Thursday, August 11, 2011

Lady Poverty

If any woman in history merited the title of "Lady Poverty", it would be Chiara Offreduccio. She must've been an extraordinary, as well as beautiful, young lady! At 18 she heard Francis of Assisi preach during Lent at her parish church of San Giorgio in Assisi. She was so taken with his message that she sought him out afterwards and resolved to join him in his way of life. Quite extraordinary, since at that moment it was only Francis and his brothers. Francis agreed, and on the evening of Palm Sunday, 1212, Chiara, whom we know as Clare, fled her wealthy family's home and ran to the Portiuncula. Here she exchanged her elegant clothing for the rough habit and cincture which Francis provided, and, kneeling before a statue of the Virgin Mary, she bowed her head as Francis cut off her long hair and covered her with a veil, making her the first woman to follow in the steps of "Il Poverello", and the first of the "Poor Ladies of San Damiano", as her group was later called, and the "Poor Clares", after her death and canonization.

St. Clare and other women who began to join her, including her own sister, Agnese, apparently worked side by side at first with Francis and the friars, but because of social taboos, they began living an enclosed life with Benedictine nuns in the Convent of San Paolo in Bastia, then at the Convent of Sant'Angelo di Panzo, and finally in the old priest's house near the Church of San Damiano, on the outskirts of Assisi. Clare remained in her enclosure for the rest of her life, and governed the convent for 40 years.

The Poor Clares lived a life of extreme poverty about which St. Francis preached, renouncing all income and property and depending entirely on alms and the kindness of neighbors and visitors, as they cared for the poor and neglected of the area. They went barefoot year round, slept on the floor, ate no meat, and maintained silence except for what was absolutely necessary. St. Clare went even further in her asceticism, to the point where both Francis and the bishop of Assisi had to intervene and help her tone it down a bit. For such a young woman, she must've had an incredibly commanding personality. Her biographer says that she "radiated a spirit of fervor so strong that it kindled those who but heard her voice.It didn't take long for Clare's sanctity to be recognized, and throughout her life she was consulted not only by ordinary people, but by clergy, bishops, cardinals, and even Pope Innocent IV, who visited with her at least twice.

Clare died at the age of 59, in 1253, 27 years after her beloved friend, Francis, had died. In all those years she experienced severe pain, and was bed-ridden most of the time. Even at that she continued to busy herself with sewing altar linens for the churches around Assisi. Her last words, as she lay dying, were "Blessed are you, O God, for having created me."  And how blessed are we that God did so, holding up before us such an example of holy poverty!


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