The Saintly Friends of Assisi
Chiara, born at the end of the twelfth century, of Favorino and Ortolana Sciffo, was she who was destined to become the St Clare of Assisi, without whom the story of St Francis would have been incomplete.
Before the birth of the child, Ortolana, weeping at the foot of the Crucifix, was praying to be granted a safe deliverance, when she heard a voice saying: "Woman, doubt not. The daughter whom thou shalt bear shall by her doctrine illumine the world—"So the name of Chiara, the light, the clear, the limpid and bright, was given to the child.
She was from childhood devout, and though born to luxury and abundance, often gave to the poor in secret what she might well herself have eaten. From childhood also she vowed to be the bride of none other than Christ, in which purpose she later received encouragement from St Francis, whom she often saw and consulted.
It was when she had come to her eighteenth year that he bade her definitely to relinquish the world, setting Palm Sunday for her departure from the house of her father to the house of God.
She went as usual to Mass that day with her family, apparelled in rich garments, but forbore to go up to the altar to receive the palm at the hands of the Bishop—seeing which humility the Bishop bore the palm to her himself, which added to Clare's sense of dedication upon that day.
That night she with her own hands removed the stones and wood which filled a doorway, blocked up the previous year according to the Italian custom after the passing through it of the dead body of one of the inmates of the house. She symbolized her own passing from the world by creeping through the door of the dead.
Silently she stole away wrapped in a dark veil and cloak, and fled to the valley below Assisi, to the little church of the Porziuncola, where St Francis dwelt with his Brotherhood. Arriving, she fell upon her knees before the altar, and putting off her rich silks and jewels, cast them upon the floor. Francis himself cut off her long hair, and drew over her the penitential garb of sackcloth girded with a knotted rope. Then he took her to a nearby convent of Benedictine nuns, until he should himself have prepared a place where she might remain.
Not without a struggle did she obtain the peace of the religious, for family and friends made every effort to bring her back to the life of the world. Roughly they tried to drag her from her seclusion. She clung to the altar, and finally, taking off the veil, showed her shorn head, crying: "I am the bride of Christ and vowed to His service!".
Her devoted younger sister, Agnes, followed her to the convent only two weeks later, and when her incensed uncle with twelve armed men went to take her by force, they dragged her away so violently that the mountain path was reddened with blood. Suddenly she became as one made of lead, so that the soldiers could no longer by any means move her, seeing which they fled in alarm, and Clare took her joyfully back to the convent.
For many years after, while Clare presided over her convent of St Damien, St Clare and St Francis were on rare and high occasions seen together in loving, friendly, and holy intercourse; she, of the wide and candid forehead, almond eyes, and small chin, with her gray habit and black veil, the "Seraphic Mother" of the Order of which St Francis had made her the head, the Poor Ladies, or Poor Clares, the Second Order of Franciscans; he, in his brown habit, head of the Franciscan Brotherhood, the little Bedesman of Christ, small and slender, with dark, thick hair, short beard, straight brows and nose, glowing eyes, and gleaming teeth, and a voice keen, fiery, and persuasive.
Both were wedded to the Lady Poverty, both vowed to abstinence, to chastity, and to the service of Christ.
So zealous was she in following the rules of the Order, so relentlessly did she practise austerities, that it seemed human flesh could not endure them, and St Francis himself was compelled to admonish her. He was obliged to command her to sleep on a sack filled with straw, and not upon the bare ground with her head on a stone; likewise he forbade her the three days' fast, but charged her to eat at least once a day!
St Francis and St Clare walked together on one occasion to Spello, where there was a convent of Camaldolese nuns who wished to be taken under the Franciscan rule.
On their homeward way they stopped at an inn for food, and the innkeeper (for it is well-known that not always do mortals recognize saintly and angelic guests) muttered that it was a scandalous thing that men and women should go wandering about the country in company, under the cloak of religion!
Troubled by the implied accusation, Francis left the inn in deep distress. On the return journey he bade Clare follow the upper path on the side of the hill, while he should follow the lower in the valley. Puzzled but obedient (for the innkeeper's words had failed to reach her ears), Clare asked when they should meet again.
Francis, somewhat abashed, not knowing how to reply, answered, "When the roses bloom on Mount Subasio."
They were then in the depths of winter but, as Clare walked, the snow melted beneath her feet, and the rose-bushes by the wayside burst into blossom. Quickly she gathered some, dropped them into her up-gathered robe, then, running down into the valley, joyously rejoined Francis and showed him what her garment held. And he, seeing in that token innocence justified, walked beside her in peace back to Assisi.
Perhaps the most notable among the wonders that Clare worked was in her older age, long after the death of her dear friend, when sick and broken she had lain for many months upon a bed of pain, borne with incredible patience and uncomplaining sweetness.
At that time the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa sent certain mercenaries whom people called indiscriminately Paynims and Saracens to destroy the town of Assisi. They came to the very gates of St Damien's, and were even swarming up over the walls, when Clare, being warned of the danger by one of the Sisters, bade them bring to her the casket of silver and ivory enclosing the pyx containing the Body of our Lard. Rising from her bed she went to a window whence she could be seen of the enemy. (When you go to Assisi you shall see that window.) Then, pronouncing exhortations and prayers, she held the pyx high above her head. Unaccountably moved to fear, the enemy suddenly threw down their arms, retreated, scattered, and fled, and St Clare saved not only her convent but the town of Assisi itself.
Still, this event cannot equal in charm the Heavenly Feast of St Clare and St Francis.
Loving friends though they had long been, it seems that they had never sat down at meat together, and this, such a meal being among the friendliest of the acts of friendly intercourse, might be thought strange. Clare greatly wished that they should together partake of earthly food, even as she had often been refreshed by heavenly food from Francis, her spiritual father.
At last St Francis consented, and it was agreed that Clare should come one night from her convent to the Porziuncola, and that there they should break bread together.
On the appointed night the people of Assisi and all the country around were startled at the sight of what seemed a conflagration in the valley where the Porziuncola stands. From all sides the people hastened thither, fearing that the little church must be in flames, with all the forest near it.
As they approached, they saw that the trees, though not afire, were illumined by a brilliant light issuing from the Porziuncola itself. Not the trees alone, but the very sky above was made bright with the flood of glory that arose from the tiny structure.
Hesitatingly, yet drawn by irresistible curiosity, the throng drew near and peered in at the windows and door, their faces bathed with the glow of what was within.
What was within was merely Francis and Clare seated, or maybe kneeling upon .the earth, and between them the food that they had come to eat together. Did it lie neglected and forgotten? It seems probable, for they were deep in converse, in a communion so exalted and uplifting, so warming to the heart and moving to the soul, so angelic and sublime, that the radiance of it filled the air and reached up to the heavens.