In the Folds of Her Mantle

Author: Mario Sensi

In the Folds of Her Mantle

Mario Sensi

Celebrating the Feast of St Clare of Assisi on 11 August

Clare favoured and was “most attentive to the Privilege of Poverty”, as the sisters who lived with her at San Damiano testified, because “she had a special love for poverty and could never be induced to accept possessions, either for herself or for the monastery”. However it was not easy for her, closely linked to Francis by an intense spiritual friendship, to gain acceptance for the principle. In 1219 Cardinal Ugolino dei Conti di Segni, Papal Legate for central and northern Italy, wrote a formula vitae for them emphasizing the cloister rather than poverty. In fact the safeguarding of chastity was of prime importance to the Cardinal: hence, the obligation of the cloister and the need to endow individual monasteries with fixed benefits, thus, in the event of a shortage of daily charity there would be no need for the nuns to go out to beg for alms.

The predominantly urban movement to which St Clare’s followers initially belonged was made up of lay women who nevertheless lived as nuns. It fits into the framework of the vast religious movement which had pervaded the whole of Europe toward the end of that century. On the other side of the Alps it came to be known as the Beguine movement, from the name given to the semi-religious women of the Rhineland, Alsace and The Netherlands (Flanders and Brabant). These were women who sought to live a devout and chaste life. They shared a penitential life, regulated, however, by a range of vocations which led them to give priority to reclusion or charitable service. They were “unofficial” hermits of the city, all imbued with the ideal of renunciation and mendicancy.

Ugolino dei Conti di Segni, who became Pope Gregory IX, in 1227, channeled most of the women’s penitential movement into the Order of Damianites, assigning the Benedictine Rule to them and imposing the cloister.

San Damiano, just outside the city of Assisi, was the monastery where Sister Clare lived. Hers was the “first offshoot” of that religious family of which Francis had been the prop and planter. On 17 September 1228 Gregory IX had personally renewed for Donna Clare and her community the privilegium paupertatis — the guarantee granted to her in 1216 by Innocent III. Its authenticity is attested by the codex of the Monastery of the Poor Clares in Montevergine, Messina — which, despite Ugolino’s formula vitae, enabled them to abide in absolute poverty, with no form of income. Fidelity to Franciscan poverty was in fact permitted but not imposed by Ugolino’s Rule which, it is important to reassert, had been extended to the whole Order, today commonly called Damianites or Poor Clares. This gradually distinguished the monastery of San Damiano — and the few others that had the courage to follow Clare — from the traditional lines of Damianite monasteries which, from then until 1263, received four additional rules, not counting the authorizations granted to individual monasteries. The last, that of Urban IV (1263), established lands and rents as a normal means of subsistence. The provisions of the Rule of Urban IV, known as Rule II, had in a certain sense replaced the specific features of the forma vitae desired by Clare. Hers had differed from that of Ugolino and had been recognized by Innocent IV, who, with the Bull Solet annuere on 9 August 1253, approved the Rule that Clare had written, known as “Rule I”. Clare had the joy of kissing this rule: Hanc beata Clara tetigit et obsculata est pro devotione pluribus et pluribus vicibus; this was written by a contemporary hand on the back of the original Bull. Clare died two days later with this very Bull clasped in her hands. Given the lack of a charismatic guide, however, its destiny was not difficult to imagine.

Indeed, not four years had passed since Clare’s death, when her spiritual daughters in San Damiano abandoned the “shrine of fidelity”, and moved to the new monastery, named after the saint. By order of Alexander IV, on 3 October 1260, in the presence of the Bishops of Perugia, Spoleto and Assisi Clare’s body was translated there too. Her body, which had been temporarily buried in the little Church of San Giorgio, was laid about 3 metres beneath the main altar, in a stone urn set in a grotto carved into the rock. Her body was sought, recovered and exposed to the faithful only in 1850, due to the involvement of the Poor Clares of Italy and France, in particular those of the Monastery in Marseille. Something similar also happened to the Rule written by Clare and approved by Innocent IV. This text — the so-called Rule I, the most precious to Clare — had in a sense long lain buried, like Clare. The original Bull had in fact been placed among the relics and sewn into the saint’s mantle and thus, over time, had been forgotten. It was “discovered” only in 1893, due to the persistence of the Poor Clares of Lyon.

It is not known when and why the Poor Clares of the proto-monastery decided to conceal the Bull in the folds of the saint’s mantle. It is certain that at least since the 17th century, this Bull had been sought in vain both in and outside of Assisi. However there were copies in existence, which circulated in the Clarissian monasteries of strict observance, such as the one preserved in the Monastery of Montevergine in Messina founded by Eustochia Calafato.

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
21 August 2015, page 15

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