Saint Clare, Virgin

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She was born at Assisi and came under the influence of Saint Francis. She left home at the age of 18 and, under Francis’s guidance, began a community that grew to become the order of the Poor Clares (she was later joined both by her sister and by her widowed mother). In its radical attachment to poverty the Rule of the order was much more severe than that of any other order of nuns. In 1215 Clare obtained from the Pope the privilege of owning nothing, so that the nuns of the order were to be sustained by alms and nothing else. Such a rule was (like the Franciscan rule) both a challenge to established structures and a risk to those who followed it, and successive Popes tried to modify it. In 1247 Pope Innocent IV promulgated a new Rule that allowed the ownership of communal property: Clare rewrote it. A later attempt at mitigation in 1263 partly succeeded (perhaps because Clare was dead by then): some communities followed the old, strict rule and some followed the new.

Clare was a noted contemplative and a caring mother to her nuns. She died at Assisi in 1253.

The drift towards laxity and the desire for strictness are part of the history of every religious order. In the history of most monasteries, for example, one can find both a steady relaxation of the rule and a desire on the part of some members of the community to be more severe and ascetic – possibly even to become hermits. The Maronist Saint Sharbel Makhluf is one example; the Trappist Thomas Merton is another. In our own lives, too, we are always oscillating between being too strict and being too lax. It seems to be a universal tension in the human race.

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