a cross.

A prediction that Clare was not to die without receiving a visit from the Lord surrounded by his disciples was now fulfilled. The Vicar of Jesus Christ presided at the solemn funeral rites paid by Assisi to her who was its second glory before God and men. When they were beginning the usual chants for the dead, Innocent would have had them substitute the Office for holy Virgins; but on being advised that such a canonization, before the body was interred, would be considered premature, the Pontiff allowed them to continue the accustomed chants. The insertion, however, of the Virgin’s name in the catalogue of the Saints was only deferred for two years.

The following lines are consecrated by the Church to her memory:

Clara nobilis virgo, Assisii nata in Umbria, sanctum Franciscum concivem suum imitata, cuncta sua bona in eleemosynas et pauperum subsidia distribuit et convertit. De sæculi strpitu fugiens, in campestrem declinavit ecclesiam, ibique ab eodem beato Francisco recepta tonsura, consanguineis ipsam reducere conantibus fortiter restitit. Et denique ad ecclesiam sancti Damiani fuit per eumdem adducta, ubi ei Dominus plures socias aggregavit, et sic ipsa sacrarum sororum collegium instituit, quarum regimen, nimia sancti Francisci devicta importunitate, recepit. Suum monasterium sollicite ac prudenter in timore Domini, ac plena Ordinis observantia, annis quadraginta duobus mirabiliter gubernavit: ejus enim vita erat aliis eruditio et doctrina, unde cæteræ vivendi regulam didicerunt.

The noble virgin Clare was born at Assisi, in Umbria. Following the example of St. Francis, her fellow-citizen, she distributed all her goods in alms to the poor, and, fleeing from the noise of the world, she retired to a country church, where blessed Francis cut off her hair. Her relations attempted to bring her back to the world, but she bravely resisted all their endeavors; and then St. Francis took her to the church of St. Damian. Here our Lord gave her several companions, so that she founded a convent of consecrated virgins, and her reluctance being overcome by the earnest desire of her holy father, she undertook its government. For forty-two years she ruled her monastery with wonderful care and prudence, in the fear of God and the full observance of the Rule. Her own life was a lesson and an example to others, showing all how to live aright.

Ut carne depressa, spiritu convalesceret, nudam humum, et interdum sarmenta pro lecto habebat, et pro pulvinary sub capite durum lignum. Una tunica cum mantello de vili et hispido panno utebatur, aspero cilicio nonnumquam adhibito juxta carnem. Tanta se frænabat abstinentia, ut longo tempore tribus in hebdomada diebus nihil penitus pro sui corporis alimento gustaverit: reliquis autem diebus tali se ciborum parvitate restringens, ut aliæ, quomodo subsistere poterat, mirarentur. Binas quotannis (antequam ægrotaret) quadragesimas solo pane et aqua refecta jejunabat. Vigiliis insuper et orationibus assidue dedita, in his præcipue dies noctesque expendebat. Diutinis perplexa languoribus, cum ad exercitium corporale non posset surgere per se ipsam, sororum suffragiis levabatur, et fulcimentis ad tergum appositis, laborabat propriis manibus, ne in suis etiam esset infirmitatibus otiosa. Amatrix præcipua paupertatis, ab ea pro nulla umquam necessitate discessit, et possessiones pro sororum sustentatione a Gregorio Nono oblatas constantissime recusavit.

She subdued her body in order to grow strong in spirit. Her bed was the bare ground, or, at times, a few twigs, and for a pillow she used a piece of hard wood. Her dress consisted of a single tunic and a mantle of poor coarse stuff; and she often wore a rough hair-shirt next to her skin. So great was her abstinence, that for a long time she took absolutely no bodily nourishment for three days of the week, and on the remaining days restricted herself to so small a quantity of food, that the other religious wondered how she was able to live. Before her health gave way, it was her custom to keep two Lents in the year, fasting on bread and water. Moreover, she devoted herself to watching and prayer, and in these exercises especially she would spend whole days and nights. She suffered from frequent and long illnesses; but when she was unable to leave her bed in order to work, she would make her sisters raise and prop her up in a sitting position, so that she could work with her hands, and thus not be idle even in sickness. She had a very great love of poverty, never deviating from it on account of any necessity, and she firmly refused the possessions offered by Gregory IX for the support of the sisters.

Multis et variis miraculis virtus suæ sanctitatis effulsit. Cuidam de sororibus sui monasterii loquelam restituit expeditam: alteri aurem surdam aperuit: laborantem febre, tumentem hydropisi, plagatam fistula, aliasque aliis oppressas languoribus liberavit. Fratrem de Ordine Minorum ab insaniæ passione sanavit. Cum oleum in monasterio totaliter defecisset, Clara accept urceum, atque lavit, et inventus est oleo, beneficio divinæ largitatis, impletus. Unius panis mediatatem adeo multiplicavit, ut sororibus quinquaginta suffecerit. Saracenis Assisium obsidentibus, et Claræ monasterium invadere conantibus, ægra se ad portam afferri voluit, unaque vas, in quo sanctissimum Eucharistiæ sacramentum erat inclusum, ibique oravit: Ne tradas, Domine, bestiis animas, confitentes, tibi, et custodi famulas tuas, quas pretioso sanguine redemisti. In cujus oratione ea vox audita est: Ego vos semper custodiam. Saraceni autem partim se fugæ mandarunt, partim qui murum ascenderant, capti oculis, præcipites ceciderunt. Ipsa denique Virgo, cum in extremis ageret, a candido beatarum Virginum cœtu (inter quas uma eminentio ac fulgidior apparebat) visitata, ac sacra Eucharistia sumpta, et peccatorum indulgentia ab Innocentio Quarto ditata, pridie Idus Augusti animam Deo reddidit. Post obitum vero quamplurimis miraculis resplendentem Alexander Quartus inter sanctas Virgines retulit.

The greatness of her sanctity was manifested by many different miracles. She restored the power of speech to one of the sisters of her monastery, to another the power of hearing. She healed one of a fever, one of dropsy, one of an ulcer, and many others of various maladies. She cured of insanity a brothers of the Order of Friars Minor. Once when all the oil in the monastery was spent, Clare took a vessel and washed it, and it was found filled with oil by the loving kindness of God. She multiplied half a loaf so that it sufficed for fifty sisters. When the Saracens attacked the town of Assisi and attempted to break into Clare’s monastery, she, though sick at the time, had herself carried to the gate, and also the vessel which contained the most Holy Eucharist, and there she prayed, saying, “O Lord, deliver not unto beasts the souls of them that praise thee; but preserve thy handmaids whom Thou hast redeemed with thy precious Blood.” Whereupon a voice was heard, which said: “I will always preserve you.” Some of the Saracens took to flight, others who had already scaled the walls were struck blind and fell down headlong. At length, when the virgin Clare came to die, she was visited by a white-robed multitude of blessed virgins, amongst whom was one nobler and more resplendent than the rest. Having received the Holy Eucharist and a Plenary Indulgence from Innocent IV, she gave up her soul to God on the day before the Ides of August. After her death she became celebrated by numbers of miracles, and Alexander IV enrolled her among the holy virgins.

O Clare, the reflection of the Spouse which adorns the Church in this world no longer suffices thee; thou now beholdest the light with open face. The brightness of the Lord plays with delight in the pure crystal of thy soul, increasing the happiness of heaven, and giving joy this day to our valley of exile. Heavenly beacon, with thy gentle shining enlighten our darkness. May we, like thee, by purity of heart, by uprightness of thought, by simplicity of gaze, fix upon ourselves the divine ray, which flickers in a wavering soul, is dimmed by our waywardness, is interrupted or put out by a double life divided between God and the world.

Thy life, O Virgin, was never thus divided. The most high poverty, which was thy mistress and guide, preserved thy mind from that bewitching of vanity which takes off the bloom of all true goods for us mortal.s Detachment from all passing things kept thine eye fixed upon eternal realities; it opened thy soul to that seraphic ardor wherein thou didst emulate thy father Francis. Like the Seraphim, whose gaze is ever fixed on God, thou hadst immense influence over the earth; and St. Damian’s, during thy lifetime, was a source of strength to the world.

Deign to continue giving us thine aid. Multiply thy daughters; keep them faithful in following their Mother’s example, so as to be a strong support to the Church. May the various branches of the Franciscan family be ever fostered by thy rays, and may all Religious Orders be enlightened by thy gentle brightness. Shine upon us all, O Clare, and show us the worth of this transitory life and of that which never ends.


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