To say she drifted like an angel along the bustling streets of Rome might sound cliché, but that’s exactly what she did. I first saw her as I began the walk from Saint Peter’s Basilica to the nearest subway station, and I confess I found reasons to pause here and there to catch a glimpse of her. I never spoke with her, never learned her name, but I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She was, perhaps, the most beautiful woman in Rome.
Her robes were purest white, trimmed in a holy shade of blue, and as she stopped to talk with the homeless man at the market, the deep afternoon sun shone behind her, setting her face aglow with gold. I couldn’t hear their conversation. I didn’t know if she had ever spoken with the old man before, but they smiled like they were old friends. I sat a short distance away just to watch them. She lovingly, casually, placed a hand on his shoulder as they spoke. They laughed together, eventually waved kind good-byes, and the angel walked on. I confess again to stalking her, in the most benign way possible.
The street was bustling with people: tourists at shop windows, business men in finely tailored suits on their way to important cappuccinos, sophisticated ladies in oversized sunglasses on their way to wherever sophisticated ladies go. At the feet of these people, every fifty metres or so, there were the forgotten ones.
A man with withered legs sat on a ragged piece of cardboard holding a dirty styrofoam cup in his hands. The business men and the elegant women passed him by, not sparing even a glance. But the angel, God bless her, stopped, and greeted him with the same, shining smile, bending low to meet his eyes. Here too they spoke like old friends. Though again I couldn’t hear her words, nor would I likely have understood them if I could, I could see that they were warm with love.
The scene repeated itself several times along the route from Saint Peter’s to the subway. She did not walk past a single mendicant hand without stopping to hold it. At each encounter, there emanated from her a shining joy, flowing from her smile like a song. She was dressed in the robes of humility, dressed like the lilies of the field. She was a beauty unrivalled. She was a woman in love.
She had first heard him preach one Sunday in Lent, and from that moment she had fallen in love. He stood before the faithful in a badly worn, and badly patched, peasant’s robe. He spoke of simplicity, of poverty and joy and trust. He spoke of the lilies of the field and a Father’s love. He spoke of the sacred flame of charity, and it sparked in her heart like flint to kindling. Her heart was pounding in her ears as she left church that day. She was 18 years old, and she was in love.
She knew she must keep it secret for now. She was young and her parents dreamt loudly of the husband she would marry and the grandchildren she would provide for them. She was, after all, the daughter of a Count, and her father lined up worthy men for her choosing like bolts of cloth for a wedding dress. To her father’s consternation, she denied each one in favour of the hidden love she treasured in her heart. Each day this love grew in the deep ground of her soul, and each time she saw the man in the pauper’s robe, it was like water to the secret seed.
She began to meet with him secretly, and they quietly planned her escape. Soon she would have her chance. She would leave at last her former life, the life her father had planned for her. She would at last know true freedom, and her love would be hidden no more.
It was Palm Sunday. The congregants filed quietly away after mass in the cathedral. She lingered in her seat until the church was empty, praying for courage. Her heart fluttered with anticipation as she walked home. She ate a Sunday meal with her family. It would be the last family meal of its kind. Evening came, and she slipped quietly out the door. The sky was pink, and the green trees of the hillside were frosted with the grey of twilight. She flew as quickly and as quietly as her feet could carry her, down past Assisi’s walls, down to the woods and into the clearing.
There stood the small church where this night she would be wed. She caught her breath. The humble doors creaked open beneath her delicate hand. There were a few scattered friars seated around the tiny room. Francis was waiting for her, praying at the altar. He stood to greet her. Next to him, a statue of the Blessed Virgin gazed upon her, and Clare trembled with a joyous fear.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
“Yes,” she replied.
She stepped forward to the altar. Francis stood beside her.
The ceremony was simple, and she answered a simple “Yes” to each vow. She marvelled at how brief and shining such a life-changing moment can be. Finally, she was ready to accept the strange symbol of her wedding vows. In Francis’s hand were a pair of scissors. He lifted them to Clare’s hair. His eyes met hers and seemed to ask a silent question. She closed her eyes and bowed her head in ascent.
In her youth her hair had been her glory, bright as her smile and beautiful as the yellow flowers of the hills of Assisi. Now it fell to the church floor, catching the dim light of the room as it descended in tumbling locks. Her tresses were gone. Francis placed a veil upon her head, and held before her a simple tunic of pauperous brown. She took it, and kissed it. Her tears splashed down upon it like holy water.
“Dear Clare,” said Francis, “from this day forward, you are the spouse of Christ.”
“Behold, the handmaiden of the Lord,” said Clare.
In the days to come, word of her wedding would spread. Her father would come for her and attempt to dissuade her from her vows. When that didn’t work, he would try to take her away by force. But her fate was set and her mettle was as sure as the veil upon her head. She was the bride of the Most High King of the Heavens. She would not be moved.
San Damiano became her home. Others would soon join her. Her sister, her aunt, eventually her widowed mother, and many others saw in Clare the radiance of her Beloved. What else could they do but forsake the shadows for the glorious light?
“What a great laudable exchange,” wrote Clare, “to leave the things of time for those of eternity, to choose the things of heaven for the goods of earth….”
Like their brothers the Franciscans, the Poor Clares (as they came to be called in years to come), embraced a life of radical poverty and profound simplicity. But unlike their brothers, they would mainly stay rooted in the humble confines of San Damiano. Francis would change the world by going out into it. Clare would change the world by staying rooted in a particular place. Francis would preach, and his adventures would take him from Mount Subasio to the war tents of a Sultan and back. Clare, however, would remain here. If Francis was to be the hands and feet of Christ, Clare was to be the heart, the beating heart in the centre of the once falling church that Francis had rebuilt. If Francis was as Brother Sun, Clare was Sister Moon. She was the clear, bright star of Assisi, and Francis was drawn to her light as a seafaring captain to the light of Polaris.
Each day, in the simplicity of communion, in the humility of community, she found new delights in the arms of her Husband, and her life of prayer was less like that of a somber nun than that of an amorous wife. Her love for her Beloved Spouse, born in the heart of a teenage girl, grew into the abiding love of a wise and passionate woman. Her father had meant her to marry into nobility. She was married instead to a King.
Draw me after You!
We will run in the fragrance of Your perfumes,
O heavenly Spouse!
I will run and not tire,
until You bring me into the wine-cellar,
until Your left hand is under my head
and Your right hand will embrace me happily
and You will kiss me with the happiest kiss of Your mouth.
-Saint Clare of Assisi,1253