Saint Clare of Assisi is possibly best known for her holy demeanor, her rejection of material wealth, and her life of voluntary poverty. While those are admirable qualities, she was also a formidable servant leader.
She was a reluctant leader and would not have become abbess of her band of sisters had it not been for Saint Francis’ request that she do so. The alternative was the potential closure of her monastery, and Francis likely recognized her abilities and qualities. Like Jesus, Francis did not treat women as second-class citizens. Both recognized that we are all equal in God’s eyes.
Clare displayed qualities that were dissimilar from those of typical abbesses in any era, and certainly behaved unlike other noble women. Like Francis, everyone was welcome to join them, whether from rich or poor backgrounds. Unlike other monasteries, where women brought their servants and dowries, everyone was an equal and everyone worked. She wanted them to live as family, advising her sisters to meet weekly and give each other honest feedback to live in deep respect and loving presence to each other. She recognized that, as humans, we might aggravate one another, but advised talking things out and demonstrating compassion to each other and to the leader. The Acts of Canonization emphasizes how she always acted as servant to her sisters: washing their feet, cleaning sick beds, and giving others the shirt off her back.
We know little about her life during the first years after she escaped from her noble family to follow Francis. We do know that she expressed her desire to live as Francis did. Clare and her sisters likely nursed and served lepers and the poorest of the poor. The papacy then pushed the sisters into a more reclusive life to protect them from danger and heretical movements, asking them to conform to a more traditional monastic life. While she compromised with the demands made by the Church, she also adapted fully, loving her life of contemplation and continuing to serve and labor through needlework. Noblewomen did not do manual work, but Clare had left that life and believed that serving God and community meant contributing to the welfare of others. While she compromised with these papal demands, she fought throughout her life to maintain a strict rule of poverty, living by manual labor and the alms of generous Christians.
Clare exercised influence over other groups of religious women through the work of the friars who shared her form of life as they travelled. She also sent her sisters, including her blood sister, Agnes, to serve as leaders in other sisterhoods. Clare offered loving support through her letters to Agnes of Bohemia, another noblewoman who rejected the opportunity to marry kings and other prospective husbands in order to live an ascetic life serving the poor in her hospital. Clare sends poetic letters to Agnes delivered by Franciscan brothers, urging Agnes to persevere in her mission and in her love of Christ, her beloved spouse.
For we who are engaged in Franciscan ministries today, Clare teaches us the importance of relationship, with fellow humans and with our beloved creator. The testimonies written about her express how she was loved, and the intensity of her love of both God and her fellow humans. We learn persistence and perseverance for what we believe in. Long before suffragettes committed to hunger strikes, Clare of Assisi stopped eating in order to convince the pope that he needed to allow her Franciscan brothers to continue to support her—and she would not accept the gift of property. She likely recognized the influence of politics in the Church, but she remained faithful, recognizing that her beloved, Jesus Christ, was her primary focus and her calling was to stay focused on the vision that she and Francis of Assisi had formulated. She knew what was important.
If you are interested in servant leadership in the Franciscan tradition, consider enrolling in the Padua Program. To learn more, click the image below.