From time to time, many of us fantasize about leaving behind the trappings and stresses of modernity and embracing the simple life. But consider what that really entails. Would you be willing to forgo technology, your TV and your smartphone? Would you give up eating meat? Sleeping on a bed? Would you give up all of your earthly possessions? For most of us, dreaming of the simple life is one thing, but actually living it is quite another.
There are a remarkable few, however, who have chosen lives of radical and holy simplicity. Consider the example of Clare of Assisi, a woman of great privilege who gave it all up to follow Christ.
She was born Chiara Offreduccio in 1194. Her father was the Count of Sasso-Rosso, part of a noble Roman lineage, and her family owned multiple castles. Chiara grew up in medieval luxury, and she seemed destined to marry another noble and live an opulent life.
But when she was 18, she heard Francis of Assisi preach at a Lenten service. She felt a powerful calling to lead a very different life. On Palm Sunday, she left her father’s home and went to Francis, pleading to join his order. Her long locks were cut short, and she exchanged her jewels and fancy gowns for a plain robe and veil.
When the Count found out what his daughter had done, he was furious and sent his men to the convent to force her to return home. But Clare refused, saying that the only husband she would accept was Jesus. Not long after, Clare’s sister also joined the convent.
Shortly afterward, Francis had a small dwelling built for the sisters outside the church of San Damiano. As other women joined them, they became known as the “Poor Ladies of San Damiano,” the center of a new religious order. In 1216, Clare became their abbess.
Like their Franciscan brothers, the Poor Ladies lived a life of strict poverty after the example of Christ. The nuns went barefoot, slept on the ground, ate no meat, and lived in near-total silence. Their lives focused on three things: manual labor, service to the poor, and prayer. Clare practiced servant leadership, washing her nuns’ feet and caring for the sick.
The rules for the Poor Ladies were written by Clare herself; she was the first woman to write religious rules for other women. She believed absolute poverty was essential for reaching the kingdom of Heaven. As she put it, “They say we are too poor, but can a heart which possesses the infinite God be truly called poor?”
Clare’s nuns followed her rules without complaint, but she received pushback from Church leaders, who tried repeatedly to impose less strict Benedictine rules on the order. Clare resisted each time. In 1228, Pope Gregory IX offered Clare a dispensation from her vow of strict poverty. She declined, saying: “I need to be absolved from my sins, not from the obligation of following Christ.” Instead, the Pope granted the order Privilegum Pauperitatis, which meant that no one could make them accept any possession.
During Clare’s time, the Holy Roman Empire battled the Holy See for control of Italy, and these battles sometimes reached the convent. Twice, in 1240 and 1241, the armies of Emperor Frederick II attacked Assisi and the church of San Damiano. Clare knelt at the church gate and prayed to Christ for protection. Both times, the attack was repelled and the church was spared.
In later years, Clare’s health failed. But she continued writing to abbesses throughout Europe, encouraging them to embrace poverty and join the order. Bishops, cardinals, and even popes came to San Damiano to seek her advice and guidance.
In August 1253, Pope Innocent IV confirmed that the Order of Poor Ladies would be governed by Clare’s rule. After decades of struggle, Clare finally achieved the victory she long sought. Alas, this decision came only two days before her death at age 59.
Clare’s legacy is a testament to her remarkable life. She was canonized as a saint just two years after her death. In 1263, her former order was renamed the Order of Saint Clare; today, the order includes over 20,000 nuns in nearly 900 monasteries across 75 countries. There are numerous churches, convents, rivers, lakes, and cities (including Santa Clara, California) named in her honor.
Few of us would be willing to fully embrace Clare’s radical vision of perfect poverty. But during this season of Lent, when we are called to self-denial and sacrifice, her story serves as an example of the austere, simple life of Christ. If a woman of Clare’s wealth and privilege joyfully embraced such a life, we should consider the sacrifices we are willing to make to reach the kingdom of Heaven.
Watch this segment on video (starting at 4:11):