Sts. Francis (1181–1226) and Clare (1194–1253)
Francis and Claire had a rich, spiritual friendship, despite the fact that their monastic lives prevented them from spending much time together. Still, they were each able to influence the other, and they both drew strength from their friendship, which was not physical but was spiritually intimate.
When Clare sought to become a Franciscan, Francis cut her hair. When Francis received the stigmata and his wrists and ankles bled painfully, Clare knit slippers for him. At the end of Francis's life, when he was sick, he moved to a small shack beside Clare's monastery so that she and her sisters could care for him.
Francis was born in Assisi, in the Umbrian region of Italy, to a wealthy fabric merchant and his wife. He grew up taking full advantage of his fortunate circumstances. He traveled, spent money freely, and lived a self-indulgent life. He was said to be charming, charismatic, and generous.
When Francis struggled with lust, he would go out into a cold winter's night and make snow figures. When asked what he was doing, he explained that when his desire for a family became too great, the snow family helped him imagine begging for money to feed and clothe his wife and children. This exercise curbed his desire.
Even war did not tame his spirits. He went off to fight in a conflict and was taken prisoner. He spent a year in jail and then succumbed to a serious illness. His recovery was slow. Both experiences brought about a spiritual crisis. Francis gave serious thought to the way he had been living, and decided to make a pilgrimage to Rome in 1206.
A different Francis returned home. He resolved to devote his life to serving the poor and the sick. His father thought he was insane — and went so far as to disinherit him. But at least one person did not think he was insane. And that was Clare, 12 years younger than him, also from a wealthy family, but ready to give it all up if she could follow in his footsteps.
There is one event from Francis's life that brings his human characteristics into sharp relief. He misunderstood a directive — though it was from God. One day, after his decision to work with the poor, he was praying in a church just outside Assisi. The crucifix lit up and a voice spoke, telling him, “Francis, repair my church, which has fallen into disrepair, as you can see.”
So the saint went out and returned with the thirteenth-century equivalent of a tool kit and began to repair that particular church, which had indeed seen better times. Only later did Francis realize the directive was far more cosmic than he originally imagined — he was to repair the Church at large, not just a single building — and bring it back to simplicity and devotion to the poor.
When St. Francis would speak to women, he would not look into their faces. When a fellow monk once asked St. Francis why he was always avoiding the women's eyes, Francis said, “Who must not fear to look upon the Bride of Christ?”
Francis retreated to a small chapel, the Portiuncula, to devote his life to preaching and to the poor. He soon began attracting disciples, who were at first curious about the rich boy who had given everything away. Among those interested in the saint's work were several prominent citizens of Assisi. With all of those willing workers in mind, Francis founded the Franciscan order in 1209. It would be dedicated to absolute poverty, humility, and the love of all created things.
One of his most famous followers was St. Clare (discussed above), who became his friend and confidant. Although she had several offers for marriage, she turned them all down. On Palm Sunday of her eighteenth birthday, she ran away from home. In a secret ceremony, Francis cut Clare's beautiful blond hair and offered her a belt rope. Francis then sent Clare to live at a nearby Benedictine convent, although she would eventually become the founder of her own austere religious order, “The Poor Clares.”
Although Clare's devotion to God and refusal to marry initially horrified her family, her spiritual way of life eventually inspired some of her own family members to pursue the monastic path. Two of Clare's sisters, as well as her mother, eventually joined her at the convent.
St. Bonaventure wrote beautifully of the great love St. Francis had for St. Clare: “Clare was the first flower in Francis's garden, and she shone like a radiant star, fragrant as a flower blossoming white and pure in springtime.” Although Francis loved Clare, he was very cautious about her, only visiting her a few times during the course of his life.
One day, when Francis was visiting Clare and her sisters at the convent, Francis spoke of the love of God over a simple meal. His words were so sweet that the monks and nuns completely forgot to eat, and flames seemed to cover them all. The flames were visible from several miles away and the people of Assisi rushed to the convent to put out the fire, only to find Francis and Clare having a meal together and deeply engaged in conversation. There was, after all, no fire, just a powerful radiance between them.
In great pain during his final illness, Francis called out, “Welcome, Sister Death.” He died in Assisi on October 3, 1226. At the moment of his death a light shone from his body, and the church bells at San Stefano pealed with no assistance from a bell ringer. Giving his blessing to the friars who had gathered around him, he told them, “I have done my part. May Christ teach you to do yours.”
Throughout her life Clare fought hard to follow Francis's instructions. She became extremely influential over the years and is credited, next to St. Francis, with being most responsible for the growth of the Franciscans.