On August 11, 1253 A.D., Clare of Assisi, abbess of the Community of Poor Ladies of San Damiano, breathed her last on earth. Born to the noble Offreduccio family (1193/4 A.D.), she was moved by the persuasive preaching of Francis of Assisi, renouncing her birthright and worldly riches to follow him in poverty and adherence to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Thus began the Second Order of Franciscans, this one for women, later known as the Poor Clares.
A reflection commemorating Saint Clare’s annual feast day could encompass many aspects of her deep spirituality, among them the profound humility of the Incarnation; the efficacy of contemplation, particularly of the Cross; and her beloved “privilege of poverty” within which she strove to lead her fledgling community.
However, we do well to focus our reflection on the Eucharist as the centerpiece of the life of this medieval saint, most appropriately in light of the current period of National Eucharistic Revival.
At the outset, it is helpful to note that in the custom of Clare’s time, she could receive Holy Eucharist “only seven times a year,” according to Pope Saint John Paul II in his 1993 Letter on the Eighth Centenary of Clare’s birth (7).
For Clare and her Sisters, such rare opportunities for union with Jesus in His true Presence would have been unutterably precious. We can only imagine how their pure hearts must have overflowed with love and thanksgiving on those holy occasions, and how the Sisters would have brought each Holy Communion to fruition in every aspect of their consecrated lives of prayer, love, and service.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Eucharist is so called “because it is an action of thanksgiving to God” based upon the word’s derivation from the Greek (1328).
Pope John Paul’s letter continues in this vein: “In reality Clare’s whole life was a eucharist because, like Francis, from her cloister she raised up a continual ‘thanksgiving’ to God in her prayer, praise, supplication, intercession, weeping, offering and sacrifice. She accepted everything and offered it to the Father in union with the infinite ‘thanks’ of the only-begotten Son, the Child, the Crucified, the risen One, who lives at the right hand of the Father.”
Evidence of Clare’s living a Eucharistic life came to the forefront in a momentous event typically recounted in biographies. In the autumn of 1240 A.D., the city of Assisi was seriously threatened by an invasion of Saracens, armed mercenaries of Emperor Frederick II. The troops even entered the Sisters’ enclosure at the San Damiano monastery, throwing the terrified nuns into a panic. Clare’s courageous actions on that fateful day were related by numerous witnesses during the Process of Canonization following her death.
In her book Clare of Assisi: A Heart Full of Love, Ilia Delio, O.S.F., recounts the testimony of one witness who stated that Clare asked that the vessel containing “the Blessed Sacrament of the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ” be brought to her. “Throwing herself prostrate on the ground in prayer, she begged with tears … ‘Lord, look upon these servants of yours, because I cannot protect them.’” A voice “of wonderful sweetness” responded, assuring Clare that she and her Sisters, and the city of Assisi as well, would be defended. Inexplicably, the invaders left, having caused no harm to the Sisters or to the city (81).
Ilia Delio explains, “This testimony is important not only for the holiness of Clare’s life but for bearing witness to the importance of the Eucharist in her life. It is significant that, after the Body of Christ was brought to Clare, she prostrated herself in prayer and declared herself a hostage so that the sisters would not be harmed. Like Christ, Clare was willing to lay down her life for the lives of her sisters” (82).
Chapter 35 of The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi, a compilation of accounts of Francis and his followers, describes another remarkable event, a wondrous gift received by Clare on Christmas Eve of 1252 A.D., the last before her death. On that night, she was bedridden, so weakened by severe illness that she remained alone in the convent, unable to accompany her Sisters to church for Midnight Mass with the friars.
The nuns returned, eager to recount the blessings of the liturgy, but Clare was able to assure them: “By the intercession of my father, St. Francis, and through the grace of Our Savior Jesus Christ, I was personally present in the church of my venerable father, St. Francis, and with the ears of my body and those of my spirit I heard the entire Office, and the sounds of the organ, and the singing, and likewise received Holy Communion. Rejoice, then, because of these graces which I have received, and offer prayers of thanksgiving to Our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Surely, in her own heart, Clare’s reception of Holy Eucharist was the greatest of the mystical spiritual gifts showered upon her on that night of nights, the greatest cause for thanksgiving.
Burdened with a continually weakened physical state for much of her life, Clare was yet a woman of incredible inner strength – a strength born of the intensity of her prayer life and the resulting closeness to Jesus. Her life indeed was imbued with Jesus’ Eucharistic Presence.
As we continue through this time of Eucharistic Revival, we can turn to Saint Clare of Assisi as an example of a life lived totally through and with Jesus, striving to evidence His Real Presence in all we do, just as she did.
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