This new study of the life of St. Clare and the foundation of her Order is a fascinating walk through some rather obscure medieval history. Marco Bartoli takes the reader through the various Legenda of the time to tease out previously hidden facts about Clare and the foundation of her monastery at San Damiano.
Not knowing much of St. Clare before this, I was interested in how various forces inside and outside the Church at the time guided Clare and the cardinals and pontiffs to found a new Order with the particular characteristics of the Poor Clares. It was a truly collaborative effort that was founded on the spirit of Clare but founded through the workings and politics of papal bureaucracy.
Bartoli takes on the traditional understanding of Clare as a secondary figure in the Franciscan tradition—indeed, she is not really mentioned by Francis or in his canonization materials—and turns it on its head. Clare worked behind the scenes to bring about a quiet renewal in the Church. Although she claimed to her death that the Order to which she belonged was started by St. Francis, there were distinct elements that she added, despite Francis’s guiding spirit. Clare was so adamant, for instance, about the discipline of poverty, that she continually petitioned the pope and the cardinal-overseer of the Order to approve the rule she wrote.
And like the persistent widow, Clare got her wish. Not only was the Order allowed to vow strict poverty, the spirit of poverty and renewal spread among other orders as well, as far north as Prague. In our age, in the renewal that many Poor Clare communities underwent after Vatican II, the Poor Clares have returned to the rule that Clare wrote—a simpler, more practical, and more forgiving rule. Clare was a true spiritual mother, wanting to impose a certain level of discipline on her sisters in following Christ, but also realizing their human limitations. Her rule was characterized by a certain level of mercy and gentleness similar to that of St. Benedict and St. Augustine before her. She took the best of the extant rules of her day and adapted them to women in an enclosure in her time. The result was a rule that has stood the test of time and an Order that has quietly upheld the Church with its prayers.
Overall, Bartoli’s book is an easy read with copious references to the original texts, which makes it a new standard in looking at Clare’s influence on the founding of her Order. And throughout the book, one sees Clare’s own voice develop to be more than a mere echo of Holy Father Francis. She had a distinct view of religious life and the rule she wished to follow in following Christ. And that Rule, although modified by the authorities of her time, stands as a testament to those who seek to renounce the world in a most profound way and rely—in spirit and in fact—on the grace of God and the charity of their brothers. Clare’s way was radical and we would do well to learn from her example.
The spirit of Francis is certainly worthy of our imitation, but as Bartoli makes clear, the other two “orders” within the Franciscan family have their own distinct charisms as well. Clare’s voice speaks the Word out of her obscurity of life. May we too imitate her humble service, her unwavering tenacity, and her devotion to her Lord.
This review was written as part of the Catholic Company‘s Reviewer program. For an unbiased review, the reviewer received a complimentary copy of this book. To learn more about The Catholic Company or St. Clare: Beyond the Legend, please visit the links.