Saint Clare of Montefalco

Clare of Montefalco was born into an Umbrian Society that lived a very simple life. The townspeople were reputed to be quite astute and highly ethical in business. Unlike most of the tiny principalities of Medieval Italy, they did not resort to violence in settling their disputes with their neighbors, but rather brought about reconciliation by coming to mutually acceptable agreements and workable compromises. In addition, they were regarded as truly spiritual and religious in word and deed. Proud of their independence, governing themselves with their own laws, they remained nevertheless obedient to the Holy See, under the supervision of the Rector of the Duchy of Spoleto.

As we entered one of the gates and walked inside, hugging the walls, carefully balancing ourselves on cobble stone roads our shoes were not made to walk on, we passed little shops and even an open flea market. And if we were not careful, we would have passed the Convent of Clare of Montefalco, as there are no great signs or impressive facade to reveal any of the awesome power inside. I remember walking our feet off the first time our family went on an “avventura”, looking for the Church. There are eight Churches in this small town!

Finally, we walked up the steps of the Church, pushed aside a dark curtain inside the open door and caught our breath! The altar was radiant. By the way the altar was kept, it was truly a sign of a group of women giving glory to their Lord Present among them. Magnificent, baroque gold- leaf carving framed the Crucifix and the Tabernacle. We went up to the altar to pay a visit to our Lord in His Blessed Sacrament and to thank Him for bringing us to the right church.

Clare of Montefalco - Incorrupt

As we turned to the right, there was a Shrine to the Saint. In the middle lay the incorrupt body of Saint Clare of Montefalco. Were we excited! On either side of the glass sarcophagus containing her incorrupt body, there were glass cases, in which were other relics of Saint Clare of Montefalco.

Not satisfied with what we could see, we looked around for someone to explain what was in those cases. We spotted a Grille with a bell to the left of it. The sign read to sound the bell and a Nun would help you. Well, we did and let me tell you, it was definitely with the help of the Holy Spirit and our knowledge of Italian, that we were able to understand and be understood; the first far more important, as the Nuns speak an Umbrian dialect, which at best, is difficult to understand.

A Nun appeared at the Grille, Sister Agnese. She had one of the most radiant smiles we had ever seen, stretching from ear to ear. We asked her to explain the relics on either side of the Saint. She moved to the left of the Grille, and turned on some switches. The doors of the cases opened, and lights went on inside. The case on the right side, she told us, contained the heart of Saint Clare of Montefalco, resting in a bronze bust of her. On the left side was a cross, which contained other relics.

Saint Clare of Montefalco - Carried the Crucified Christ in her heart

In the center of the Cross was the shape of our Crucified Lord, formed out of muscle, found on the inside of the heart of the Saint. Nerve endings formed a Crown of Thorns on His Head. Underneath the shape was a tendon, which looked like the whip of flagellation. On the three corners of the Cross were placed three kidney stones, found in the body of Saint Clare, representing the Trinity. In addition, in the back of the case was a black tunic, which had been worn by the Saint just prior to her death.

This was all wonderful, and very exciting, but we still didn’t understand the significance of all this. We looked to Sister Agnese questioningly. Her eyes twinkled as she pointed to the door on the left side of the altar. As we approached, it opened slightly. Sister Agnese had pushed another button. We could hear a bell sounding loudly, announcing we were coming into the cloister (we found out later), warning the Nuns to leave the rooms we would be visiting. These Nuns, being cloistered, are not allowed, under ordinary circumstances, to have visitors on this side of the Grille. But more on that later.

We found ourselves in a little Chapel. Sister Agnese told us this was where the miracle happened, and also where St. Clare of Montefalco died. What miracle? Our smiling hostess pointed to a fresco on the wall of the Chapel. It pictured Saint Clare of Montefalco kneeling in prayer. Above her was Jesus, with His Cross. He was implanting His Cross into her heart! Underneath the painting, in Italian, we could read the following, “I have waited so long for someone I could trust with my Cross.” This is the story as told to us by Suora Agnese.

The hermitages in this village date back to the 12th century, all owing their beginning to women. By the close of the 13th Century, there were five Convents of Nuns and two houses of Friars, Franciscans (who were there since 1215), and Augustinians. Till today the two Communities of Contemplatives, the Clares and the Augustinians live the same cloistered life (in the case of the Augustinians 700 years old), a short distance from each other. But this is the story of the Augustinians and their beloved Saint Clare or Mother Clare as they still call her.

Clare of Montefalco - A Saint is born to us

Clare of Montefalco was born to Damiano and Iacopa Vengente in the year 1268. She was one of four children. The eldest, her sister Giovanna, established a hermitage in the year 1271. Giovanna was twenty years old when she and her friend Andreola set out to live a life of prayer and sacrifice in the tiny hermitage her father built for them. In 1274, it was granted approval by the ecclesiastical authorities. Giovanna was then allowed to receive candidates.

The first candidate was her sister Clare, all of six years old. Her holy parents had great devotion to our Lord and His Mother. That and the ongoing, living example of her sister Giovanna and companion Andreola, whom she visited often at the hermitage, surely contributed greatly to Clare of Montefalco’s desire to love and serve the Lord through a life of prayer. She was a very alive little girl whom everyone found genuine, perceptive and sensible beyond her years, as well as extremely lovable.

From the very beginning, though she was much younger (Giovanna seventeen years her senior), Clare kept up with her two companions, spiritually, prayerfully and penitentially, almost surpassing the mortification practiced by the others. From her earliest childhood years, there had been a burning love inside her for our dear Lord, especially in His Passion. This fire inside her was what gave her the energy and the zeal, her strength to live a life that would be demanding for most, but near impossible for a little girl.

Although Clare of Montefalco was a saintly little girl, she was a little girl with a very healthy appetite. She was even known to have to fight her craving for some of her mother’s homemade dishes (Author’s note: If any of those dishes are like those the Nuns have made for us, I can understand why). Because of this fondness for certain foods, Clare made a point of strictly observing not only an ongoing, but an increasingly more stringent fast and abstinence during Lent than what was observed by the others in the hermitage.

As no Religious Rule had been established in the hermitage, it is all the more remarkable that Clare of Montefalco faithfully practiced strict obedience to her sister Giovanna, the leader of the group. Once when she broke the rule of silence prescribed to the Community by Giovanna, Clare imposed on herself a penance of standing in a bucket of ice cold water with her arms outstretched high above her head, praying the Lord’s Prayer one hundred times.

In 1278, Clare’s friend Marina entered the Convent. She was to be followed shortly after, by others, Tommasa, Paola, Illuminata, and Agnese (like our Sr. Agnese of today).

This became a problem. Oh what we would do for such problems in our Church today! With more and more girls requesting admittance into their company, it was soon evident they would need a larger hermitage. Giovanna consulted with the members of her Community and other individuals as well, and after prayer and fasting, they decided to move to a hill nearer to the town. Damiano, Giovanna and Clare’s father, again set about the building of the new hermitage. He never finished it, however, as the Lord called him Home. It is believed he died in 1280 or 1281. Clare of Montefalco was 12years old.

The Funeral Mass for Saint Clare of Montefalco was celebrated on Sunday, the 18th. The preacher, a Franciscan Priest from Bevagna, instead of giving the homily he had prepared, found himself delivering the most extraordinary eulogy, extolling Clare’s sanctity and selfless giving to all who came, never counting the cost. As the words poured from his lips, they became his and he found himself realizing the gift the Father had given him; he was eulogizing a Saint. His brother Franciscans meanwhile looked away, disapprovingly. They were blinded and deafened by the anger they harbored at having been ordered to be here in the first place. It turned out, they were here only out of obedience to Clare’s brother Francesco, their Chaplain. And so, they, too, had been called to share in a gift, but their "No!" robbed them of it.

That evening, the Nuns opened the heart of Clare of Montefalco preparing it to place in a Reliquary. To their amazement, Clare’s words came alive; there before them were the marks of Jesus Passion! Cradled inside the softness of her grand heart, was the Perfect Form of Jesus Crucified, even to the Crown of Thorns clearly evidenced on his Head, and the lance Wound in His Precious Side. The Lord had not only planted His Crucified Body within the recesses of her heart, but the painful evidence of some of His Sufferings, the means of flagellation in a form of ligaments or tendons, the whip that was used to scourge our Beloved Lord, with the ends showing the metal balls and the jagged bones used to rip our Lord’s Skin from His Bones.

The news of this miracle spread! As my husband says, "Tell an Italian and you tell the world."

The following Monday, an old adversary, Fra Pietro di Salomone, made his way to the Vicar of the diocese of Spoleto, Msgr. Berengario. He denounced the Nuns, claiming their findings were willfully misrepresented.

On Tuesday Monsignor left for Montefalco. Upon arriving there, he immediately called together theologians, lawyers and doctors. The heart was carefully investigated and they all unanimously concluded that the "marks" were not of an explainable scientific nature or of human understanding, in other words, a phenomena, or as we are so happy to say, God leaving another miracle in our midst. There was not only a document drawn by the Church and affirmed by science, but the civil authorities did their own investigation and issued their findings.

The heart of Clare of Montefalco did in fact contain this extraordinary sign and it was not the result of any false doings.

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