Santa Clare from Montefalco - 17th August

In 1881 Pope Leo XIII declared Clare of Montefalco a saint. Before he was elected pope, Pope Leo XIII was an acquaintance of this saintly nun at Perugia, less than 50km away from the small city of Montefalco. It appears that he had a particular devotion towards this saint and, until this day, one can see his episcopal ring on one of the preserved fingers of St. Clare.

The story of St. Clare’s life fits in well with that of diverse other saints of the XIII century who lived a mystical and spiritual life......amongst whom were St. Clare of Assisi, St. Margaret Porete, St. Angela from Foligno...these were women who led a secluded or conventual life but who, through their mystical experience in life, created an identity in themselves and in those around them that brought about a sense of spirituality that we can appreciate even now, many times through their writings. In the case of St. Clare of Montefalco we have no writings, but we have an abundance of information regarding her lifetime. In fact, some historians consider the case of St. Clare as the foremost document on mediaeval history. This is because we have available the various processes leading to her beatification, with numerous contemporary testimonies, together with witnesses of miracles wrought through her intercession.

She was born in 1268 at Montefalco, a small city in Umbria. From an early age Clare showed a sense of spiritual recollection and love for prayer. At a very tender age, when she was just six years old, she decided to join her sister Giovanna who was living in solitude together with a number of young women, thus leading a life totally dedicated to prayer with hardly any contact with the rest of those in her immediate surroundings. In central Italy there were many religious who spent their life enclosed in a small space, dedicated to prayer and praising God. This restricted place, where Giovanna was superior, had been built by their own father.

The natural course was for these places of seclusion to become monastries, established juridically by the Church according to approved Rules. That is what happened with this particular small place of seclusion when in 1290 the Bishop of Spoleto gave to these young women the Rule of St. Augustine on which to fashion their lives. Through this act of seclusion, based on personal initiative and devotion, was creatd a monastery under the authority of the bishop of that locality, with the privilege of being able to have a church with a steeple and where the sacraments could be celebrated.                                                                                      

After Giovanna’s death, the nuns having decided to dedicate this new monastery to the Sacred Cross, appointed Clare as their superior. Although she was at a relatively young age, her sister nuns recognised that she had the requisite qualities to lead them towards holiness. Clare accepted this as a grace from God and as His will and she continued to head the monastery until her death in 1308.

St. Clare lived her life in her monastery with absolute dedication towards the vocation she received early in life. She was a magnanimous and determined woman and led her community with zeal and love. The life of spiritual perfection that she followed was indeed a radical one. In everything her wish was to be associated with Christ crucified, and it was for that reason that she chose the name of “Clare of the Cross”...... he name became her life’s programme! Her spirituality, typical of the time in which she lived, engendered in her an internal power in such a way that she attracted a large number of persons who used to have recourse to her for advice .... from cardinals to civil authorities, from members of the nobility to common persons.

In reality, St. Clare of Montefalco served as a spiritual director of a large number of persons, amongst whom bishops and priests. Her words used to mesmerise and to lead to Jesus those who experienced darkness in their soul and were facing uncertaintity, who had given up hope or were suffering. Her choices were radical and that might seem extreme to us nowadays; she never wished to see the face of a man; used to eat sour vegatables; made thousands of genuflections daily; exercised extreme poverty... God gave her various graces, amongst these an ability to read one’s heart and that of great wisdom, of a knowledge of the teaching of faith without her having ever studied this. It is through that grace that she revealed one of the leaders of the sect known as “of the free spirit”, an heretical faction that had emerged from the Franciscans. But God also permitted her to experience various tribulations, both material but, more so, spiritual. In fact, for  a long time she passed through a period of spiritual dryness and she regarded herself as the greatest of sinners. She also had the grace of estasy, and for many days she used to be cut off from the reality of those around her, lost completely in contemplation of the divine mysteries.

Her principal devotion was that towards the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. She wished above everything to resemble Jesus crucified. This love was expressed in the story of Christ’s apparition, dressed as a pilgrim, loaden with the cross on his shoulders. Clare asked him what he had intended doing with that cross on his shoulders, and the Lord told her: “ I am looking for a suitable place where I can get rid of this!” Clare offered her own heart where Jesus could place his cross. Indeed, for many years she maintained with her sister nuns: “I have Christ’s cross engraved in my heart”. This led, immediately after her death, on the 17th August 1308, to the sisters, through an almost sacrilegous act because this was prohibited by law, to decide to open the body of their superior. As they opened the organ of her heart, to their great astonishment, they found the internal nerves were formed in the shape of the instruments of the passion and, on one side of her heart, the nerves formed an image of the Cross. In her pancraes they also found three small stones, equal in size and of the same shape as documented sources stated that, when weighed, it was found that any two of the stones weighed exactly as the other one...this being a clear reference of the mystery of the Blessed Trinity.

These abnormal happenings were formally documentated by a notary and straightaway the word went round to the extent that the Archbishop of Spoleto’s Vicar, Berengario di Donadio, was anmgry at this sacrilegious act by the nuns; he went immediately to investigate this and also to punish the same nuns. However, after he saw things for himself and heard the nuns’ experience as also Clare’s fame for holiness, he changed his mind and from an inquisitor he became the leading promoter for the cause for St. Clare’s sanctity. The process was immediately started with a view to gathering together witnesses concerning her life and the miracles that started happening. This nun, who died aged 40 years, is amongst the foremost mystics of the XIII century. It is to be mentioned that, although she adopted the Rule of St. Augustine, her monastery was formally associated with the Augustinian Order much later. He union with Christ crucified, the spiritual graces that she received, the dark nights she experienced, the consolation of her mystic experiences, are a sign for us of the love of God.

Sixteen months after her death, an informative process was opened by the Bishop of Spoleto. Berengario di Donadio went to Avignon in 1316, where Pope John XXII resided, so as to ask for Clare’s canonization. For this purpose an investigatiopn was opened in September 1318 but, in view of external circumstances and despite the success of the process, her canonization was agreed not before 1624 by Pope Urban VIII. Pope Clement X placed the name of Clare of Montefalco in the Roman Marianology in1736 when the cult was given final approval. Devotion towards her spread in those places where the Augustinian Order was found and, through the Order’s efforts, a further process was started in 1850 that brought about the canonization of St. Clare of the Cross from Montefalco on 8 December 1881. Hes feast day is celebrated on 17 August and, at her monastery there, they celebrate on 30 October also the feast of “The Sign of the Cross in St. Clare’s heart”. The preserved body of St. Clare, together with some elements found in her heart, can still be venerated at the church in the monastery of the Augustinian nuns at Montefalco.

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