Martyrdom Complexes are For the Birds

Today the Church honors one of my favorite saints, Saint Clare of Assisi. She is the unsung spiritual companion of St. Francis (who gets much more airtime because humans love animals), but deserves as much, if not more, press.

St. Clare was born to a noble family, and in an era where women had limited power, had the gumption and guts to turn down not one, but two marriage proposals.

In her late teens she heard St. Francis preach a sermon during Lent, and soon after ran away from home to join him in a life of poverty. Francis commended her to the care of Benedictine nuns at Bastia, and though her family pleaded with her to come home, she eventually convinced both her sister, and later her widowed mother, to join her instead.

Clare and Francis collaborated together on a new “rule of life” for a monastic community, and after obtaining Pope Innocent III’s blessing, established the “Poor Clares” who would live solely on the generosity of others, never possessing anything.

Though St. Clare was intent on living in a post-ownership society, she also understood that savage piety could produce a backhanded vanity. “We are not made of brass,” she said once to an overzealous sister, reminding the order that poverty was a gift, not a quest or competition. Human bodies can handle only so much deprivation.

St. Clare led her community for forty years, becoming seriously ill a number of times. Yet, she outlived her best friend and spiritual soul-mate, St. Francis, by twenty-seven years. Her order lives on today.

St. Clare is a reminder for me of a couple truths:

First, the spotlight unfairly falls on men in history. Clare was inspired by Francis, but more fully lived into his ideal vision of a monastic life than he ever did. She is the shining example of what he preached was a good way to live.

Second, piety can be just as competitive as gluttony in the hands of the overzealous. Martyrdom complexes are as sinful as extravagance. Clare’s call was to humility, not destitution.

Finally, never underestimate the ability to move someone when words and actions hold hands. Clare looked not only to the sermon Francis preached, but to the sermon he embodied, and was motivated to do something life-changing.

-historical bits from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations