Once upon a time...
Eight centuries ago to be exact, an eighteen year old girl named Clare, audaciously approached a young man of twenty six and asked him to show her how to live as he did. The said young man already had quite a reputation for wild ways, but now was wandering about wearing a cast-off garment, going bare-foot, eating whatever he could beg and earnestly preaching the word of God. That man was Francis of Assisi. Clare’s story has been told again and again. Her search for Jesus, and the vibrant living of his Gospel, according to the form of life Saint Francis gave her, enthused, not only Clare, but generations of women after her.
Two centuries later, St. Colette, an outstanding French woman, born in Corbie, moved by “Divine inspiration” and the compelling influence of Francis and Clare, was particularly enthused by the form of Clare’s life. She set herself to define it more clearly and has been a dominant figure in the Order ever since.
Our Story begins with the story of Saint Francis and Saint Clare. It is impossible to tell the story of one without the other, for in the Providence of God these two are inseparably intertwined. The tiny seed sown in thirteenth century Assisi rooted itself firmly in the Church and thrust out vigorous shoots to become the great tree of the Franciscan family, spread far and wide through time and space, flourishing still, right into the 21th century.
It was a seed of divine origin – Francis is quite clear: “And after the Lord gave me brothers, no one showed me what I should do, but the Most High Himself revealed to me that I should live according to the form of the Holy Gospel” ( Testament of St.Francis). And Clare, who loved to refer to herself as “the little plant of the blessed Father Francis”, writes in her Testament,“The Lord gave us our most blessed Father Francis as founder, planter and helper in the things we have promised to God and himself”.
Who were these two saints who have influenced so greatly the life of the Church and the history of Christian spirituality through the ages? They grew up in the same Italian town of Assisi towards the end of the twelfth century – Francis, the son of Bernardone, a rich cloth merchant, and Clare, eldest daughter of the noble and wealthy Offreduccio family. Clare was ten or eleven years younger than Francis, and because the merchant class was fighting against the nobles, neither of them would have known each other in their early years.
When Francis grew to young manhood he went off to war against neighbouring Perugia, hoping to win knightly glory – but the Lord made him realise that he was calling him to His service instead. So Francis returned to Assisi to spend some years in searching, struggle and indecision before he finally became aware of God’s call to preach the Gospel of peace and forgiveness to all. He gave up everything, dressed in a poor garment and barefooted walked the streets and countryside, speaking in simple and glowing words the message of the Gospel that burned within him. Soon he was joined by other men from all walks of life.
They worked with the local labourers for the food they ate and when that was not enough they begged their bread from door to door. At first, people thought them mad, then they saw how they reacted to derision and mockery, really living the message of the Gospel and giving away all their worldly goods to the poor, and finally, Francis was regarded as a saint, the founder of a new religious family in the Church, and his followers were respected and loved by all.
Clare, meanwhile, had grown into a beautiful young girl, not only in outward appearance but also in true spiritual goodness, deeply prayerful and concerned about the plight of the poor in her native town, with whom she frequently shared her own rich food. At eighteen, she was being urged by parents to enter into a suitable marriage; but having heard Francis preach in the Cathedral she realised that she, too, was being called by God to a life of poverty and prayer.
Accompanied by a trusted relative, Clare spoke to Francis in secret about her vocation several times. She realised that her family would never agree to her joining this new Order so totally removed from the society in which she had been brought up, so on the night following Palm Sunday 1212 she left her father’s house with her companion and was received by Francis and his friars in the little chapel of Our Lady of the Angels in the woods. There, her long golden hair was cut off and she put on the simple, rough robe of the Franciscan habit, tied around the waist with a cord, and a black veil over her shorn head to show that she was henceforth consecrated to God forever.
The friars then escorted Clare and her companion to a nearby Benedictine monastery until Francis' had a place ready to be lived in. Her family members were furious, but no amount of threats could persuade her to return. Only a fortnight afterwards, she was joined by her younger sister, Catherine, who would henceforth be called Agnes in religion. This time the fury of the family knew no bounds and they attempted to take Agnes by force from the monastery, but by the intervention of God they were unable to succeed and the two sisters, united even more strongly now by the double bond of both blood and religion, settled into the place Francis had repaired to be their future home – the little monastery attached to the old church of San Damiano.
Here, while rebuilding the church in response to the voice which spoke in the depths of Francis being from the huge crucifix still hanging on the crumbling walls: “Francis, rebuild My Church which, as you see, is falling into ruin”, he was filled with great joy and the light of the Holy Spirit, calling out loudly in French to the inhabitants living by in prophetic words: “Come and help me in the work of building this monastery of San Damiano! Ladies will one day live here who by the fame of their holy life will glorify the heavenly Father throughout the entire Church!” The voice of the Crucified One, with the eyes of immense tenderness and gentleness, had penetrated to the very depths of Francis' being and engraved the marks of His suffering and the reality of His infinite love upon his inmost soul long before the Sacred Stigmata appeared in visible form on Francis’ hands and feet and side.
Clare was filled with wonder and gratitude to the heavenly Father for having chosen and called her, with the sisters who began to join her in San Damiano, to build up her Church by a life of loving contemplation of the Poor Crucified, poor, lying in the manger; poor living in this world; poor hanging naked on the cross and poor in His lowly Sacrament of the Eucharist. In this holy place, cradle of the Poor Clare Order, Clare lived enclosed for the next forty–two years until her blessed death on August 11 1253, in her sixtieth year, dying with praise and thanksgiving to God for having given her the great gift of life: “O Lord, may you who have created me, be blessed!”
When Francis died in 1226, revered as a great saint, he was canonized only two years later. Likewise Clare, the living embodiment of his spirit and ideals, was canonized just two years after her holy death in 1253. These two great Saints have given to the Church the three–fold Franciscan family: the Friars preaching the Gospel, the Poor Clares praying for the needs of the world and praising God for all those who neglect this duty of grateful love, and the Secular Franciscans, men and women, married and single, who want to live their daily lives in the spirit of Francis and Clare.
Many of the Poor Clare monasteries all over the world are called “Colettine Poor Clares”, like our own monastery here in St. Damian's. This is because they have sprung from communities either reformed in the fifteenth century by Saint Colette, or newly founded by her. Colette of Corbie in France was born into a Church torn asunder by the Hundred Years’ War and the Great Schism. Many of the Poor Clare monasteries then existing needed to be reformed in order to live the primitive ideal of Francis and Clare, and this is the work which Colette was called by God to do.
She had been living as a recluse from the age of twenty in the shadow of the church in her native city, but now, after the will of God had been made clear to her in several visions, she spent herself tirelessly travelling through Europe, solidly re-establishing St. Clare’s Rule by writing constitutions or commentaries of her own which were to be upheld without any basic modifications for five centuries. These strongly emphasised personal and communal poverty and a simple and austere lifestyle in sisterhood. St. Colette was canonized in 1807.
It is necessary and important for the life of the Church to repeat the discovery of Saint Clare; it is vital to rediscover that charism, that vocation. It is necessary to rediscover the divine legend of Francis and Clare.
Pope John Paul II
Monday to Saturday, inclusive; 7.30 a.m.
First Saturday of each month, in honour of the Immaculate Heart of Mary; 3.00 p.m.
Sundays and Bank holidays 9. a.m.
Daily, from 9 a.m. until 12 noon and from 1 p.m. until closing time for the chapel, unless there is afternoon mass (First Saturday ), or cleaning ( usually Thursday afternoon ) in progress.
Sundays, from 10.30 a.m. until 12 noon and from 1 p.m. until closing time for the chapel, The Rosary is at 4 p.m. followed by Evening Prayer and Benediction –(texts are provided).
On First Fridays Exposition is from 8.00 a.m. until closing time for the chapel, Evening Prayer and Benediction is at 4.30 p.m. (texts are provided).
Registered Charity Number: 20013646